Third Industrial Revolution – Review

The future should be networked, writes Jeremy Rifkin in The Third Industrial Revolution. He sees the next industrial age, one bridging industrialism to continental collaboration as the most feasible post-carbon future. This era of networked energy will be based on 5 pillars, all essential for a successful transition:

  1. shift to renewable energy
  2. shift buildings to become local power plants
  3. deploy energy stores locally, especially hydrogen
  4. use the Internet to create a smart energy-sharing grid
  5. shift transportation to plug-in & fuel cell power

Europe is leading the way and Rifkin spends a good part of the book setting up a narrative and understanding for an American audience. There’s lots here on how power is created, controlled and regulated. I was most interested in the way Rifkin connects so many perspectives together. The first part talks about energy but the book continues with sections on economics, politics and education. There is a good review of how many of our current institutions were forged at the beginning of the second industrial revolution, around 1890 – e.g. corporations, schools, utilities.

He discusses how bureaucracies are an outdated form of control. This resonated with me after my presentation on social media to federal assistant deputy ministers only a few weeks ago:

Still, systemic thinking is a difficult task in a bureaucratic environment where there is a strong drive to hold on to turf and protect domains. This is what leads to what I call the DG (director general) abyss – the process by which big-picture ideas, agreed to at the ministerial level and even higher at the head-of-state level, lose their heft and become increasingly smaller and more narrow in vision and scope as they descend down into the departments and agencies, finally ending up as a shadow of their former selves, languishing in the minutia of countless reports, studies and evaluations, whose purposes become increasingly obtuse, even to those tasked with managing them.

The institutions we created to mirror the dominant energy producer of the 20th century, big oil, are a large part of the problem:

The oil age from its onset has been characterized by gigantism and centralization. That’s because harnessing oil and other elite fossil fuels requires large amounts of capital and favors vertical economies of scale, which necessitates a top-down command and control structure. The oil business is one of the largest industries in the world. It’s also the most costly enterprise for collecting, processing and distributing energy ever conceived by humankind.

As the Internet economy has shifted to a distributed and collaborative model, so too must the energy economy. It will be a battle between centralized and distributed energy and how easy it will be for localities to participate and profit. Rifkin provides great detail on how this can be done by 2050 and his model has already been adopted by the European Union while the US and Canada lag behind. The younger generation already understand this model, as the President of Spain noted, “For a younger generation growing up on the Internet and comfortable interacting in social media, the hierarchically organized flow of authority and power from the top down is old school.”

Rifkin includes a good analysis of the education system and its issues, with a section entitled, The Biosphere becomes the Learning Environment. Though I found the first part a bit slow going I really enjoyed the second half and the synthesis it provides on much of my professional work. Near the end, Rifkin summarizes the fundamental communications shifts we’ve experienced, echoing Marshall McLuhan:

All forager-hunter societies were oral cultures, steeped in mythological consciousness. The great hydraulic agricultural civilizations were organized around writing and gave rise to theological consciousness. Print technology became the communication medium to organize the myriad activities of the coal- and steam-powered first Industrial Revolution, 200 years ago. Print communication also led to a transformation from theological to ideological consciousness during the Enlightenment. In the 20th century, electronic communications became the command and control mechanism to manage a second industrial revolution, based on the oil economy and the automobile. Electronic communication spawned a new psychological consciousness.

Today we are on the verge of another seismic shift. Distributed information and communication technologies are converging with distributed renewable energies, creating the infrastructure for a third industrial revolution. In the 21st century, hundreds of millions of people will transform their buildings into power plants to harvest renewable energies on-site, store those energies in the form of hydrogen, and share electricity with one other across continental grids that act much like the Internet. The open-source sharing of energy will give rise to collaborative energy spaces, not unlike the collaborative social spaces on the Internet.

The third industrial revolution paves the way for biosphere consciousness.

3 Responses to “Third Industrial Revolution – Review”

  1. Gilbert Babin

    I really enjoyed this post which hits the nail.

    Rifkin is well positioned to accurately envision the future.

    His book Entropy, written long before the Internet emerged, offers the tools required to understand and predict changes in systems with large numbers of interactions.

    We have many such systems.

    Love your highlighted section about the DG abyss. Sure dilutes democracy, doesn’t it.

    (would recommend a quck read of Entropy to anyone trying to understand revolutons)


  2. Jon Husband

    โ€œFor a younger generation growing up on the Internet and comfortable interacting in social media, the hierarchically organized flow of authority and power from the top down is old school.โ€

    Just imagine 10 (or even 5) years from now ..


  3. John Waller

    Back in the 1980’s,you couldn’t pick up a newspaper without reading about Rifkin
    attacking Biotechnology.He filed numerous lawsuits against it.His main objection was
    that scientists and biotech companies were rushing to use this technology without
    all the facts.He raised concerns and issues and warned of unforeseen consequences.
    But now,with his Third Industrial Revolution,Rifkin’s doing the exact opposite.He’s
    getting people all riled up and excited about renewable energy.He’s getting them all
    anxious to jump on the Third Industrial Revolution bandwagon and make the switch to renewable energy.The problem here is that he’s not raising concerns and
    issues with renewable energy like he did with Biotechnology.He’s not questioning
    the cost and safety of hydrogen storage and the reliability of solar panels and wind
    generators and their impact on both socieity and the environment.


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