A ‘Third Industrial Revolution’ Would Seal Our Fate — Why Jeremy Rifkin is Dead Wrong
An in-depth analysis of his ‘radically new economy’ and the resources it requires
I have long sought to write a detailed response to Jeremy Rifkin’s ‘viral’ talk The Third Industrial Revolution — A Radical New Sharing Economy, partly because of the dissonance, discomfort and disagreement it caused among family members, friends, and associates in my community and in some of my social media echo chambers. It was extraordinary hard for me to find a starting point for my criticism — not because of the strength of his arguments, but merely because it is hard to even know where to start explaining in the face of such universal ignorance of simple ecological limits and boundaries — so please excuse the sloppy structuring of the following text.
Yet I hope not to offend anyone with this text, I just think that some of us have to speak up to show him and his admirers that our generation is not blindly following his progressivist ideas — at least not in its entirety. This will be no neo-Luddite rant against technology, I am simply asking questions that concern us all and that sooner or later have to be addressed anyway.
Overall, I found that his ideas are not ‘radically new’, but merely a new version the same old ‘more is better’ paradigm — more technology, more energy, more people, more jobs, more work, more impact, more control. There is an increasing number of people who disagree with this, and instead think that maybe we have to try something completely new:
Small is better. Simple is better. Local is better. Independent is better.
Less is better.
Think about it for a second: less technology, less pollution, less cars, less airplanes, less highways, less shopping malls, less noise, less trade, less work, less destruction, less disruption, less control, less worries… This doesn’t sound so bad after all.
But it is the opposite of what Mr. Rifkin has in mind for this world.
He makes it very clear that in his ‘radically’ new economy, everything is smart. Smart phones, smart vehicles, smart roads and smart houses. He makes no effort to hide his enthusiasm for advanced technology, and this already almost-all-embracing technosphere would have to be expanded by a whole lot, in both amplitude and latitude.
But if you want to make your surroundings more artificial you have to make other areas less natural. There are serious concerns about the environmental impact that such changes would bring about, and as far as we know it is highly unlikely that we have sufficient reserves of resources for producing purportedly “green/clean” technologies on a global scale adequate to replace the current, all-encompassing, fossil fuel-based system (as I will explain in more detail later).
If this economy is really going to be that different from the current system remains questionable. As far as I can tell, there is going to be markets, corporations, stocks, products, consumers, factories, roads, cars, drones, workers, bosses, currency, taxes, laws — all this seems an awful lot like the system we employ right now. A truly ‘radical’ new economy would surely not see the exact same elements as its predecessor.
Due to his limited understanding and fragmentary knowledge of deep history, Mr. Rifkin forgets one vital fact: there already was a “sharing economy” (usually referred to as ‘gift economy’ by anthropologists and economists), and this original sharing economy lasted for over 95% of our species’ three-hundred-thousand-years existence here on Earth. Ironically, this ancient economic system is also the only truly sustainable form of economy that we have ever known, as no resource was overexploited, no ecosystem disrupted and it resulted in absolutely no pollution. This system continues to work until this day at the fringes of civilization where primitive tribes (as long as they are left alone by loggers, gold miners, wildcat teams, tourists, drug traffickers, businessmen, or missionaries) still live an original and natural human life, one hundred percent sustainable and in harmony with their land base. Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins has coined the term “original affluent society” for hunter-gatherers in his book Stone Age Economics, to show beyond doubt that those people are by no means ‘poor’, but have everything they can wish for.
If Mr. Rifkin really has, as he claims during his speech, a “little bit [of a] better picture in [his] mind of the evolution of the human race”, he should know that what he proposes — an economy based on sharing — is not radically new at all, but in fact the oldest and most successful (in terms of sustainability and longevity) ‘economy’ there ever was, is, and will be.
“Societies that are able to nurture the empathic sensitivities that are in our [psyche] are the ones that don’t have to worry so much about the secondary drives, which are brutality and corruption, and all the bad things that go with it”, says Mr. Rifkin. With his ‘better picture of the evolution of the human race’ he must understand that those societies are exclusively primitive hunter-gatherer tribes, and that no civilization, until this day, has ever accomplished this.
Mr. Rifkin might have an adequate understanding of modern economics, but economics is, as he himself admits, a bogus science. It describes and deals with phenomena that arise in our shared cultural consciousness (read: our imagination), like the commonly accepted notion that certain slips of paper with numbers printed on them have intrinsic value that can be transformed into goods and services far exceeding the worth of the paper itself, and is not based on, subject to, or influenced by any of the real-world sciences (physics, chemistry and biology), despite futile attempts by some economists to find parallels. While economy undeniably has some real-world manifestations, they emerged out of our collective imagination — things like shares, stakes, stocks, profits, margins, funds, and even the money on our bank accounts can hardly be called real in a physical sense (other than referring to the occasionally appearing slip of paper). From this point of view, it is uncertain if calling ancient modes of exchange ‘gift-‘ or ‘barter economy’ (if there ever was such a thing) serves any purpose other than to justify and normalize the untamable monster we’ve created: global, consumer-capitalist, high-tech, planned-obsolescence, throw-away turbo-economy.
What Mr. Rifkin seemingly lacks in his ideas is a deeper consideration (and perhaps a better understanding) of chemistry, geology, biology, and ecology (which are all interlinked). Concerning those real-world topics, his ability to connect dots is absent and his holistic knowledge seems to be superficial at best.
Chemistry matters to the extend that when we look at the periodic table of elements, we see all there is in our world. It is widely agreed upon that those are all the elements available to us humans, and, since there are only 118 of them, we can’t possibly find surrogates for the elements we currently use for any given specific purpose. Of increasing interest are 17 different Rare Earth Elements (REE’s), elements 57–71 (the lanthanides) and scandium and yttrium, most of which are used to create solar panels, batteries, magnets, displays and touchscreens, hardware and other advanced technological appliances. To obtain them we have to severely ravage the biosphere, which puts us into a dilemma that Mr. Rifkin fails to address, probably because of the naïve, Rapa Nui-style techno-optimism inherent to futurists like him.
Those elements are used because they exhibit desirable qualities, such as the ability to absorb certain wavelengths particularly efficient in the case of solar panels, produce strong magnets for the massive generators used in wind turbines, and colorful lights for the displays of our mobile phones, computers and TV’s. Of the 17 REE’s, the only one that is not found in smartphones is the radioactive promethium.
Modern smartphones contain almost three quarters of all the elements in the periodic table, and all of them are essential for those devices to function. It is, simply speaking, chemically not possible to create something like a smartphone without certain elements, and it is further not possible to obtain those elements without destroying vast swaths of the already battered environment.
To understand the strongest argument against Rifkin’s proposed plan, we have to take a short excurse into geology. From a geological point of view his plans are highly unlikely, to say the very least. We simply don’t have enough resources left to do any of the proposed ‘revolutions’ in the realms of energy and communication.
Many of the essential elements of a third Industrial Revolution (and the technology it requires, produces, and advocates) are REE’s, extracted from Rare Earth Minerals (REM’s) or obtained as a byproduct of mining metals like tin, zinc and copper. Despite their name, REM’s are quite common in the Earth’s crust, yet all but a few reserves are utterly inaccessible for us.
Those REM’s (and several other crucial elements needed to produce any advanced technology) are indeed getting increasingly scarce, as easily accessible reserves are being depleted at record rates.
The mining of mineral ore and the extraction of REE’s causes “severe environmental damage” and creates some of the most toxic chemical compounds known to mankind, as well as, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, a “tremendous amount” of solid waste. For each ton of REM’s mined, one ton (!) of radioactive waste is created, dwarfing the environmental impact of the much-criticized nuclear sector.
Overpopulation is what happens when a species follows simple biological laws: if you increase the food availability of any species, its population will increase concomitantly.
This is what we humans have done for the past 10,000 years, after the widespread adoption of agriculture and the emergence of the first civilizations. As a result of the food surplus that agriculture creates (as opposed to the “just-enough” food quantity obtained by foragers), human population exploded. The biggest increase in human population was directly caused by the biggest increase in food availability during the “Green” Revolution, when chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides were first used on a continental scale.
The world population will continue to grow until we reach 10 billion in 2050, and all those people will strive for a high-tech lifestyle, a literal ‘carbon-copy’ of that in industrialized nations, therefore inevitably wiping out ecosystems and species. As we will see below in greater detail, there is absolutely no way that 10 billion people can peacefully coexist with the rest (or what is left) of the biosphere, and I don’t think anyone who is just remotely reasonable disagrees on this. Overpopulation is the underlying cause for all our increasing problems: human population growth is (thanks to our ability to increase food availability) exponential, and concomitantly pollution, resource consumption, water depletion, soil erosion, deforestation, species extinction, radioactivity levels, crime and suicide rates and many other things all grow exponentially, too (if you consider the entirety of the human race).
If any species experiences an increase in population so dramatic that it completely devours all accessible resources it depends on in all corners of its habitat, the result is almost immediate collapse (often resulting in self-elimination) the moment those resources get to a critically low level.
The fact that Mr. Rifkin fails to adequately address overpopulation (and merely takes it as a given factor that cannot and must not be changed or even questioned) is reason enough for me to question his competence. The only remark he makes is that electricity, which apparently also “freed the women”, somehow will reduce birth rates.
Ecosystems function best and are the most stable, resilient and effective when all components stay within their naturally imposed limits. From an ecological view, anthropocentrism has no foundation whatsoever, since there is not a single positive thing that modern humans, viewed on the species level, do to their environment. Instead of controlling our environment, we would have to let go of almost all control and hand the reins back to the ecosystem itself.
Ecosystems are networks (Rifkin, fond of technological and digital metaphors, would call them an ‘Internet’) that seem resilient even if they suffer severe damage, but only until a ‘tipping point’ is reached, from which on collapse is rapid and ruthless. The first of those tipping points might be reached as soon as the 2020’s mark, with increasingly extreme weather events threatening breadbasket regions around the world. Only one storm in one region may already cause enough disruption to severely affect the basic functionality of our global society.
We are inevitably a part of the ecosystem surrounding us, whether we like it or not — and whether we act like it or not. Everything we do has a direct impact on our immediate environment, and, thanks to globalization, on ecosystems all around the world. What technology increasingly does as it advances is to outsource pollution to ‘shadow places’ to make the wealthy regions of the planet more “beautiful” and prosperous.
The extraction and processing of REM’s needed to produce all our technology is directly connected to the destruction of ecosystems all around the globe.
Several major ecological catastrophes were directly caused by the mining and extraction of REE’s, such as the Samarco tailings dam collapse (2015) in Brazil or the silicon tetrachloride spill by a solar energy company in Henan province, China (2008), and, as implied by a recent, peer reviewed study (paywall) in the prestigious journal Nature, there is no reason to believe that this risk is going to decrease if global demand rises as predicted by all involved scholars and institutions.
The study finds that there is no less harmful way to extract, refine and process REE’s in sight, and that more environmental restrictions to limit pollution will inevitably lead to a soaring increase in the price of those essential elements (and concomitantly in all technological gadgets).
Even if there were “semi-infinite” deposits of REM’s (as recently claimed by The Japan Times) in the deep-sea mud, their extraction would surely bring about the complete collapse of the already fragile oceanic ecosystem in the Pacific and pollute fish grounds all around the world, depleting over half of the world population of an essential protein source. Besides, the costs to mine minerals at such depth would surpass any budget, and there is currently no reason to believe that we will have technologies anytime soon that would make mining under those conditions profitable.
There is no environmentally friendly way to mine REM’s and extract, refine, and process REE’s.
“Green/Clean/Smart” Energy & Technology:
It should be obvious by now that neither solar panels, wind turbines, hydroelectric facilities, and electric cars, nor smartphones, computers and other high-tech gadgets are even close to anything that might be called “green” or “clean” with a clear conscience. But what he proposes is nothing short of megalomania.
Smartphones (smart vehicles, smart roads, smart houses, smart toilets and any other ‘smart’ gadget), computers, televisions, electric cars, wind turbines, solar panels, lasers, camera lenses, missiles and numerous other technologies all contain a broad spectrum of rare earth elements (REE’s), without which the production of those gadgets would be utterly impossible (strictly chemically speaking).
Furthermore, an astounding number of different compounds — metals, minerals, plastics — are needed to build only a single smartphone.
Many of those minerals needed to produce smartphones and electric vehicles are considered ‘conflict minerals’ and are mined under slave-like conditions in Congo and other ‘undeveloped’ countries. The most common conflict minerals, cassiterite (a byproduct of tin mining), wolframite (extracted from tungsten), coltan (extracted from tantalum), cobalt, and gold ore, are all mined in eastern Congo. There is ample evidence to assume that Western corporations have a high economic interest in the region remaining unstable, since they get much better prices for the minerals desperately needed for the production of mobile phones, laptops, and other digital technology.
It is impossible to produce even a single smartphone without causing enormous damage to the biosphere in the process. As the graphic above shows, the materials and compounds come from all corners of the world and have to be transported conveniently and cheap for the industry to continue to function properly and profitably. Container vessels are the backbone of the global economy, and without them nothing would function. They can’t be replaced with anything “renewable”, since no electric engine has as of yet been invented that can move such masses over long distances across the oceans.
The 16 biggest containerships (out of a total of about 100,000 vessels) produce as much as pollution as all the cars in the world, and transport is only that cheap (cheap enough to send salmon caught in Scotland to Vietnam for processing and ship the filet right back to Scotland) because they are allowed to burn the dirtiest of all fuels and virtually pay no taxes for it. Christian Møller, CEO of DK Group, a shipping company, once described the fuel as ‘just waste oil, basically what is left over after all the cleaner fuels have been extracted from crude oil. It’s tar, the same as asphalt. It’s the cheapest and dirtiest fuel in the world.’
In case this is the first time you hear this, they have a pretty strong lobby that works hard to hide and downplay their impact on climate breakdown from the public.
The UN body that polices the world’s shipping business, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), has been singing small when it comes to avoiding or even addressing pollution caused by those ships.
By international law, nobody is allowed to burn the thick, sulphur-laden fuel — yet the shipping industry does not have to comply with that law. And sulphur is far from being the only pollutant. Every year it is estimated that container vessels belch out one billion tons of CO2 — as much as the entire air traffic — but somehow environmentalists don’t pay much attention.
When the IMO (under pressure from the public) proposed limitations of emissions to the British Chamber of Shipping, they pleaded poverty — two-thirds of all container vessels are registered in developing countries, allowing them to avoid most regulations.
We have built our whole international trade and transport system on the promise of unlimited fossil fuel, and it is so thoroughly dependent on it that it could not be replaced by something “renewable” or “sustainable” while remaining even the slightest bit efficient or profitable. There are currently no realistic plans to power a container ship or a cargo plane with electricity, and even if, that alone would increase our energy demands manifold. Mr. Rifkin could propose lighter and smaller ships, but those ships must be produced in enormous quantities (to effectively replace today’s fleet) in gigantic factories, using fossil fuels, plastics, metals, and REM’s. As another matter of concern, it remains unknown how the already highly unstable oceanic ecosystem would respond to a manifold increase in shipping traffic.
Mr. Rifkin claims that we will see an 80% reduction of vehicles in the next few generations (which might be a realistic scenario, given the fact that we will have no resources left to build new cars or fuel the existing ones), but he seems to be under the impression that this will come about because millennials deliberately abstain from buying new cars. While this might be true for a minority of highly educated, upper-middle-class urban millennials with minimalist tendencies to make them feel better, he should go out there and ask random youngsters for the reason they don’t have a car. To his surprise he would find that most young people of course still want a car, but simply can’t afford it.
Electric cars require the exact same resources as smartphones and other advanced technology.
Manufacturing wind turbines can by no means be called ‘sustainable’ either. On average, one wind turbine contains more than 8,000 different components, including steel, cast iron, and concrete. The key components are powerful magnets that generate the electricity: they contain large amounts of the REE’s neodymium and dysprosium, both mined exclusively in China (which currently controls 95–97% of the world’s supply of REM’s).
The Bulletin of Atomic Sciences estimates that a 2MW wind turbine contains 800 pounds of neodymium and 130 pounds of dysprosium. MIT’s estimates are slightly lower (750 pounds of REE’s in total).
In 2012, wind energy accounted for a capacity of 13,000 MW in the U.S., which means that between 4.9 and 6.1 million (!) pounds of REE’s were used. As we’ve learned before, each ton of REE’s produces one ton of radioactive waste, so between 4.9 and 6.1 million pounds of radioactive waste were created to produce those wind turbines. That is more waste than the entire U.S. nuclear industry, which produces 4.4 to 5 million pounds each year. Since wind only accounted for 3.5% of all electricity created in the U.S. in 2012 (compared to about 20% nuclear), the wind industry is creating more radioactive waste and producing less electricity than the nuclear industry.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying we should use more nuclear and less wind energy — quite the contrary. In my opinion we ought to drastically reduce both consumption and generation of electricity. The calculation above should merely show that even alleged “green” technologies severely harm the biosphere.
Just to give you an idea of the scale on which REM’s need to be mined in the future if they were to meet the demands of the wind industry: according to this recent MIT study, over the next 25 years demand for neodymium will rise by 700% and demand for dysprosium by an intangible 2600%. And remember, the periodic table of elements is limited — we can’t just find a “cleaner” replacement.
Solar panels are similarly problematic: First of all, the construction and operation of solar power plants requires a mix of mineral materials (aluminum, concrete, copper, glass, nickel, steel, and zinc), as well as vast amounts of fossil fuels for the production, assembling and transportation of solar panels. Aluminum reserves will be depleted in the foreseeable future, copper reserves even sooner, and even sand is getting increasingly scarce.
The solution to the problem of resource scarcity proposed by Mr. Rifkin is simply recycling: “Every resource is always there for us, nothing ever goes to a landfill”, is his vision for the future. In the face of the difficulty and the immense price of intensified recycling, it will, as a recent study shows, most likely not be able to replace resource extraction in the coming decades.
The most important mineral materials used in the production of photovoltaic plates are cadmium, gallium, germanium, indium, selenium, and tellurium, all of which are difficult to mine and process. All of those metals and metalloids are byproducts of mining other metal ores (mostly zinc, copper and aluminum), as well as coal (germanium is extracted from coal ash).
As the USGS study linked above points out, it would be “unlikely that production of the primary products would increase in order to produce more of the six metals [Ga, Ge, Se, Cd, In, Te]” — we’re not going to burn more coal just to get more germanium (or so I hope).
The process of producing photovoltaic panels involves vast amount of heat energy (obtained by burning fossil fuels to refine silicon), the use of highly toxic chemicals, and the production of vast amounts of industrial waste. The basic raw material, quartz, is mined, refined into silicon (which produces carbon and sulfur dioxide), and then purified into polysilicon, a process that involves the use of hydrochloric acid and creates three to four tons (!) of the highly toxic compound silicon tetrachloride for each ton of the desired polysilicon.
There is a way to recycle at least some of this waste, but the reprocessing equipment costs tens of millions of dollars (and requires vast amounts of fossil fuels to heat the substance to about 1,000 °C) — so several operators have just dumped the waste onto nearby fields (the linked article is spine-chilling) and into rivers, killing off entire ecosystems, polluting the air with toxic emissions, and acidifying the soil for centuries to come.
As a report from the Washington Post (linked above) shows, this problem is only going to get worse in the near future: more than 20 Chinese companies were starting polysilicon manufacturing plants at the time the article was written, and the combined capacity of all those new factories is be close to 100,000 tons — more than double of the 40,000 produced worldwide (in 2008).
REM mining and processing, which gave us all our current smart phones, solar panels, and wind turbines, has created a massive artificial lake filled with highly toxic and radioactive sludge in Baotou, Inner Mongolia, China — and there are several more of them.
A Daily Mail reporter traveled to Baotou to take a look at mines, factories, and dumping grounds of China’s rare-earth industry. He arrived to a horrific sight: nearby villagers reported that their teeth had fallen out, their hair turned white, and they developed a number of severe skin and respiratory conditions. Newborn babies had soft and deformed bones, and cancer rates skyrocketed — the lake near one village showed radiation levels ten times higher than the surrounding countryside. One interviewed local reported that “anything we planted just withered, then our animals started to sicken and die”.
As I’ve mentioned before, the pollution resulting from extracting REE’s from ore are breathtaking:
“Every ton of rare earth produced, generates approximately 8.5 kilograms of fluorine and 13 kilograms of dust; and using concentrated sulfuric acid high temperature calcination techniques to produce approximately one ton of calcined rare earth ore generates 9,600 to 12,000 cubic meters of waste gas containing dust concentrate, hydrofluoric acid, sulfur dioxide, and sulfuric acid, approximately 75 cubic meters of acidic wastewater, and about one ton of radioactive waste residue.”
More technology and more energy also means higher demand for copper — which is getting increasingly scarce, a popular estimate states that we have 26 years left of copper production.
A recent, peer-reviewed study (paywall) on global mineral supply calls it a “persistent underlying global challenge” to supply the raw materials our industries need so desperately, and continues to point out the paradox of employing mineral resourcing to produce ‘green’ technologies to combat climate breakdown, even though mining is a major contributor to climate breakdown and the collapse of ecosystems. Mining requires a large amount of energy and is currently completely dependent on fossil fuels, with no change in sight.
More and stricter regulations are, according to the study, not sufficient because those measures would increase the difficulty to extract and process the materials, therefore increasing the price of those desperately needed resources.
The study goes on to acknowledge that the unprepared industry is heading for trouble to meet demands “over the next 2–3 decades”, since the availability of minerals will remain low and substitutes for minerals and metals are not available. Further, many REE’s and metals are dependent on the mining of host minerals, so when extraction of the latter ceases, the supply chain for the former also breaks.
We would have enough copper for a few thousand years, but it’s located at a depth of three kilometers under the surface, so we have neither the technology nor the financial means to extract it now or in the next few decades — and even if, the ecosystem would be devastated by such a lavish application of resource extraction technologies.
The discovery of new reserves of many resources has, according to the study, slowed down while many easily accessible deposits are already exhausted.
If the population — in contrast to UN estimates — continues to grow after 2050, there would be an even higher demand.
It concludes that we don’t have any plans as of yet for a way to mine and process REM’s without severely damaging the biosphere, and in fact there is no such technology anywhere in sight. What makes the outlook even more grimly is the correlation between environmental regulations and the concomitant dramatic increase in the price of REE’s. Further, many resources are only found in countries with “less than satisfactory governance” (like the abovementioned conflict minerals from Congo).
If we were to replace the whole electricity grid with “clean” energies, the result would surely seal the fate of the entire biosphere.
Furthermore, all of the above technologies — smartphones, wind turbines, solar panels, and electric cars — depend on the same old, dirty system of mining, milling, extracting, transporting, smelting, refining, alloying, shipping, assembling, shipping again, and distributing, and can therefore never be truly sustainable. A system that was, is, and will be utterly dependent on fossil fuels — hydrocarbons — and their byproducts (like plastics and fertilizers).
Big Oil deliberately keeps us in the dark about how much oil there is left, and how soon major problems will occur because of imminent shortages. Corporations and governments are prone to overstate the reserves yet to be exploited to attract investors, Saudi Arabia might have overstated its crude oil reserves by up to 40%, and we are most likely beyond Peak Oil.
And not only governments but also multinationals lie to increase profits. BP’s official calculations about global crude oil reserves seem less convincing, since the time until we run out of oil (currently set at 50 years from now) seems to get longer and longer with each passing year (apparently because they continue to discover new oil fields), and the numbers are presented based on “current consumption levels” (even though consumption increases each year, despite all efforts to push forward “renewables”), which seems a little suspicious itself.
If you do the calculations yourself, with the average annual increase in consumption in the equation, you’ll end up around 15 years earlier than BP’s proposal. And recall that this is when we hit zero barrels, after we have depleted every single oil field ever discovered, whether it’s under the Arctic ice shield or in the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest.
It seems that they are already running low. Big Oil’s techniques to get to the remaining oil seem increasingly desperate: all easily accessible oil fields are nearly depleted, so they have to use more dangerous and destructive techniques like offshore and deep sea drilling, fracking, and tar sand extraction.
We cannot be sure how realistic his plans for recycling hydrocarbon products actually are. Germany, one of his favorite examples, currently doesn’t even manage to recycle just half of its trash, even though the German Federal Environmental Ministry (BUM) claims the number to be as high as 80% (including commercial and industrial waste), perhaps because if plastic packaging is burned to fuel power plants in Germany, this counts as recycling, too. And even if plastic is really recycled it is often transformed into objects with limited use like park benches and flower pots, since the use for e.g. food packaging would violate hygiene standards.
Despite all the efforts, the per capita amount of trash in Germany (around 220 kilogram per year) increases every year. Within Europe, just Danes and Swiss produce more trash than Germany. Worldwide, over 90% of all plastic is not being recycled, but severely impairs and suffocates the biosphere.
Apart from the issues of widespread and immense pollution and the persistent dependence on oil discussed above, there is one more aspect we have to consider:
Where is all this new technology going to be installed? Surely, to power the entire globe and to cover eight billion people’s electricity consumption, enormous wind and solar parks will have to be created, presumably in areas that seem ‘empty’ at first sight, but that are actually the last wild places where our fellow creatures are still allowed to roam in relative peace. Now their last refuges must also be subjugated to human use?
The “renewable energy internet” must indeed, according to Mr. Rifkin, span the entire globe — we “have to collect” the sun, the wind and geothermal energy “everywhere it is”. I will find neither better nor more elegant words to respond to this than Paul Kingsnorth does in his phenomenal essay Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist:
Today’s environmentalism is as much a victim of the contemporary cult of utility as every other aspect of our lives, from science to education. We are not environmentalists now because we have an emotional reaction to the wild world. In this country, most of us wouldn’t even know where to find it. We are environmentalists now in order to promote something called ‘sustainability’. What does this curious, plastic word mean? It does not mean defending the non-human world from the ever-expanding empire of Homo sapiens sapiens, though some of its adherents like to pretend it does, even to themselves. It means sustaining human civilisation at the comfort level that the world’s rich people — us — feel is their right, without destroying the ‘natural capital’ or the ‘resource base’ that is needed to do so.
It is, in other words, an entirely human-centred piece of politicking, disguised as concern for ‘the planet’. In a very short time — just over a decade — this worldview has become all-pervasive. It is voiced by the president of the USA and the president of Anglo-Dutch Shell and many people in between. The success of environmentalism has been total — at the price of its soul.
Let me offer up just one example of how this pact has worked. If ‘sustainability’ is about anything, it is about carbon. Carbon and climate change. To listen to most environmentalists today, you would think that these were the only things in the world worth talking about. The business of ‘sustainability’ is the business of preventing carbon emissions. Carbon emissions threaten a potentially massive downgrading of our prospects for material advancement as a species. They threaten an unacceptable erosion of our resource base and put at risk our vital hoards of natural capital. If we cannot sort this out quickly, we are going to end up darning our socks again and growing our own carrots and holidaying in Weston-super-Mare and other such unthinkable things. All of the horrors our grandparents left behind will return like deathless legends. Carbon emissions must be ‘tackled’ like a drunk with a broken bottle: quickly, and with maximum force.
This reductive approach to the human-environmental challenge leads to an obvious conclusion: if carbon is the problem, then ‘zero carbon’ is the solution. Society needs to go about its business without spewing the stuff out. It needs to do this quickly, and by any means necessary. Build enough of the right kind of energy technologies, quickly enough, to generate the power we ‘need’ without producing greenhouse gases and there will be no need to ever turn the lights off; no need to ever slow down.
To do this will require the large-scale harvesting of the planet’s ambient energy: sunlight, wind, water power. This means that vast new conglomerations of human industry are going to appear in places where this energy is most abundant. Unfortunately, these places coincide with some of the world’s wildest, most beautiful and most untouched landscapes. The sort of places that environmentalism came into being to protect.
And so the deserts, perhaps the landscape always most resistant to permanent human conquest, are to be colonised by vast ‘solar arrays’, glass and steel and aluminium, the size of small countries. The mountains and moors, the wild uplands, are to be staked out like vampires in the sun, their chests pierced with rows of 500-foot wind turbines and associated access roads, masts, pylons and wires. The open oceans, already swimming in our plastic refuse and emptying of marine life, will be home to enormous offshore turbine ranges and hundreds of wave machines strung around the coastlines like Victorian necklaces. The rivers are to see their estuaries severed and silted by industrial barrages. The croplands and even the rainforests, the richest habitats on this terrestrial Earth, are already highly profitable sites for biofuel plantations designed to provide guilt-free car fuel to the motion-hungry masses of Europe and America.
What this adds up to should be clear enough, yet many people who should know better choose not to see it. This is business as usual: the expansive, colonising, progressive human narrative, shorn only of the carbon. It is the latest phase of our careless, self-absorbed, ambition-addled destruction of the wild, the unpolluted and the non-human. It is the mass destruction of the world’s remaining wild places in order to feed the human economy. And without any sense of irony, people are calling this ‘environmentalism’.
A while back I wrote an article in a newspaper highlighting the impact of industrial wind-power stations (which are usually referred to, in a nice Orwellian touch, as wind ‘farms’) on the uplands of Britain. I was emailed the next day by an environmentalist friend who told me he hoped I was feeling ashamed of myself. I was wrong; worse, I was dangerous. What was I doing giving succour to the fossil-fuel industry? Didn’t I know that climate change would do far more damage to upland landscapes than turbines? Didn’t I know that this was the only way to meet our urgent carbon targets? Didn’t I see how beautiful turbines were? So much more beautiful than nuclear power stations. I might think that a ‘view’ was more important than the future of the entire world, but this was because I was a middle-class escapist who needed to get real. It became apparent at that point that what I saw as the next phase of the human attack on the non-human world a lot of my environmentalist friends saw as ‘progressive’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘green’. What I called destruction they called ‘large-scale solutions’. This stuff was realistic, necessarily urgent. It went with the grain of human nature and the market, which as we now know are the same thing. We didn’t have time to ‘romanticise’ the woods and the hills. There were emissions to reduce, and the end justified the means.”
The Other Side of the Industrial Revolutions:
Every environmental issue we face nowadays is a direct consequence of what we inflicted upon the world during the previous Industrial Revolution(s).
Mr. Rifkin righty points out that the Industrial Revolutions were based on communication, energy and transportation. Yet he fails to mention the equally important effects on environment (as discussed above), personal freedom and autonomy, and health (briefly discussed in the following).
Personal autonomy and freedom:
As Theodore Kaczynski has laid out in great detail, “the Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.” The first industrial revolution saw widespread child labor in factories, a working week of 6 days and a workday of 10–16 hours, that was only shortened to 12 hours in some parts of Europe after the French Revolution in 1848.
Before the Industrial Revolution, most people enjoyed more autonomy and freedom, but with the emergence of conveyor belts, assembly lines, machines, and automatization of processes, they became a subject — a biological machine — to be used and exploited by the factory owner as a means to produce more goods.
It was only well after 1900 that the eight hour day slowly became the new standard.
To put that into a deeper historical context, primitive people enjoyed by far the most leisure time of all human societies. As scholars like Marshall Sahlins and Richard Lee pointed out, hunter-gatherers work on average 2–5 hours a day, and sustainably satisfy their primary and secondary needs within this time.
Contrary to popular opinion, even people in medieval times (if they were not serfs or slaves) usually had considerable amounts of leisure time at their hands. Work was seasonal and limited by daylight hours, whereas after the Industrial Revolution electric light bulbs lightened up the factories, and night shifts became a common thing — since the most profitable thing for any factory owner, past or present, is to never turn off the machines.
In the proposed third Industrial Revolution, Mr. Rifkin urges us “to redouble your efforts”, which sounds an awful lot like what a 1850’s factory owner would tell his employees. There will be so much work, so many jobs, so much to do… But couldn’t it be better (and much more relaxing) to do less work? To strive for less jobs, so that more people are free to plant their own food, build their own house, take care of themselves and their families and friends, and live a truly sustainable life?
Mr. Rifkin has to consider that outside the techies’ echo chamber most people don’t like work. They do it because they have to. Since it is unlikely that further progress and development will reduce inequality — the last decades showed beyond doubt that the opposite is true — why does he think that the working class will be excited about more work?
It seems like he wants our generation to waste our time saving a civilizational system that can, by definition, never be sustainable.
Freedom before the Agricultural Revolution meant doing what you like to do, when you want to do it.
Freedom before the Industrial Revolution still meant making most choices in life yourself.
Freedom after the first Industrial Revolutions was choosing your job and the items you consume.
Freedom in the third Industrial Revolution will be like picking your jail cell — your ride sharing app, or your smartphone, or over-priced health care — anything but choosing from a much larger set of more politically relevant life choices.
During the first Industrial Revolution, air pollution impacted humans directly on larger scales for the first time. Pneumoconiosis, or black lung, was an increasing problem among the work force in the mines and factories, exposure to dangerous chemicals and occasionally radioactivity was common and safety regulations were practically non-exist, leading to the release of toxic compounds directly into the ecosystem.
Contributing to this dire situation were the living conditions of workers in urban centers, where adequate restful sleep was rare, malnourishment soared and hygiene standards were poor at best.
When the population of the first industrial nations was still predominantly rural, people sure enjoyed a better diet, consisting out of fresh organic vegetable and fruit, they were out in the open every day, breathing clean air and drinking water from unpolluted rivers. Recreational activity was usually confined to the outdoors, and most people were far more connected to the ecosystem surrounding them than any city-dweller today.
The Industrial Revolution can indeed be credited for ‘saving’ millions of lives (and therefore contributing to overpopulation) with industrially produced drugs, but many of those pharmaceuticals have dangerous side effects, long-term risks and their production — you guessed it — pollutes and destroys ecosystems. A great number of diseases and disorders arose directly from life in industrialized areas, and modern medicine is often nothing but the treatment of disease with drugs having opposite effects to the symptoms. Modern medicine is all too often busy treating self-inflicted wounds.
The health risks caused by the first Industrial Revolutions never vanished — in fact they got much more severe — and in the third Industrial Revolution, pollution and radioactivity will hit unimaginable levels and life will surely be wiped out completely in continuously expanding death zones created by mining and processing REM’s, building factories, infrastructure, and “green” energy farms.
Everything has to be an Internet for Mr. Rifkin. A ‘Communication Internet’, a ‘Renewable Energy Internet’, and an ‘Automatic Transportation Internet’. Sensors will be everywhere, collecting data and connecting everyone — whether they want to or not, it seems — to the “global internet of things”.
Connectedness might easily seem like something good, but on a merely virtual basis the effects are often less desirable. Our primate brains are severely limited in the number of stable interhuman relationships that are cognitively possible, a principle called ‘Dunbar’s Number’. This cognitive limit, a remain from our times as foragers, states that we cannot possibly maintain relationships to more than 150 people, and every relationship (or non-relationship) beyond this limit is possibly unstable and can lead to conflict or even violence. We can only know that much people intimate enough to really care about them. Anybody beyond that limit is inevitably seen as somewhat less human, and of course we care most about those within the limits of Dunbar’s Number. So, is it a good thing to have 1,500 Facebook-friends? Hardly so.
Social media puts us into echo chambers, amplifying our own beliefs while completely turning down other voices, radicalizing us in the process and dehumanizing the other side of the spectrum. This ‘feature’ of social media has created real world terrorists, school shooters, hate groups, as well as a high number of sociopaths, introverts, and loners. People don’t know the name of their neighbors but feel close to the few guys from their anime forum that are scattered all around the world. Is that really how connectedness looks like?
Or does it look like instantly receiving emails, calls and texts at every hour of the day with a persistent ‘ding’, so that you’re sure to notice and immediately write back? How much more stressful this immediate form of communication with everyone can be — as compared to normal, old school verbal conversations with the few people around you — doesn’t need to be explained any further here.
Our brains are never truly at rest these days.
And what happens to all this data, the messages, the calls, the articles, the videos, the lists, the selfies, the tweets? All our data, private or not, is being recorded, stored, sold, used, fed to algorithms and self-learning AI’s, and monetized to the fullest capabilities, to create detailed profiles of us as a way to make advertising more effective and forecast our decisions.
China, easily one of the most polluted countries on Earth (and one of the biggest data collectors), is (next to Germany) Mr. Rifkin’s favorite examples for positive change and initiative — after all, China wants a revival of the Silk Road, an international transportation internet — but ultimately only China shall benefit from this trade, creating a trade monopoly and rushing in to fill the dominant position in international trade after Trump swept the United States off the first place.
Talking about China: the “People’s Republic” wants to lead the world into the third Industrial Revolution (apparently General Secretary Xi read Mr. Rifkin’s book — without crediting him afterwards), and it is doing so with rating its citizens for obedience to the party, building the first functional artificial intelligence, creating vast areas so toxic that they will remain uninhabitable for centuries, destroying river ecosystems to get hydroelectric energy to power bitcoin-mines, building enormous ghost cities to artificially inflate their GDP, appropriating water reserves in the Himalaya, and financing a genocide over oil.
Technology, AI, blockchain, control, extraction, economic growth and Big Data — it sure seems China is already halfway there.
Big Data — a great thing for Mr. Rifkin — is becoming increasingly Orwellian (or better “Eggarian”, after Dave Eggers’ updated 1984-remake The Circle). China is the pioneer in fusing AI, Big Data and government, and the results are scary: face recognition software identifies jaywalkers and immediately fines them via text messages, and the government plans to rate all citizens by 2020.
“To be governed is to be at every operation, at every transaction, noted, registered, counted, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, prevented, reformed, corrected, punished”, wrote Pierre-Joseph Prudhon.
And, indeed, every state that ever existed shows the same key objectives: the complete and total control of all its subjects, and the increase of the power it exerts over them. China’s plans to rate its citizens is just the next logical step in this history of state’s efforts to reach ultimate control and power, and a brief preview of how the current fusion of governments and Big Data will look like in the near future.
Artificial intelligence (needed for the automatic trucks and drones Mr. Rifkin plans on using) is so dangerous in itself that over 8,000 scientists and scholars signed an open letter, calling for severe restrictions and careful consideration of possible side effects.
Mr. Rifkin further proposes that Big Data, analytics, and algorithms will somehow reduce our ecological footprint — how this is to be done in the face of the ecological mayhem technology causes is left unexplained.
The smart gadgets that Mr. Rifkin admires so much were designed by teams of psychologists, all relentlessly exploiting weaknesses in the human psyche to make us ever more addicted to our phones.
What those gadgets do to our children is the most concerning: if they were to grow up in a world where everything is an internet, they wouldn’t be keen to save any of the little spots of Nature left, since they have absolutely no connection to them.
These days, kids and teenagers spend several hours per day in front of screens, which usually doesn’t give them any real-world benefits — neither is creativity enhanced, nor dexterity trained, nor the muscles exercised, nor the memory tested, nor are wholesome memories (consisting out of more than just visual and auditory sensory input) even being created. All they do is swipe their thumbs up and down a slippery touchscreen, looking at disturbing videos and photoshopped pictures that make their own life seem small, worthless, boring, and undesirable, and reinforces the strong anthropocentric bias inherent to our culture (most teenagers and kids don’t use YouTube to watch Nature documentaries).
Smartphone addiction is more common among teenagers than any other addiction, and excessive smartphone and/or social media use creates a whole spectrum of mental disorders.
More and more ex-Silicon-Valley techies blow the whistle on highly questionable strategies and goals of making the people more addicted to technology.
In times where tech-employees, dangerously overworked and encouraged to take performance-enhancing drugs to work even more efficiently, are quitting and burning out in record numbers, we might ask ourselves if more technology is really the answer.
Just after Mark Zuckerberg’s much-anticipated hearing, where a seemingly unconcerned Big Tech CEO and owner of one of the world’s most powerful digital monopolies — Facebook — promised repeatedly to reform his company and to help the government imposing regulations on himself, it was reported that Facebook, a company already accused of fueling a genocide, moved responsibility for 1.5 billion users from Ireland to California offices, well out of reach of a new European privacy law (but will still continue to file taxes in Ireland to avoid paying any in the U.S.).
Other Big Tech CEO’s are by no means better and more honest persons.
Larry Page and Sergey Brin (Google), Peter Thiel (PayPal), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), and Larry Ellison (Oracle) all want to ‘eliminate dying’, the highest form of alienation, self-denial and elitism I can imagine (next to Musk’s plans for colonizing the universe). Peter Thiel is an outspoken transhumanist, Jeff Bezos want’s his employees to wear wristbands to control and exploit an already battered workforce even more, and Elon Musk, well, I don’t even want to open that drawer.
It seems like too much technology turns people into antisocial, cultish, megalomaniac wannabe-semi-gods who value dead matter over living beings.
Sure, Wikipedia is indeed a remarkable achievement. But this is not what people use the internet for (most of the top 50 sites on the internet are search engines, video streaming platforms, shopping sites, social media, and pornography). As soon as people have internet access, they use it for chatting, surfing the web, video games, movies, series, porn and other time-wasting, unproductive and potentially harmful activities. In developing nations only a handful of people who just ‘plugged in’ for the first time use the internet as he wishes them to — for research, free scientific e-books, and online courses from universities.
Mr. Rifkin is right, everybody could be “sharing knowledge”, but they don’t — and even if they would, that wouldn’t mean much if nobody remembers anything.
“You are all producers sharing with each other”, he calls out excitedly, because there are thousands of startup enterprises creating new apps, and millennials are producing a staggering amounts of 5-hour tech-house SoundCloud sets that nobody listens to, shoot millions of YouTube makeup tutorials and prank videos, and write endless blogs on their brand-new MacBook about how depressing consumerism is.
This is all true, but it remains open how SoundCloud sets, YouTube videos, and WordPress blogs are positively contributing to a sustainable future (remember that all that technology has to be produced first). To make matters worse, everything that is “produced” in this fashion exists merely as zeros and ones on a server halfway around the world. None of this is a real-world achievement, so it is barely something to be proud of. If there would be any disruption of the internet itself, all this knowledge would be virtually lost, since it is close to impossible to retrieve data from a hard drive without advanced digital technology.
It is also worth mentioning that 90% of all startups fail.
It is also no reason for optimism to quote Moore’s law as evidence for continuous growth in the future. First of all, Moore’s law is no physical or natural law, but simply an observation and projection of a historical trend — and therefore should be called Moore’s theory. Moore predicted that computing power doubles every two years, which would mean exponential growth, but recent reports showed that we almost reached a maximum — Moore’s law is dead.
Cultural Imperialism and Neo-Colonialism in the Name of Technology:
Mr. Rifkin wants to make sure nobody is excluded from the super-internet and the global technological empire, he assures even people that “make $2 a day” will be connected to the “internet of things” within less than 15–20 years. This sounds a whole lot like cultural imperialism — once again a white westerner fond of technology thinks he knows the ‘one right way’ that is best for all the people in the world. A lot of genocides started like that.
Author Daniel Quinn lays down an indubitable principle in his book The Story of B, in which he argues that “there is no one right way [for all the people in the world] to live”. We are simply too different, and the ecosystems we inhabit and from which our cultures originally arose are too diverse for anything cultural to be applied on such comprehensive scale. A multitude of cultures ensures resilience and the best ability to respond to catastrophic events (such as climate breakdown), just like a field planted with a diversity of crops (rather than a monoculture) will ensure food supply even in the event of irregular weather fluctuations. If you have only one cold-sensitive crop, and a late frost kills all of it, you starve. If you have a number of other (preferably wild) crops, you will have enough to survive.
In his groundbreaking book Beyond Nature and Culture, French anthropologist Philippe Descola shows that to be truly sustainable, a culture must be inseparably tied to and derive from the Nature surrounding it. As is the case with all primitive societies, the borders between Nature and culture are practically nonexistent for them, and since Nature (and concomitantly culture) is all around them, merely inquiring about those concepts is much like asking a fish about water.
This means that the more a culture is connected to the ecosystem it inhabits, the more sustainable it is. “Helping” countries to “develop” does the opposite: it moves them further away from their natural surrounding and into the digital world of the “internet of things”. Yet exactly this seems to be Mr. Rifkin’s plan for the ‘developing’ world.
He doesn’t even try to hide his own alleged superiority to those “underdeveloped” countries: he pities them for “being in the dark”, his way of saying that they don’t have electricity, and therefore must surely miss out on the greatest things of life.
First of all, those people have the most sustainable source of light in the world — sunlight — so they are far from being in the dark. What he is proposing is that to have a comfortable life, you need electricity — the good, old, Myth of Progress. The more electricity available, the better your life.
While this might be true for the average industrial city-dweller today, it does not mean that human lives were full of misery before we tamed the lightning bolts. As Yuval Harari rightly points out in his book Sapiens, humans throughout the entire history of our species enjoyed on average the exact same levels of happiness as we do today.
I’ve talked to quite a few people who make a fetish and a cult of technology, but no one ever went as far as to credit electricity for the freeing of women. This claim is downright ridiculous.
First of all, women freed themselves. And secondly, there is ample reason to believe that both the freeing of slaves and the freeing of women were merely concomitant to the economic circumstances of their eras, who allowed for their freedom. As capitalists were looking to expand and boost the market, “free” women were made available both in the workforce and as consumers, therefore pushing both supply and demand beyond previous levels. The women freed themselves, but it was the elites that allowed it — and profited from it.
On a related note, the slaves ‘were freed’ around the same time the Industrial Revolution started inventing and manufacturing agricultural machines that could do a hundred men’s work in shorter time without requiring food, shelter and clothing. With those new machines, slavery was simply not needed anymore. Without them, it would have been a lot more difficult.
“If you have another plan step forward and tell us what it might be, to address climate change and move the economy,” Rifkin urges, “I always get silence.”
He must really think that there is no alternative.
Perhaps the reason he doesn’t get an answer is the fact that having a global economy and mitigating climate breakdown is virtually impossible. There is no way to “create peace between the economy of society and the biosphere of the planet” other than to abolish the economy. You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.
We can have a soaring economy or a stable climate, and it is obvious where our priorities must be:
We could live without a global economy (like we did before), but we can under no circumstances survive in a world where climate breakdown further wrecks the stability and balance of the global biosphere that we need to live another day.
If he would only ask about how to address climate breakdown, I’m sure he would get some answers — even though he might not like them, because they would mean that everything he thinks, says and does is intrinsically flawed and biased.
It seems outstanding to me that he fails to adequately address a solution for agriculture in his original speech. All he says seems to be “eat less meat”, which sounds a lot like proposing the ‘One Right Way’ — a failure to acknowledge that ecosystems differ vastly and, in some areas, (like the Arctic circle or the savannah) eating meat can be a perfectly sustainable way of acquiring food.
Food is the most vital aspect of our lives, and it can help us foster a connection with our immediate environment. The only option we have is to return to the land by the millions, to replant forests, grow food in permacultural systems, and immediately put an end to our addiction to technology, fossil fuels, and other inorganic resources.
“I don’t believe in utopias, I don’t like utopias, I think utopias are dangerous!” is Mr. Rifkin’s answer to a question from the audience that mentions this word. The way he aggressively downplays claims that his vision might be utopian should be reason enough to assume this is his weak spot — after all, his fancy plans are nothing but blank utopia.
The ‘solutions’ proposed by Mr. Rifkin will at best prolong the inevitable collapse of our global society. At worst, they will mutilate the few remaining spots of relatively intact Nature beyond recognition and drive humans into extinction.
People who openly talk about the collapse of civilization are easily dismissed with the boy-who-cries-wolf argument: after all, Thomas Malthus, Paul Ehrlich, Simon Hopkins, and many more all cried “collapse!”, yet nothing happened — so far. What those people seem to forget is that in that story, the wolf does come eventually. The boy cries “wolf!” again, but at that point no one believes him anymore.
I think we are at exactly that point.
There is no way that we will be “off carbon in three decades”, and even if we were, we would be ‘on’ some other form of disastrous pollution.
Mr. Rifkin wants to change the way we consume and produce, yet he doesn’t criticize consumption and production itself. Likewise, he doesn’t criticize technology itself (perhaps he misses the forest for all the trees), but merely want’s different, even more sophisticated and advanced gadgets, yet completely fails to address the catastrophic environmental impact this would have.
We don’t have to give up on communication, energy, and transport, but we have to understand what true sustainability (within our ecological limits) means:
- The only truly sustainable form of communication is verbal — even for the most basic postal system of regular paper letters you need to cut down trees, build paper mills and all associated infrastructure and have reliable and fast (inter-)national modes of transportation.
- The only truly sustainable form of energy for us humans are calories — everything else does not belong to us and/or harms the ecosystem.
- The only truly sustainable more of transportation is either our own legs or those of a befriended animal — everything else requires mining, extracting, refining, processing, etc.
We have to change the way we “define freedom, power, and community”:
- Freedom simply means that you are not being forced to do anything that you don’t want to do, but merely do what you like — and that this is sufficient to live in harmony with your community. You decide how your life is going, and if you don’t like the current way, you have the option to simply walk away and do your own thing (no industrialized system allows that — or at least makes it as difficult as possible).
Freedom means that you have the wisdom to recognize and acknowledge the boundaries of your ecosystem and abide them voluntarily and with pride, because you are able to see the benefits of limiting yourself for the sake of the whole biosphere.
- Power is an obsolete and dangerous concept that only crazy people strive for. Any attempt by an individual to gain more power must be ridiculed, scoffed, and, if necessary excluded from the community with force. Richard Lee observed this practice when he studied the San people in the Kalahari desert. One elder told him: “When a young man kills much meat, he comes to think of himself as a chief or a big man — and thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors.” Such behavior can’t be left unpunished by the group as a whole, for the sake of protecting internal harmony and equality.
- Community is more than just the humans surrounding us, it is the entire ecosystem we inhabit. We have to extend our empathy and compassion to all living and non-living beings — all plants, fellow animals, rivers, waterfalls, mountains and forests — within the biosphere and realize our interconnectedness and interdependence. In regard to the human community, we have to remember that evolution came up with a unique social organization for every animal species:
whales are organized in pods, baboons in troops, wolves in packs, buffalo in herds, birds in flocks, ants in colonies, bees in hives, fish in schools — and humans in tribes.
There is a natural way for every single animal that works for this animal within the limits of its ecological niche (and therefore for all the other animals inhabiting this niche, too).
One of the most memorable aspects of Mr. Rifkin’s speech is a quote by Hegel:
“Happiness are the blank pages of history, because they are the periods of harmony”.
To him, this means that on top of all the written history of wars, conquests, genocides, famines, and epidemics there are ‘blank pages’ that stand for the accompanying good deeds, a good side of history to outweigh the bad things.
What it could also mean is that, as proposed by James C. Scott in his book Against the Grain, dark ages were a time where oppressive systems (city- or nation-states) ceased to exist, taxation stopped, armies dissolved, slaves were freed, and personal freedom flourished. Since no aristocrats were left to record the conquests of their king or emperor, those pages are indeed left blank.
In the 400-year-long dark age that followed the collapse of the Greek Empire literacy was lost — yet the people lived their lives with complete independence and freedom, without fear of war and conquest, and were more connected to their immediate human community and their natural environment. History is, like all the terrible tragedies it lists, an invention and a part of civilization — it reports what inevitably arises with the emergence of civilizations.
While it is true that “if we look at history, we seem like a pathological species”, the reason for this was best summarized by anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss: when a species is removed from its natural habitat its behaviors will become pathological.
We were removed from our natural habitat when we moved from the wilderness to the village, then to the city, and then to the metropolis. Our bodies are essentially the same as they were in the Pleistocene — 200,000 years ago — when the biosphere was so all-encompassing that we didn’t even have (or need) a concept that separated Nature from our own human realm.
When we take a careful look at our species long history, it becomes obvious in which direction we must go. We are definitely not “the most social species”, as Mr. Rifkin claims, but we got along quite well before people started thinking that they were better than other creatures, and better than fellow men (the new mindset that emerged after the Agricultural Revolution).
If we want to stop pathological behavior, pollution, destruction, violence, discontent, and exploitation, if we want to share real things, communicate meaningfully, live in harmony with the biosphere, and nurture the world around us, we have to recognize our true Nature:
The Nature within us, the Wilderness that still lays deep in our heart, and the Nature and the Wilderness that are still around us, the biosphere, at the edges of the wastelands we’ve created and in between the cracks in the asphalt and the concrete we’ve coated the living Earth with, and that they are actually the same.
This article was first published on feunfoo.org.
About the author:
Dave is slowly but steadily de-industrializing his lifestyle, he tries to find a truly sustainable lifestyle by word and deed, and nurtures his "fellow creatures" in the "biosphere" he humbly inhabits to the best of his abilities.
If you agree with his criticism and oppose another Industrial Revolution, please consider supporting his project on Patreon — every single dollar counts!