Natural Resources

Trans-Atlantic Tripe

Jeremy Rifkin's theory of failed states


Jeremy Rifkin has a theory about the American Dream: It's dying. It had been on the ropes, thanks to "depleting resources, increased pollution, rising costs of production, spiraling inflation, low return on investments, escalating capital shortfalls and limits to technology." But now "the Golden Days are over," and America's vaunted productivity has "bottomed out."

My mistake. Those words were actually written by Rifkin in 1979, near the conclusion of his state-of-the-world tome The Emerging Order: God in an Age of Scarcity. And while most would argue that America made a comeback in the 1980s and 1990s, Rifkin has stuck to his story. Now America really, truly, is staggering into obselesence, and The European Dream is Rifkin's chronicle of the society that will overtake it.

Taken on its own, the idea of the European Union as an America-style superpower is an easy sell. Its founding fathers considered unification as a way for the continent's battle-scarred, decolonizing countries to keep from being squeezed out by the US and the Soviet Union. Winston Churchill had proposed a "United States of Europe" as early as 1946. In 1952, when Germany, France, Italy, The Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg bound together in the European Coal and Steel Community, Jean Monnet told American policymakers that "we are not forming coalitions between states, but union among people." Polls showed Europeans really taking to heart the idea that they were citizens of something bigger and more peaceful than their nation-states. In the last decade, after the Soviet superpower fell apart, European patriotism soared. A 2001 survey in the European edition of Time suggested that a third of EU citizens between the ages of 21 and 35 "now regard themselves as more European than as nationals of their home country."

And it's a good time to be European. As Rifkin points out, the EU is the world's largest single market in the world with a $10.5 trillion GDP. Some of its member nations are outpacing the US in economic growth. It exports more than it imports. Most auspiciously, the Euro's value has risen steadily since 2001 as the dollar has weakened.

Rifkin spares no praise when it comes to these figures. Sure, the growth might be slowing down, and a change of White House occupant could reverse the spending cycle that punctured the dollar. What's really important is that "Europe has become a new land of opportunity" and "Europeans have laid out a visionary roadmap to a new promised land, one dedicated to re-affirming the life instinct and the Earth's indivisibility."

As proof, Rifkin offers that "more and more emigrants are choosing Europe over America than ever before." We don't get any statistics for that claim, or rejoinders to the EU's own modest immigration numbers, or estimates of how many come from former European colonies, or a theory of why nearly 175,000 Europeans became American citizens in 2002. (Considered as a single country, Europe sees more of its natives become U.S. citizens than every other nation except Mexico.) There's some mention of the virulent and electorally potent anti-immigration sentiment rising in the largest EU countries, but this is understandable because "every nook and cranny" of the continent is already full.

But the idea of Europe as a beacon for the poor, hungry and downtrodden is dropped pretty quickly. The point isn't that Europe is becoming a new America. It's that America's way of life has got to go.

Rifkin's real beef is with individualism, and with "the European Enlightment idea that equates private proverty with freedom." (He's using "Enlightment" in the perjorative sense.) Americans equate being happy with being rich, which is outmoded and untenable. Even if it didn't spoil the environment and burn up resources, the American lifestyle would be headed for a fall because the dreamers aren't being fulfilled. "Up until the 1960s," writes Rifkin, "upward mobility was at the core of the American Dream. Then, the dream began to unravel, slowly at first, but picking up momentum in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s."

But did it? By most indicators, the doldrums of the late 60s and 70s were blown away in the 1980s. The gap between America's rich and poor has risen, but between a quarter and a third of the population moves into a new income quintile in any given year. There are some poverty figures thrown in here to add thunder to the gloom, but they appear next to data on how Americans are getting fatter and buying bigger houses. There's an explanation for that, too: "We have become a death culture."

And this is what Rifkin had been trying to say all along. "What lies below our obsessive, if not pathological, behavior," he writes, "is the frantic desire to live and prosper by killing and consuming everything around us." Unlike Europeans, who find freedom in "embeddedness," Americans are gobbling up resources and drawing away from each other. They're moving to suburbs, which "represent the final chapter of the American dream."

Is this really the right lesson to take from the EU's success? Well, one of Rifkin's examples of American decline is "the new genre of TV reality shows," wherein "millions of viewers can live out the American Dream vicariously by watching the fortunate few who beat the odds, convinced that the dream is still alive and that their turn is coming." He fails to mention that reality shows were invented in Europe—Big Brother and Fear Factor by the Dutch TV wunderkind Jan De Mol, and Survivor by producers in Sweden. The most get-rich-quicky of the reality shows, American Idol and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, came from Britain.

And it's worth unpacking some of Rifkin's economic data. He admits that "the Thatcher-Reagan economic revolution of the 1980s, with its emphasis on deregulation" had an effect on the way the EU came together. He could have gone further in describing how a return to private property rights kickstarted the economies of Britain, France and Spain, and how European writers on the left blame their speedier, more competitive cultures on Americanization.

There are interesting arguments to be made on how America's economic rivals are approaching property rights and productivity. Rifkin may yet get around to tackling them. Expect that book to come after the Golden Days are over.