A friend asked me on linked in for my comment on this grand lecture by Jeremy Rivkin. I reproduce my initial reaction and then a longer set of comments I offered after having listened to the lecture.
I can’t see much new in this. Rivkin has written more than 20 books. That’s too many books IMO. Way too many if they’re really working out substantial ideas. So he’s really a journalist and populariser – not that there’s anything wrong with that :) 1He wrote a book with a great title that I wished I’d used – The Zero Marginal Cost society or something like that, but when I read it (actually I mean I subjected it to the bookshop test which is to say I spent say 20 minutes or half an hour with it), I didn’t find any fresh ideas in there – just ideas in the zeitgeist and what everyone else was saying.
In any event, the doco starts with all the usual big-noting – how he’s advising the EU etc. Good luck to him, but the ideas you’ve summarised – communications, energy and AI navigation are all in the ether. They’re extensively theorised – even if theorising them is of limited benefit. A lot of things we’ll have to wait until they play out.
I have now taken the time to watch the video. I’m afraid it’s laced with weapons-grade BS. It’s not that I particularly disagree with any of its predictions or its values – certainly, greenhouse is an existential threat. It’s also the case that in his lecture Rivkin needs to be able to abbreviate and even simplify somewhat.
But things go way beyond that. Note, in order to bring home his definition of an industrial revolution, he argues that it’s a revolution in communications, energy and transport. Now his industrial revolution of the early 19th century he puts in steam-powered media. Well yes, it’s inevitable with a new general purpose technology – steam – that it will leak into everything.
But steam printing was not a communications revolution in the way language, writing or Guttenberg or the telegraph or the telephone or the internet is. So he’s spinning – BSing – to make it all sound good. Then we get a massive misrepresentation of Solow’s ‘residual’ in growth modelling. Solow found that nearly 90% of increases in GDP didn’t come from factor intensification (more capital or labour) but from ‘innovation’ or changes in ways of doing things – from organisation to technology. This residual has since been called ‘multi-factor productivity’.
Rivkin completely bowdlerises this. He describes the small effect as ‘innovation’ and the large effect as thermodynamic efficiency. This is completely made up. Solow didn’t find that nearly 90% of GDP growth is attributable to that.
So how am I going to trust this bullshit artist?
I also found his flattering of his younger audience shallow. If he wants to describe modern trends of ‘ethical consumption’ and ‘ethical investment’ as new sensibilities with which the young will rise to the profound challenges of climate change, well and good. The question will always be how much these new trends can achieve – I have my doubts – and the extent to which they’re sincere.
That is absorbing ‘ethical consumption’ into the massive premiums people pay for brands is one thing, but brands don’t appeal to self-sacrifice. You find out what people really think when they have to choose. Ethical brands give people a way to keep consuming but greenwash their consumption. I’m not saying this in a moralistic way, more a sceptical scientific way.
If that’s all that’s happening, this new sensibility on which Rivkin is staking what optimism he has is naïve, however flattering to its audience.
I don’t say this as if I have a perspective which will save us all. Indeed, I’m revolted by Rivkin’s style of big-noting which suggests that what we really need is a super-connected guy with a plan. He can then tell us how he circles the globe advising Germany and China with his new perspective saving the world.
If the world is saved it will be saved by more humility and honesty about what we know and don’t know and a less conflicted sense of what needs to be done. Conspicuous displays of your environmental consciousness with your choice of brand is a perfectly nice and honourable thing, but it will be a very small contribution to solving our problems.
The environmental problems we face are, almost by definition, largely collective action problems, soluble only with collective action, not individual brand choices.
And one thing we know about collective action is that something like 60% of people believe that we need to take action on climate change, but when you dig a little deeper that majority is predicated on most peoples’ assuming that sacrifice is needed from OTHERS.
- Of course I should have added ‘management consultant’. ↩