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The Third Industrial Revolution

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There is no question that we are addicted to fossil fuels — they are the lifeblood of our global economy and the main driver of the Second Industrial Revolution — so kicking the habit will be no easy task. As a key advisor to politicians throughout the world, Jeremy Rifkin has been working on a carbon-free alternative for over 30 years.

His new book, The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power Is Transforming Energy, the Economy, and the World, begins with the obligatory dissection of the full crisis before us, which Rifkin describes in a nutshell as peak globalization. “We have reached the outer limits of how far we can extend global economic growth within an economic system dependent on oil and other fossil fuels,” he writes. He also cites climate change as another major threat that could be “cataclysmic” if left unchecked.

These crises — peak oil and climate change — are the natural result of an economy predicated on endless growth, one which is blind both to the limits of finite resources and to the vast opportunities for harnessing boundless, free energy from the sun.

For Rifkin, we are on the verge of finally turning the corner on this carbon-based era, and about to begin a 40-year roll-out of the Third Industrial Revolution, defined by a “merging of Internet technology and renewable energies.” This vision is far from pie-in-the-sky. A key advisor for the European Union for the past decade, he helped craft the EU’s long-term plan for sustainability, which ultimately convinced diverse political leaders to commit to an aggressive reduction of fossil fuel use over the next 10 years.

Long-term sustainability, argues Rifkin, entails a “profound shift in the very way society is structured, away from hierarchical power and toward lateral power.” It’s a shift that would transform the energy economy (and the global economy along with it) from being centralized, inefficient and inherently wasteful, to a system that mimics the distributed and collaborative structure of the Internet.

The book lays out a five-pillar plan that would get us there. It is based on a strong commitment to local, distributed and renewable power, such as solar, wind and geothermal. Rifkin goes beyond traditional calls to ramp up renewable power capacity: He calls for turning buildings into “micro power plants,” producing power with rooftop solar panels and other technologies, and combining that with enough storage capacity to ensure a reliable energy source.

Such a system, writes Rifkin, could be linked together on a smart-power grid that would stretch across continents, just like the Internet. He also argues for a full, green overhaul of our transportation systems using electric and fuel-cell technologies that would be fully plugged into the new power grid.

Is it possible? Rifkin thinks so. But it all depends on integration, with all elements coming to the fore at the same time, and not in isolation. “If any of the five pillars fall behind the rest in development, the others will be stymied and the infrastructure itself will be compromised.”

Rifkin recognizes the enormity of the task at hand, which perhaps accounts for the book’s grandiose title. It also explains one of the book’s final chapters, and its call for a revolution in education. Rebuilding our society for sustainability will take more than grand plans and economic tinkering, suggests Rifkin. How we educate will also need to change, not just to train a new green workforce, but also to cultivate a “biosphere consciousness” based on empathy for the planet and for fellow creatures.

We’ve already experienced two Industrial Revolutions, both of which transformed society in fundamental ways. The third will be just as transformational, but green, insists Rifkin. Let’s hope he’s right.

(Book published by Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. 304 pages.)

This review first appeared on TheGreenPages.ca.