Reviewed 1/09/2006

The European Dream, by Jeremy Rifkin

How Europe's Vision of the Future Is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream
Jeremy Rifkin
New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2004




ISBN 1-58542-345-9 434pp. HC $25.95

In this sweeping and very scholarly treatise, Jeremy Rifkin traces the development of our modern version of human nature from early medieval European history up to the present.

Human nature was much different in that distant day. There was no concept of property, in the modern sense of absolute ownership of things by an individual; the European men and women of the time thought of their surroundings as belonging to God, and of themselves as merely stewards whose ultimate reward depended on the quality of their service. Indeed, the very idea of "individual" had far less force and scope. Personal privacy was unknown. Rifkin points out that, in the Middle Ages, going for a solitary stroll (especially at night) marked you as deranged. Extended families lived together all their lives in a common room, often with farm animals in the same house, walled off only by a partition.

This all began to change with the Renaissance and with Martin Luther's Protestant Reformation. Gradually, aided by the thinking of the many religious and political philosophers Rifkin cites, a sense of individuality — of autonomous personhood entitled to a securely private domain built upon absolute ownership of lawfully acquired property — replaced the traditional feudal-system hierarchy in which the most of men were serfs or vassals, if not outright slaves. The advent of printing and the coming of the machine age accelerated the changes. The Enlightenment played its part, fostering a spirit of unbridled inquiry into the natural world and a method for conducting that inquiry. Now public education became practical, while the "Enlightenment project"1 and the resulting cascade of new labor-saving devices conferred the motivation, mobility and leisure time needed to take full advantage of it.

But it was in the wide-open spaces of North America, Rifkin writes, that these innovative concepts, born of Europe, found their fullest flowering. They led to a sense of unchallengeable freedom of action for each individual. Only the untrammelled expanses found on the frontier, as it pushed westward across the continent, could support a culture in which every man might make on his own land a virtual kingdom for himself and his family. That expansion gave birth to the American Dream, and because the expansion lasted for multiple generations, the Dream acquired the force of a universal credo.

Rifkin writes that he, through his parents (both westerners) grew up with that vision of wide-open possibilities, the quintessentially American credo of "You can be whatever you want to be. A dream and hard work will take you anywhere." But his message is a more somber one. He believes that the modern world is making the American Dream irrelevant and even dangerous. Mankind has inhabited virtually all the virgin land there is on Earth, and now turns increasingly to farmland for dwelling places. In the process of that expansion, rivers, lakes and even the mighty oceans have become insufficient as waste sinks. More and more species, known and unknown, face the threat of extinction as their habitats disappear and civilization's effluents encroach upon them. Wild fish stocks that seemed essentially infinite a few short years ago are nearly depleted. Worse, current food-production methods foster potential plague organisms that, with commercial air travel, can be dispersed around the world in mere days. The detritus of civilization even threatens the physical stability of the planet's environment, portending changes of poorly understood magnitude and severity.

I once heard it said that "The secret of freedom is the ability to move away from people you don't like." But in today's crowded world, troublesome neighbors cannot easily be moved away from — nor can the effects of the energy they use, the products they consume, or the wastes they generate.

These effects have all become global. This means, says Rifkin, that the American Dream — the old standard of rugged individualism, of the loner dependent on no one but himself, just won't cut it any longer. Now, Rifkin contends, it is the turn of the European Dream — espousing community involvement rather than individual isolation, global rather than purely local concerns, working to live and enjoy things rather than living to work and acquire things — in short, living in interdependent balance with the other creatures on this planet (including homo sapiens) and respecting their rights, identities, cultures and environments.

Europe, in Rifkin's view, is the natural vanguard of this new mode of living. The Continent, with its long tangled history, was always less expansionist than America, more cautious about overstepping boundaries, be they a neighbor's territory or the limits of luck and propriety. The European Union, step by careful step, is building a framework for living in and governing the new interdependent world. Tensions persist within that framework; it is not easy to balance the rights of individuals, the prerogatives of nation-states, and the global precepts of the EU. Russia, China and India are potential stumbling blocks — nor is dealing with its transatlantic partner in NATO friction-free. Rifkin discusses these and other problems; he is aware of the possibility that the European Dream might never come to full flower. Yet he sees much merit in it, and in this book makes a persuasive case for its consideration by every citizen of this water planet.

Although The European Dream is well written, it is not an easy read. The sentences are generally long and full of names and other details. You will have to take the book in manageable portions. Yet I believe it will repay the effort. Rifkin, aided by a team of researchers, has done his homework and organized the presentation of the voluminous material well. If there is anything I would fault (other than the usual errors of number and other grammatical goofs), it is his treatment of modern science and technology. I feel he is too pessimistic about nuclear power and biotechnology, too optimistic about the hydrogen economy and renewable energy in general. His invocation of Sir Martin Rees' concerns at the beginning of Chapter 15 seems gratuitous, and I'm doubtful that he got the description of methane homeostasis right on page 337. He has nothing to say about space exploration, but devotes some pages to an exploration of the Freudian interpretation of history. (And while I trust he doesn't subscribe to the post-modernist twaddle2 that holds all concepts are equally valid, there was one point in his Introduction that briefly made me wonder.)

But in the main, this is an excellent and very informative book. Its chapter notes are extensive, it has a bibliography of 217 entries, and while its index could use improvement, it is good enough to let you find most names and other significant terms in the text. My assessment is that it is worthy of anyone's personal library.

1 Rifkin defines this on page 279 as the quest for material progress.
2 I really shouldn't get started on that topic here. If you're curious to know more, go to Wikipedia's entry for Alan Sokal and follow the links from there.
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