Getting onto the grid

Jeremy Rifkin, author of The Third Industrial Revolution, spoke to Ode’s Jurriaan Kamp about the coming age of distributed, collaborative power.
Jurriaan Kamp | October/November Issue
How do industrial revolutions happen?
“When you look at history, the great -economic revolutions occur when new energy regimes emerge. A new energy -allows for more complex -civilizations, bringing more people together, -individualizing skills and then integrating those skills into much more complex social units in -order to engage in commerce, trade and cultural life. But when a new energy regime emerges, it requires a parallel -communications revolution to manage it.
The Sumerians in ancient Mesopotamia were the first to harness irrigation with centralized agriculture. They could store energy in the form of barley, wheat and rye. This centralized agriculture-energy regime required a new communications revolution agile enough to manage a more complex civilization, and at that time they developed the first writing system. Around 1800, the first industrial revolution was driven by cheap mass printing which was enabled by steam technology. And then in the 20th century, with centralized electricity, the telephone became the management tool that enabled a new industrial revolution and a more agile auto, oil and suburban culture.”
Is revolution caused by government acts or spontaneous market developments?
“It’s always a joint affair. Many Americans believe that the market—if left to its own ways—can move new commercial ventures and new ideas and new -innovations without the help of government. The myth is that the marketplace generated the first and second industrial revolutions. That’s nonsense. It’s just never happened that way. The government spent trillions of -dollars through subsidies and -infrastructural investments, and it created the legal framework to build both those industrial revolutions. There is a close -symbiotic relationship -between the government at every level and industry in laying down the infrastructure and the entire economic paradigm of the first and second industrial revolutions.”
You argue that Europe is leading the Third Industrial Revolution.

Solar village, Baden-Wuerttemberg, Germany

“In Europe, there’s an upfront realization that government and industry always need to work together to create these new infrastructures. Europe is very far ahead, indeed. There are some regions in the U.S. that have some components in place: Texas, California, New England. Their -components are coming together. America needs to learn from Europe. I know one thing about America: Once we get the story, we’re the best storytellers in the world.”
What sets the new emerging industrial revolution apart from earlier revolutions?
“This is really about a shift in power, literally and figuratively. When we think of power, we think of centralized, top down. Lateral power seems like an oxymoron. It’s side-by-side. Lateral, distributive power poses a scary challenge to old interests. When the music industry was confronted with file-sharing and music, they laughed it off. Then they got nervous because they were losing money. Then they tried to legislate against it, then they tried encryption, and then they collapsed. Because when millions and millions of little kids have nothing better to do after school than find new software to share this music together, their lateral power dwarfed, wiped out, engulfed the centralized music companies.”
How does the environmental -movement affect the -Third Industrial Revolution?
“None of this would have happened without the environmental movement. It’s been 40 years since [the first] Earth Day. This has all come as a result of the green movement and the new developments that came out of that in urban design, sustainable development. All of that was initiated really with an ecological movement beginning in the 1970s. Yet climate change now provides a context in the same way as the end of the fossil fuel era provides a context. This is an economic model that will address these challenges.”
What do you imagine will be the tipping point of the Third Industrial Revolution?
Royd Moor wind farm at Penistone in Yorkshire England

“Here is the reason why we can do this now. For 30 years, governments have been telling me, ‘Mr. Rifkin, how the hell do you expect us to run a global economy on windmills and solar panels and garbage and heat under the ground? It’s not that we don’t like these energies. They have a role to play; we understand that. They’re soft energy. You can’t run a global economy on them. They’re just a small part of the bundle.’ You still hear that argument. You know, we couldn’t answer that argument for 30 years. We now can. It’s called ‘Grid IT,’ and it came out of -Silicon Valley. We have seen how distributed computing power dwarfed centralized super-computers. Grid IT is the new revolution. When millions and millions of -players are -producing their own energy, storing it in hydrogen, the Grid IT allows [those -millions of individuals to] share it across continents. That -distributed power, that lateral power, just engulfs, dwarfs, overwhelms anything you could ever imagine with centralized nuclear and coal-powered plants. And it’s sustainable.”
Do you anticipate the Third Industrial Revolution to unfold gradually or take us by surprise?
“I think it’s going to emerge very, very quickly. I think the younger generations are going to take hold of this. They grew up empowered to generate their own -information and share it, and they know how to do it in a distributive, -collaborative, lateral fashion. This generation is now waiting for its jump. It’s going to be much more powerful than the Internet alone. If you take a look at how the Internet has so changed our way of life, then imagine what happens when you marry the Internet to distributed energies. It’s a thousandfold more significant in terms of changing our consciousness and profoundly affecting our way of life, -business, education, -culture and society. People are going to take this much, much further than you and I can ever imagine.”
Listen to a podcast of the complete interview with Jeremy Rifkin:
Electric car charging station photo: Comrogues via Flickr

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