An energy revolution
Rifkin foresees a jobs boom fuelled by renewable power linked to an intelligent grid
The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power Will Transform the Economy and Change the World By Jeremy Rifkin, Palgrave Macmillan, $31
Jeremy Rifkin changed the way the West thinks of meat when he wrote Be
yond Beef, an aggressive argument that raising meat pollutes and causes hunger, and eating it makes us sick.
Now he’s back to deal with the future of energy — and food, and capitalism, and the world as we know it.
If we had two industrial revolutions already — factories and trains in the 1800s, automobiles and global trade in our own lifetimes — he sees a third just starting. This third revolution will be one of green energy and greener economies. Join it, he advises, or step out of its way.
This is often an angry book, starting with the Tea Party and going on to more important targets such as big oil companies, corporate greed, uncaring governments.
You never have to waste time wondering which side of an issue Rifkin will come down on, and he also leaves you in no doubt about what the future holds. He claims a rare ability to sum up our entire civilization and determine what’s going to survive and what won’t. But he also provides a high-energy book, and he’s rigorous about backing up his opinions with evidence.
Let’s start with the stuff that’s doomed, mainly fossil fuels and the products that depend on them. It’s a fascinating statement, as auto makers were in such terrible shape financially during the recession yet at the same time cars are everywhere. So are heating systems that burn gas and oil, and electricity grids that depend on coal.
Never mind, he argues: Oil is unsustainable because it’s environmentally awful and it’s in short supply. We’re going to run out, which is why it hit $147 a barrel before the stock market crash of 2008, and the future can’t keep depending on a fuel supply that won’t be around any more.
“Drilling for more oil, however, won’t get us out of the crisis because oil is the crisis,” he writes. “The reality is that the oil-based Second Industrial Revolution is aging and will never rebound to its former glory.”
He makes a lot of absolute state- ments along the way: “Globalization came to a standstill” in 2008. Or, “The United States is now a failed economy.” Or the claim that the BP well blowout of 2010 “threatened to turn the Gulf of Mexico into a dead sea.”
I would bet that a lot of people with good credentials don’t believe globalization stopped completely, or that the U.S. is quite that hopeless. And very few environmentalists predicted the loss of all life in the Gulf. It’s too bad that he takes this approach; the Gulf does have seasonal dead zones (from fertilizer, not oil) and the BP spill did kill a lot of wildlife, and could have killed more. But not everything.
In response to human pollution and vanishing oil, he proposes an intriguing future, starting with this perceptive way of thinking about infrastructure. Infrastructure is just bricks and pavement, right? He proposes otherwise: It’s a dynamic relationship between energy sources and communications technologies. Blend those, and you have the Third Industrial Revolution of his title, in which hundreds of millions of people will become small-scale generators of energy.
This will be green energy: Solar, geothermal, wind. It will come from homes and offices and be distributed on a grid with zillions of connections, modelled on the Internet. A parallel rebuilding of our homes and commercial buildings would actually save money, he believes. (Cost to the United States: $100 billion a year; energy savings: $163 billion a year.)
If only governments would subsidize small solar projects, he wishes. He’d be interested to see the solar panels all over Ontario farm fields, subsidized in the sense that they earn 80 cents a kilowatt hour on 20-year contracts. (Nuclear plants are paid about six cents.)
We’ll need an intelligent grid, he notes. That’s because in the old days when Ontario Power Generation ran a relatively small number of big plants, the coal or nuclear energy just hummed along with a steady supply. Small wind and solar projects start and stop supplying energy in a much more on-and-off way and in huge numbers, making a smart grid necessary.
And he also foresees booming job growth. There will be millions of new jobs in the United States when renewable energy replaces coal and nukes.
Well, we sure hope so. That’s the promise in Ontario, where backers of the Feed-in Tariff (FIT) plan are hoping for 20,000 green energy jobs. It remains to be seen how many actually materialize. This summer I was in Bruce County, home to major wind producers, some solar power and the continent’s biggest commercial nuclear project. There were new layoffs in the wind sector (for lack of new turbine sales) at the same time as local papers carried want ads from nuclear contractors searching for workers.
Unfortunately, humanity is dismally unsuccessful at one favourite pastime: Predicting the future. We can’t even call a horse race or hockey game often enough to make money. We’re worse at the political and economic future.
I was reminded of this by an aging Reader’s Digest. Don’t laugh; the Reader’s Digest of 1940 was a very different magazine, with contributors including Dorothy Parker and Stephen Vincent Benét, and excerpts from the New Republic, Harper’s, the New York Times.
The edition of March 1940 deals extensively with the war from the viewpoint of a neutral but nervous U.S., and there’s an odd mix of writing: It’s very good when it de- scribes current events in the war, but it all goes to hell in analysis of what it means for the future. There’s an essay on “Why Russia Can’t Fight.” Honestly. It concludes that the Finns probably can’t win indefinitely, but that “Russia, despite her boasts of military might, is neither an ally to be counted on nor an enemy any first-class power need fear.”
There’s an analysis of the crack French general and the mighty Maginot Line that will hold back the Germans. It’s not just that the military intelligentsia of the day made the wrong bets, like betting on a pair of twos. It’s more that they didn’t even understand what cards were in the deck while the game was underway. Having all the indicators doesn’t make predicting an exact science.
More recently, environmental predictions are dangerous too. The popular State of the World annual report used to say in the 1990s that the Earth was losing hundreds of thousands of square kilometres of farmland through erosion each year. If that had been true, we’d all be very hungry now.
The way to judge Rifkin is by the results. He offers Utrecht as a working example of how citizens band together through a practical altruism to make a sustainable city. If we can all make energy instead of buying it from a nuclear plant (and who doesn’t like that idea?) perhaps he’s right, and perhaps the future will return to urbanites buying from local farmers in small markets or directly at the farm. Rifkin has worked on energy (and economic) master plans all over — for the city of Rome, for Monaco, for San Antonio. And the European Parliament publicly backs his ideas.
Ontario has had projects on smaller scales: From the retrofitting of the entire town of Espanola in the 1990s to the more recent overhaul of Ottawa public schools, and finally FIT. Somehow, our traditional energy consumption keeps rising anyway. It would take a revolution, and not some Ontario-style pilot projects, to make that change.
Let’s hope Rifkin has made the right call, but whether he’s right or wrong our society needs books like this to make us think about the tough energy questions we would rather ignore.
Jeremy Rifkin’s latest book The Third Industrial Revolution envisions millions of people becoming small-scale generators of electricity.