We Need a Third Industrial Revolution to Save Ourselves
According to Jeremy Rifkin, it may be the thing that curbs climate change.
Portrait by Nathan Bajar
Social and economic theorist Jeremy Rifkin is a predictor of fiscal and technological trends. He has written several books heralding the end of our world's economies, those powered by fossil fuels, driven by profits, and organized in a pyramidal structure. But today, he's chronicling the emergence and convergence of renewable energy, novel means of communications, and the Internet of Things—and how together they will revolutionize the way we live, work, and consume on an unprecedented scale.
His book The Third Industrial Revolution, which will debut as a film produced by VICE this month at the Tribeca Film Festival, predicts two decades of full employment, widespread residential electricity production, and free and universal access to information and education. But unlike the two previous industrial revolutions before it, the Third Industrial Revolution needs to happen much faster to curb climate change and make the economic advances that our civilization requires.
The urgency of the situation has prompted Rifkin to work with officials, like Chinese premier Li Keqiang and German chancellor Angela Merkel, to spearhead the transition into a new economic era. We met with him to discuss how he hopes his new film will encourage a broad coalition of businesses, civil-society initiatives, and politicians to help usher in the Third Industrial Revolution.
VICE: You have published two books outlining a road map for a new economic era. Is your new film about turning theory into practice?
Jeremy Rifkin: We are on the cusp of a Third Industrial Revolution, which is slowly emerging in Europe and China. Millennials are a unique generation caught in a faltering global economic system that has taken us to the precipice of climate change. They're in despair, and their values are not represented in the economy or governance. I want to guide this generation to rethink the economic assumptions that govern how we live on this planet and find new approaches to innovation, business, and employment. I want this film to spark the beginning of a global collaboration among millennials to build a more humane and ecological society.
Is this industrial revolution not taking place in the US?
With the exception of the West Coast, it's not. The rest of the country is regressing back to fossil fuels and old centralized communication routes. However, a great thing about America is that once the younger generation captures this story, the country will move fast and lead the rest of the world.
One of your boldest claims is that the world needs to be off carbon in the next four decades if we want to survive. Is that feasible?
I have been working on environmental issues since the 1970s. Back then, we already recognized climate change, but we didn't realize how quickly it was unfolding. What's terrifying about climate change is that it's happening in real time. We could soon enter the sixth great extinction of life on Earth, and it may take 10 million years to get life back. Half of all species are poised to disappear in eight decades. This is beyond anything humans have ever faced. But we can overcome it if we have a game plan to get off carbon. Certain European regions are already weaning off fossil fuels. We have to remember that humanity put together the entire infrastructure for both industrial revolutions in fewer than 50 years.
What have you learned advising heads of state and government officials?
When Angela Merkel invited me to Berlin, we discussed the energetic and economic future of Germany. At the end of our conversation, Merkel told me, "Mr. Rifkin, we will have the Third Industrial Revolution for Germany." But things will move forward in communities with or without government support. In France's northern coal-mining region, we helped a local initiative to train thousands of coal miners to retrofit buildings for solar panels.
Can we rethink the way economies work without rethinking education first?
Our educational system is moribund. It hasn't changed since the 19th century, when it was designed to prepare young people for the Early Industrial Age. Learning has to be a shared social experience that creates common bonds. Education has to be clinical, and teaching has to be interdisciplinary. At Wharton, I was only allowed to take a few classes outside of the business curriculum. I advise students to immerse themselves in humanities and social sciences. These subjects tell the story of how we live.
What's the next step in your journey?
We have to mobilize beyond Facebook. Now millennials have to engage in their communities and in the political world to turn this narrative into a social movement. The young people who demonstrated in North Dakota and DC remind me of when I decided to join the 1960s peace movement. It started with a small group of individuals before it turned into a nationwide movement.
Learn more about the Third Industrial Revolution on VICE Impact, VICE's new editorial and advocacy platform, launching at the end of the month.