Jeremy Rifkin speaking with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. (Photo: Office of Jeremy Rifkin)
As the Internet helps home-owners regulate home-grown energy, Jeremy Rifkin says we are stepping into another industrial revolution.
GELLERMAN: The first industrial revolution was fueled by coal and steam. The second revolution, by oil and the automobile. And, according to social philosopher Jeremy Rifkin, we’re on the cusp of another industrial revolution, this one powered by renewable energy and communication technology.
Writing in his new book, "The Third Industrial Revolution," Jeremy Rifkin argues the shift will be socially disruptive, but ultimately rewarding. Jeremy Rifkin recently spoke with Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood.
CURWOOD: So your concept of the third industrial revolution hinges on the convergence of what, two things - new energy and communications systems. And if you could explain for us how a new energy and communications paradigm worked out during the first industrial revolution, that would be helpful.
RIFKIN: In the first industrial revolution, in the 19th century, print technology became very cheap. That combined with public schools. We introduced public schools in Europe and America in the 19th century and created a print literate workforce with those communication skills to manage the complexities of a coal-powered, top down, steam-driven first industrial revolution.
CURWOOD: In your book, you say, in many ways, the idea of a centralized, top down, power began with the Pennsylvania Railroad Company in the late 1800s.
RIFKIN: Yeah, that was the model, really, because remember railroads had to rely on storage of coal across the country and ceding public lands, and huge logistics issues in maintaining where the rail cars were and where they were going. It was very complicated. And they created the first centralized, top down business model.
CURWOOD: So now lets go to the second industrial revolution - what changes in communication? What changes in energy? And what happens to mobility?
RIFKIN: The second industrial revolution brought a new convergence of communication energy. The telephone was essential. The centralized electricity and the telephone allowed us to connect across dispersed space, across the continent, in very, very quick time. And then later, radio and television became the communication media to manage and market a more dispersed auto era, based on oil-powered fuels and a suburban rollout, which was more dispersed, and a mass consumer society - they went hand in hand.
A handful of oil companies emerged, we had a handful of public utilities and we began to see the outlines of what would be the most centralized, top down economic model in history. And that system right now is really on life support and dying, and I think it's probably precipitated why a lot of young people are pretty upset on the streets.
CURWOOD: So, we had a first industrial revolution with coal, you say we’re at the end of the next industrial revolution that we had with oil and gas, and now we’re moving into a third industrial revolution, which you say is based on ‘lateral power.’ What is this third industrial revolution?
RIFKIN: The third industrial revolution sees the merging of our new communication revolution - the internet - with our new energies - renewable, distributed energies. And, when the internet communication technology begins to manage these distributed renewable energies, we have a very powerful third industrial revolution.
What’s really interesting about renewable energies is they are distributed. Meaning: They’re found in every square inch of the world, in some frequency - the sun, the wind, the geothermal heat under the ground. So unlike fossil fuels, which are elite energies and found only in a few places and require top-down organization, renewable energies are distributed and found in everyone’s backyard.
CURWOOD: What you’re saying the third industrial revolution is all about is renewable energy and making it possible for us to use this in a collaborative, rather than a top down way. And then the other factor for this, you say, is that this will also get us out of the boom and bust cycle - that is the sun, the wind - these are continual.
RIFKIN: Better said than I could have. I think the key here is that it’s a sea change in thinking between an older and younger generation. Let me use the music companies as an analogy. They did not understand file sharing and music.
When millions of young kids started figuring out ways to create software to share their music around the world, the music companies thought it was a joke. Then they were terrified, then they went out of business. The newspapers similarly did not understand the lateral power of blogosphere. Millions of people coming together on things like Wikipedia or in social spaces to create their own information and news, and now newspapers are either going out of business or creating blogs.
CURWOOD: You know, you’re talking about lateral power taking over, but you spend much of your book describing how the third industrial revolution is being imposed really in a top down way in Europe - important ministers, high government officials - it seems like a contradiction.
RIFKIN: What’s happening is that top down is actually being pushed by the bottom up. What’s happening across Europe, especially beginning with the discussions on climate change, is millions of people said ‘we’ve gotta do something.’ And they started pushing for feed-in tariffs, so they could get premium for converting their buildings, sending power back to the grid. People began talking about how local communities can begin organizing for energy efficiencies, and begin to share energy with surrounding communities.
So, there’s been a tremendous push from the bottom to make this happen, and yes, then the politicians responded. So, I think, yeah, it’s bottom up. It’s top down. It’s everybody.
CURWOOD: So, how is America responding to your vision?
RIFKIN: Well, a lot of the old industries, especially energy industries, have a huge sway in Washington. They’re an obstacle, but I think history is on the side of moving into this new model, the question is can American move fast enough? During this upcoming political year, what everyone has to ask themselves is: How the hell do we grow an American economy based on old energies that have peaked, prices going up, climate change impacting us now, and old infrastructure? There’s just no way to do it.
CURWOOD: You’re vision here is, what, a 50 or 100 year plan. How do you implement that with a political system that can’t see past the next election?
RIFKIN: Very tough. If we don’t change consciousnesses, we’re not going to get there. What we need is to shift from geopolitics to biosphere consciousness. Before the industrial age, every community whether they were forge and hunting or agriculture - had to rely on the rhythms of nature.
When we went to the first and second industrial revolution, we saw this stored chunk of sun - coal, oil, gas - and we thought we could hermetically seal ourselves off from nature and create an unlimited cornucopia of wealth. It was an illusion. When we go to a third industrial revolution, for example where this is moving in Germany and Europe, people in their homes, offices and buildings - they’re totally attuned on the software to what’s going on moment-to-moment with the solar radiance outside the buildings.
What’s happening to the heat under the ground when they change seasons for their geothermal heat pump. What’s happening to garbage that's decomposing in the basement in their bio converter. So, we become intimately aware that each day we are attuned and re-imbedded in the rhythms of the planet we live in. That’s biosphere consciousness, and the question is, if we don’t do this, what’s Plan B?
CURWOOD: Well, Jeremy Rifkin, I want to thank you for taking this time with me today.
RIFKIN: Thank you, Steve. It’s been a pleasure being with you.
CURWOOD: Jeremey Rifkin’s new book is called “The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power is Transforming Energy, the Economy and the World.” I’m Steve Curwood.
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