Jeremy Rifkin: The third industrial revolution


How lateral power is transforming energy, the economy and the world


Since this book appeared, the also valuable concept of the Fourth Industrial Revolution has become better known than Rifkin’s formulation of the Third Industrial Revolution (TIR). But the book’s clarity and pertinence to all environmental design may yet bring the recognition and influence it deserves.

The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power is Transforming Energy, the Economy and the World, by Jeremy Rifkin, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011

It is one of several, often seminal, books by this economist, political advisor and prolific author. Long concerned with climate change and renewable energy, he explores the implications of scientific and technical change on economy, society and environment.

For Rifkin, an industrial revolution comes from the confluence of a new energy source and new mode of communication, as analogous to the bloodstream and nervous system of the body. The synergies between these and the impacts of the infrastructural systems they depend on, and how these are financed, determines much of each revolution’s character.

The First Industrial Revolution brought coal-fired steam powering railways, ships and the rotary presses of the mass media of the day – newspapers, posters and pamphlets, and books. With the Second Industrial Revolution, the new energy source was oil that powers the internal combustion engine of cars, trucks, ships and planes. Oil, along with coal and nuclear, also fuels power stations providing electricity for the new modes of communication: radio, cinema and television as well as telephone and fax.

Both these industrial revolutions depended on massive investment to extract energy (from coal mines and oil wells, refineries and so on), build the corresponding infrastructure (rail networks and then motorways, power stations and distribution grids) and for machinery in foundries and factories. Financing these led to the centralisation of power in a few mega-rich owners and huge, often near monopolistic, corporations – generously aided and subsidised in various ways by government and taxpayer. In turn this led to top-down, pyramidal command and managerial structures, the reduction of much work to repetitive drudge and to gross inequalities in status and rewards.

With the Third Industrial Revolution, energy comes from the widely distributed sources of renewable energy, with every building a micro power station, and the communications medium is the internet. Both will use the same smart grid that distributes through its dispersed networks flows of energy and information, the latter adjusting the flows of the former. This is important because supply from renewables is intermittent, so requiring networks to distribute it from wherever there is an excess. Also required is efficient storage, and Rifkin has long advocated hydrogen fuel cells for this and transport.

To implement TIR, what Rifkin refers to as its Five Pillars must be in place: 1) the shift to renewable energy; 2) transforming buildings into micro power plants; 3) deploying hydrogen and other energy storage technologies in every building and throughout the infrastructure networks; 4) using internet technology to transform the power grid into a smart ‘intergrid’ in which millions of buildings can share energy; 5) transitioning transport to electric plug-in and fuel-cell vehicles that can buy and sell electricity throughout this grid.

It is a pragmatic proposal of great promise, with broad and profound consequences. In contrast to the vertical top-down power structures of the two earlier industrial revolutions, TIR promotes collaboration over competition – what Rifkin calls lateral power. This will bring a partial shift from markets to networks in which: ‘The adversarial relationship between sellers and buyers is replaced by a collaborative relationship between suppliers and users. Self-interest is subsumed by shared interest. Proprietary information is eclipsed by a new emphasis on openness and collective trust. The new focus on transparency over secrecy is based on the premise that adding value to the network doesn’t depreciate one’s own stock but, rather, appreciates everyone’s holdings as equal nodes in a common endeavour’.

Little wonder the second revolution’s corporate behemoths use lobbying and other forms of political influence to stall TIR. And recognising that some renewables are inevitable they try and hijack them by advocating massive centralised modes of collecting renewables (huge wind farms and solar arrays – which must certainly contribute) rather than small-scale distributed collection.

TIR brings more than economic and ecological benefit, along with transformed business practices. Harvesting and living in harmony with nature’s cycles and capacities, will bring ‘biosphere consciousness’ and enhanced quality of life as it ‘changes our sense of relationship to and responsibility for our fellow human beings. We come to see our common lot. Sharing the renewable energies of the Earth in collaborative commons that span entire continents can’t help but create a new sense of species identity. This dawning sense of interconnectivity and biosphere embeddedness is already giving birth to a new dream of quality of life … We come to realize that true freedom is not found in being unbeholden to others and an island to oneself but, rather, in deep participation with others. If freedom is the optimization of one’s life, it is measured in the richness and diversity of one’s experiences and the strength of one’s social bonds. A more solitary existence is a life less lived.’

Also: ‘The shift … from elite fossil fuels to distributed renewable energies will redefine … international relations more along the lines of ecological thinking. Because the renewable energies … are ample, found everywhere and easily shared, but require collective stewardship of the Earth’s ecosystems, there is less likelihood of hostility and war over access, and greater likelihood of global cooperation.’

As the quotes indicate, the broader consequences of TIR are well expressed and inspiring – so (hopefully) hastening the transition to it, despite resistance from corporations, banks and the politicians they influence. For instance, there is a good chapter on rethinking economics, whose laws it is argued are disastrously modelled on Newton’s laws of motion rather than the far more relevant laws of thermodynamics, and an inspiring one on the necessary changes to education that is pertinent to how we might learn architecture.

Book digests

As the world gets more complex, it is increasingly difficult to keep up with even the most essential reading. This is particularly so for architects because so many fields of learning impact upon its creation, interpretation and assessment.

To accumulate into a useful archive, each issue of Citizen includes digests of writings readers deem particularly useful or revelatory. Because the best writing tends to be of long-term value, digests are not restricted to those of recently published material. And the selection is largely left to readers to reflect the diversity of architects’ interests and inspirations.

Readers willing to contribute to this ongoing series are encouraged to first contact the editors proposing a book or article they consider particularly appropriate.


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