BOLOGNA -- HE SMALL BALDING MAN IS MENACING THE PRETTY ITALIAN student, through his interpreter. "What's your name?" he asks. ("Come ti chiami?")

"Maria." She is striking -- dark blond hair, green eyes, high cheekbones, long formless dress worn European-student style. She tilts her chin up a little bit defiantly, a little bit playfully. He isn't noticing. She is a pawn. "Ah, Maria, Maria. Maria, you sign a surrogacy contract, okay?" ("Hai firmato un contratto terazere un figlio artificiale, va bene?") "I am the client. My sperm is inserted into your egg. You allow your womb to be rented. For nine months. Now Maria, under the contract, I want to see how the fetus, how my product is doing. And I can ask you to go down to the hospital, Maria, and open up your body for a genetic probe." Maria shrinks back a little. Sternly: "And you have to do it. It's in the contract." ("E scritto nel contratto.") "If the product is born healthy, then you get $10,000. And Maria, if it's stillborn, you get $1,000." Lightly: "It's in the contract. If I don't LIKE the product, if I think it's defective, then I take the legal responsibility. BUT. I . . . GIVE . . . YOU . . . BACK . . . THE . . . BABY. It's in the contract." A change has come over Maria. Before, her arms were casually at her sides. Now she has crossed them in front of her body. Her once-direct gaze is now slightly averted. The little man surveys her. And then looks out at the rest of his audience. "What do you say to that?" he demands. "Sound good? It's called slavery. SLAVERY. SLAVERY." ("Schiavitu`. SCHIAVITU. SCHIAVITU.")

Buon giorno, Italia. Ecco Jeremy Rifkin. SOMEWHERE OVER THE ATLANTIC

"Have a Velamint?"

Jeremy Rifkin eats Velamints. He is secretive about some aspects of his personal life, so he won't say how many packs he brought on this trip, but the X-ray people at the international departures gate must have raised their eyebrows. A former chain pipe smoker, his Velamint consumption goes up in situations of boredom or tension. And he always shares. Thus Rifkin, who has just missed his scheduled flight and will now be five hours late into Rome, has tendered up three Velamints in the last 20 minutes.

"A prophet is without honor in his own country," Jeremy is saying. Between breath mints, the genetic activist is spieling, spinning out the philosophical and political macrame' he prefers to small talk or personal conversation, and the maxim happens to pop up. Now, Rifkin would never admit to thinking of himself as a prophet, and thus it is only fair to point out that he is using the term in reference to others. He is talking about the dilemma of the Italian Greens, who have invited him on this seven-city, seven-day tour of Italy. Sometimes you need to bring in a visiting fireman, he says, because your own people know you too well: "You know the saying, 'A prophet is without honor in his own country.' "

Rifkin has been reviled in his own country since 1971. That was when the change-winds of the '60s blew him into Washington, D.C., where he would be cordially sneered at by interested parties while occupying such self-generated titles as co-director, Citizens Commission of Inquiry Into U.S. War Crimes in Indochina; founder of the People's Bicentennial Commission; head of the People's Business Commission. But it was in 1977 that he found the role in which he was most comfortable getting people mad at him: biotechnology gadfly.

"My staff likes to say that to some people in science and technology, I'm this symbol, some kind of negative Jungian archetype," he muses. "But if you look at the country at large, I exist on the periphery of public consciousness." And he's probably right. To most Americans, Jeremy Rifkin is just another talking head, someone the networks bring on for reaction when the latest gene has been spliced or swapped, another crazy on "Donahue," one more fleeting image in the bread-and-circus cavalcade.

But if you are at all involved with genetics, with federal scientific regulation, with almost any kind of reporting in Washington, Rifkin is quite a bit less peripheral. Actually, he is kind of loud.

Quite loud. Jeremy Rifkin has taken it upon himself to single-handedly stave off genetic engineering. (There are other hands, but he tends to ignore them.) Genetic engineering is the technology of re-shuffled, manipulable biological traits. It is an epochal advance, an invitation to locate, decode and reorganize the very blueprints of life. It is the doorway to countless medical and agricultural boons. A gene that creates human insulin is embedded in mice, which become little factories, secreting the essential drug in their milk. Bacteria are genetically invested with a trait that will prevent frost on any plants they're sprayed upon. The potential beckons to remove hundreds of genetic illnesses, like Tay-Sachs disease and sickle-cell anemia, permanently, from the human blueprint. And on the shimmering foundation of these wonders and dreams has risen, almost magically, an eight-year-old biotech industry into which billions of dollars have already been invested, and that could help maintain America's primacy in the world economy for a long time.

Jeremy Rifkin does not see biotech in these rosy terms. He argues -- in books, lectures, lawsuits, before Congress, on "Donahue" -- that genetic engineering is a terrible error, a mistake of massive proportions, that it is one of two technologies (nuclear energy being the other) so powerful and so inherently wrongheaded that "in the mere act of using it, we have the potential to do irreparable psychological, environmental, moral and social harm to ourselves and our world."

He is opposed to the release into the atmosphere of organisms such as the frost-defeating bacteria, on the grounds that eventually one or more such organisms will interact with the ecology in a way we haven't foreseen, with possibly dire consequences. He is opposed to the swapping of genes between species -- say, mice and men -- on the grounds that it violates the "natural" integrity of existing species. He is opposed to any manipulation of human genes -- such as to remove diseases -- on the grounds that it will lead, inevitably, slippery-slopery, to eugenics, the policy of creating perfect people, with perfection defined by . . . whom? He claims there are aspects of biotechnology to which he is not opposed, but when you quiz him, they look more like aspects he hasn't yet found a good hook for condemning. "I would like to raise every fundamental question regarding the splicing, combining, addition and deletion of genes," he says. "EVERY question."

This has not made Rifkin popular. Perhaps the most predictable barbs have come from those with the most to lose -- biotechnical entrepreneurs have called him "a professional fear-monger" and "a frenetic Chicken Little."

More troubling is a second strain of criticism, some of it from more neutral parties. Rifkin's arguments have been called dangerously simple-minded and sometimes downright specious. He has been accused, in effect, of demagoguery, of targeting the emotions at the expense of the mind. His intellectual honesty has been challenged. David Baltimore, a Nobel laureate molecular biologist, has refused to debate Rifkin, saying flatly, "He doesn't know what he's talking about." Environmental activist Barry Commoner has accused him of "hokum." And in the thus far unkindest cut of all, Harvard scholar and science essayist Stephen Jay Gould, whom Rifkin quoted favorably in his book Algeny, wrote of the volume, "Among books promoted as serious intellectual statements by important thinkers . . . I don't think I have ever read a shoddier work."

But those who spend too much time studying what Rifkin says may neglect what he actually achieves. The fact is, there are practical and ethical questions attending genetic engineering, and Rifkin's mad-dog approach has been essential to their public debate and governmental follow-through. With genetic engineering, he broke the traditional pattern of regulation for powerful new technologies, in which the industry develops, the disasters follow and then, sometimes decades too late, come the government rules. In 1980, Rifkin began to go at biotech with tools sharpened over a decade of activism, tools even his foes admitted he wielded brilliantly. He hounded the press mercilessly, usually with enough good information that no reporter dared ignore him, and the first stories on his subjects often bore his spin. He built temporary coalitions that reached across ideological boundaries (an early one paired left-wing rabbis with Jerry Falwell) -- quite impressive to congressional committees. And he possessed a near-genius for using existing laws and regulations to lever huge, apparently immovable chunks of the bureaucracy into action.

Thus, in May 1984, Rifkin and his four-person, innocuously named Foundation on Economic Trends invoked National Institutes of Health guidelines to convince federal Judge John Sirica to issue a preliminary injunction preventing the free-release spraying of the anti-frost bacteria, Frostban. Later Rifkin got its commercial manufacturer fined for conducting unauthorized testing. Two years later, citing the National Environmental Protection Act, he kayoed the building of the Army's new chemical testing labs at Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah -- which spliced genes -- pending the filing of an environmental impact statement. Then he successfully sued the combined armed services to force a similar assessment of their 129 other contract labs. He postponed the sale of a genetically altered vaccine against swine pseudo-rabies. "He raises issues in a way you can't ignore, so that they have to be addressed," admits Bruce Mackler, general counsel to the Association of Biotechnology Companies. By 1986, various government agencies, partly in self-defense, came up with a formal (if short-lived -- it collapsed and is now under discussion again) umbrella structure for biotech regulation. Says Keith Schneider, a New York Times national correspondent who covers agricultural biotechnology, "There would have been no federal regulatory program so early, no debate, no consideration in the public arena, without Jeremy Rifkin."

So Rifkin is happy, right? He has found his historical niche, no? Jeremy demolishes another Velamint. "I'm not interested in providing an appropriate regulatory regime that will legitimize technologies I have grave doubts about," he states. "I'm not a reformer." Jeremy Rifkin would have us know that he wants nothing less than a total change in world philosophy.

Our whole concept of science -- that is, our whole understanding of our place in the world -- he says, is tragically misguided. Our error stretches back to the 17th century. It was then that natural philosophers such as Sir Francis Bacon, Rene' Descartes and Isaac Newton laid the basis for a science of the industrial age, a science based on man's domination of nature and its cold manipulation for his own ends, on the exploitation of natural resources. That science, says Rifkin, was myopic. It seemed to work for a couple of centuries, but has left a huge bill -- the bankruptcy of those same resources.

Far better another approach, he believes: a science proposed by social philosophers such as E.F. Schumacher and Lewis Mumford and very popular on campuses in the 1970s. A science that tries to understand our place in the natural order and act accordingly. A practical science, in that it would remind us of the limits that we ignore at our peril. A moral science, in that it would display a respect for our surroundings, an attitude of "stewardship" absent from this continent since the Indians stopped making policy.

To Rifkin, genetic engineering is the quintessence of the wrong science. It knows all about manipulating fragments, but nothing about coexisting with the whole. It offers tremendous short-term gains in return for who-knows-what long-term losses. And unlike earlier technologies, it might change the face of life in such a drastic, awful way that it would be impossible to establish a harmonious relationship with nature ever again.

This perspective, not regulations, is what Rifkin would like to sell America. A new Weltanschauung. Is America ready for it? No way. Is anybody else? Where might they live?

"In Europe, there is this other dimension," says Rifkin. "In the U.S., we're innovative but not very reflective or introspective, we don't have much historical sense, or discipline to delay gratification or plan futures. I don't want to seem too excited, but in Europe, a lot of folks have read my books, and they may be more accepting of the intellectual and philosophical critiques. And it appears some of the ideas I've been writing about are finding expression in political movements. Italy and Germany are the places to watch."

Italy. That sounds nice. The last few months in America have been kind of rough. Two weeks ago, after two years of separation, he was finally divorced from his wife Donna. "The whole proceeding, and she didn't even show. Afterwards, the judge, it turned out he was some sort of personal acquaintance of hers, told me he had just read my latest book and he really liked it. It was incredibly strange." Anticipation of that trauma may or may not have caused him to take on a brutal schedule of college lectures last fall. Eighteen campuses in six weeks, up at 4 a.m., onto the 13-seat airplane, seven hours of class time ("I give a full presentation") and then back to Washington in another puddle-jumper, appear at a subcommittee hearing for an afternoon and then off again. That regimen in turn may have reactivated his old back spasms; and then there is the fact that the unfavorable review of Algeny has been included in the latest hard-cover collection of Gould essays. Not to mention . . .

Italy is looking better all the time.

If he can ever get there.

"Another Velamint?" asks Jeremy. ARICCIA (AN EXURB OF ROME)

It is dark. Pitch dark. A rhythmic clapping has begun. But it is the wrong kind of clapping. In Italy they clap like this when they want someone OFF the stage. Three or four people begin a chant, a chant unintelligible to Jeremy, who doesn't understand Italian, but which can hardly be complimentary to him. Somewhere up in front of the darkened auditorium, he is standing, momentarily silenced. Not a very auspicious beginning. Oh, well, at least the dogs have stopped fighting.

Enrico Falqui, a high-ranking member of the Italian Green movement who is Rifkin's host, has promised that his guest's five-hour delay in arrival has caused no problems. Falqui is a simpatico type -- familiar manner, warm Marcello Mastroianni eyes, a seemingly impossible double (cross-shaped) cleft in his chin, academically mussed hair. He is a representative from Florence in the Tuscan Assembly. One wanted to believe him when he said that Jeremy's absence at the kick-off press conference would be no problem, and that the Fifth National Convention of the Green Movement would be more than happy to fit in Jeremy's speech -- originally scheduled for delivery early that afternoon -- upon his arrival. But on the other hand, it seems perfectly possible he said this out of courtesy. And there is something about the audience here -- something almost surly.

Admittedly, circumstances have not conspired to make communication easy. The back of the small auditorium the Green leadership has rented is clotted with tables full of Greenalia, a bustling Whole Earth souk that maintains a cheerful din oblivious to the speaker up front. Then there is the translation. The woman Falqui has hired to interpret for Jeremy this week has already become the first victim of The Speech -- a 90-minute stem-winder that quickly and unabashedly makes its way into terms like "ozone layers," "greenhouse effect" and "Rift Valley Fever." The translator's English is just not up to it.

Then there are the dogs. About a quarter of the way through The Speech, two mixed breeds (this is the Greens, not the Republicans -- no purebreds) take a dislike to each other, and several minutes of chaos ensue. And now the electricity. Just as Rifkin begins a riff on the exhaustion of fossil fuels, the lights go out, for about two minutes. The second time they fail, he vamps, talking about how sight is our "most detached" sense, anyway. The third time, he has no joke, and the rhythmic clapping begins. All concentration seems lost. Somebody yells, in English, "Take a six-minute break!" The evening seems like a lost cause, but 20 years in the New Left apparently tempers your oratorical steel. "Please listen," Rifkin says firmly, in the dark. "I have traveled a long way to talk to you. I've been up 48 hours without sleep. All I ask is that you be understanding." The chanting stops. There is a smattering of earnest applause. And slowly, things begin to flow his way. The lights stammer back on. One of the presiding Greens has performed a microphone coup under the cover of darkness, and the quality of the translation improves markedly. Jeremy is finding his audience: "There are fireflies. Little fireflies? Ah, lucilli. We have them too. Scientists have taken the gene that emits light in a firefly. They've injected it into the permanent genetic code of a tobacco plant. THOSE PLANTS' LEAVES LIGHT UP 24 HOURS A DAY." Startled murmurs. That got their attention. And now, catch phrases seem to be kicking in; "resacralization," the term he uses for a return to the ancient reverence for the environment, draws applause, as does the seeming commonplace that "life must have dignity." When he finishes an hour later, he is, if not inundated, then certainly crowded by admirers. Could he sign one of his books? An Audubon calendar? Some notes? Someone says, "Mr. Rifkin, you're a movie star!" "Yeah," he replies. "As my father says, that and a dime will get you a cup of coffee." But he's obviously pleased.

In the cab back to Rome, Falqui fills in the missing piece. "You see," he explains, "the Greens, because they are now in Parliament, get a certain amount of money from the government. In this case it is 3.5 billion lira {about $3 million}. And there is, you might say, a debate on what to do with this money." It was into the middle of this fracas that Falqui managed to shoehorn Jeremy, like Michael Jackson alighting between rival street gangs in "Beat It." Explains Falqui sheepishly, "They said, 'Jesus, he wants to talk philosophy in the middle of our discussion.' "

This explanation totally satisfies the '60s organizer in Rifkin. "We did some good work today," he says. He looks content, Buddha crossed with Henry Waxman.

"And," says Falqui, "we had Barry Commoner before, and Petra Kelly, and it never happened before that people asked for autographs." ROME

"In Italy," says Falqui expansively, "all parties look to the position of Rifkin on theory of genetic manipulation." But Falqui has been drinking. Tonight, zipping from Jeremy's performance to La Tana, a fish restaurant, he has inaugurated what turns out to be an unfailing ritual of the trip. Each evening, the day's political events are digested -- along with antipasto, primo, secondo and dolci.

"Philosophically," says Falqui over fish sticks and exquisitely baked pizza bread, "the Greens have existed 10 years. Politically, since Chernobyl." Two days after the Ukrainian reactor disaster in April 1986, the radiation cloud hit Rome, causing a government ban on the sale of fresh vegetables and dairy products and a panicked migration south, away from the threat. Among Italy's 13 parties, the only contingent that had consistently been expressing the alarm the whole country now felt was a loose band of local environmental action groups calling themselves the Greens. In May 1987, the next electoral opportunity, the Italian people sent 15 Greens to Parliament.

Of course, as Rifkin's father might say, 15 parliamentary seats out of 980 and 500 lira will get you a cappuccino. In the same election, the Radical Party, more or less by accident, elected a porn star named Ciccolina. She is not taken seriously. But the Greens meant business. With other political groups, they promoted a three-part referendum against the laws allowing civilian use of nuclear energy, which provides only 3 percent of Italy's power. The voters agreed, by totals between 68 and 82 percent. Green strategists began to nurture hopes for a "transparty" alliance of disaffected voters from other groups that might eventually make the environmentalists a force to contend with.

But every (non-genetically altered) rose has its thorns -- in this case the funds Falqui mentioned earlier. Disagreements over how to distribute them divided the Greens into factions. Debates ensued. Recriminations. People begin losing sight of the common goal.

What to do? Enrico Falqui has pondered. Much might be achieved if one could come up with some kind of unifying symbol. Someone from outside the country, who would simultaneously stand above the local fray and remind the Italians they are not alone in the world. Someone with credentials as an activist, but also as a thinker. And someone who could project the concerns of the ecological movement beyond the well-mined areas of industrial pollution and nuclear danger. Maybe into genetic engineering. Someone like . . . THE SPEECH

. . . the guy with The Speech.

The Speech is the constant on this trip, the thread. Whether presented in a Renaissance chamber at the University of Bologna or Milan's modern Regional Municipal Building, whether the trains and planes strike (twice) or Rome floods (once), if it is a one- or a 10-Velamint day, The Speech will still begin at 9:45 p.m. and end around 11:15. It is the Speech the green-on-white posters all over Northern Italy advertise. It is through The Speech that Rifkin will make personal contact with thousands of Italians this week.

The Speech is also his base statement for this tour, the group of words and concepts from which all others are either reduced (for television) or expanded (for the print media). It is a little as if Rifkin were a sophisticated photocopier; he can enlarge or reduce The Speech to whatever size is convenient.

And The Speech is a projection of the speaker's personality. Like him, it is an uneasy alliance of New Left antiestablishmentarianism and new age wholism. Like him, its overstatedness and absolutism, as well as its earnestness, creativity and self-deprecation, play out the conflict among the needs to inform, to rebel and to be loved. It is Rifkin, as well as Rifkin's.

In terms of bare concepts, The Speech offers the following: Western civilization is in a hole because of the aforementioned exploitative attitude toward nature. That credo's bequest until 1945: impossible-to-maintain cities, raped natural resources, increasing alienation from the healing rhythms of the Earth's natural cycles. Post-1945: an outright recipe for suicide. Not just via the Bomb and Three Mile Island, but, equally ominously, via bioengineering.

By way of an alternative, Rifkin sketches out his abbreviated "small is beautiful" concept. A somehow decentralized world, an environmentally "sustainable" world, where life's natural rhythms and divisions are resacralized, where man lives in harmony with his fellow creatures and pollution, starvation, etc., seem to have faded away.

But this kind of summary does The Speech a tremendous disservice. It is a little like calling Chartres "a church" or asking someone to extrapolate "Louie Louie" from a copy of the lyrics. It no more captures the experience of The Speech than the Ten Commandments do Jimmy Swaggart on Sunday: Rifkin puts meat on the bones, adrenaline in the veins and fear in the heart. Listen to him, for instance, on the integrity of species boundaries:

"Let me ask you something. I'm an alien. I come down here from another galaxy. I'm a genetic engineer. I land in Milan. It's my first stop -- a great honor. And I come to this lecture hall and I see my first Homo sapiens. What's your name? Yes, you. Emilia? Okay. I say, 'Emilia. Nice looking species. Cute, cute. But we're going to have to beef you up a little. We want big, huge, fat people because we want to colonize you.' So we say we're going to put a growth hormone gene from another species into Emilia's egg that will produce a baby that matures sexually at 6 years old. And that baby will grow twice as big. Ten, 12 feet. Now Emilia, would you say, 'No problem, we're just the DNA that makes us up. We're only programs.' No. You would say, 'We have a species integrity. You cannot violate our species code.' We would resist, wouldn't we? Wouldn't we? Yes! . . . I FAIL TO SEE WHY WE DON'T USE THE SAME PHILOSOPHY IN RELATIONSHIP TO THE OTHER MAMMALS. Are they only here for our utilitarian purpose? Or do they have some intrinsic value as species, as part of the wonderful life pulse of this planet?"

And so it goes. Filippo is a "scientist. Filippo. You're in the laboratory. You decide to engineer a change in the genetic code of a bacteria. THAT'S A EUGENICS DECISION. How does Filippo know what are the good changes and the bad changes? Does God give Filippo the inside word? . . . My friends, what institution do we give the ultimate authority over the entire genetic code of life? How many would give it to the Italian government? {Much laughter.} The Vatican? {Less.} The Green movement? The multinational corporations? The consumer in the marketplace? My friends, I've been asking this question for over 10 years."

The whole thing moves along too quickly for Filippo to give much thought to whether the engineering of bacteria necessarily leads to the quest for perfect people. Of course it needn't. Rifkin just doesn't trust the human race to put on the brakes. His vision is binary, ones or zeros. Once begun, no technology can be halted or modified. The choice is always now or never, all or nothing. And the deck is heavily stacked. Rifkin seldom takes on the most positive examples of genetic engineering -- only the most monstrous and cartoonlike. And although he makes a token demand that his audience view him critically, by The Speech's end, the listener is led to feel that to support any aspect of biotechnology would be not just intellectually but morally indefensible.

And finally, there are the gestures. For a self-described "short, bald Jew" -- as in, "maybe they just don't like short, bald Jews" -- Jeremy has soul. He moves. He walks, he stalks, he points the portentous finger. He does a nifty little shimmy describing the mapping of the genome, charting his own with dual fingertips running down his front from chin to crotch and modulating into a sweeping "over-to-you" flourish toward his translator. But the most remarkable physicalization will occur impromptu one night in Rome: "In Mexico {he points out beyond the audience}, scientists took a live human fetus {he holds his hands in a circle about the size of a tennis ball}, cracked open the skull {he breaks the invisible object in half like an egg}, took out the brain tissue {a small, precise, one-handed scoop} and injected it {index fingers homing in on points just above both his ears} into a patient with Parkinson's disease." Kind of a cross between Marcel Marceau and Grand Guignol.

For those who like that kind of thing.


He is climbing, climbing. The municipal tower in this hill town near Florence, the next venue on Rifkin's whistle-stop tour, is 286 feet high. The passageway of stone steps leading upward is so narrow that there are times when 20th-century shoulders have trouble fitting. Heads bump arches. All because Jeremy has finally developed a spontaneous enthusiasm for this part of the Italian scenery.

Like a coal company stripping the last particle of bituminous from a West Virginia hillside, with the single-minded concentration of a bioengineer molding the genes of a superbaby, Jeremy has thus far ruthlessly, voraciously, expropriated the Italian art, architecture and way of life, and manufactured from them a support for his way of looking at the world. The villains, of course, are Bacon, Newton, et al., and their false god of short-term gain. Formerly, they were "European philosophers." Now they are "northern European" in deference to Italian culture, which Jeremy, reveling in its ancient-yet-functional buildings and relaxed rhythms, has pronounced much more progressive than our own. Looking at a lovely 400-year-old palazzo, he crows, "Sustainability! Show me one shopping center that will be in use in 500 years." After a morning in the Siena duomo -- a 14th-century marvel of fabulous gargoyles, more than a hundred carved popes and a wonderful efflorescence of black- and white-ringed arches and domes that twirl and tumble the eye -- he needles, "It's esthetic, but it ain't efficient." His attitude brings to mind an acquaintance's assessment: "Sometimes Jeremy's so busy going from A to B, he doesn't smell the flowers."

But the excitement Jeremy feels while ascending the clock tower seems to be less polemic, more innocent -- like that which a third-grader feels when, having done all his class reports about dinosaurs, he finally makes it to the museum of natural history. Rifkin has written about such clock towers in his latest book, Time Wars, but has never been inside one. Now's his chance. Clock, he explains, comes from the Dutch word clocke, or "bell." Originally clocks were simply bells rung to mark ceremonies and alert the townsfolk of emergencies. Simultaneously, monasteries began ringing them to mark the hours of prayer and labor. A mechanical device was developed to do the same thing and was appended to the church tower. This particular clock, Rifkin guesses (accurately, it turns out), must date to the 14th century, when the town governments and merchants began building them into town halls, thus snatching for themselves the control over life's rhythms. "It went from being a symbol of God to a symbol of commerce, mammon. Lewis Mumford said the clock, not the steam engine, drove the Industrial Revolution."

Finally, the top. The tower walls fall away, and the view opens up in all directions. The city, tiny red-tiled roofs clinging to the hill and each other; the town wall still defining its boundaries; a little bus beyond the wall, a matchbox toy, winding into green mist-covered hills. The bells (there are three) are magnificent, huge, hanging on wooden yokes. And from two flights below comes a thunk-thunking, like a hammer hitting wood at a great distance. It is the works of the clock. It is the beat of the heart of this town, the heart stolen away from the church by the burghers 400 years ago. It all feels right -- intellectually, emotionally, physically. It all makes sense. Would that everything Rifkin said rang as true. FLORENCE

"I would like to talk to you about the new politics. In the new politics, there is no right wing/left wing. I have some friends who say that a nuclear power plant works better in a communist utopia than in a capitalist country. And I have other friends who think it works better in the capitalist free market than it does in a communist state. I say . . . that an atomic power plant works equally well in Chernobyl or Three Mile Island."

The Speech at the university in Siena was no great success -- ill-attended, Falqui suggests, because the faculty was snobbish about Rifkin's lack of a doctorate. Here, by contrast, it is a triumph. Although translator-breakdown strikes again (Rifkin: "The benefits are tremendous, magnificent." Translator: "I can't hear you." Rifkin: "THE BENEFITS ARE TREMENDOUS! MAGNIFICENT!!"), the audience is enthusiastic and gratifyingly polyglot. There are several rogue molecular biologists in the crowd and a sizable contingent of Communists. But the greatest coup is the presence of a well-turned-out middle-aged gentleman named Carlo Casini -- a leader in the Catholic right's "movement for life" and an Italian representative to the European Parliament. Until now he has mostly sniped at the Greens' wobbly position on abortion. But now, seated on the dais with Jeremy and Falqui, he expresses his deep appreciation of the American's ideas. Man is at the center of Rifkin's creed, Casini announces; and not only the present man, as so many shortsightedly see him, but the future man as well. He is happy to declare that very soon, in the European Parliament, a bill will be proposed forbidding the exploitation, including genetic, of man or embryo.

"It's not strange that Casini is here," mutters an onlooker, "but that Falqui asks him to speak. They are, how do you say it, like the Devil and holy water?" Hearing this later, Falqui grins. For tonight, the idea of a "transparty" Green alliance doesn't seem so far away after all. THE TUSCAN HILLS

There is wealth in Falqui's family. Our party is invited to his in-laws' summer home, a huge, drafty cairn built by the Medicis as a hunting lodge centuries ago. His father-in-law, a gentleman farmer, allows as how the grapes did well this year, but there was almost no olive crop. A couple of years ago, many of the trees "froze to death."

This sets Rifkin back a bit. It is a miniature collision of worlds. In Rifkin's cosmology, many technological "advances" are merely superficial responses to problems caused by earlier technological "advances." Yet here is a man telling him that nature herself froze his trees. In fact, much of Rifkin's time over the last few years has been spent battling tests on Frostban, which might have saved the trees. Theoretical and practical universes compete. Jeremy opts for the theoretical.

"But olive trees live 500 years."

"Not these," says the old man dryly.

Jeremy is not slow. And he's a good guest. Soon he is joking: "Of course, with genetic engineering you could get olives that don't freeze -- and that come with the pimento growing right in the middle." BOLOGNA

"I'm 42 years old. I don't look that old, do I? I grew up in the United States in the 1950s. Two great technology revolutions in my lifetime. Nuclear power. Petrochemical products. My parents' generation rushed these technologies into the culture. They did not raise any significant questions. The result? We have enjoyed four decades of relative benefits from these technologies. And our children's children for millennia upon millennia will pay the bill for the benefits we reap."

Rifkin's father manufactured a petrochemical product: plastic bags. The son says he cannot see "The Graduate" without a twinge of recognition. Milton Rifkin's watchword was "security for the family." He was an enthusiastic inventor, concocting gizmos that might, in their own small Baconian way, overcome nature. Jeremy remembers marveling at the "freeze-o-mat," an automat machine that dispensed frozen food, and at draftsman's drawings of a "totally automated electronic grocery store." As the only son, Jeremy was supposed to take over the bag business. But while earning an economics degree and being elected senior-class president at the University of Pennsylvania, he was sidetracked into the nascent anti-war movement. He did a stint as a VISTA volunteer in East Harlem, N.Y., and worked as a regional organizer for the Pentagon march in 1967. There, he watched middle-aged protesters being beaten with truncheons while the bureaucrats looked on, secure and detached, from behind large glass windows -- an image that has stayed with him. Genetics, he thinks, may have fascinated him partly because he was a Jew and very aware that the last full-scale practitioners of eugenics were the Nazis; but then he pulls back and notes that Ted Howard, his early partner in his examinations of eugenics, is gentile. He is a strange combination of forthcoming and defensive. "My personal life and what I do in private is special and not something I need to open up for public examination," he says. Then he jokes about his just-ended marriage. Then he says the jokes are off the record.

He is happy to run through the civic ideals -- participation, critical thinking and social and economic justice -- that he feels have shaped his world view. For anything less textbook, for the roots of his absolutism, one is left to speculate. In each of his recent books, Rifkin maintains that mankind's greatest error was to try to gain power over its universe, and that the reason for this troublesome need is that power over things creates an illusion of security. It is suggested to a friend of his, a psychiatrist, that perhaps the reason Rifkin reacts so strongly against the drives toward control and security is that he feels them very strongly in himself, and yet rejects them. They are his father's narrow vision, discarded long ago.

Rifkin's friend doesn't know much about his childhood, but notes that Rifkin has always tended toward the "obsessive-compulsive," seemed to want to remain in tight control, struggled mightily to learn to let go. Perhaps this is reflected in his work. "Just like the rest of us, Jeremy is a human being in process," the friend notes. "But he has a very noisy process." Does it matter, anyway, the psychiatrist asks? We all have some reason for doing what we do. What counts is how our actions affect the world. "Have you read any Joseph Campbell?" he asks. "Jeremy is reenacting the hero's journey. Somebody has to step away from the mainstream, look back at it and say, 'This stinks, we can do better.' People like Jeremy are invaluable to cultural change." LUGO (A FARM TOWN NEAR BOLOGNA)

"I always get a young person who comes up to me after my college appearances and says to me, 'Mr. Rifkin, you were wonderful. I agree with everything you say.' That makes me very nervous. Not even I agree with everything I say."

Does it matter that Rifkin does not honor the facts as he should? He is often accused of painting with too broad strokes and even misrepresenting in support of his beliefs. On the basis of The Speech, his books and his interactions this week, one is inclined to agree. Take Jeremy's response to a question on the scathing Stephen Jay Gould review of Algeny. In the review, Gould derided Rifkin's recounting of Charles Darwin's view of the Galapagos Islands. Gould: "After describing the 'great masses' of vultures, condors, vampire bats and jaguars, that Darwin saw on these islands, Rifkin writes: 'It was a savage, primeval scene, menacing in every detail. Everywhere there was bloodletting, and the ferocious, unremittent battle for survival. The air was dank and foul, and the thick stench of volcanic ash veiled the islands with a kind of ghoulish drape.' " Wrong, wrote Gould. There are no vultures, condors, vampire bats or jaguars on the Galapagos -- in fact, no terrestrial predators whatsoever. And no "ghoulish drape," either. The volcanoes, Gould reported, were and are dormant, the terrain "beautiful, calm, peaceful."

What gives? Jeremy's answer is unsettling. He had not written the Galapagos descriptions, he says, but merely quoted "other authorities in the field, other scholars . . . Take a look at the book." Gould's criticism was "incorrect."

This is bizarre. If Rifkin had quoted others in the service of an argument of his own, he had an obligation to his readers to be sure the quotes weren't baloney.

Furthermore, anybody who does "take a look at the book" will find that although the listing of specific animals was someone else's, everything from "a savage, primeval scene" on through "ghoulish drape" was Rifkin's alone. Twice wrong.

So what are we looking for, anyway? Probably for something impossible. It is easy enough to approve of the effects of Rifkin's work -- biotechnology should be debated and regulated -- and to sympathize with the idealism of these earnest, besweatered young Greens. Jeremy himself is engaging, fun company. But he is also an alarmist and an absolutist, with little or no trust in humans to think for themselves. One shudders for a world in which Rifkin is king.

What one wishes for, ultimately, is a better Rifkin. Someone who does what he does but gets all his facts straight, honors the other side even while disagreeing with it, someone who has more faith in his fellow man.

But nowhere is it written that we always get the perfect Rifkin for the job. Certainly Mr. Gianstefani, an older gentleman who lives in a nearby town, is quite happy with the one in this assembly hall tonight. "For us, it was very interesting," he says. "He stimulates you to think. Resacralizing life, that is very important. It is a great thing."

The rest of the audience in Lugo, a town where pesticides and chemical fertilizers are suspected of causing cancers, agrees. Jeremy gets a good half-minute of applause. MILAN

Fabio Terragni looks a little like a baby chick. His head is big and covered with only the mildest fluff of hair, and it hangs forward just a bit as if he can't quite support its weight. His eyes behind black-rimmed glasses are bleary-curious, as though he were just hatched but interested. He is agreeably ironic. The street we are roaring down now in a cab, he says, was the home of an author who "wrote a delightful story about the plague in Milan in the 16th century."

At age 35, Terragni is one of the more important Greens in Italy, especially in those areas most dear to Jeremy. Trained in molecular biology, the discipline most involved with gene-splicing, he gave up the profession to become its watchdog. He founded the first Italian chapter of Genewatch -- an organization that monitors the biotech industry -- edits Se ("If"), one of the Green movement's most popular journals, and writes a column on related subjects for the communist daily here.

Terragni has turned out Milan for Jeremy Rifkin. Through his contacts, Jeremy will meet before The Speech with news teams from two of the three state-run television stations and reporters from Corriere della Sera (the country's biggest daily), an influential church weekly and four or five other publications.

The interviews, like his speech later, will take place in Milan's Green University. Before arriving in Italy, Jeremy had no idea of the existence of the universities. There are 50 countrywide, offering nine-month programs open to anyone for a nominal fee. When Jeremy enters the school's auditorium through a side door, he encounters a sea of faces, a thousand budding activists, eagerly taking in today's lecture -- "Water Resources." He is visibly stunned. You don't find this in the States. "Take a look," he mutters. "This is it. The new generation."

The media interviews start out well but end on a sour note when Jeremy is confronted by an elegantly dressed woman, a part-time stringer for the gene-splicing journal Biotech and the wife of a biotechnical entrepreneur. Voice shaking, she states several questions that are more like manifestos. Business does not provide enough information to the public about bioengineering, she admits, but neither does Rifkin. "You say that {the present technological mind-set} produces acid rain and the greenhouse effect. But in the last few years, it doesn't only produce this kind of thing, there are good things, too. So it doesn't seem your kind of information is more concise and complete than the information you are looking at. You . . ."

"What is your first name again?" Jeremy asks, smelling a fight. "I'm sorry, I didn't remember it."

"My first name? Angela."

"Angela, what I'm saying is that every technology comes with benefits, no doubt about it, but it's naive for anybody to believe that it doesn't come with problems. What we need to do is have enough courage to acknowledge the benefits, which everyone knows about, and also acknowledge the risks."

"But excuse me, you are not talking about risks and advantages. You are always just talking about risks."

"Angela, have you heard my lecture?"

"Not yet, but I am looking forward . . ."

"Have you read my books?"

"Yes, but . . ."

"Which books have you read?"

"I don't remember the titles."

"Yeah. I think I'm going to be honest with you, Angela. I don't think you've read my books."

"But just when I hear your interviews to people, you don't give the . . ."

"Angela, if you could stop for a minute and let me talk. Have you ever been on an eight-second sound bite in an interview? They stuck a camera in front of me and said, 'What are the problems with genetic engineering, in two sentences?' You expect me in two sentences to give the benefits of a technology and the problems? I believe the corporations and the scientific community do an excellent job of talking about the benefits. Angela, I'm one 42-year-old man with a public interest group of four people, and we have the entire corporate and scientific community extolling the benefits and spending billions of dollars, and yet you expect me to give their position as well as mine when they only give theirs? That's unfair, Angela." Pause. "Anyone else?" (A couple of days later, Jeremy will note, "You know, a debate is a little like armed combat. Only one person comes out alive.")

Through this exchange, Fabio Terragni watches intently, head pitched slightly forward, eyes wide open.

Tonight, The Speech takes on a somewhat surreal quality. Terragni has arranged for simultaneous translation, and as a result, Jeremy is alone at the dais, talking to an audience bedecked in headphones. Perhaps this rattles him; his delivery seems slow, almost stylized -- a No drama parody of himself. When the audience-participation bits roll around, he overcompensates. He is hyperenthusiastic, over-cheerful, ultra-American -- genetic gadfly as Monty Hall. Somebody mutters, "il histrione" -- "the ham." VIA LECCO, MILAN "I agree with a lot of the views expressed by Jeremy Rifkin," says Terragni carefully, from behind an apple. "I especially consider him very . . . precious, precious as a polemicist. I find his arguments as a philosopher a little bit poor. A little bit poor."

Terragni sits in the kitchen of his second-floor, back-courtyard walk-up. Occasionally he pats his schnauzer-like mutt, Theo, or lofts a warning pencil in the general direction of the apartment cat, which seems to have somehow learned to open the refrigerator door. Magazines, including a copy of Se, are strewn about the student-type residence. Terragni points out a long and respectful interview he did with Stephen Jay Gould, whom he calls "one of the most intelligent people working in evolution and the sciences." Gould? He who called Algeny "a cleverly constructed tract of anti-intellectual propaganda masquerading as scholarship"? Well, yes, says Terragni, and a somewhat uncomfortable conversation ensues regarding the man he has spent the day making famous in Milan.

"I agree with Jeremy about the reductionist, mechanist approach in biology," says Terragni. "It is a tradition inherited from physics. It is not adequate to the complexity of problems we have to deal with. It is a deterministic system. In it, it is possible to say, 'In five minutes, this will be here.' It is a very precise cognition of the future. This doesn't even work for physics anymore. Much less biology.

"I think about the problem of environmental {Frostban-style spraying} release. Look, if you consider a simple thing like a glass of milk. This is an incredible ecosystem. We don't know what relationship there is between the different microbes inside the milk. The biotechnical industry is working on the ability to manipulate this kind of microorganism. But because they don't understand the relationships in the milk, it is very impossible to say what could be the fate of their microbe. There is a danger, I think, to make a damage this way that is not possible to solve. In this I absolutely agree with Jeremy.

"But I don't want to say that all technologies and techniques derived from the old kind of knowledge are bad. Yes, I want to be able to intervene in the policy of biotechnology and science in general, and focus attention of policymakers on the problems. But I am not sharp like Jeremy in saying no, totally no, to genetic engineering. I consider more than he does the possible advantages. And I'm not sure, but I think at the moment, it's possible to discriminate between good things and bad things in genetic engineering.

"If you want my personal opinion on Jeremy Rifkin, it is this. The work of Jeremy in the field of polemics and on the field of social opposition and in the court and in the legislature as a lobbyist is very, very good. He has great ability to use the press, the policymakers, regulations and so on. I look at him like a very interesting model.

"But I'm . . . perplexed in front of the aim of Jeremy to say we have to resacralize life. I don't know. To sacralize something, that is a way of being irrational, and I prefer rationality. The amount of knowledge we have is so small in front of all the possibilities of knowledge we have, I think we should be humble in front of all things. But I do not need the concept of resacralization to come to the conclusions I have about the issues.

"Also, Jeremy, he has a way of speaking to people like a preacher, or something similar, like a prophet. My style is very different. I prefer people to be able to judge on themselves. To inform people about the pros and cons of the object of biotechnological engineering, to let them understand the problem, realize the problem, to consider what's better and what's worse, to decide on that themselves."

He flips another pencil at the cat, and this time actually hits it; it looks aggrieved but unrepentant. "Despite this," he says firmly, "I consider that it is important, the role of Jeremy Rifkin, that he is here, to speak about his own experience. To the Greens, bringing Jeremy Rifkin was a symbol, an important symbol. Because we want to scream our attention and our concern for the development of biotechnology. So Jeremy is like a symbol for this scream.

"So I am balancing this weakness, the weakness in Jeremy's logic and arguments and philosophy and sometimes his science, and also this style of reaching people like a preacher, I am balancing against the need to communicate to the public our aim to deal with biotechnology development. We wanted the Italian public to know Jeremy Rifkin's experience about biotechnology and also his mind. It's important to come to know this kind of pragmatic knowledge, and Jeremy Rifkin can bring to us this pragmatic knowledge, and I accept this."

Some hours later, the great pragmatist Jeremy Rifkin succumbs to the allure of 2 1/2 desserts, including two zuppe inglesi, and ends his stay in Milan happy, but a little bit queasy. ROME

The room in the Italian House of Deputies marked "Gruppo Parlamentare Verde" is familiar and yet unfamiliar. At first glance, it looks as if it might be a subcommittee meeting room with art. One whole wall is taken up with a huge painting called, of all things, "L'America," an involved allegory of the New World featuring cherubs, Indians who look a lot like Parisian fan dancers and what appears to be a dead Alaskan king crab in the corner. Around the room, scurrying from desk to desk, are about eight young aides, rather informally dressed. All that is missing is a congressman. Then you realize that these are the congressmen. The average age of the Green delegation is 35. Jeremy meets with three of them -- Sergio, Anna and Anna Maria. Anna Maria apologizes for missing Jeremy's opening talk in Ariccia; an animal-rights expert, she had been hit in the head with a stick while trying to organize an anti-hunting demonstration in a pro-hunting area near the Yugoslavian border.

The business is kept brief. Jeremy reviews six of the position points he has repeated to the Greens in each city he has visited in order to put the Italians in synch with the Foundation on Economic Trends and the Danish and West German Greens, whom he visited last May: a five-year moratorium on free-release spraying and bans on the patenting of transgenic animals, biological warfare research, commercial surrogacy, commercial use of fetal tissues and a biotech product called Bovine Growth Hormone.

That taken care of, Sergio offers a tour of the chambers of Parliament. He leads Rifkin to a balcony overlooking the floor -- an enormous room with velvet curtains, sumptuous leather chairs and a breathtakingly beautiful stained-glass ceiling. With the exception of a red-neon vote board, it is exceedingly formal. Someone asks Sergio whether the non-conformity of the Greens' dress or politics has caused much of a stir in this stately chamber. "This country," he says urbanely, "has experienced every possible thing in political life. They can digest anything -- porno stars and Greens alike."

Jeremy has never been so loose. He consents to pose for a photographer with the three young Greens on the parliamentary balcony. He does serious. He does smiling. Then he does the pope giving benedictions. Then he shakes his jowls, makes V-signs and does Richard Nixon. Actually, he doesn't look much like Nixon. With the light of the camera flash in his eyes, he looks more like a manic killer chipmunk. His psychiatrist friend would be proud. He has learned how to let go. SOMEWHERE OVER THE ATLANTIC

A Pan Am jumbo jet. Efficient. Expedient. Extant 500 years from now? Only in a museum.

Spend enough time with Jeremy and you begin thinking in his rhythms, replicating his logics.

"I think we got some good work done," he is saying now -- his favorite phrase, especially for summing up. "I played an enforcement role in support of what the Greens were doing, and I think I also brought something new to the table, as they say." In their last phone call, Falqui told Jeremy the initial press, at least, was good. This bolsters Rifkin's belief that he spoke effectively to interest groups like the Catholics (who did not consider him a red) and the Communists (who did not consider him a right-wing pawn): "I was discreet, but I didn't pull any punches." Within the Green movement itself, he believes, he strengthens the graft between his genetic engineering critique and the Greens' more conventional environmental orientation. "We made the connection," he says, "and now it's irreversible."

Yes, he got to play the prophet a little. But a bigger kick came from discovering that others, like Falqui and Terragni, had arrived at positions similar to his by independent routes. And the Green universities, he says, left him "definitely somewhere between pleased and exhilarated." It could tempt a man to spend more time abroad, he ruminates, as he fast-forwards to possible upcoming trips -- Sweden in February, Italy again in March and May, Japan in the next two years. "There's a beginning of a Green movement in Eastern Europe . . ."

He is feeling almost expansive now, talking about all sorts of things: his debate team when he was a kid, Jung, a festive dinner last May in the bright Danish night, Yiddish insults beginning with "sch," God and the Zen-like ability ("I'm detached, but I'm not detached") he feels has allowed him to become a little less obsessive in the last eight years and avoid activist burnout. More mellow.

Mellowly, he suggests he is not a doomsayer, but rather the harbinger of a world of new choices. "People say I'm against the future. I'm just opposed to the future they have in mind for us. What I'm trying to do is explain that the high-tech future is just the extension of one frame of reference, one world view. I'm trying to give people a sense of hope. I'd like to make them more confident in their freedom to frame their future."

This is more positive than Jeremy's public utterances this week, and he seems to sense it. "You know, when I was talking to these audiences in Italy, because of the language, I had to move to very broad ideas and general conceptions," he says. "I didn't have the nuance and qualifications that you could get in English. We just didn't have time for it. I'm giving them concepts. It's not literal; it's a metaphor."

Whoa, not so fast. The Speech is the speech Rifkin chose to give in Italy, for better or worse. The Italians weren't told it was "metaphorical." Fewer ideas could have been expressed more carefully, but they weren't.

The midflight movie comes on: "The Untouchables," about another American crusader, Eliot Ness. Jeremy is unimpressed; his tastes run more to the antiestablishment paranoia of "WarGames." But it serves to draw his mind back to his native land and what awaits him there. Let's see -- the Army's Impact Statement on Dugway, Mary Beth Whitehead's surrogacy appeals case in New Jersey, in which he's taken an active role. Health and Human Services will respond to Rifkin's petition against the commercial use of fetal tissue, and the response must be responded to; House and Senate hearings on chemical warfare are due, all in December; and the day after tomorrow, 600 organic farmers will be hanging on Rifkin's every word -- in Kansas City.

It's gonna be some month.

"Have a Velamint?" asks Jeremy. :: continued on page 37 continued from page 22