August 09, 2013


When you turn on a light bulb, fill up your gas tank, or pay your electric bill, how often do you think about the fall of the Roman Empire? Chances are, not much - but Jeremy Rifkin, adviser to the European Union and author of The Third Industrial Revolution, might urge you to start. That's because, according to Rifkin, the fall of Rome was directly tied to the Empire's failure to find new energy sources to meet the needs of its growing economy -- and, he warns, we're on a similar trajectory unless we can revamp our energy regime to fit the demands of twenty-first century society.

The Third Industrial Revolution

Rifkin has a solution, and he draws inspiration from an unlikely place: the Internet. In the past, revolutions in energy have often come hand-in-hand with revolutions in communication: the First and Second Industrial revolutions of the 1800s and 1900s, for example, were matched by revolutions in steam-powered printing and the advent of radio and television. We already have our revolution in communication: the Internet, which broke away from old, top-down models and instead emphasizes collaboration and lateral, peer-to-peer power. Now, Rifkin says, we need an energy regime that matches it.

Power to the People

The solution, Rifkin says, is to transition away from fossil fuels to renewable resources, which, like the Internet, can dismantle energy's current top-down model and put power in the hands of individuals. How? Rifkin predicts that the cost of solar and wind technology will drop precipitously in the next ten to twenty years, just as the cost of computer and cell phone technology has over the past two decades. Once it does, every home could become a self-sustaining power plant. “The sun is free. The wind is free. The geothermal heat under your building is free," says Rifkin. "What the third industrial revolution is: it's power to the people. Literally and figuratively.”

Not Just a Museum

In the United States, however, these bold ideas have not translated smoothly into policy. Rifkin notes that the nation was ahead of the curve in both the green energy movement of the 1970s and the invention of the Internet, but a combination of special interests and lack of political willpower prevented green energy from gaining traction in the U.S. However, while the quest to transition away from fossil fuels largely fizzled here, it continues to gather speed across the Atlantic. Germany, for example, has converted one million buildings to harvest solar or wind power, and has committed to getting 35% of its power from renewable energy by 2020. Rifkin says measures like these are largely responsible for Germany's robust economy- and that America should take note. "Europe is usually dismissed as a beautiful place to visit, but a museum," Rifkin says. "Wake up call: the EU has a larger GDP for its 27 member states than the GDP of our 50 states.”

Want to hear more about Jeremy Rifkin's plans to revolutionize the energy industry? Tune in to our full interview above, and check out this exclusive web extra for Rifkin's account of how the Third Industrial Revolution is beginning to take shape in Europe, China, and India.

Need a refresher course in Roman history? We've got you covered.

Green, Jeremy Rifkin, Sci and Tech, innovation hub, Business, Culture

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