Jeremy Rifkin: Missionary

After the disappointment at the Copenhagen Summit, the energy economist places his hope in human nature

News | Christian Cummins | February 2011

Jeremy Rifkin is an energetic man with a big mission: to usher in the dawn of what he calls the "Third Industrial Revolution" – a new and more inclusive economy driven by clean energy.

Rifkin doesn’t think the business leaders and politicians who gathered in snowy Davos for the World Economic Forum in late January know how to bring the world out of crisis or, for that matter, how to tackle inequality.

"In order to change the gap between rich and poor," he told me, "we have to change the entire energy regime of the world and the economic system that developed with it." We live in a hierarchical system dominated by fossil fuels and the need to protect our resources of them from each other, he says – and that is a recipe for disaster.

Rifkin, who was in Vienna in late January as a keynote speaker at the Com.sult Conference of Create Connections, a communications consulting firm based in Vienna, has been called "a social and ethical prophet" by The New York Times, always liked big ideas and, although he turned 66 years old Jan. 26, this academic and professional visionary is showing no signs of slowing down. I met him in a side room of the Hotel Imperial. Short, bald, tanned and looking fit, he is a man with a lot to say and a sense that time is pressing. I worried he might wear out the carpet as he paced up and down while barking out instructions to his assistant about meetings set up for his upcoming trip to Brussels, where he is policy advisor to the EU.

Then he came to an abrupt stop, snapped away his phone, shook my hand, beckoned me to sit down, and then, his words hitting me like an avalanche, launched into a short economic history of the modern world.

The current global financial crisis, contends Rifkin, was the after-shock not the earthquake. The major tremor, he says, came 60 days earlier in July 2008 when the price of oil on world markets peaked at $147 a barrel. As a result inflation soared, the price of everything from food to gasoline skyrocketed. And the global economic engine came to a grinding halt. After that, he thinks, the rest of the financial problems were a foregone conclusion.

"Everything in this civilization is based on oil," he says, listing chemical fertilizers, pesticides, pharmaceutical products, synthetic fibers, plastic and concrete for construction as well as light, heat and fuel. When the price of oil went up then the price of all commodities went haywire including food. "Imagine if you are making under $2 a day -- that’s 40% of the human race – and then the price of rice is doubled and tripled. Over a billion people faced cataclysm. That was the earthquake." Until the global leaders recognize that, he warns, any recovery will be superficial.

An economy that is over reliant on oil is an instable economy, and an economy that is reliant on burning fossil fuels is suicidal in terms of global warming. He says we are "in the sunset of the fossil energy regime" and that it was time to invest on a massive scale in the "sunrise" energy resources like solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, ocean waves and biomass. Then, he says, we have to find a way to store this clean energy. This will require huge capital. Rifkin says Europe, despite falling behind on its own targets to reach 20% emission reductions by 2020, is leading the world in this transformation and asking "the tough questions about how the human race will live on this planet in generation’s time."

This bullish enthusiasm comes in sharp contrast to the last time I met Jeremy Rifkin in December 2009. We were in Copenhagen, Denmark, where he was shaking his head in furious disappointment at the world’s failure to come together and find a global climate deal – and Europe, for all its fine talk, had been unforthcoming and ultimately sidelined. The disappointment still rankles with Rifkin:

"Now our scientists are saying we could see a mass extinction event by the end of the century; we could see the massive die-off of our species; we could see a temperature rise that changes the chemistry of our planet. It’s most likely the biggest threat we have ever faced, and our leaders couldn’t cut a deal."

And yet Rifkin says he is "guardedly hopeful" that we can rise to this challenge after all. Curiously his optimism is based on recent scientific studies into human nature that he outlined in his 2010 book The Empathic Civilization.  Far from being the selfish destructive beast we have always considered ourselves to be, it turns out recent biological research has suggested humans are naturally social animals predisposed to feel each other pain. It’s all to do with mirror-neurons--the so-called empathy neurons.

"It turns out", enthuses Rifkin, "that our natural circuitry is actually wired with neurons that allow us to actually physically feel another’s plight, as if we were going through it ourselves. You wince, I bleed."  This  new research has excited Rifkin, as he believes it means people have a sense of empathy that will enable them to create "a biosphere-wide consciousness" – in other words, a painful awareness that our own pollution is destroying the lives of others will make possible "a new economic paradigm that is compatible with those drives."

This "leap to global empathic consciousness" sounds almost esoteric and has provoked ridicule among some reviewers who have likened him to a mystical guru. The idea of imminent climate catastrophe bringing about an era of global cooperation seems hopeful to the point of naivety. I pointed out that it is indeed a great of empathy from feeling itchy when I see a spider run up my neighbour’s arm to renouncing my carbon-intensive lifestyle and foreign holidays to the Maldives because they’re sinking under rising sea levels.

He challenged me to visit any school in Austria, assuring me that I would meet a new generation already comfortable with the concept of their carbon footprint.  Besides, his theory is a brave and rather beautiful way of looking at life – an inspiring take on humanity in a climate of depression and defeatism. I found myself rather liking this quick-speaking man, whether his analysis is right or not. It’s noble to believe we better ourselves.  After all, prophets are always dismissed as crazy.

Besides, having just slipped out of the under-30s bracket, I was afraid that Rifkin might accuse me of being old if I was overly critical.

"What’s frightening for the old guard is that the new politics is about creating a world that is distributed, open sourced, and transparent. People can share their energy in the way they share their information." He says we are set to move from a "top-down" power to a more "lateral, collaborative" form of power and this transformation was being led by a new generation of young bloggers, brought up with Wikipedia, Facebook and Twitter.

"The Third Industrial Revolution is a plan for younger generation – the internet generation. The old folks don’t get it."

And with that, the mostly sprightly 66-year old I’d ever encountered, looked at this watch, sprang up, shook my hand vigorously and, reaching in his pocket for his mobile phone, strode off purposefully through the door, presumably to persuade someone else of the need for his clean revolution.

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