Meet the author of a work about staving off our own extinction: Jeremy Rifkin, who advises the European Commission. He is an American economist.
He has just published ‘The Third Industrial Revolution’, which argues that the human species is coming to the end of a cycle. In it, he looks at economic desperation, climate change and the exhaustion of fossil fuel supplies, and contends that only a sweeping adoption of alternative energy sources and what he calls ‘lateral power’ will ensure that we enjoy our future, and prepare a happy one for our children.
Maxime Biosse Duplan spoke to the author on the terrace of the Fine Arts Museum in the French city of Lyon, where euronews is based, about awareness of our whole biosphere.
Maxime Biosse Duplan, euronews: Mr Rifkin, you’ve said it is highly unlikely that human beings will manage to survive on this planet. We hear a lot of talk about economic crisis, but you say we are threatened with extinction. Isn’t this vision a bit pessimistic?
Jeremy Rifkin: You know, 99.5% of all the species that have ever lived on this planet have come and gone. It is hubris to believe that somehow we are going to live in perpetuity here. And so I think this is a moment of crisis.
We are now paying the bill for 200 years of an industrial revolution based on fossil fuels. We spew too much CO2 and methane and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere. We can’t get enough of the sun’s heat off the planet, and what we are seeing here is a fundamental change in the chemistry of the Earth. That doesn’t happen often.
So, as my wife says, “we are not grasping the enormity of this moment for our species”. This is a species crisis. Can we turn the corner? Can we address climate change? Can we create a more sustainable economy? Can we do it with the clock ticking, and can we transform ourselves in less than 25 years? It’s a pretty big ‘if’.
euronews: One of your conclusions is that we must move into this ‘third industrial revolution’, which you say has to be carried by five fundamentals, five pillars, you call them. What are these ideas?
Rifkin: The European Union has committed to a five-pillar third industrial revolution. I was privileged to develop the plan with the EU. It is the formal plan endorsed by the European Parliament and now working its way through the European commission.
Pillar 1: the EU is committed to 20% renewable energy by 2020. That’s a mandate: every country has to do it.
Pillar 2: how do we collect what are essentially distributed energies that are found everywhere? Our buildings. We have 191 millions buildings in the European Union! Homes, offices, factories. The goal is to convert every single existing building in the European Union – millions of them – into your own personal green micro-power plant. You can get solar electricity off your roof, you can get wind electricity off your sidewalls, geothermal heat converted back to energy underneath the building, garbage converted to energy in your kitchen, etcetera.
Pillar 2 jumpstarts the economy. Millions of jobs, thousands of small and medium-size enterprises. Because we have to convert the entire building stock of Europe in the next 40 years into a power plant.
Pillar 3: we have to store the energy because the sun isn’t always shining, or sometimes the wind is blowing at night and you need the electricity during the day. They are intermittent energies. So we are going to use all sorts of storage technologies, but most of it is going to be focused on hydrogen – to store the energy. If the sun hits your roof, you create a little electricity, if you don’t need some of it, you put the excess in water, hydrogen comes out of the water into a tank. When the sun isn’t shining on your roof, you convert it back to electricity.
euronews: [This is all] existing technology?
Rifkin: All of this technology already exists. It simply has to be scaled in.
Pillar 4 is where the Internet revolution converges with the new distributed energy revolution to create a nervous system for this infrastructure. So when millions and millions of buildings in Europe are collecting their own green energy on-site, storing it in hydrogen, like we store media in digital, then if you don’t need some of that electricity, your software can program it so you can sell your electricity across the electricity Internet, (with what we call) a smart grid, from the Irish sea to the edge of eastern Europe. Just like we create our own information, store it in digital, share it online.
The last pillar, Pillar 5, is transport. Electric vehicles are out this year, fuel cell vehicles are out in 2015, you’ll be able to plug in your vehicle anywhere there’s a building, get green electricity or hydrogen, and wherever you park, plug back in, get green electricity or sell your own back.
Each of these components alone are nothing, they are meaningless. When you put the five pillars together, in each city, each suburb, each rural area, they create an infrastructure, a node. And the node is a completely new economic revolution. It’s power to the people. It’s lateral power.
euronews: A lot of companies and people have interests that go against your theory of the ‘third industrial revolution’. Have you been subjected to pressures from lobbies, key figures, from enterprise, concerning your theories?
Rifkin: Let me put this into context. You know, the music companies, they didn’t see file-sharing of music coming. When millions of young people around the world started creating software to share music, the music companies thought of it as a joke, then they got upset, then they went out of business.
So I guess the answer to your question is… I’m not too concerned about the energy companies. We have far more distributed renewable energy than we’ll ever have the little amount of fossil fuels or uranium underground. Some of the energy companies will make the transition – they are trying – into renewables. Many of them will not, and as their energies get more expensive and more polluting, they’ll just die out. We don’t need them. What we will see here, with this Third Industrial Revolution infrastructure, is a ‘renaissance’ of small and medium-size enterprises, and producers and consumers cooperatives. The big companies that survive, they will transform their role and they will be aggregators of networks, because they have the logistical reach.
euronews: You talk about small and medium-size companies. Might they have a role to play in countries with emergent economies, such as China or countries in Africa, within this third industrial revolution framework?
Rifkin: In terms of the developing countries, they’re going move quicker on this. They’re going leapfrog in. The United Nations Industrial Development Organisation has embraced the Third Industrial Revolution as a centrepiece for economic development across the emerging nations.
In many parts of the world, there’s no electricity. 300 million people in India have never had electricity. Millions of people in Africa, no electricity. They can leapfrog in. They have no infrastructure. So where there is no infrastructure in Africa, and the Indian parts of Asia, they can develop it right now.
euronews: In 20 years, how would you like things to evolve, and how do you think they really will evolve?
Rifkin: Let me say I think my hope is that we will see a change in consciousness. We have had mythical consciousness, religious consciousness, ideological consciousness. We are now starting to see the early stages of biosphere consciousness. I know that this Third Industrial Revolution makes sense, it is compelling, it is practical, it is deliverable, it isn’t rocket science.
What we need to do now is: government, business, and civil society come to the table in every community and put this Third Industrial Revolution infrastructure in, and get us into a post-carbon sustainable world very, very quickly. There is no ‘plan B’.