Review of ‘The Hydrogen Economy: A Question of Culture?’ by Jeremy Rifkin

Nico Macdonald
5 min readApr 26, 2017

This piece was first published in The Architects’ Journal in 2004. (It is reproduced here as submitted. It was substantially changed in editing.) It is based on a talk by Jeremy Rifkin entitled ‘The Hydrogen Economy: A Question of Culture?’ given at London School of Economics on October 12, 2004. This was the third lecture in the LIFT Series Imagining a Cultural Commons 2003–2006.

A hydrogen fuel cell-powered London bus [Image from lecture page; this bus design may never have used fuel cell]

The marriage of hydrogen fuel-cells with the new communication technologies such as the Internet will create new cultural regimes and visions, which the European Union could lead, according to Jeremy Rifkin, President of the Washington, DC-based Foundation on Economic Trends, who spoke in London earlier this month.

Hydrogen fuel-cells — in which a reaction between hydrogen and oxygen produces power, producing water as the main byproduct — have become a focus for people concerned about future sources of energy and the predicted impending end of oil.

Rifkin is one of the most articulate and best known ‘hydrogen’ advocates. His lecture, in association with the Greater London Authority and London Hydrogen Partnership, and sponsored by Morgan Stanley, was part of the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT) Series Imagining a Cultural Commons.

Rifkin argued that the marriage of new energy sources with new communication forms is the dynamo of progress

Rifkin is also author of The Age of Access, The Hydrogen Economy, and, most recently, The European Dream: How Europe’s Vision of the Future Is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream. Opening his bravura and worldly lecture, which was synthesized from these titles, he argued that the marriage of new energy sources with new communication forms is the dynamo of progress. He gave examples beginning with the Sumerians, whose progress was based on the development of agriculture and writing.

Today, he said, the lnternet has “connected the central nervous system of the planet”, and the hydrogen fuel-cell is its natural partner. Just as the personal computer is about personal information, fuel-cells will be personal and peer-to-peer, he argued, allowing people to generate their own power and sell any excess back to the grid.

The abundance of hydrogen could allow us to “reinvigorate the slogan ‘Power to the People’” for the developing world Rifkin believes

He explained why new energy forms were needed, citing global warming, which he believes is partly a consequence of burning fossil fuels, and the prospect of oil running out. He also argued that resentment was building up in developing countries as the West had encouraged them to build their economies on oil when it was a (cheap) commodity, failing to anticipate the move to a permanent high price. The abundance of hydrogen could allow us to “reinvigorate the slogan ‘Power to the People’” for the developing world.

Returning to his earlier thread, he argued that a “new energy regime is in the offing”. Although he dismissed nuclear power as an option, he also noted that renewable sources of energy aren’t consistent, and concluded that hydrogen is critical to the future. The adoption of hydrogen “will require concerted activity by governments”, he said, and favourably cited legislation in California mandating by 2009 near zero emissions for cars sold in the state.

Rifkin, who is an informal adviser to European Union President Romano Prodi, argued that the EU could take a lead in this new energy economy. “New energy regimes go together with new cultural regimes and visions”, he said, noting that the EU was the first civilisation not born out of violence, and the first area of the world to have a global view. He argued that the EU has the cultural basis — which he characterised as participatory, multilateral, inclusive, and based on sustainable development — for the changes we need for the economic change to hydrogen.

There is a “new European dream emerging”, he concluded, and contrasted this with the US where he said the “American Dream has unravelled in terms of division of wealth”, and many of its supposed virtues are increasingly seen as drawbacks or impediments. As architects of both the US and the EU dreams, he sees the UK as a leader in this economic change.

“There is a golden goose here”, Rifkin said. He envisioned “the integration of the infrastructure of the biggest internal market from the Irish coast to the Russian steppes”, with a single transportation grid for power and communication.

The elements of European culture Rifkin lauds are intellectual or practical impediments to progress; contemporary European culture is conservative and uncertain

Rifkin is one of the most thoughtful and practical advocates for hydrogen-based energy, but his analysis and strategy fall down in a number of areas. Although culture is an important element in technological and social transformation, the elements of European culture he lauds — particularly inclusiveness and sustainable development — are intellectual or practical impediments to progress. Compared to the eighteenth century radicalism of US culture — encompassing freedom of speech, assembly and worship, individual autonomy and protection from the state, equitable justice and jury trials — contemporary European culture is conservative and uncertain.

Key aspects of contemporary European culture Rifkin didn’t mention include undue risk consciousness and reliance on the precautionary principle, assumption of (and sometimes revelling in) worst case scenarios, and a tendency to blame others for problems rather than try to realistically solve them. All these characteristics will be impediments to the scale, imagination and quality of innovation we need in energy and other areas. Even apparently ‘environmentally-friendly’ new forms of energy generation, such as wind power and fuel-cells, quickly become problematised. And rational debate about nuclear power is almost impossible, though ‘gaia’ theorist James Lovelock’s has retrieved it from being totally unacceptable.

There is also a fundamental error in the way that Rifkin and others discuss hydrogen

There is also a fundamental error in the way that Rifkin and others discuss hydrogen. In reality it is a technology for storing energy, rather than a source of energy. Hydrogen is abundant in combination with other elements, but needs to be separated from them to be used in fuel-cells. Compared to the extraction and processing of coal or oil, this process consumes much more energy relative to the amount subsequently generated in the fuel-cell. Thus, the hydrogen economy argument assumes another substantial form of energy generation. It is not clear that this can be supplied from established renewable sources (about which advocates are often sentimental, until they look like being implemented on a large scale), or that Europe has the will to find and implement new sources of energy.

Rifkin’s idea of individuals as energy contributors to the grid is also unconvincing, when every other product and resource has moved, or is moving, towards centralised processing and production. There is a kernel of inspiration in Rifkin’s vision of an integrated energy and communication grid across Europe, and the scale of his vision is absent in most New Labour thinking. But his technologically-driven approach and lack of understanding of contemporary culture have misdirected his energy.

Notes

Further information at www.liftfest.org/lectures

Citation

‘The power to change’ Nico Macdonald, The Architects’ Journal, 11 November 2004, p45 https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/home/the-power-to-change/140664.article

Originally published at www.spy.co.uk.

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Nico Macdonald

Educator, facilitator and consultant on innovation and creativity. Tutor @CIEELondon @LSBU_ACI / External Examiner @CSM_news. BIG POTATOES manifesto co-author