The Third Industrial Revolution

January 3, 2012 by
Filed under: Social Brain 

They say a rainy day is no match for a sunny disposition, but London’s wet, windy, monochrome sky is enough to make the cheeriest soul wish they were elsewhere.

While weather and climate are related, weather is immediate, salient, shared and self-evident, while climatology is statistical, abstract, systemic, chronological and inaccessible. Indeed it is far from clear what kind of mandate the link between weather and climate gives us, and whether it is perhaps safer not to rely on weather as a way of communicating the climate challenge.

For instance, George Monbiot writes today about how selective attention to weather patterns is used to reinforce the narratives of climate change doubt and denial, while many have criticised Al Gore for linking extreme weather events in China and Pakistan to the need to act with urgency.

The connection between weather and climate is a narrative challenge. We want to tell a story that links them, because it makes the issue vivid and real, but the links are tentative, non-linear and probabilistic i.e. they are not good ingredients for an inspiring narrative to galvanise action on a global scale.

And narrative matters. It has been argued, for instance, that despite major policy initiatives, Obama’s green jobs initiatives never really took off because he didn’t have a compelling vision for how the myriad of policies could be woven together to create a vision of the future that people could figuratively and literally buy into.

we urgently need a narrative that is complex enough to capture the dimensions of the problem, but simple enough to make intuitive sense to billions of people. If weather can’t do that, what can?

This is no minor point because we urgently need a narrative that is complex enough to capture the dimensions of the problem, but simple enough to make intuitive sense to billions of people. If weather can’t do that, what can?

(image from voiceseducation.org)

Of all the RSA talks I attended last year, Jeremy Rifkind’s Third Industrial Revolution made the deepest impression, because he addressed the challenge of finding the right narrative head on. He spoke eloquently, passionately and coherently without prompts for 45 minutes, and it was the first RSA talk where I had to hold myself back from starting a standing ovation in the great room. (The Twitter feed suggests I wasn’t the only one).

Before I continue to wax lyrical, I should express some intuitive doubts about the speaker that I can’t quite put my finger on. He came across as warm, wise and brilliant, but I am mindful of the saying that if it sounds too good to be true then it probably is, and there is something about Rifkind’s clarity and certainty that, while it inspires, it also makes me a little nervous. For instance he valorises Europe to an American audience in way that doesn’t ring true, and appears to name-drop to a suspicious extent. He also seems over-fond of highlighting just how influential he is. These reservations might be ill-founded, or perhaps just grit for the pearl in the oyster, but I have them for whatever they are worth.

And yet, Rifkind offers a vision of the future grounded in an economic, environmental, technological, political and psychological diagnosis of the present that sounds coherent and feels compelling. Who else does that?  I strongly encourage you to listen to the talk to hear the argument for yourself, jump to the wikpedia page, or buy the book where it is unpacked in detail.

Here is my quick summary.

  • All industrial revolutions are based on an interplay or energy and information (An ontological aside- is there ultimately anything else in the world?) The first Industrial Revolution brought together print and literacy with coal steam and rail, while the second combined the telegraph and telephone with the internal combustion engine and oil. The Third industrial revolution is about bringing together renewable energy with the internet.
  • We misunderstood the financial crisis. Everything was mis-priced because we didn’t factor in the true cost of energy. We thought it was about the housing market, toxic assets, and debt, but these were corollaries of of gradually diminishing fossil fuels and increasing oil prices. We witnessed: “extraordinary binge buying designed to keep the economic engine artificially revved up while the real economy was winding down.”
  • ‘Peak globalization’ occurred in in July 2008 where ‘peak oil per capita’ happened (linking population growth to oil production). We need a completely new industrial model.
  • The new industrial revolution has five pillars:
  1. Shifting to Renewable Energy on a grand scale.
  2. Turning all buildings into power plants i.e. DIY renewable energy for everybody.
  3. Storing this energy, principally with hydrogen.
  4. Reconfiguring the world’s energy grid along the lines of the internet, allowing people to share energy, and overcoming the main problem of renewables (“the wind doesn’t always blow, the sun doesn’t always shine”…)
  5. Creating electric transport vehicles to transport energy that can be plugged into the main power grids.

All of these steps beg questions, mostly of a technological nature, but it appears that in all cases ‘we have the technology’, as they say, and the process is already under way in several parts of the world, including Rome, San Antonio and Utrecht.

This combination of renewable energy, distributed capitalism, lateral power and a change in consciousness forms the basis of the third industrial revolution. It looks like a vision worthy of the challenges we face. The Devil will surely be in the detail, but in the blueprint I sense the divine.

What is lacking is the political will to make this model the prevailing narrative of our time.

In this respect Rifkind builds on his earlier work on empathy to argue that these five pillars must emerge alongside a ‘shift in consciousness’, and he links this shift in consciousness to a political shift, illustrated in the Arab Spring in which the top-down power of the second industrial revolution is gradually replaced by what he calls ‘lateral power’- the power of non-hierarchical connections, or what is sometimes also called heterarchy. (If you listen to the audio, I ask about this shift of consciousness towards the end of the event).

This combination of renewable energy, distributed capitalism, lateral power and a change in consciousness forms the basis of the third industrial revolution. It looks like a vision worthy of the challenges we face. The Devil will surely be in the detail, but in the blueprint I sense the divine.

 


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Comments

  • http://twitter.com/HarryPilgrim Harry Pilgrim

    There is only one Industrial Revolution.

  • http://twitter.com/DJWESG Wes G

    Hate being the first to post. those five points sound alot like the points made in the Schumacher briefings on gaian democracies, worth a search if your not aware with those.

    But on another tip, you bring a valid point to the table, maybe its a point that many are trying to bring to the fore front. I think a new conscience in a global capacity is needed, and from what i can tell ‘is’ growing. The public at large do not readily understand the motion and flows of society, i think to inject some of that ‘structure vrs agency’ type thinking into education at the lowest levels is a much needed addition. Some times i wonder if going backward to go forward is the best path to choose, we have many religions and cultures that embrace those types of notions, though we tend to focus on the parts that ‘prop up’ our own individual cultures, often reproducing the problems we are aiming to eradicate.

    How do we undo the damage caused by irrational systems thinking, not that systems theories are not helpful, they clearly are, but with regard to climate and weather patterns i think we are over-estimating our capabilities and understanding of that system, in the 70′s it was considered that human can indeed become the controllers/pilots of the earth’s climate, and any respecting person with a interest in their environment will tell you that many states and countries with the help of ‘Global institutions’ have created weather systems for economic reasons right across the world, some countries are being used as part of the global experimentation taking place, but most (thousands per year) for direct economic benefits , im no expert in weather, but i’m pretty sure purposefully adding to those problems cannot be a good thing, i am interested to know the full facts behind the thinking and actions, would also be nice if the public were made aware of these actions. 

    Sorry if i drifted a little.

  • Javier

    Although I share the intention of this article, I am not too sure about its underlying  technological determinism. Let me draw on a mundane example. The computer was sold with the promiss of a paper-less office. Only a quick look to my office and those around me is sufficient to demostrate  how flawed such forecast was. Actually, the computer and computer-related technologies seems to have accelerated the demand for paper at unprecedented levels. The interaction between social and technological dimensions of any given “industrial revolution” are far more complex that any linear projection allows.

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