It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Those words open “A Tale of Two Cities,” Charles Dickens’ classic novel that so eloquently described the turmoil and tragedy surrounding the French Revolution. While our political, economic and cultural struggles today sometimes seem mild in comparison to that violent time, they are just as revolutionary and just as central to the future of our planet.
In 2018, hardly a day passes without a news story about the conflicts between the defenders and the critics of fossil fuels – whether it is over the federal subsidies supporting the coal and oil industries, the tariffs on solar panels being imported from China or the demand for electric vehicle charging stations around the state of California.
In parallel, we witness mega-mergers among telecommunications giants like Sprint and T-Mobile, and continuing audience wars between cable television broadcasters and Internet-based services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu and YouTube.
We are living through a classic battle between old and new sources of energy and old and new forms of communication. It can be confusing for consumers like us caught in the middle, but it means life and death for companies like Chevron, Mobil, AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Time-Warner, General Motors and Tesla.
If you are as confused and confounded as I am by these battles and the resulting uncertainties about our future, you might find Jeremy Rifkin’s 2013 book, “The Third Industrial Revolution,” helpful. Rifkin, an economist and economic historian, has produced the clearest explanation I have seen anywhere about the profound transformations we are currently experiencing in how we generate, distribute and apply energy, and how we communicate with each other.
Rifkin’s book, which is subtitled “How Lateral Power is Transforming Energy, the Economy, and the World,” is a powerful, sweeping analysis of economic, technological and cultural history as well as an inspiring vision of where we are headed. I had the privilege of hearing Rifkin speak at a conference in October 2017. I found his explanation of what is happening to us today, and how it parallels the first Industrial Revolution, to be nothing short of brilliant.
Rifkin’s basic thesis is that economic revolutions become inevitable when society experiences simultaneous disruptive transformations in three sectors: energy, communications and transportation. The three “industrial” revolutions we have experienced in the last 200 years have each resulted from the convergence of order-of-magnitude – but highly disruptive – improvements in how we generate and apply energy, how we communicate with each other and how we transport people and things.
The first Industrial Revolution, which took place between about 1780 and 1850, was driven by the invention of the steam engine, which turned the combustion of coal into power that could drive machines and propel locomotives, turning an agricultural economy into an industrial one. Manufacturing was no longer dependent on water power and goods could be transported farther, faster and far less expensively by the “iron horse” than by real ones.
At the same time, a steam-powered printing press enabled the mass printing of inexpensive newspapers and books that, in combination with public schools, created a literate population capable of working in the factories. It was a multi-dimensional, mutually-reinforcing transformation of the entire way of life in the “industrialized” nations of the world. And it totally transformed society.
In Rifkin’s view, the second Industrial Revolution occurred in the early 1900s, when the combination of electricity and oil transformed the economy once again. The oil-based energy sector led directly to the automobile and the airplane, while electricity and electric motors produced highly efficient factories along with the telephone, the radio and eventually television. The dominant form of communication during the 20th century was broadcasting: one-to-many.
Eventually the United States had three major television and radio networks, and we all listened to the same news from the same few sources at the same time (6 p.m.) every evening. Knowledge and political power was largely centralized, a reality that we have only recently begun to recognize was artificially created by the very nature of the energy and communication technologies that drove the economy.
Now, in 2018, we are in the middle of what Rifkin calls the third Industrial Revolution. As he puts it, the fossil fuel economy is dying; renewable energy sources, like solar, wind and geothermal, are already significantly cheaper (to say nothing of cleaner and healthier) than fossil fuels like coal and oil. And we now have the Internet that enables many-to-many communication. Today each of us can communicate directly with almost anyone else anywhere on the planet, at almost zero incremental cost.
What makes this current revolution particularly important and disruptive is that in both energy and communication the sources of power and information are no longer centralized. Oil and coal resources are located in specific places on the planet and thus subject to political boundaries and control; sunshine and wind are everywhere, and they are freely available to anyone who has the technology to capture and apply them.
Rifkin’s vision of our future includes an energy grid based on exactly the same underlying technology as the communication Internet; it will distribute energy from anywhere to anywhere, as it is needed. Clearly, getting from here – our current energy infrastructure – to Rifkin’s vision of an energy internet – is a long journey that will require massive investments in new technologies like energy storage and transmission. However, making that transition will lead not only to a cleaner, healthier planet, but to a vibrant new economy. “
The jobs that will be created to build local solar, wind and geothermal power sources will all be local; they can’t really be outsourced. Nor can the efforts to retrofit all the commercial and residential buildings across the United States, making them not only energy-efficient, but energy sources in their own right. A cornerstone of Rifkin’s vision is “every building a mini-power plant” because the sun shines everywhere, and the wind blows everywhere too.
The year 2018 may feel like the worst of times, but we are on the verge of an incredibly exciting and sustainable future.
This article courtesy of the Rossmoor News, May 23, 2018. Author James Ware can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org