- Characterizes greenhouse-gas emissions produced by human industrial activity as “the greatest threat our species has ever faced”
Jeremy Rifkin was born in Denver, Colorado in January 1945, and was raised in southwest Chicago. He holds an economics degree from the Wharton School of Business, and a degree in international affairs from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Rifkin was active in the peace movement. He helped organize the massive 1967 March on the Pentagon, and two years later he co-founded the Citizens Commission, a group devoted to publicizing alleged U.S. war crimes in Vietnam. In 1970 Rifkin established the People’s Bicentennial Commission (PBC), a New Left organization that preached hostility to corporations and called for a second American Revolution, this one based on leftist principles. In 1973, on the 200th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, Rifkin and PBC staged a so-called Boston Oil Party, a huge demonstration whose purpose was, as Rifkin put it, “to promote radical change” by condemning big oil companies and their profits.
In the late 1970s, Rifkin, with no formal training in the physical sciences, began speaking out against the fledgling biotechnology industry, which he viewed as a manifestation of mankind’s ill-advised impulse to interfere with the workings of the natural world. Noting Rifkin’s “skillfully manipulated legal and bureaucratic procedures to slow the pace of biotechnology,” National Journal named him as one of the 150 most influential people in shaping federal government policy.
Since 2002, Rifkin has served as an advisor to the European Union. In that capacity, he has been the chief architect of the so-called Third Industrial Revolution, a long-term “economic sustainability” strategy to address issues of global economics, energy security, and climate change. The latter of these, which Rifkin attributes to greenhouse-gas emissions produced by human industrial activity, “may be the greatest threat our species has ever faced,” he says. “The effects of climate change are already eroding economies in many parts of the world,” adds Rifkin, “as extreme weather events destroy ecosystems and agricultural infrastructure.”
By Rifkin’s reckoning, “The Third Industrial Revolution will be driven in part by the need to mitigate the entropic impact of the first two industrial revolutions.” Whereas the second of those revolutions was “organized around the oil-powered internal combustion engine, suburban construction and the creation of a mass consumer society,” the third, explains Rifkin, will involve a transition to “renewables like wind, solar, geothermal and biomass.” Renewables are highly desirable, he says, because—unlike coal and gas, which “are only found in a few places” and can only be harvested with “significant military and geopolitical investments and massive finance capital”—they “are found in some proportion everywhere” and thus can be part of a seamless “internet-like smart energy grid that extends across nations and even continents.”
“Just as the internet led to the democratization of information,” says Rifkin, “the Third Industrial Revolution will lead to the democratization of energy.” This “distributed energy” arrangement will require that “market capitalism” be transformed into “distributed capitalism,” which “relies on the opposite view of human nature.” Specifically, Rifkin explains, nations will need to drop their traditional pursuit of narrow self-interest and instead “shift toward continentalization.” “The EU is a first attempt at organizing a new frame of reference across continents, but it’s a transitional governing form,” Rifkin states. The ultimate goal, in Rifkin’s view, is not geopolitics but “biosphere politics,” where people in every part of the globe will share a common agenda. “You’re never going to get globalization until empathy extends to the whole species,” he claims.
The concept of Rifkin’s Third Industrial Revolution was formally endorsed by the European Parliament in 2007 and has been implemented by various agencies within the European Commission.
Rifkin is also the founder and chairman of the Third Industrial Revolution Global CEO Business Roundtable, which consists of 100 leading companies in the fields of renewable energy, construction, architecture, real estate, information technology, power and utilities, and transport and logistics. This Roundtable collaborates with cities, regions, and national governments to develop plans for carbon-free economies.
In his book Beyond Beef, Rifkin promotes the elimination of meat from people’s diets as a “revolutionary act” that could help usher in “a new chapter in the unfolding of human consciousness.” In 1992 Rifkin launched a Beyond Beef Campaign, a coalition of six environmental groups (including Greenpeace, Public Citizen, and the Rainforest Action Network) calling for a 50% reduction in the consumption of beef.1
In the early 2000s, Rifkin was instrumental in founding the Green Hydrogen Coalition, an alliance of thirteen environmental and political organizations (including Greenpeace and MoveOn.org) committed to building a renewable hydrogen-based economy.
At one time, Rifkin was a board member of EarthSave International, along with PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk. Since 2004, he has been a senior lecturer in the Wharton School’s Executive Education Program, where he instructs CEOs and senior management personnel on transitioning their business operations into “sustainable” economies. Moreover, he writes a monthly column on global issues, which appears in many leading newspapers and magazines.
Since the 1970s, Rifkin has lectured at hundreds of the world’s largest corporations and more than 300 universities in some thirty nations. He has testified before numerous congressional committees on a variety of environmental, scientific and technology-related issues. And he has authored 17 books on the impact of scientific and technological changes on the economy, the workforce, society, and the environment. Rifkin’s books have been translated into more than thirty languages and are used in thousands of universities, corporations, and government agencies worldwide.
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1 Rifkin’s concern with reducing or eliminating beef consumption is founded on the premise that cattle (from which beef is derived) release into the atmosphere large amounts of the greenhouse gas methane. But in fact, methane emissions from cows amount to only 60 tons per year worldwide—as compared to 5 million tons from fresh water, 10 million tons from ocean water, and 40 million tons from termites.