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RIO+20 The Future We Want

RIO+20 the future we want

Jeremy Rifkin: The Future We Want

Jeremy Rifkin

The Second Industrial Revolution, powered by oil and other fossil fuels, is spiraling into a dangerous endgame: the prices of energy and food are climbing, unemployment remains high, consumer and government debts are soaring, and the recovery is slowing. Worse, climate change from fossil-fuel based industrial activity looms on the horizon. Facing the prospect of a second collapse of the global economy, humanity is desperate for a new economic vision and sustainable economic development plan to take us into the future.

Today, Internet technology and renewable energies are about to merge to create a powerful new infrastructure for a Third Industrial Revolution (TIR) that will change the world in the 21st century. In the coming era, hundreds of millions of people will produce their own green energy in their homes, offices, and factories and share it with each other in an “energy Internet,” just like we now generate and share information online. The creation of a renewable energy regime, loaded by buildings, partially stored in the form of hydrogen, distributed via an energy Internet, and connected to plug-in zero-emission transport establishes a 5-pillar infrastructure that will spawn thousands of businesses and millions of sustainable jobs. The democratization of energy will also bring with it a fundamental reordering of human relationships, impacting the very way we conduct business, govern society, educate our children, and engage in civic life.

The music companies didn’t understand distributed power until millions of young people began sharing music online, and corporate revenues tumbled in less than a decade. Encyclopedia Britannica did not appreciate the distributed and collaborative power that made Wikipedia the leading reference source in the world. Nor did the newspapers take seriously the distributed power of the blogosphere; now many publications are either going out of business or transferring much of their activities online. The implications of people sharing distributed energy in an open commons are even more far-reaching.

To appreciate how disruptive the Third Industrial Revolution is to the existing way we organize economic life, consider the far-reaching changes that have taken place in just the past twenty years with the introduction of the Internet revolution. The democratization of information and communication has altered the very nature of global commerce and social relations as significantly as the print revolution in the early modern era. Now, imagine the impact that the democratization of energy across all of society is likely to have when managed by Internet technology. The Third Industrial Revolution changes the very concept of power relationships in society. The traditional notion of centralized, top-down power, is giving way to lateral power, with far reaching consequences for society.

The Third Industrial Revolution build-out is particularly relevant for the poorer countries in the developing world. We need to keep in mind that 40% of the human race stills lives on two dollars a day or less, in dire poverty, and the vast majority have no electricity. Without access to electricity they remain “powerless,” literally and figuratively. The single most important factor in raising hundreds of millions of people out of poverty is having reliable and affordable green electricity. All other economic development is impossible in its absence. Universal access to electricity is the indispensible starting point for improving the lives of the poorest populations of the world.

Because renewable energy—solar, wind, geothermal, hydro and biomass—is widely distributed, a Third Industrial Revolution is likely to take off quickly in the developing world. Although a lack of infrastructure is often viewed as an impediment to development, what we are finding is that because many developing nations are not saddled with an aging electricity grid, they can potentially “leapfrog” into a Third Industrial Revolution. In other words, by building a new, distributed electricity system from scratch, rather than continuing to patch up an old and outworn grid, developing countries significantly reduce the time and expense in transitioning into a new energy era. Moreover, because of the distributed nature of the Third Industrial Revolution infrastructure, risk can be more widely diffused, with localities and regions pooling resources to establish local grid networks, and then connecting with other nodes across regions. This is the very essence of lateral power.

The Third Industrial Revolution offers the hope that we can arrive at a sustainable post-carbon era by mid-century. We have the science, the technology, and the game plan to make it happen. Now it is a question of whether we will recognize the economic possibilities that lie ahead and muster the will to get there in time.

Jeremy Rifkin is the author of The New York Times best selling book, The Third Industrial Revolution, How Lateral Power is Transforming Energy, the Economy, and the World. Mr. Rifkin is an adviser to the European Union and to heads of state around the world. He is a senior lecturer at the Wharton School’s Executive Education Program at the University of Pennsylvania and the president of the Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington, D.C.