CHICAGO, IL — Jeremy Rifkin opened up the Empowering Customers & Cities 2016 executive conference with a keynote speech that was part warning, part call to action, and part invitation to rethink the way America generates, buys, sells, and delivers its energy.
Rifkin is an American economic and social theorist. He has authored 20 books on the impact of technology on the workforce, economy and environment, and has served as an energy policy adviser to the leaders of Germany and China.
In his speech Rifkin outlined some of the grave challenges the world faces: declines in productivity and increases in unemployment that are pushing some countries into stagnation and to the brink of collapse; the challenge of climate change and the threat it poses to the world’s water cycle; the continued dependence on fossil fuels and the distorting effect that dependence has on policy and economics.
The world is going though a Third Industrial Revolution, according to Rifkin. Just as with the first (started by the steam and internal combustion engine) and the second (started by the assembly line), the third (started by the Internet) will create great social and economic upheaval, but at the same time presents opportunities to confront these converging crises. But America – particularly the energy sector – needs to lay the groundwork within the next 20 years.
The Third Industrial Revolution will see a decline in massive vertical power structures in favor of a horizontal, distributed model. Economies will move from a seller-buyer model to a provider-user model. More and more industries – just like the music and entertainment industries have already experienced – will make the shift to operating off of very low margins of very high traffic.
The same will hold true for energy companies. In this highly distributed model almost every community, no matter the size, will be generating it’s own power off of solar and wind. Energy will become amazingly cheap, and energy companies will make their money through partnerships with their customers and clients to manage those distributed networks.
But to get there will first take a shift in consciousness. That shift, Rifkin said, is already happening among the millennial generation. For them, freedom is not a measured by their independence but instead by their access, by their freedom to engage.
For millennials, power is not how high up the pyramid you’ve climbed, it’s how far-reaching and durable your network is. Millennials already have a “biosphere consciousness” that is sensitive to the interconnectedness of the entire world.
Speaking later at a panel discussion, Rifkin again stressed the urgency of the moment. “We’re about 10 years behind where we should be, mostly because of fracking,” Rifkin said. The influx of cheap natural gas put off the economic pressure pointing towards sustainable, distributed energy networks. “We all knew it was a short-term bubble, but we all jumped at it just the same.”