EU can lead world on 'lateral' governance, says Rifkin

02/01/2011 08:29

From EurActiv

The EU is better positioned than any other region in the world to build a seamless energy, transport and communication grid that will create a "lateral", continental market for one billion people, said Jeremy Rifkin in an exclusive interview with EurActiv.


Rifkin, an American economist and well-known author of the acclaimed book 'The European Dream', believes the world has reached the end game of a second industrial revolution. The global economic recovery is driving up oil and food prices, sparking social unrest.

The world has reached peak oil in terms of pro-capita reserves. The system will collapse once more when oil prices will rise to $140 or $150 a barrel again, Rifkin said.

According to the economist, this end game has set in motion a third industrial revolution, which will be based on continental energy infrastructure and governance.

Boosting renewables, transforming every building into a power plant, developing hydrogen storage capacity, adapting Internet and communication technologies and developing plug-in transport are the five infrastructure pillars of Rifkin's third industrial revolution.   

"It's like Wi-Fi: each city and region becomes a node that connects with all the other nodes, sharing a collaborative power grid," he said. "You know the saying 'information likes to run free on the Internet?' The third industrial revolution infrastructure likes to run uninhibited across continuous landmasses until it reaches the oceans."

Rifkin reckons that integrating the EU and its 500 million consumers with "partnership regions" in the Mediterranean and North Africa, bringing on board another 500 million, would create a market of one billion people. 

According to Rifkin the EU is ideally positioned to lead the 21st century, it just doesn't know it yet. "What is ironic about this is that they're so close, but they're not there," he said.

But some do know. Today (1 February) in the European Parliament, MEPs from all political groups, the leading European trade associations (UEAPME; Coop Europe) and consumer organisations (BEUC) will sign up to a declaration in support of Rifkin's vision.

The coalition will call on the European Commission and EU leaders meeting on Friday to immediately submit a comprehensive legislative programme for transitioning the EU to a post-carbon, 'third industrial revolution' economy.

"The EU has all parts of the symphony but it does not have the conductor putting together the opera," said Rifkin.

Forget G8, G20: the future is with continental unions

According to the economist, world governance will not revolve around current structures, not even the most recent Group of Twenty major economies.

"I'm always amused that we hear all this talk about G20, G8, G2, but a completely different political configuration is emerging that no-one is talking about – and that is continental unions," Rifkin said, stressing they are the ideal framework for lateral infrastructure and networks.

Rifkin explained that an Asian Union is forming quickly, along the same lines as the EU, and will hopefully be in place by 2014.

Looking at the African Union, he said the EU was instrumental in building it as it launched hundreds of millions of euros' worth of projects to create the beginnings of the third industrial revolution's infrastructure.

The same is perceivable in South America, where a union was formed two years ago out of the old Mercosur and Andean unions, he said, adding that NAFTA [a free trade agreement between the US, Canada and Mexico] is not a union but intra-continental unions between the northern US states and the Canadian provinces are shaping up.

"The EU has an enormous opportunity to be the flagship for a new model of governance. At the same time that it can integrate its own continental space and create a seamless post-carbon energy and communication network, its political governance can be a model for creating similar kinds of arrangements with other unions," Rifkin argued.

From geopolitics to biosphere politics

The economist explains that the third industrial revolution will be both entrepreneurial and collaborative. But it will require a shift from the geopolitical to biosphere politics.

"Biosphere politics is continental politics. It gives us a greater sense that we're part of a human family – in other words, as we move to continents we don't give up nations, regions or cities but they all become nodes in continental networks that are lateral. And that gives us biosphere politics," he said.

While geopolitics reflected the national markets, nation states and fossil fuels of the first and second industrial revolutions, the third one will make everyone responsible for their own little node in the biosphere and people will secure their own energy from the Sun, the wind and the ground, he said.

"But we will share that energy collaboratively in open-source networks across continents," Rifkin added.

Explaining his concept, Rifkin said the system was based on cooperation, because renewables are everywhere, on every square foot, but require common stewardship of the Earth.

"This is a generational shift, and what we are finding is some politicians are the old order – they are centralised, hierarchical, top-down, proprietary, very closed, and the others – and they can cross party-lines completely – are more distributive, open, lateral, flat," he said.

Citing a few examples of where the revolution is already happening, Rifkin argues that there is a crucial need to rethink education and prepare young people for laying down a distributed, collaborative infrastructure that is smart, but also to prepare them for distributed, collaborative social capital in civil society.



Five MEPs – Maria Carvhalho (EPP), Jo Leinen (S&D), Fiona Hall (ALDE), Claude Turmes (Greens/EFA) and Marisa Matias (GUE/NGL) – have made a 'Brussels declaration' for a third industrial revolution together with UEAPME, Cooperatives Europe, BEUC and Jeremy Rifkin.

"The energy summit on 4th February 2011 must open the door to a new industrial revolution for the way energy is produced, transported and consumed in the European Union", demanded the MEPs from five different political groups.

The EU has a ''unique chance'' to combine the climate strategy with economic and social objectives and investments are waiting for a political framework, they say. A five pillar strategy could provide technological leadership, create millions of jobs and reduce the insecurity of energy imports, they argue.

Priority must be given to renewable energies and energy efficiency and buildings and cars must become carbon-free, providing storage capacities for electricity, they said. The European Commission should present a comprehensive plan for a ''third industrial revolution'' in the energy sector, stated the MEPs.

Andrea Benassi, secretary-general of European SME association UEAPME, sees the third industrial revolution as ''an extraordinary opportunity'' for small and medium-sized companies, which will become ''users, installers, creators of new technologies, advisers on energy efficiency and micro-generators of renewable energy'.'

The current economic and climate crises will make it compulsory to switch to this new system, which must be promoted at local, national but also EU level, he argued.

Monique Goyens, director-general of European consumers' organisation BEUC, said this revolution will ''only become a reality if the convergence between energy and new communication technologies is taken on board by consumers, SMEs, cooperatives and trade unions'.'

"Co-operative enterprises are an offshoot of the first industrial revolution and contribute towards building a more equitable and people-centred economy,'' said Klaus Niederländer, director of Cooperatives Europe.

''The third industrial revolution is in line with these basic principles, which aims to create a more resilient and sustainable energy market for all citizens of Europe. Everyone can and should benefit from these new technologies by actively participating in their co-creation, co-production and co-diffusion,'' he stated.


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