Jeremy Rifkin interview: A future of near abundance - but climate change is an urgent threat
A Strategy+Business interview, marked with both hopes and fears, from the great American futurist Jeremy Rifkin - currently advising both the Chinese and the German governments on their sustainable manufacturing and energy futures.
First the optimism. A whole new economy is coming - exponentially more efficient, and getting close to abundant:
With the digital third industrial revolution more fully under way, aggregate efficiency is about to rise again — perhaps exponentially this time. Two factors are the vastly reduced costs of communication, energy, and transport. Another is the Internet of Things. The cost of sensors and identification chips is, for the first time, dropping low enough to allow us to embed them in trillions of devices: thermostats, assembly lines, appliances, warehouse equipment, and more, all gathering data. With the IPv6 protocol, those devices can be interconnected through the Internet. When intelligent technology is embedded in homes, offices, factories, and infrastructure, everyone will have a transparent picture of all the economic activity flowing through the economy, with the ability to mine it and use predictive analytics to improve thermodynamic efficiency and productivity while reducing the ecological footprint of economic activity.
In the end, the economy may no longer be controlled by a small group of centralized, global, vertically integrated companies. The first and second industrial revolution infrastructures were centralized, proprietary, and vertically scaled because the communication, energy, and transport technologies worked best that way.
By contrast, the coming infrastructure of 5G communication, renewable energy, and automated mobility works best if it’s distributed, open, transparent, crowd-sourced, and laterally scaled. The more users on the network, the more everyone benefits. With any attempt to monopolize, control, or centralize it, the infrastructure loses aggregate efficiency and productivity. Even today’s giant Internet platforms, if they become too centralized, will be vulnerable to others coming in and taking their place.
But Rifkin's pessimism - indeed his fear - is about the increasing pace of climate change:
...The biggest shadow in the room is climate change. Most scientists had thought that we had another 100 years before facing a significant crisis, but we didn’t fully anticipate the feedback loops brought on by global warming emissions — the more the Earth warms, the more the process of climate change accelerates. We probably have less than 30 years to effectively exit a carbon-based civilization.
The most recent indicators of change have scared the living daylights out of me. For every one degree rise in the temperature of the planet brought on by global warming emissions, the atmosphere is absorbing 7 percent more precipitation from the ground and the oceans, leading to more concentrated precipitation in the clouds and more extreme and unpredictable water events — blockbuster winter storms, dramatic spring flooding, prolonged summer droughts and wildfires, and category three, four, and five hurricanes.
Our ecosystems cannot catch up to a runaway exponential curve in the water cycles and are collapsing in real time, taking us into the sixth extinction event of life on Earth over the course of the next half century. Even in a world of abundance, climate change is the dark shadow that could foreclose opportunities for present and future generations and for life itself on Earth.
Fortunately, the third industrial revolution is based on post-carbon technology. Moreover, it’s inclined toward a highly diverse and distributed infrastructure. The more diverse, redundant, and distributed the networks and systems are, the more resilient the infrastructure is, and the less vulnerable it is to cybercrime, cyberterrorism, or natural disasters from climate change.
But there may not be enough time to avoid the abyss. The transition would have to take place quickly. We would need to make the shift in 30 to 40 years. As I said, we know it’s possible. The second industrial revolution infrastructure was installed across much of the United States in less than 40 years. We could, if highly motivated and passionately committed, do something similar across the world over the course of the next 30 years by using the third industrial revolution to transition into a more just and ecologically sustainable civilization.