World on the 'cusp of a new energy regime'
10.04.06 @ 17:24
COPENHAGEN - The world is moving towards a new third industrial revolution based on a new energy regime, argues US thinker Jeremy Rifkin as Europe considers how to reformulate its energy policy.
"We are on the cusp of a new energy regime that will alter our way of life as fundamentally as the introduction of coal and steam power in the 19th century and the shift to oil and the internal combustion engine in the 20th century", argues Mr Rifkin in an interview with the EUobserver.
"The hydrogen era looms on the horizon and the first major industrial nation to harness its full potential will set the pace for economic development for the remainder of the century."
To back up his thesis, he says that Hitachi and Toshiba are planning to bring the first portable fuel cells to the market in 2007.
Consumers will be able to power up their cell phones, lap top computers, digital cameras, and Mp3 players with a single cartridge. And the first mass-produced vehicles are expected to be in the showrooms between 2010 and 2012, he points out.
"Today's centralised, top-down flow of energy, controlled by global oil companies will then become obsolete," says Mr Rifkin, who is founder of Washington-based think-tank the Foundation on Economic Trends.
Europe's energy policy
Referring to Europe's intention to create a common energy policy for the 25-nation bloc, he says "I see it as the next stage of European integration. The commission report [on energy published in March] is a start, but it is still a grab bucket at this point and appears to serve all sorts of interests."
"It's not just about a common energy policy or making sure that big electricity and power companies are competitive. You've got to move to renewable energy and benchmark it much more aggressively and you've got to have the hydrogen infrastructure to store the renewable energy, or you won't be able to make it."
"I think it is a big struggle. The big power and electricity companies are certainly not going to want to be left out. It's just about what happened to communication and telecoms companies."
"We already have a distributive communication revolution; it's taken us twenty years to get personal computers, the Internet, satellites, wireless, mobiles. But we have not yet understood its mission."
"The deeper mission is that this is the communication vehicle for the new energy regime".
Hydrogen will allow anyone to carry a fuel cell around with them, generating and consuming energy as they go. It's analogous to carrying a computer around today, generating and consuming information, Mr Rifkin explains.
"We have to reconfigure the power grip of Europe and the world, so that it’s smart and distributive just like the Internet. This is open-source energy".
"This new energy regime will mean re-globalisation, this time from the bottom up".
Capitalism on trial
And re-globalisation is Mr Rifkin's other big theme; he has written several books on the matter. Globalisation needs to be re-worked, he argues, so that the world’s poor can benefit too.
Capitalism promised that globalisation would narrow the gap between rich and poor. Instead the divide has only widened, he points out.
The three hundred fifty-six richest families on the planet enjoy a combined wealth that now exceeds the annual income of forty percent of the human race. The three richest families on the planet enjoy a combined wealth that exceeds the annual income of the 940 million poorest people living on earth.
We also live in a globalised world where two-thirds of the human race has still never made a single phone call and one-third of the human race has no access to electricity, leaving them marginalised and isolated in global commerce and trade, while the top 500 or so global corporations rule much of the world.
"We have somehow got to realise that cultural relations proceed commerce and trade. Well, you don't hear that in World Economic Forum in Davos – it's all about the bottom line."
"I'm ready for an engaged struggle between cultures, in the form of a great conversation. That conversation is a precedent to a deep globalisation of commerce and trade", he says.
Mr Rifkin, who favours European corporate, human and social values over America’s emphasis on individualism and patriotism, says that the world is looking to Europe to see if the world's first attempt to act with a global conscience is going to work and if there is something worth copying.
Referring to the rejection of the EU constitution in France and the Netherlands last year, Mr Rifkin argues that "what is really on trial in the recent constitutional fray in Europe is not the EU constitution, but, rather the future of capitalism itself, not only in Europe, but throughout the rest of the world."
"An increasing number of Europeans are asking themselves whether the liberal market model or the social market model is the best approach to charting the economic future," he concludes.