Jeremy Rifkin declares himself a heretic in this book, but he is more accurately described as a Cassandra and not a Huss or a Bruno. This “new age” doomsayer feels romantic impulses and expresses them with poetic skill, but his limited grasp of history, his absurd economic proposals, and his skewed philosophical perspective still show through. According to Mr. Rifkin, “The future of our civilization, our species and our planet now hangs precariously in the balance. The scientific world view and the technologies it has generated have taken our world to the very edge of earthly existence, and now we face the prospect that the future itself might be annulled in our lifetime.” What has brought us to this precipice? Rifkin blames the belief in continuing technological advance through science fostered by the Enlightenment philosophers.

Presumably the lust to manipulate the environment, to control every force in nature, has unleashed the process that will destroy the earth as a habitable sphere. For Rifkin, the scientific hubris which aims at “cheating death” will actually result in necrophilia. Many readers, though, will question Rifkin’s analysis. The Enlightenment was not, as he alleges, exclusively the work of positivists, and the power science has given man over nature has often proved beneficial rather than insidious. Although Rifkin devotes considerable attention to the horrors of nuclear weaponry, he has nothing to say about the possibility that technological developments such as the Strategic Defense Initiative may lessen the threat of holocaust. The notion that science creates evil needs nuancing that Rifkin does not provide. Descartes, Newton, Locke, Smith, and Darwin are all cast as villains on the scantiest reading of their works.

Rifkin argues inferentially that the rationalists who sought control over nature set the stage for the frightening developments in nuclear energy and bioengineering. Newtonian physics may have created the illusion that all aspects of life can be explained by science. But the successors to Newton discovered a very different vision. Einstein argued that the highest form of science is religion. Heisenberg discussed the uncertainty principle and the role of “indeterminacy” in physical conditions. Quantum physicists apply the laws of space, unreflected light, and zero gravity to challenge Newtonian principles. And modern biologists don’t discuss probability in evolution as much as chance and randomness. However, those scientific developments that don’t square with the Rifkin vision are ignored.

Mankind has always been subject to the temptation of Promethean pride. What may be different today is the permanence and deadliness of the consequences resulting from such pride. But it is not true that “every initiative we undertake to resolve the crisis of our own survival appears only to exacerbate and deepen the crisis and brings us closer to our own extinction.”

Endowed with the ability to reflect upon the past and to consider the future, humanity has not been reduced to the desperation of lemmings. In the face of danger we can still make changes, consider alternatives, and seek solutions, some of them technological. As Justice Hand once argued, “Every accident is in search of a rescue.” Rifkin, however, views technological change as the “great abyss” from which there is no turning back.

In his discussion of genetic engineering, Rifkin argues that tampering with biological chemistry through recombinant genetics will destroy the integrity of species and lead inevitably to a biological catastrophe as horrendous as nuclear war. Admittedly, there are ecological risks associated with this research, but every scientist in the field is aware of them. Moreover, recombinant genetics exist in nature; genes combine and recombine as part of evolution’s ebb and flow. To suggest that what is done in a laboratory is always malevolent and what is done in nature is invariably salutary is sentimental romanticism. Rifkin simply glosses over the possible benefits of genetic engineering. A rodent with human cancer cells injected into it may be neither pure mouse nor human, but this mixed breed can help to unlock the secrets of a cancer cure. Who is going to say to a cancer patient that this research is going to destroy the rodent species? Who will tell the parents of children with Tay Sachs disease that it is better for people to endure misery than to permit genetic research?

Every technology does alter our relationship to nature. While we pay a price for change, we also live with the benefits technology offers, including the benefits of nuclear energy and biological engineering. Rifkin believes that “instead of using knowledge to increase our rule over, we might just as easily use knowledge to become a partner with the rest of the earthly creation.” What this means is never spelled out. Does Rifkin mean, for instance, that polio microbes should remain undisturbed by Salk vaccine?

Rifkin’s simplistic “empathetic approach” to science is riddled with inconsistencies and telling omissions. While Rifkin argues for “the sacredness of life before all other considerations,” he somehow neglects to say anything against abortion. Once mankind sees itself as an “indivisible whole” in which every living thing is accountable to every other living thing for its existence, “war will become obsolete.” No matter that collectivist movements in this century have been remarkably bloody. Rifkin sees Gandhi as the avatar of “group consciousness” and natural harmony. Yet in crediting Gandhi with bringing “the Empire to its knees” through his “respect for the sanctity of life,” Rifkin fails to discuss why passive disobedience could win concessions from the British but could do nothing to mitigate the bloody religious war between Hindus and Moslems.

My guess is that Rifkin will suffer the fate of other prophets who win celebrityhood by publicizing their formula for saving the world. Who, after all, now knows or cares about the whereabouts of Charles Reich or Theodore Roszak?


[Declaration of A Heretic, by Jeremy Rifkin; Routledge & Kegan Paul; London and Boston]