Jeremy Rifkin and the Third Industrial Revolution


The famous American essayist Jeremy Rifkin was at the Planetworkshops in Évian last week to talk about the “Third Industrial Revolution”: the title not only of his latest book, but also of an energy revolution that calls for a complete change of paradigm, and might eventually change the way we inhabit our planet.


Jeremy Rifkin’s reputation and influence make him an authority in terms of the potential impact of scientific and technological changes on our economy, the environment and our society. An economist, writer, political advisor and public speaker, he is the founder of the Foundation on Economic Trends and advises many political leaders, mainly in Europe, where he has worked with Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy among others, and with both the European Commission and the European Parliament. With European officials, he is now helping shape an economic development plan consistent with what Rifkin calls the “Third Industrial Revolution”: an idea he developed in a book with the same title. At the Planetworkshops in Évian last week, Rifkin, considered by many as one of the most credible “futurologists” today, gave a talk on the Third Industrial Revolution, and how we should get to work quickly if we want to make it happen.

“All the energy you need is in your backyard”

“We are in the midst of a profound economic crisis.” Jeremy Rifkin went straight to the point, explaining that the Second Industrial Revolution is now dying, and that our system is on life support. The economic crisis is accompanied by a species crisis: climate change is disturbing the water cycle on a scale and at a pace that make it impossible for ecosystems to readjust quickly enough. This is the sixth phase of extinction to strike the Earth in 450 million years: life forms are actually being wiped out by mankind, the youngest living species. The environment is seriously endangered, and our economic system is collapsing. “So now, what do we do?”

Jeremy Rifkin did not beat around the bush: the key is energy. We have to be off carbon in thirty years. Which means that we need to free ourselves from oil dependency and stop our emissions. In other words,

we need a new economic vision for the world that is compelling.

He reminded us that revolutions always happen when two things meet: new energy regimes and new communications systems. During the First Industrial Revolution, the use of coal and the development of the railway network coincided with the spread of printing, the invention of the public school system and the generalization of communication skills. The Second Industrial Revolution, which paved the way for our system as it is now, relied firstly on the centralization of energy (oil and electricity), and secondly on mass communication (through the telephones, radios and TV sets that invaded all homes): that was the age of mass consumption. The Third Industrial Revolution is now around the corner. The communications revolution has already happened: we live at a time of personal computers and 2.0 Internet, meaning that information is now distributed and collaborative, and has completely reversed the traditional top-down approach of classic media. This revolution is now merging with renewable energies to create a completely new energy regime based on a self-sufficient and distributive approach.

The bottom line of this regime is:

all the energy you need is in your backyard.

Solar energy, wind power, the heat that is stored underground, agricultural and domestic waste, ocean tides, etc.: we have plenty of these, and they are found everywhere. The European Union has already committed to a profound redefinition of its energy system by setting a goal of 20% renewable energies by 2020, endorsed by the European Parliament in 2007. But even more than a simple evolution in technologies, we need a change of paradigm. Jeremy Rifkin’s question is

why are we harvesting and collecting these energies only in big central points? It is a top-down approach.

He has another idea.


The five pillars of the Third Industrial Revolution

The revolution defined by Jeremy Rifkin in his book and his talk actually relies on much more than “just” a technology shift: five pillars, which are all equally important and need to be interconnected.

  1. The first pillar is, of course, to invest in technologies that harvest renewable energies.
  2. The second one is to convert our buildings. In Europe, we have 190 million, which should all be turned into micro power plants, energetically self-sufficient. To Rifkin, the first of these buildings are the “second most important invention after personal computers.” And they will provide many jobs, too: switching to “personal” renewable energies will keep people busy for the next 40 years. After that, once the infrastructure is built, growth will be exponential and energy will get cheaper and cheaper. Everyone will have their own power plant, and it will cost them virtually nothing.
  3. The main issue today with renewable energies is storage: almost 25% of the kilowatts generated are lost because we still do not know how to store them. But hydrogen technology means that the problem could soon be solved: if there is a production surplus, an electrolyzer would extract the hydrogen so that it could be stored and turned back into electricity later, when needed.
  4. The fourth pillar is to build a nervous system to distribute this new energy: a smart grid that would allow anyone to sell their surplus and send it elsewhere. This is where Internet technology comes in handy: we could soon send power almost like e-mails.
  5. Finally, this revolution will also affect our vehicles: we will soon switch to electrical cars because we will be able to plug our vehicles in anywhere.


A new way of living on our planet

Provided these five pillars are appropriately connected, they will create a new energy economy where billions of people are empowered to produce their own energy, and even to sell it, says Jeremy Rifkin. The new business model will be about networks and access, in a sort of peer-to-peer approach inspired by the Internet, which will change the whole nature of the energy system and leave the top-down tradition far behind us. From a business point of view, Rifkin also predicts a few changes:

the name of the game in the next 25 years won’t be labor cost, but the energy cost that is embedded in your product.

 In other words, the energy revolution will create an entirely new, sustainable way of living on our planet. What is so “21st-century” about it is that this model rewards not only the idea of self-sufficiency, but also of sharing through social networks. You are not going to do it alone.

But Rifkin acknowledges that we are not all equally placed when it comes to the revolution facing us. There is a good chance, for instance, that the Third Industrial Revolution will take off more quickly in the developing world, because they can start from scratch, since there are no infrastructures that need profound redefinition. In the developed world, political leaders are on the front line, required to make rapid, much-needed decisions to foster this redefinition. And this means changing their consciousness.

We are all brothers and sisters in the same biosphere,

Rifkin said to an audience who naturally shared this opinion. Children all over the world are starting to develop this consciousness, asking their parents where what they consume comes from and how it affects the environment.

These kids are learning about ecological footprints!

It is to be hoped that the next generation in charge will see environmental friendliness as a must, and as absolutely obvious.

Towards the end of his talk, Jeremy Rifkin put forward the idea that his revolution is, in fact, a win-win project all round: it will renew our economic system, empower the people, help curb our negative impacts on the environment and provide energy for all. “The Third Industrial Revolution gives us the opportunity to make our consciousness meet our needs and ensure the lives of other species.” He concluded by calling on the younger generation to adopt this new mindset fast:

Be committed. Redouble your efforts. We are in a position to close the deal and invent a new paradigm that will raise everyone’s hopes. Link all your initiatives; join up all the dots to make it happen. We have 30 years to get the job done.

Duly noted.

  • john waller

    Back in the 1980’s,You couldn’t pick up a newspaper without reading about Rifkin attacking
    biotechnology.He filed numerous lawsuits against it.His main objection was that scientists and
    biotech companies were rushing to use this technology without all the facts.He raised concerns and issues and warned of unforeseen consequences.But now,with his Third Industrial Revolution,
    Rifkin’s doing the exact opposite.He’s getting people all riled up and excited about renewable
    energy.He’s getting them all anxious to jump on the Third Industrial Revolution bandwagon and
    make the switch to renewable energy.The problem here is that Rifkin’s not raising concerns and
    issues with renewable energy like he did with biotechnology.He’s not questioning the cost and
    safety of hydrogen storage and the reliability of solar panels and wind generators and they’re
    impact on both society and the enviorment.