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In Review

Rebuilding Rome

The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power Is Transforming Energy, the Economy, and the World
By Jeremy Rifkin
Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, 270 pages

The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power Is Transforming Energy, the Economy, and the World
By Jeremy Rifkin
Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, 270 pages

Have you heard of this book? It offers a compelling vision of a new economic paradigm through which we can transcend our outdated and crumbling infrastructure, solve our urgent economic and environmental crises, and usher in a new era of human prosperity and collaboration.

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Okay, so probably you’ve heard of a dozen such books. But The Third Industrial Revolution has one key advantage over many of the save-the-world manifestos crowding bookstore shelves: Its author is much more than an armchair philosopher. Jeremy Rifkin, author of titles such as The Empathic Civilization and The End of Work, is an international heavy-hitter who has counseled many heads of state and founded powerful networks of business CEOs and researchers. Any author can speculate, for example, about Russia’s future with the European Union – but Rifkin put the question to Mikhail Gorbachev over dinner. The book is full of such stories, which add substantial gravity and realism to Rifkin’s vision.

The vision he presents is for a new, decentralized energy economy based on micro power plants, which are small-scale solar and wind installations on existing buildings. Rifkin believes such plants, combined with Internet technology, can empower the creation of democratic energy markets. “The reality is that renewable energies are, by nature, universally distributed,” he writes, “and the new, distributed communication technologies make it possible to harness and store these energies locally and distribute them across intelligent utility networks that span entire continents.” Rifkin maps out how individuals will be able to produce, store, sell, and buy energy locally. Think of the local food movement’s neighborhood “crop swaps,” applied to electricity.

Rifkin’s theory has already been put into practice in many areas around the globe. His organizations have developed and helped to implement master plans for major cities such as San Antonio and Rome. The European Parliament passed a formal declaration in 2007 committing its 27 member states to a Third Industrial Revolution.

Rifkin emphasizes the importance of collaboration between governments and industries, and across national and political borders. He decries the trend of “siloed” projects, in which innovative programs are funded and built in isolation and so eventually wither into irrelevance. Collaboration and “lateral power” are the key words of Rifkin’s new age. In one of the book’s strongest sections, he gives a withering critique of the American love for market deregulation, pointing out that all major economic revolutions in the past relied on heavy government involvement and support.

Unfortunately, while Rifkin’s rhetoric is optimistic and heartwarming, its accuracy is sometimes lacquer-thin. When discussing education reform, for example, he praises group projects as “allowing students to organize their own knowledge community,” which leads me to believe that Rifkin has never once participated in a school group project. It also makes me question the accuracy of his other rosy predictions for what he calls “The Collaborative Age”— the golden era of cooperation that will supposedly follow on the heels of the Third Industrial Revolution.

Rifkin tends to be overly general and repetitive, and skips most opportunities to cite an influential study or share an example. (In all fairness, padding and repetition are standard-issue in this genre, but some of Rifkin’s sections verge on blatant cut-and-paste.) The book’s overarching premise – that industrial revolutions occur through the co-development of a new energy system and a new communication system – is presented with no evidence more convincing than the briefest of anecdotes from previous eras. Rifkin is an economist, so I suppose I should trust his opinion, but I found myself unconvinced that next revolution has to, or will, happen in the way he envisions.

Regardless of whether I’m convinced that micro power plants and democratic, nodal energy networks are the future, I do agree with Rifkin that they sound pretty nice. Many cities, CEOs, and heads of state seem to like his song as well. Rhetoric aside, Rifkin is working hard to push the world’s economies in the direction they most need to go – so play on, pied piper, play on.

   

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