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Jeremy Rifkin: Hopeful but not naïve


Jeremy Rifkin, a renowned author, - international consultant and president of the Foundation on Economic Trends, - will be one of Greening the Heartland's keynote speakers. - SUBMITTED PHOTO
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  • Jeremy Rifkin, a renowned author,international consultant and president of the Foundation on Economic Trends,will be one of Greening the Heartland's keynote speakers.

The Greening the Heartland conference is expected to draw more than 1,000 green building and sustainability practitioners.

Attendees will get to learn about Indy's latest forays into green construction, such as the new Wishard Hospital/Eskenazi Health project, the energy-efficiency retrofits to the 50-year-old Indianapolis City-County Building and the Nature Conservancy of Indiana's new headquarters.

While Indianapolis is taking small steps toward a greener future, focusing on individual projects, what would happen if the entire city could somehow be retrofitted to produce all of its own energy? Or better yet, the entire state or country?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel hired one of Greening the Heartland's keynote speakers, Jeremy Rifkin, to explore those possibilities in her country.

Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends, writes about, and the environment. Rifkin has authored more than 20 books, most recent, The Third Industrial Revolution, is the second in what will be a trilogy.

In a telephone interview with NUVO in advance of the conference, Rifkin, talked at length about how scientific and technological evolution can affect economic and social change.

Here is an edited sampling of Rifkin's comments:

Rifkin on the current energy/environment landscape:

We have a global crisis ... As fossil fuel energies are sunsetting, they're never getting cheaper again. We can drill all we want, but we're drilling for the more scarce energy: shale gas, tar sands, heavy oil.

The technologies based on these fossil fuel energies are like the internal combustion engine — they're old. And the infrastructure of our economy is made from carbon, from plastic to cement, so construction costs are going up.

And now to compound it, we have the impacts of climate change affecting agriculture infrastructure. As you know in Indiana, itÕs becoming a real problem.

Rifkin on peak oil and the problem of encouraging economic growth:

When Angela Merkel became chancellor of Germany, she asked me if I would come to Berlin to help her new government address the question of how to grow the German economy and create jobs.

The first thing I asked the chancellor was, "How do you grow the German economy—or even the global economy—in the last stages of a great energy era?" That's the problem.

The real economic crisis in the world was July 2008. That's the month oil hit $147 a barrel in global markets. All the prices in the global supply chain went through the roof, including groceries. Everything is made out of fossil fuels and is moved by them. At $147 a barrel, even in developed countries, we all stopped buying — the world economy shut down in July 2008. That was the economic earthquake and the collapse of the financial markets 60 days later was the aftershock.

We're still dealing with the aftershock but we're not dealing with the earthquake. We're (in) the endgame of the Second Great Industrial Revolution. The reason is that we've hit two milestones: peak oil per capita and peak oil production.

Every time we try to re-grow the economy we're going to have the same cycle. In 2009, oil went to $30 a barrel because no one was buying it — the economy had stopped. In 2010, we tried to start the engine again by replenishing inventories around the world, and now it's $115. Other prices are going up, gasoline prices are $4 to $5 a gallon. It will effect the presidential election.

We're seeing these four-to-six-year cycles of start-collapse. Every time we try to re-grow, everything goes up then collapses.

Rifkin on climate change and economic revolution:

We also have the real-time impact of climate change. Our scientists tell us that we're looking at a 3 degree Celsius rise in temperatures this century. Three degrees takes us to the Pliocene era, three million years ago. When the temperature goes up, the whole hydrological cycle changes ... ecosystems can't catch up to a changing weather cycle. Scientists say we are in the early stages of the sixth extinction event, up to 70 percent extinction of all plant and animal species by the end of the century. We're in complete denial.

What we need is a new economic vision for the world that's compelling, and a new economic game plan that's deliverable that will get us off carbon in 30 years.

Economic revolutions occur when three things come together historically. We change energy regimes, then we create communication revolutions. When communication technology revolutions converge with new energy regimes, they change economic, history, social and political landscapes.

For example, 19th century, print technology became cheap. We went from manual presses to speed power presses. We introduced public schools. We created a print-literate workforce with communication skills to manage the complexities of the coal-powered, steam-driven energy revolution in the First Industrial Revolution.

In the 20th century, we centralized electricity, and the telephone, the radio, and television became the communication media to manage a more complex, dispersed, auto-suburban-era, mass-consumer society. That industrial revolution is on life support.

We are on the cusp of a new convergent communication-energy movement, Europe and Germany is leading this new convergence. The Internet has been a powerful communication revolution in the last 25 years. I grew up on centralized, top-down communication — the Internet is distributed collaboratively. It scales the lateral power. In less than 25 years, 2.3 billion people sending their own video, audio, text. The Internet communication revolution is just beginning to merge with a new energy regime, whose energies are distributed and have to be organized collaboratively and scaled laterally. Its a perfect fit.

Rifkin on the connection between communications and energy:

The Third Industrial Revolution is the second of a series. The first was published a year ago. The Empathic Civilization, is a rethinking of the historic narrative based on communication/energy convergences and their shift in consciousness all through history. For 40-some years I've been working in these fields of energy, communications, and economics. When you look at history, energy revolutions make possible more complex living arrangements. They can annihilate time and space and bring more people together. If you think about new energy regimes, increasing the energy flow, and creating more complex civilizations, they can't manage without a new communication revolution.

We're seeing a quick convergence, moving in northern Europe and Germany, where the Internet starts to organize and manage distributive energies with distributive technologies.

I'm always guardedly hopeful. I'm also not naive as to how daunting, especially now — the clock is not with us. We have to convert the world quickly and our climate scientists are saying that if you don't do this within a couple of years in a turnaround with no mistakes, we may not be able to avert catastrophic climate change.

Rifkin's five pillars

1) You need renewable energies to get off carbon.

2) Wherever you have buildings and infrastructure you collect them onsite because they are distributed energies.

3) You have to store them because they are intermittent. [He cites examples of distributive energies, including: solar, wind, geothermal, forest residue, agricultural waste, ocean waves, and garbage.]

4) You have to share them across continents or you don't have enough to run the continent — that's the electricity Internet.

5) You have to plug them into the transport system.

These five pillars alone are nothing, they're simply components. It's only when you phase them in that you create the synergies to create a new economic infrastructure for a new economic era. This is where Obama made a mistake. Obama wanted a green economy, right? But, he didn't understand the narrative: Great economic revolutions require a communication-energy matrix and he didn't understand that you have to put all five pillars together. He spent billions of tax dollars on stand-alone projects, all unconnected, all siloed, all isolated — no jobs, no new economy.

All of the five pillars have to come together. This is power to the people. This is a disruptive revolution with amazing opportunities. It is a democratization of energy.

The one thing about America is that once we get the story, no one can move as quickly. We can transform our country overnight.


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