Monday, September 26, 2011

According to Jeremy Rifkin The 'Democratization Of Energy' Will Change Everything

American economist Jeremy Rifkin has a new book out, The Third Industrial Revolution, in which he argues that the current economic woes are a symptom of a deep problem rooted in the dependence on fossil fuels.  Of course that's true and to me it's shocking that it's such an under-recognized problem.  Rather than being symptoms of a temporary economic malaise, the unemployment, rising food prices, rising debt and more are signs that the current world order -- long infused with and defined by fossil fuels -- is collapsing around us.  To understand one should study up on the role of fossil fuels in creating the marvels of our age, and then turn to studying peak oil and the collapsing supply of fossil fuels.

Ask yourself: What does Economics 101 say about "supply and demand".  When demand for some product outstrips supply, the price of that product goes up.  Yes?  Simple economics theory.  What about if that product is a fundamental requirement to keep "the economy" moving?  What if the supply of that product starts diminishing and can never again be increased?  What if a large part of the political leadership is either ignorant of the diminished supply, or in outright denial, and instead of proposing rational solutions continue to promote continued dependance on the fuel whose supply can never be increased?

That's where Peak Oil is leading us.  In Rifkin's book there have been two industrial revolutions, and that a third one is underway as we speak right now.  The third industrial revolution will lead to a grand new era of collaborative business that's more about creative play, peer-to-peer interactivity, social capital, participation in open commons and access to global networks.

The Third Industrial Revolution is the last stage of the great industrial saga and the first stage of the emerging collaborative era rolled together.  Implementation will be forced by diminishing supply of fossil fuel, and enabled by the "democratizing" influence of distributed power generation.  Distributed power generation doesn't require the top down domineering of industrialized power systems.  Somehow Rifkin believes that "we" will automatically implement democratized power as if the powers-that-be will allow it to happen.

The industrial revolutions were powered and enabled into existence by fossil fuels.  It wasn't purely intellectual genius freed from religious domination that created the industrial revolutions.  It was the harnessing of fossil fuels and the huge energy resources stored within them.  Fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas are reservoirs of sequestered carbon and solar energy captured millions of years ago by plants and animals.  Their dead bodies piled up and became trapped underground where natural forces converted their tissues into fossil fuels.

In the 1700's-1800's engineers and industrialists made the first steps to developing technology to mine those fuels, prepare them for industrial use, and use the energy to build vast industrial empires.  It's been a great ride, hasn't it?  However 300 years later and we're now at the mid-point of the fossil fuel resources the planet captured for us.  It's all downhill from here.  That is, the energy available from fossil fuels can only decline from here out.  And the politicians who suggest otherwise ("Drill Baby Drill") are deluded or insane or something.

Rifkin sees this third industrial revolution as a transitionary phase from industriousness to collaborativeness.  Industrial ages are characterized by "values of rigid discipline and hard work, the top-down flow of authority, the importance of financial capital, the workings of the marketplace and private property relations".  This was required by fossil fuels because of the centralized nature of fossil fuel resources.  But as fossil fuel becomes scarcer it's going to force us into a new mode of society.

Rifkin suggests the shift will rely on renewable energy resources (Solar, Wind, Biomass, etc) all of which are available "anywhere".  We won't be reliant on centralized energy resources but distributed ones.

He says "The democratization of energy has profound implications for how we orchestrate the entirety of human life in the coming century."  It means an era of distributed capitalism because energy resources are available everywhere.  He suggests the dispersed energy resources will be collected from everywhere and bundled and shared with others over a distributed "energy internet".

The distributed nature of distributed energy generation supposedly forces lateral power structures rather than the top down domineering ones of the industrial revolutions.

However - as compelling as the vision is, I wonder if the powers-that-be will allow it to take shape that way.  The powers in charge have rarely acted in the interests of individuals, and always acted in the interests of keeping those in power still in power.  Is some of the denialism about energy resource problems due to those in power trying desparately to keep the game going so they can remain in power?

It seems there's a huge interest in undermining the green tech/jobs revolution the Obama Administration wants/ed to unleash.  At the current moment we have another budget showdown in Washington DC and the government grants/loans programs for advanced green transportation technology has a gun held to its head with the Republicans saying we need to stop funding such programs in order to balance the budget.  Developing this kind of technology will act to undermine the old order of fossil fuel dependence.  Electric vehicles participate in the democratized energy system because a home owner can have enough solar panels on their house to fuel their electric car with electricity, and not have to pay anybody a dime for fuel.  Is the threats against electric vehicle technology programs meant to keep us captured by fossil fuel interests for transportation fuel?