Time isn’t always kind to authors who write about the future, but Jeremy Rifkin seems to have done alright. He has several books in his back-catalogue that demonstrate his foresight. Like his 2002 book on the hydrogen economy, a full twenty years ahead of the current buzz about hydrogen and its possible role in the energy transition.
His latest book might be more troubling to the world’s decision makers. In this one, Rifkin argues that “the Age of Progress has given way to the Age of Resilience.”
Progress is one of the enduring myths of our time – a guiding story that helps us to make sense of where we are. It’s passed on in philosophy and science, and built into economic and political systems through assumptions about endless growth and efficiency.
The ‘age of progress’ had some serious flaws in its thinking, says Rifkin. Building on enlightenment philosophy and convenient readings of theology, one of them is that it saw humanity as separate from and dominant over nature, which was treated as a resource to be exploited. That made industrial capitalism blind to the natural world. “The ‘real wealth’ upon which the entire life process depends, and without which the economic system would not exist, remains remarkably unconsidered among economists and business leaders.”
We’d do better by seeing ourselves as deeply part of this ever-evolving world, and “remember that we are dust”, as the Psalmist writes. The book beautifully describes the way that human bodies can be seen as a process as much as a ‘thing’ – all those atoms coming and going, growing and being replaced. All those bacteria and other micro-organisms that share our bodies and make us far more plural than we could ever grasp. Can we learn to create societies that flex with a changing world the nature does? The way our own bodies do? If industrial capitalism mis-appropriated theological ideas to justify exploitation over nature, what theological ideas might help to redress the balance?
By seeing ourselves as part of nature, perhaps we’d be less obsessed with turning the natural world into money – something that requires us to set ourselves apart and stand over creation. Across a series of chapters, Rifkin describes the enclosure of nature for private property. From land to time, language, genes, the magnetic spectrum – all these gifts have been commodified for sale and managed for profit. “Creation is not our personal treasure chest,” as Joy in Enough’s vision paper puts it, but it has certainly been treated that way.
This exploitative approach to nature can be corrected through relationship, Rifkin suggests. He imagines a greater role for empathy, and a philosophical shift from ideals of individualist autonomy to interconnection and community. At the level of the economy, it might mean a greater role for internet connectivity in renewable-energy powered ‘third industrial revolution’ economies. (See previous books for more on that). Rifkin argues for local bioregional government that can respond to immediate environmental priorities, and participative democracy that reduces the gap between citizens and government.
These will all be long-term trends. “Our global society is beginning to exit the two-hundred-fifty-year span of the industrial revolution”, he writes. “We are witnessing an extraordinary leap into a new economic paradigm”, though we might not see it broadly recognised as such until “the mid 2040s”.
We could see Joy in Enough as part of that long journey out of the industrial revolution and its mechanistic views of nature and humanity. Our particular contribution is to think it through in a Christian context, but there is much overlap with what Rifkin describes. Beyond a system based around dominance, exploitation and competing personal gain, there’s the possibility of a kinder, greener society that values mutual flourishing.
If you would like to explore that possible future in more detail, and what the role of the church might be in shaping it, have a look at the Plenty programme and see if it is something you could run in your community.