Retiring Adam Smith: the new biosphere politics and economics of the third industrial revolution

Excerpted from Jeremy Rifkin:

“The intercontinental era will slowly transform international relations from geopolitics to biosphere politics. A new approach to political life on the planet is just beginning to emerge, based on operating principles and assumptions that are more compatible with the dynamics of a Third Industrial Revolution economic model, and the ecological constraints imposed by the Earth’s biosphere.

In the geopolitical world of the fossil fuel-based First and Second Industrial Revolutions, the Earth was conceived in a mechanical and utilitarian fashion. The planet was viewed as a container — a storehouse — full of useful resources ready to be appropriated for economic ends. Nation states were formed to compete with one another in the market and on the battlefield, to seize, secure, and control elite fossil fuel energies and rare earth resources.

The shift in energy regimes from elite fossil fuels to distributed renewable energies will redefine the very notion of international relations more along the lines of ecological thinking. If the earth functions more like a living organism made up of layer upon layer of interdependent ecological relationships, then our very survival depends on mutually safeguarding the well-being of the global ecosystems of which we are all a part. Because the renewable energies of the Third Industrial Revolution are ample, found everywhere, and easily shared, but require collective stewardship of the earth’s ecosystems, there is less likelihood of hostility and war over access and a greater likelihood of global cooperation. In the new era, survival is less about competition than cooperation, and less about the search for autonomy than the quest for embeddedness.

The old geopolitics was accompanied by a scientific paradigm that viewed nature as objects; the new biosphere science, by contrast, views nature as relationships. The old science is characterized by detachment, expropriation, dissection, and reduction; the new science is characterized by engagement, replenishment, integration, and holism. The old science is committed to making nature productive; the new science is committed to making nature sustainable. The old science seeks power over nature; the new science seeks partnership with nature. The old science puts a premium on autonomy from nature; the new science, on re-participation with nature.

The new biosphere science takes us from a colonial vision of nature as an enemy to pillage and enslave, to a new vision of nature as a community to nurture. The right to exploit, harness, and own nature in the form of property is tempered by the obligation to steward nature and treat it with dignity and respect. The utility value of nature is slowly giving way to the intrinsic value of nature. This is the deep meaning of sustainable development, and the very essence of biosphere politics.

Biosphere politics facilitates a tectonic shift in the political landscape; we begin to enlarge our vision and think as global citizens in a shared biosphere. Global human rights networks, global health networks, global disaster relief networks, global germ plasm storage, global food banks, global information networks, global environmental networks, and global species protection networks, are a powerful sign of the historic shift from conventional geopolitics to fledgling biosphere politics.”

Retiring Adam Smith

“It’s been nearly fifty years since I took my introductory class in classical economic theory at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. I have watched a transformation take place in the workings of the economy over the ensuing half century–most of which has never been integrated into the standard economics textbooks. The once-unquestioned value of unlimited economic growth has given way to the idea of sustainable economic development. The conventional, top-down, centralized approach to organizing economic activity that characterized the fossil fuel-based First and Second Industrial Revolutions, is being challenged by the new distributed and collaborative organizing models that go with a Third Industrial Revolution. The hallowed nature of property exchange in markets has been partially upended by shared access to commercial services in open-source social networks. National markets and nation-state governance, once the spatial milieu for all economic activity, are giving way to continental markets and continental governments. The result is that much of economics, as it is taught today, is increasingly irrelevant in explaining the past, understanding the present, and forecasting the future.

Although the term paradigm shift has been grossly overused in recent years, I think it’s safe to say that when it comes to economic theory, the term is apt. Our children’s understanding of economic theory and the governing assumptions of economic practice will be as radically different from ours as the market theorists’ ideas are from the “just price” philosophy that governed late medieval commerce and trade.

Whether it’s rethinking GDP and how to measure the economic well-being of society, revising our ideas about productivity, understanding the notion of debt and how best to balance our production and consumption budgets with nature’s own, reexamining our notions about property relations, reevaluating the importance of finance capital versus social capital, reassessing the economic value of markets versus networks, or reconsidering how the Earth’s biosphere functions, standard economic theory comes up woefully short.

On these and other accounts, the changes taking place in the way we understand human nature and the meaning of the human journey are so profoundly disruptive to the way we have thought over the past two hundred years that spawned the first two industrial revolutions, that it is likely that much of classical and neoclassical economic theory that accompanied and legitimized these two earlier industrial eras will not survive the newly emerging economic paradigm.

What is likely to happen is that the still-valuable insights and content of standard economic theory will be rethought and reworked within the context of the thermodynamic laws that govern the flow of energy and ecosystem dynamics. Using the laws of energy as a common language will allow economists to enter into a deep conversation with engineers, chemists, ecologists, biologists, architects, and urban planners, among others, whose disciplines are grounded in the laws of energy. Since these other fields are the ones that actually produce economic activity, a serious interdisciplinary discussion over time could potentially lead to a new synthesis between economic theory and commercial practice and the emergence of a new, explanatory economic model to accompany the Third Industrial Revolution paradigm.”

A Classroom Makeover

“Preparing the workforce and citizenry for the new society will require rethinking the traditional educational model, with its emphasis on rigid instruction, memorization of facts, reductionist thinking and autonomous learning.

In the new globally connected Third Industrial Revolution era, the primary mission of education is to prepare students to think and act as part of a shared biosphere.

In schools all over the world, teachers are instructing students, from the earliest ages, that they are an intimate part of the workings of the biosphere and that every activity they engage in –the food they eat, the clothes they wear, the car their family drives, the electricity they use — leaves an ecological footprint that affects the well-being of other human beings and other creatures on earth.

A new generation of educators is beginning to deconstruct the classroom learning processes that accompanied the First and Second Industrial Revolutions and reconstitute the educational experience along lines designed to encourage an extended ecological self, imbued with biosphere consciousness. The dominant top-down approach to teaching, the aim of which is to create a competitive, autonomous being, is beginning to give away to a “distributed and collaborative” educational experience with an eye to instilling a sense of the shared nature of knowledge. Intelligence, in the new way of thinking, is not something one inherits or a resource one accumulates but, rather, a shared experience distributed among people.

New lateral learning environments, including virtual global classrooms and service learning in the community, break through the conventional classroom walls, making education a more expansive and inclusive experience. Peer-to-peer learning compliments the traditional, authoritarian model of teaching, by emphasizing students’ responsibility to also learn from and teach each other in structured cohort groups.

Interdisciplinary learning, multicultural studies, empathic scientific experimentation, and a systems approach to integrating knowledge, are among the cutting-edge teaching practices that are forcing a fundamental change in the educational process and preparing students to live in a complex, multidimensional, global society.

The new distributed and collaborative approach to learning mirrors the way a younger generation learns and shares information, ideas, and experiences on the Internet in “open source” learning spaces and social media sites. Distributed and collaborative learning also prepares the workforce of the 21st Century for a Third Industrial Revolution economy that operates on the same set of principles.”

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