Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Reading :: The Hydrogen Economy

Originally posted: Tue, 29 Aug 2006 20:40:46

The Hydrogen Economy

by Jeremy Rifkin

After a particularly full and difficult summer, I was in the mood for some light summer reading, and Jeremy Rifkin's The Hydrogen Economy fit the bill: it's well written, gripping, and impossible to take seriously.

Yes, impossible to take seriously! The Hydrogen Economy suffers from the same problem that so many dissertations and theses do: the author has identified a genuine problem, but has made it so central that it becomes all-encompassing. Just as Beniger identifies "control" as an overarching explanation for the workings of all organisms in general and human society in particular, and just as Malone explains the shape of all organizations based almost solely on the cost of conveying information, Rifkin provides the grand narrative of thermodynamics to explain Everything. He even refers to historians as being squarely within the "thermodynamics" camp. Rifkin's thesis is that civilizations thrive when they have access to relatively low-cost energy, and decline when they no longer have that access. It's a compelling thesis, just as the theses of control and information cost are, and just as the thesis of "moral decline" has been for certain segments. But these overarching, monocausal explanations seem far too simple to me.

But that appears to be how Rifkin operates. In succeeding chapters, he identifies several threats posed by the petrochemical regime, and blows each one up into what seems like an insurmountable problem. So for instance, we find that we are near the point of peak oil, and that at any moment we might find that the world's economy has collapsed. And that our reliance on oil might quickly result in a worldwide Caliphate. And that since we are totally reliant on petrochemical energy for raising food, global famine is around the corner. And that we may have already passed the point of no return on global warming, and may face a seven-meter rise in sea level in a few decades. These warnings take about two-thirds of the book, and by the time you finish reading them -- if you take the author's arguments seriously -- it appears that our civilization's fate is absolutely sealed. Really, it's like reading an over-the-top comic book series, in which the Earth is constantly threatened with imminent destruction by a series of intergalactic superbeings.

But like any good summer thriller, this one supplies an easy solution that makes everything right with the world. Rifkin not only presents hydrogen power as an easy solution but as a fait accompli. We find out that GM, Toyota, and Daimler-Chrysler are all going to be rolling out hydrogen-powered cars by 2010; that companies like Ballard are going to be providing hydrogen-powered generators for residences by that time, and that these will enable individuals to sell power back to the grid; that a distributed hydrogen infrastructure will obviate the need for a centralized distribution system; and that these innovations will solve each of the problems discussed in the first two-thirds of the book, just as the Silver Surfer will rescue the Earth each time that it is threatened by Galactus.

As summer reading, it's very satisfying. As a guide for policy, it's iffy. >

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