Pumping the breaks on an era of progress

In his new book, The Age of Resilience, the popular social theorist and prolific author Jeremy Rifkin examines humanity’s transition from an age of progress to one of resilience
Jeremy Rifkin (left) | Photo courtesy of Jeremy Rifkin

By Philippa Nuttall

Philippa Nuttall is a Brussels-based freelance editor and journalist focusing on the climate crisis and sustainability issues

02 Dec 2022

Whatever the latest thinking in the world of the environment and green economics, it is almost certain the 77-year-old US social theorist, Jeremy Rifkin, will have written a book about it.

Previous titles range from The Hydrogen Economy to The Green New Deal. His latest tome – The Age of Resilience – examines humanity’s transition from an age of progress to one of resilience. For those following global trends, the book holds little that is radically new. However, given Rifkin’s role as an adviser to the European Commission, the work is potentially an interesting window to discussions in the Berlaymont.

The climate crisis and the sixth mass extinction mean: “we – the human race – need to rethink everything ... our worldview, our understanding of the economy, our forms of governance, our concepts of time and space, our most basic human drives and our relationship to the planet”, writes Rifkin.

The age of progress was about “efficiency – the quest to optimise the expropriation, consumption and discarding of natural resources”, while the age of resilience “strides with adaptivity”, he says.

Some “realignment” may be taking place: think efforts by the European Union to move towards a more circular economy, and the increasing focus on the need to mitigate climate change by reducing emissions and adapt to its inevitable impacts.

Rifkin is right, however, that any move towards “adaptivity” is far from systematic. Talk around the concept is “at best inchoate and at worst undefined”, he writes.

Embedding this change, according to Rifkin, lies foremost in humanity ending its relationship with nature as one of “separation and exploitation” and instead “repatriating with the multitude of environmental forces that animate Earth”.

Embedding this change, according to Rifkin, lies foremost in humanity ending its relationship with nature as one of “separation and exploitation”

The move to adaptivity also means a wholesale societal and economic shift: centralised energy and value chains will become distributed; intellectual property rights will give way to open-source knowledge sharing; and gross domestic product will give way to quality-of-life indicators, writes Rifkin. To explain how humanity got to where it is today, and to demonstrate where it needs to go next, Rifkin rattles through key names and ideas that have shaped history, philosophy and science.

His discussion of “peerocracy” and the new forms of representative democracy appearing around the world is interesting and should provide food for thought for policymakers worldwide. Countries everywhere are grappling with swathes of their populations disengaging from mainstream politics, and turnouts in elections in many nations are poor. The 63.91 per cent turnout in this autumn’s election in Italy, for example, which saw the far-right Brothers of Italy party win a clear majority, was a record low for the country.

Rifkin’s work is also useful in bringing readers up to speed with the latest terminology. “Biophilia consciousness” or the “empathetic embrace of our fellow creatures” was new to me, even if the concept itself was not. People’s strong attachment to local natural environments was brought into focus during the Covid lockdowns, when time spent in the green spaces nearest to our homes became vital for our health. Embracing our biophilia consciousness will, says Rifkin, “trigger a new and more enveloping sense of wonder, spark our collective imagination” and ready us to become resilient.

Many of the changes outlined in the book are underway, albeit on a restricted scale or in small pockets of society. How long it takes for these ideas to catch on will likely determine the exact contours of the promising new world Rifkin has envisioned.

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