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    The Third Industrial Revolution?

    By Guest Blogger, on 14 November 2011

    Jeremy Rifkin. Photo by Hardeep Bharj

    If Jeremy Rifkin isn’t a big picture thinker, I can’t think who is.

    His lecture on the third industrial revolution encompassed the full sweep of human history, stopping in on macroeconomics, ecology, thermodynamics and education policy, with asides on the origins of monotheism, and a conclusion demanding no less than a transformation of global consciousness.

    Will McDowall, Research Associate, UCL Energy Institute reports on the event.

    His charismatic style (think Baptist preacher) and sweeping vision are a little unsettling for academics looking for caveats, footnotes and scepticism – but Rifkin is not an academic. Error bars and confidence intervals are not part of his world.

    He’s a visionary whose ideas have gained him the ear of governments and business leaders across Europe and America. He has held advisory positions for Angela Merkel, Nicholas Sarkozy and the European Commission, not by providing meticulous and rigorous research, but by articulating what he describes as “a new economic vision for the world that is compelling”.

    His thesis is straightforward and desperately gloomy: human society is threatened by two crises. First, we have exhausted the current economic model, because the pace of growth in energy consumption cannot be met by dwindling conventional fossil fuel reserves. We have reached, he argues, a limit to growth, an endgame of the current economic model: each economic recovery leads to peaking oil prices, leading again to financial instability, and another crash.

    Second, climate change is fundamentally changing the ecosystems on which all human life is dependent, leading to mass extinctions, floods, droughts, and so on. And yet: “We’re not dealing with the enormity of this situation. We’re sleepwalking.”

    Bleak stuff indeed. I suspect that many economists and geologists would make short work of his arguments about fossil fuel depletion, pointing out the apparent glut of shale gas, and the abundant if appallingly polluting tar sands of Canada. But as one surveys the storm clouds again building over the global economy, it’s hard not to see some grains of truth in his assessment of our economic predicament. And of course, he’s dead right about climate change: it really is that bad.

    Despite the gloom, Rifkin denies accusations of pessimism. “I don’t believe in pessimism or optimism. Neither does you any good. I prefer to be doggedly hopeful”.

    Rifkin derives his hope from a vision he has championed tirelessly, in subtly different forms, for over a decade. Our salvation lies in a new industrial revolution based on clean, decentralised energy.

    His belief that such a revolution is possible is rooted in ideas similar to those of economic historians Kondratiev and Schumpeter, who argued that human history is punctuated by periodic revolutions in social organisation and economic potential, each of which has a set of key technological innovations at its core (think coal and iron in the 19th century; steel and oil in the early 20th).

    Rifkin’s argument is that each revolution is catalysed when there are simultaneous transformations in communications technology and energy technology. We’ve had the communications revolution: the internet. Now we need the corresponding energy revolution that will enable a wholesale shift in human societies.

    To make that energy revolution happen Rifkin has set out five key ‘pillars’:

    • Renewable energy
    • Small scale distributed energy, integrated into buildings
    • Distributed energy storage, particularly using hydrogen
    • An ‘energy internet’, lining consumers and producers of energy
    • Plug-in electric and hydrogen fuel cell mobility.

    He provides just enough technical detail to make his vision seem tangible, but not quite enough that one can pin it down and assess exactly what he means. How does the ‘energy internet’ work? What about the high costs and woeful inefficiencies of storing electricity as hydrogen? But it’s about more than the technology.

    Rifkin draws a direct line between our technological system and the worlds of culture and politics. He sees the current system, built on mass-media broadcasting and large nuclear and fossil-fuel power stations, as fundamentally a top-down, centralising force in society. It concentrates wealth and political power, and leads us to neglect the ecosystems on which we depend.

    His revolution, with its focus on distributed, networked, collaborative solutions, is the antithesis that can generate a shift in global consciousness and unleash the next chapter in humanity’s development: a more equal, environmentally conscious and democratic society.

    For academics, the visionary nature of Rifkin’s address leaves so many questions unanswered. Engineers were incredulous at his claims about energy grids; economists sceptical of his analysis of the oil market; sociologists dubious about his notion of ‘biosphere consciousness’ emerging from a new industrial revolution. But the point about visionaries is not whether their analysis is rigorous or their proposals robust: it is that they inspire.

    So it was fitting that Rifkin’s address was followed by responses from three eminent UCL academics. Chris Rapley (Earth Sciences), Maria Lee (Laws) and Paul Ekins (Energy Institute), all found much to agree with in the overall direction of Rifkin’s vision, but began, as academics do, to ask the difficult questions that bring visions back down to earth. Inspiration provides the spark, but without the rigour of evidence, research and inquiry the third industrial revolution will remain a utopian ideal, rather than an agenda for change.

    Watch video here: