How the “energy Internet” will transform political power by democratizing green power.
Jeremy Rifkin | October/November 2011 Issue
Our industrial civilization is at a crossroads. Oil and the other fossil fuel energies that make up the industrial way of life are fading, and the technologies made from and propelled by these energies are antiquated. The entire industrial infrastructure built on the back of fossil fuels is aging and in disrepair. The result is that unemployment is rising to dangerous levels all over the world. Governments, businesses and consumers are awash in debt, and living standards are plummeting. A record 1 billion human beings—nearly one-seventh of the human race—face hunger and starvation.
Worse, climate change from fossil-fuel-based industrial activity looms on the horizon. Our scientists warn that we face a potentially cataclysmic change in the temperature and chemistry of the planet, which threatens to destabilize ecosystems around the world. Scientists worry we may see a mass extinction of plant and animal life by the end of the century, imperiling our species’ ability to survive. It is becoming increasingly clear that we need a new economic narrative that can take us into a more equitable and sustainable future.
In the 1980s, I began to search for a new economic paradigm that could usher in a sustainable post-carbon era. Through my research, I came to realize that the great economic revolutions in history occur when new communications technologies converge with new energy systems. New energy regimes make possible the creation of more interdependent economic activity and expanded commercial exchange and facilitate more dense and inclusive social relationships. The accompanying communications revolutions become the means to organize and manage the temporal and spatial dynamics that arise from new energy systems.
In the mid 1990s, it dawned on me that an unprecedented convergence of communications and energy was in the offing. The Internet revolution and emerging renewable energies were about to merge to create a powerful infrastructure for a Third Industrial Revolution (TIR) that would change the world.
In this 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 create and share information online. The democratization of energy will bring with it a fundamental reordering of human relationships, impacting the way we conduct business, govern society, educate our children and engage in civic life.
The Third Industrial Revolution is the last of the great industrial revolutions and will lay the foundational infrastructure for an emerging Collaborative Age. The 40-year buildout of the TIR infrastructure will create hundreds of thousands of businesses and hundreds of millions of jobs. Its completion will signal the end of a 200-year commercial saga characterized by industrious thinking, entrepreneurial markets and management by mass labor workforces. That will inaugurate an era defined by collaborative behavior and interaction in networked commons, managed by boutique professional and technical workforces.
In the coming half century, the conventional centralized business operations of the First and Second Industrial Revolutions will increasingly be subsumed by the distributed business practices of the Third Industrial Revolution, and the traditional hierarchical organization of economic and political power will give way to the exercise of lateral power organized nodally across continents.
At first blush, the very notion of lateral power seems to contradict how we have experienced power relations throughout much of history. Power, after all, has traditionally been organized from top to bottom like a pyramid. Today, however, the broad collaborative power unleashed by merging Internet technology and renewable energies is fundamentally restructuring human relationships, top to bottom and side to side, with profound implications for the future of society.
As we approach mid century, more and more commerce will be overseen by intelligent technological surrogates, freeing up much of the human race to create social capital in the not-for-profit civil society, which will make it the dominant sector in the second half of the century.
While commerce will remain essential to human survival, it will no longer define human aspirations. If we succeed in meeting the physical needs of our species in the next half century—a big “if”—transcendent concerns are likely to become an ever more important driver of the next period of history.
Most heads of state, business leaders and economists have yet to fathom the real cause of the economic meltdown that has shaken the world. They continue to believe that the “credit bubble” and “government debt” are unrelated to the price of oil, not understanding that these things are intimately tied to the waning of the oil age. The longer conventional wisdom remains mired in the belief that somehow the credit and debt crisis are merely the fault of failing to oversee deregulated markets, the longer world leaders will be unable to get to the root of the crisis and fix it.
In July of 2008, the global economy shut down. That was the great economic earthquake that signaled the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era. The collapse of the financial market 60 days later was the aftershock. What occurred in July of 2008 is what I call “peak globalization.” Although much of the world is still unaware, it is clear that we have reached the outer limits of global economic growth within an economic system deeply dependent on oil and other fossil fuels.
I am suggesting that we are in the “endgame” of the Second Industrial Revolution and the oil era upon which it is based. This is a hard reality to accept because it would force the human family to transition quickly to a wholly new energy regime and a new industrial model or risk the collapse of civilization.