Sustainability in a Crowded World

The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power Is Transforming Energy, the Economy and the World

Jeremy Rifkin. 2011. Palgrave Macmillan, New York. 304 pages.   

The False Promise of Green Energy

Andrew P. Morriss, William T. Bogart, Roger E. Meiners and Andrew Dorchak. 2011. Cato Institute, Washington, D.C. 289 pages.

Elixir: A History of Water and Humankind

Brian Fagan. 2011. Bloomsbury Press, New York. 416 pages.

On October 31, 2011, major news outlets around the world proclaimed that the earth’s population had officially hit 7 billion. Since then, that number has been growing by three to four per second, with most projections suggesting that by 2050, more than 9 billion people will call this planet home.

How should we take this news? With foreboding? Or can we actually celebrate the arrival of these new neighbors and welcome them to the human family? After all, perhaps this is simply the expected outcome of God’s instruction to our forebears to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28; 9:1, 7).

Or have we been too fruitful? At a time of strain on our already damaged and depleted world, this expected increase will further compromise the supply of food, water and energy. Will we therefore begrudge the newcomers the opportunity of life? What can we learn from the dilemma we collectively face?

Three newly released books describe the challenges that lie ahead, each addressing relevant issues from a different perspective.

Call for Revolution

Jeremy Rifkin is president of the Foundation on Economic Trends near Washington, D.C., and the best-selling author of 19 books including The Age of Access and The End of Work. He is also an advisor to the European Union and heads of state around the world.

In his latest work Rifkin envisions a new economic era and advocates nothing less than a revolution. Having seen some years ago that “a new convergence of communication and energy” was coming, he concluded that Internet technology and renewable forms of energy would come together “to create a powerful new infrastructure for a Third Industrial Revolution (TIR) that would change the world.” He now foresees a time when millions will produce their own green energy, not only to power their homes but also their offices and factories. They will “share it with each other in an ‘energy Internet,’ just like we now create and share information online. The democratization of energy will bring with it a fundamental reordering of human relationships, impacting the very way we conduct business, govern society, educate our children, and engage in civic life.”

Sound far-fetched? Rifkin realizes that his proposal contradicts conventional economic theory. However, he suggests that factors including food- and fuel-price increases, international financial instability and an aging industrial infrastructure provide compelling evidence that current economic game plans aren’t working. Those who expect the economic status quo to continue are “sleepwalking,” in Rifkin’s view. His book is meant as a wake-up call, alerting the world to the need for dramatic change to prevent a planetary crisis of untold proportions.

I am suggesting that we are currently in the endgame of the Second Industrial Revolution and the oil era upon which it is based,” he writes. “This is a hard reality to accept because it would force the human family to quickly transition to a wholly new energy regime and a new industrial model, or risk the collapse of civilization.”

His plan consists of five “pillars” that work in conjunction with each other. Together, he believes, they represent what is needed for a comprehensive change to a new economic vision.

Rifkin believes we already have the resources and technology to introduce a sustainable economic future, but he wonders whether we have the will to implement it. While his plan has gained significant traction in Europe—he reports that already in May 2007 the European Parliament formally endorsed the TIR as “the long-term economic vision and road map for the European Union”—he notes that virtually no other governments are asking “the big questions” about humanity’s continued viability on the planet.

Just as in the two former industrial revolutions, [the third] will fundamentally change every aspect of the way we work and live.” 

Jeremy Rifkin, The Third Industrial Revolution 

In Rifkin’s view of the future, conventional geopolitics will be replaced by ecological collaboration that will reduce the likelihood for conflict. A shared sense of community will challenge the present concept of private property. Copyrights and patents will not survive open-source networks. The world of competition and conflict will give way to unprecedented cooperation, because sharing knowledge, creativity, access and technology is the only way forward to a sustainable society.

Believing that the need for social connectedness together with a greater appreciation for the extended human family will bring about dramatic changes in human conduct, Rifkin’s hope is in humanity evolving to a higher consciousness: “People are biologically predisposed to be empathic—. . . our core nature is not rational, detached, acquisitive, aggressive, and narcissistic, as many Enlightenment philosophers suggested, but rather, affectionate, highly social, cooperative, and interdependent. Homo sapiens is giving way to Homo empathicus.

Yet the human story is full of conflict. What Rifkin proposes is nothing short of a fundamental change in human nature. Such a change would truly transform humanity’s future; indeed, the survival of human civilization depends on our ability to care about and share with others. But in reality can any number of industrial revolutions bring that about? Or does the change of heart required depend on spiritual intervention from without?

Call for Restraint

As might be expected, there are those who would question Rifkin’s assumptions about resource limits. Is the era of fossil fuels really ending? Are renewable energy sources ready to rescue humanity from economic and ecological disaster? While Rifkin objects to continuing doubt about the urgent need for alternatives, recent discoveries of oil and natural gas deposits, climate change skepticism and the comparative costs of green technology cause many to remain unconvinced.

Giving voice to the doubters is The False Promise of Green Energy, published by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Washington, D.C. The book’s authors are all academics with backgrounds in business, economics and law. Together they call for restraint amid the enthusiastic rush toward green energy to fuel the economic engines of the world. The authors acknowledge the appeal of the green-energy movement, with its message of clean electricity, new green jobs and a clean environment. However, they ask, before we commit to a radical restructuring of the global economy, shouldn’t we vet the assertions and assumptions being made by green-technology advocates?

Notwithstanding the title of their book, Morriss and his coauthors don’t appear to rule out a role for green technology in the future. They do, however, demand that green program advocates “make the case.” Their own conclusion is that it would be irresponsible to try to restructure modern society “with borrowed money, based on the combination of wishful thinking and bad economics.”

What green jobs proponents argue is that there are many benefits to be had at little risk if only we will invest a few hundred billion dollars . . . [of] other people’s money, either raised through taxes today or, more commonly, from government bonds that have to be paid in the future.”

Andrew P. Morriss, William T. Bogart, Roger E. Meiners and Andrew Dorchak, The False Promise of Green Energy 

They reference a 2008 United Nations Environment Program report to illustrate the enormous scale of societal change sought by green-energy enthusiasts. The report makes it clear, they write, that “virtually every aspect of daily life—from where we live, where our food comes from, how we commute to work, to what we do at work—will be dramatically altered.” The authors then remark on the price tag for “such massive social change,” not only in monetary terms but also in the disruption of lives. They argue that any program that stands to “transform the lives of billions of people at a cost of trillions of dollars” should be fully thought through: Is this the future we want? Is the underlying theory correct? “The history of the 20th century is, in part, the history of failed efforts to remake societies according to visions that proved unsustainable. Before launching yet another effort, on an even grander scale, we need to thoroughly critique the vision.”

If green technology is a no-brainer—the obvious option to fuel a prosperous future—why wouldn’t energy companies and private investors beat a path to the door of green technologies in search of new profits? “If the people who make their living in the industry do not see the wisdom of investing in massive wind and solar farms unless they are heavily subsidized, then the economic feasibility of such green projects is much more dubious than the political promoters assert them to be.”

As that observation makes clear, the authors are suspicious of programs that depend on government subsidies for support and survival. They believe proponents of new technologies bear the burden of proof to demonstrate that they can produce the results they claim. Government subsidies are often directed to favored projects. This creates a situation where it appears that political factors determine winners and losers.

By way of example, the authors remark that recent government biofuel subsidies contributed to significant unintended consequences. They cite the link between greater corn-based ethanol production and higher prices for the myriad foods that contain corn products or rely on corn for feed. Their consensus is that, “as the FAO’s State of Food and Agriculture report notes, biofuel production would have a significant negative impact on hunger globally but provide relatively modest energy gains.”

In the view of these four writers, then, the viability of green technology is currently being overstated and oversold to the public.

Call for Reverence

Whatever position one takes in the debate over green energy and its role in our increasingly populous world, few would argue that the essence of life is water. Without it life would simply cease to exist. This is the most recent focus of Brian Fagan, emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of California–Santa Barbara, who has written extensively about the interplay of human culture and nature.

Fagan’s latest effort, Elixir: A History of Water and Humankind, takes a tour through time and describes society’s fragile relationship with water. History reveals that human beings have recognized water as a physical necessity for survival, a source of status for the rich, and a spiritual symbol common in religious ritual. We learn that water and water management have played a major role in the rise and fall of civilizations.

Fagan describes three distinct ages of humanity’s history with water. In the first, which spanned thousands of years, “water was scarce or at best unpredictable—so precious that it became sacred in almost every culture.” Then came the Industrial Revolution, when “human ingenuity had made water flow even in the most arid landscapes” and water was “a commodity to be exploited . . . with little regard for sustainability.” Today we find ourselves on the cusp of the third age: “As the earth’s population approaches nine billion and ancient aquifers run dry, we have to learn once more to show respect, even reverence, for the vital liquid. To solve the water crises of the future, we may need to adopt the water ethos of our ancestors.”

The stunning success of ancient ingenuity and innovation in harnessing water made urban living possible. Today’s masses are primarily city-dwellers and completely dependent on rural sources for food and water. Has human technological prowess unwittingly brought us to scarcity?

For generations, we in the industrial West have just assumed that fresh drinking water is ours to enjoy and to use with dazzling promiscuity in any way we wish. . . . Water is like beef, milk, and pasta, an integral part of our lives that we never think about—a great mistake.” 

Brian Fagan, Elixir: A History of Water and Humankind 

Water is the most valuable commodity in the world, with water tables falling in many countries including China, India and the United States. Already nations through which the great rivers of the world flow struggle to share the finite resource: “We are entering an era of potentially ferocious trading in water rights and a time when water could cost more than oil, as managing demand becomes an international priority.” Who will decide what is fair? Who will decide when someone has obtained enough and has begun to be selfish or greedy? Wars have been fought over water and almost certainly will be again.

Fagan advocates improving water storage infrastructure, developing drought-resistant seeds, enhancing desalinization technology, and conserving to help ease impending water shortages. He hastens to acknowledge, however, that as long as chronic overdrawing of the water supply persists, these efforts won’t solve the crisis.

While Morriss and his colleagues express great confidence in free-market breakthroughs and advances, Fagan calls for a fundamental change in our approach to the management of natural resources: “We are moving into an entirely new water future, where equity of use, sustainability to protect future generations, and affordability for everyone are major components.” He calls for a new paradigm in governing future water use, noting that “our salvation lies in long-term thinking, in decisive political leadership, and in a reordering of financial priorities, for, after all, investing heavily in water management will alleviate much disease and poverty automatically.”

But most important of all, Fagan concludes, is that “the future will need a massive shift in our relationship with water to one that equates, at least approximately, with that of those who went before us—characterized by a studied caring and reverence.”

Call for Reflection

Fagan’s cry for improved relationships and greater reverence may resonate on a certain level. But is it our relationship with and reverence for the earth’s resources that will turn the problem around? Or could it be that we need to address our relationship with the Creator of those resources? The encroaching dilemma is not simply a matter of humanity being too “fruitful.” Isn’t it rather a lack of reverence for our Creator and a respect for His creation that has brought us to this point?

We are being called on to absorb billions of people into our struggling world, to provide for their needs and still sustain the earth’s environment. The challenges ahead are real and will no doubt require the best efforts of governments, entrepreneurs, innovators and ecologists working cooperatively. But history also suggests that a large dose of humility would serve us well in offsetting the hubris that tends to mark our kind.

Those who take seriously the biblical instruction to “tend and keep” our earthly habitation (Genesis 2:15) will be encouraged by the prophets’ foretelling of a time ahead when human nature will in fact be changed (Ezekiel 36:26–30), and when God will establish prosperity and peace once and for all. Isaiah tells of a time ahead when the desert will “blossom as the rose,” when “waters shall burst forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert” (Isaiah 35:1–7).

Until that time, we would be wise to respect the commodities that sustain life and to reverence the Creator of those precious gifts. Are we humble enough to ask the author of the natural world for wisdom to manage the bountiful blessings He provides for the benefit of all?