When the topic is as critical as the future of the human race, it’s no wonder that the influential economist/philosopher would rather disarm his critics and focus on the bigger picture. “It’s a race against time,” he said, referring to the issue of climate change during a wide-ranging conversation.
He spoke with Wharton Alumni Magazine at the Steinberg Conference Center, the home of Wharton Executive Education, where he has been a fellow and lecturer in the Advanced Management Program since 1994. Rifkin is also the president and founder of the Washington, DC-based Foundation on Economic Trends, the bestselling author of 17 books on technology, labor, and globalization including The End of Work, The Age of Access, and The Biotech Century, and a columnist whose views are published worldwide in The Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, Süddeutsche Zeitung, L’Espresso, and El País. The National Journal named Rifkin as one of 150 people in the U.S. who have the most influence in shaping federal government policy.
Rifkin cited the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the group of 2,500 scientists that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, “By their calculations the whole world has seven years to get the right game plan to deal with climate change, and there can be no mistakes. We have to think of this as a global emergency and ourselves as homo sapiens and not let geopolitical forces get in the way.”
So first, Rifkin wants to make it clear that he’s not a technophobe. How could he be, when he believes that technological innovation is the only means to solve the pressing issues of fossil fuel dependence, global warming, and famine? Rifkin first became prominent in the 1970s as a vocal opponent of recombinant DNA research and genetic bioengineering; his 1977 book on the subject, Who Should Play God?, seeded skepticism against the industry, which led to increased regulation.
A 2000 article in the Virginia Journal of Law and Technology tracing Rifkin’s impact claimed that he “arguably single-handedly raised the consciousness of the American public, and indeed the world, to potential risks of the technology.” His activism can be traced back to his time at Penn during the mid-1960s when the Wharton student/fraternity member/cheerleader protested against the University’s participation in germ warfare research. From there, he became active in the peace movement, helping to organize the 1968 March on the Pentagon against the Vietnam War, before tackling broader power relations in a world driven by techno-capitalism. “I’ve been very critical of technology,” said Rifkin. “There are some technologies I like and some I don’t. I look at technologies in terms of the human story. This third industrial revolution is a human story.”
The third industrial revolution to which he refers is the adoption of a distributed renewable energy network that uses hydrogen fuel cells for energy storage, as described in his 2002 book, The Hydrogen Economy. Rifkin believes that history’s most significant changes occur when societies rework their energy regimes and reorganize their communication systems around them. “The convergence of new energy and communications systems are pivotal points in human history,” he explained. He believes the distributed communication system of the
Internet must now be translated into a distributed energy regime. “What is a distributed energy compared to the elite energies, oil, coal, gas, and uranium? Elite energies are the ones you don’t have in your backyard, so they require huge geopolitical organizations and military investments,” he said.
“Distributed energy is found in your backyard – the sun, the wind, hydro for dams, garbage that can be turned into energy, agricultural or forestry wastes if you’re in a rural area, ocean waves if you’re on the coast, geothermal deposits. “When you and I and millions of people generate our own power with renewable energy, we store it using fuel cells, and then the surplus we don’t need we send back to an inter-grid, just as we produce our own information and share it on the Internet.”
In the U.S., Rifkin was instrumental in founding the Green Hydrogen Coalition, a group of 13 environmental and political organizations (including the Sierra Club and Greenpeace) committed to renewable hydrogen. In Europe, he helped build consensus among European Parliament members, leading to a 2005 commitment to convert the European Union to a green hydrogen economy. One notable convert is German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who Rifkin helped convince to create a 500 million euro program to move Germany into the lead in the third industrial revolution. He has also advised the current president of the European Union, Prime Minister Jose Socrates of Portugal, Prime Minister Romano Prodi of Italy, Prime Minister Jose Zapatero of Spain, and members of the U.S. Senate.
Rifkin circled the conversation back to the custom executive education class he was teaching to a group of highlevel automotive executives. “I asked my class today, ‘Look, where do you want to position your company in 15 years? Do you want to be in the sunset energies and industries of the second industrial revolution, or do you want to be in a transition to the sunrise energies of the third industrial revolution?’
It becomes very clear when business leaders hear that. It’s about their bottom line, but they’re beginning to realize the bottom line is about their children too. There has to be a balance between margins now and the future of the human race.” The long-time activist sees a change in business culture since he graduated from Wharton and Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, where he earned a master’s degree in international affairs.
“Then, there were very few people challenging the corporate framework. There was Ralph Nader, and later there was me with biotech,” he said. “Now things have changed. Younger business people have grown up with the idea of sustainable business and corporate social responsibility. Now the idea of challenging the conventional wisdom is coming from the business community itself. We have corporate leaders who realize that business is embedded in all the relationships that make up human civilization.”