The sociologist Jeremy Rifkin (Denver, 1945), who defines himself as an activist in favor of a radical transformation of the system based on oil and other fossil fuels, has spent decades calling for a change in industrial society towards more sustainable models.
Advisor to governments and corporations around the world, he has written more than twenty books dedicated to proposing formulas that guarantee our survival on the planet, in balance with the environment and also with our own species.
-What do you think will be the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the road to the third industrial revolution?
- We cannot say that this has taken us by surprise. Everything that is happening to us stems from climate change, which researchers and myself have been warning about for a long time. We have had other pandemics in recent years and warnings have been issued that something very serious could happen. Human activity has generated these pandemics because we have altered the water cycle and the ecosystem that maintains balance on the planet. Natural disasters - pandemics, fires, hurricanes, floods ... - will continue because the temperature on Earth continues to rise and because we have ruined the soil. There are two factors that we cannot fail to consider: climate change causes movements of human populations and other species; the second is that animal and human life are getting closer each day as a result of the climatic emergency and, therefore, their viruses travel together.
-This is a good opportunity to draw lessons and act accordingly, don't you think?
-Nothing will ever be normal again. This is a wake-up call across the planet. What we have to do now is to build the infrastructures that allow us to live in a different way. We must assume that we are in a new era. If we don't, there will be more pandemics and natural disasters. We are facing the threat of extinction.
-You work, you will be working these days, with governments and institutions around the world. Consensus does not seem to prevail regarding the immediate future.
-The first thing we must do is have a different relationship with the planet. Each community must take responsibility for how to establish that relationship in its closest environment. And yes, we must undertake the revolution towards theGreen New Deal global, a zero emissions digital model; we have to develop new activities, create new jobs, to reduce the risk of new disasters. Globalization is over, we must think in terms ofglocalisation. This is the crisis of our civilization, but we cannot continue to think about globalization as before, solutions are neededglocals to develop energy, communications, transport, logistics infrastructures, ...
-Do you think that during this crisis, or even when tension is lowered, governments and companies will take measures in that direction?
-Not. South Korea is fighting the pandemic with technology. Other countries are doing it. But we are not changing our way of life. We need a new vision, a different vision of the future, and leaders in major countries do not have that vision. It is the new generations who can really act.
-You propose a radical change in the way of being and being in the world. Where do we start?
-We have to start with the way in which we organize our economy, our society, our governments; for changing the way of being on this planet. Ours is the fossil fuel civilization. It has been founded during the last 200 years in the exploitation of the Earth. The soil had remained intact until we began to excavate the foundations of the earth to transform it into gas, oil and coal. And we thought that the Earth would always remain there, intact. We have created an entire civilization based on the use of fossils. We have used so many resources that we are now drawing on the capital of the land instead of making a profit from it. We are using one and a half earths when we only have one. We have lost 60% of the planet's land surface; it has disappeared and it will take thousands of years to recover it.
-What would you say to those who believe that it is better to live in the moment, the here and now, and hope that in the future others will come to fix it?
-We are really facing climate change, but also in time to change it. Climate change caused by global warming and CO₂ emissions disrupts the earth's water cycle. We are the planet of water, our ecosystem has emerged and evolved over millions of years thanks to water. The water cycle allows us to live and develop. And here's the problem: for every degree of temperature that rises as a result of greenhouse gas emissions, the atmosphere absorbs seven percent more precipitation from the ground and this warming forces it to fall faster, more concentrated and causing more natural disasters related to water. For example, heavy snowfalls in winter, floods in spring all over the world, droughts and fires throughout the summer season, and hurricanes and typhoons in autumn sweeping our shores.
-The consequences will get worse over time.
-We are facing the sixth extinction and people don't even know it. Scientists say that half of all habitats and animals on earth will disappear in eight decades. That is the framework we are in, we are face to face with a potential extinction of nature for which we are not prepared.
-How serious is this global emergency? How much time left?
-I do not know. I have been part of this movement for change since the 1970s and I believe that the time we needed has passed. We will never return to where we were, to the good temperature, to a suitable climate… Climate change will be with us for thousands and thousands of years; The question is: can we, as a species, be resilient and adapt to totally different environments and that our companions on earth can also have the opportunity to adapt?
If you ask me how long it will take us to shift to a clean economy, our scientists at the European climate change summit in 2018 said we had 12 years left; there is less left for us to completely transform civilization and begin this change. The Second Industrial Revolution, which caused climate change, is dying. And it is thanks to the low cost of solar energy, which is more profitable than coal, oil, gas and nuclear energy. We are moving towards a Third Industrial Revolution.
-Is a global trend change possible without the US on our side?
-The European Union and China have come together to work together and the United States is moving forward because the states develop the necessary infrastructures to achieve this. Don't forget that we are a federal republic. The federal government only creates the codes, regulations, standards, incentives; The same thing happens in Europe: its member states have created the infrastructures. What happens in the United States is that we pay a lot of attention to Mr. Trump but, of the 50 states, 29 have developed plans for the development of renewable energy and are integrating solar energy. Last year at the European climate emergency conference, American cities declared a climate emergency and are now launching theirGreen New Deal. There are quite a few changes happening in the United States. If we had a different White House it would be great, but still this Third Industrial Revolution is emerging in the EU and in China and has started in California, New York State and part of Texas.
-What are the basic components of these changes that are so relevant in different regions of the world?
-The new Industrial Revolution brings with it new means of communication, energy, means of transport and logistics. The communicative revolution is the Internet, as were the printing press and the telegraph in the First Industrial Revolution in the 19th century in the United Kingdom or the telephone, radio and television in the second revolution in the 20th century in the United States. Today we have more than 4 billion people connected and soon we will have all human beings communicated through the Internet; everyone is now connected. In a period like the one we are living in, technologies allow us to integrate a large number of people into a new framework of economic relations. The Internet of knowledge is combined with the Internet of energy and the Internet of mobility. These three Internet created the infrastructure of the Third Industrial Revolution. These three Internet will converge and develop on an Internet of Things infrastructure that will reconfigure the way all activity is managed in the 21st century.
-What role will the new economic agents play in the formation of this new economic and social model?
-We are creating a new era calledglocalisation. The zero-emission technology of this third revolution will be so cheap that it will allow us to create our own cooperatives and our own businesses both physically and virtually. Big companies will disappear. Some of them will continue but will have to work with small and medium-sized companies with which they will be connected all over the world. These large companies will be providers of the networks and will work together rather than compete with each other. In the first and second revolutions, infrastructures were made to be centralized, private. However, the third revolution has smart infrastructures to unite the world in a wayglocal, distributed, with open networks.
-How does overpopulation affect the sustainability of the planet in the industrial model?
-We are 7 billion people and we will soon reach 9 billion. That progression, however, is going to end. The reasons for this have to do with the role of women and their relationship with energy. In ancient times women were slaves, they were the providers of energy, they had to maintain water and fire. The arrival of electricity is closely related to the suffrage movements in America; it freed young women, who went to school and could continue their training until university. When women became more autonomous, free, more independent, there were fewer births.
- You do not seem optimistic and, nevertheless, your books are a guide for a sustainable future. Do we or do we not have a better future in sight?
-All my hopes are pinned on the millennial generation. Millennials have walked out of their classes to express their concern. Millions and millions of them demand the declaration of a climate emergency and ask for aGreen New Deal. The interesting thing is that this is not like any other protest in history, and there have been many, but this one is different: it moves hope, it is the first planetary revolt of human beings in all of history in which two generations have seen each other as species , endangered species. They propose to eliminate all limits and borders, prejudices, everything that separates us; they begin to see themselves as an endangered species and try to preserve the other creatures on the planet. This is probably the most momentous transformation of human consciousness in history.
The original version of this interview was published in number 113 of Fundación Telefónica's Telos Magazine.