AIHce: Futurist Jeremy Rifkin and the Future of Work

June 3, 2008
Although the opening session of the American Industrial Hygiene Conference and Exhibition (AIHce) in Minneapolis on June 2 was called “The Future of Work,” it just as easily could have been called “Power to the People.”

Futurist Jerry Rifkin, president of the Foundation or Economic Trends in Washington, D.C., painted a bleak picture of the future of the world unless almost immediate steps are taken to reduce global warming and the carbon footprint the human species has left on the earth. While other ages have been known as the Stone Age and the Bronze Age, Rifkin said our age will be the Fossil Fuel Age. We will be known as the Fossil Fuel People, he says.

According to Rifkin, climate change, increasing inflation and debt, increasing political instability in oil-producing countries and the growing divide between the very rich and the very poor is contributing to a species – ours – that is on the brink of extinction unless the mindset of every citizen of the world begins to change.

Experts claim that in the next several decades, the world will continue to warm, anywhere from 2 to 10 degrees, in a relatively short period of time. To put that into perspective, Rifkin noted a 2-degree Celsius increase in the earth’s temperature will lead to the extinction of 30 to 70 percent of plant life and animal life. And, Rifkin added, “Two degrees is being optimistic!”

He also noted that while many of us complain about the pain in our wallets when we fill up at the pump, the rising cost of fossil fuels is causing increases in many other costs, such as food. “Two billion people in the world live on $1 to $2 per day,” Rivkin pointed out, “and they spend half of their money on food. If that food increases in price … We’re seeing it now; 200 million people are on the verge of starving to death.”

As a race of people, he said, “Climate change is our greatest accomplishment, and the worst.” We’ve managed to create a chemical change on the earth in 100 years, he said, adding, “No other species has ever done that.”

Peak Oil

Between 2010 and 2020, the world will reach what Rifkin called “peak oil,” which means half of the world’s oil supply will be used up. If you imagine oil usage as a bell curve, with cost continuing to increase as supply decreases, oil soon will be unaffordable for most countries and people.

The solution, said Rifkin, is to spend the next 7 to 10 years “creating one road map for the whole human race … we can’t afford another mistake like corn ethanol.” With prime farmland being used to grow corn for biofuel (which uses tremendous resources to create) while other prime land is used to grow feed for beef cattle to supply the burger chains of the world, there is not much land left to grow food for humans, according to Rifkin, and that needs to change.

We are on the cusp of a third industrial revolution, he said, one that must revolve around distributed energy if the human race is to survive. “Distributed energy is energy found in your backyard. Solar, wind, thermo and hydropower are available to everybody,” said Rifkin. “Every country has sun. Every country has wind.”

The pillars of the third industrial revolution, according to Rifkin, are:

  1. Getting more people and nations and corporations and energy companies to utilize renewable distributed energies.
  2. Turning all buildings – homes, offices, shopping malls, manufacturing facilities – into power plants by getting them to generate their own power through renewable distributed energies and get off the grid. He cited the example of a Frito-Lay facility that has been able to get off the grid by harnessing renewable energy. “The cost will be paid back in 10 years, so for the next 50 years, that facility has no energy costs,” said Rifkin.
  3. Discovering ways to store the energy all these buildings will create. The best option to date is hydrogen storage, which has two byproducts: water that is clean enough to drink and heat (energy).
  4. Creating a communication revolution that coincides with the industrial revolution to creates a grid like the Internet that allows energy to be shared across the power grid.

According to Rifkin, 50 percent of the world has never made a telephone call; one out of three people has never had electricity.

“We can have all the technology in the world and we’re not going to get to the promised land,” said Rifkin. “We can have a new economic plan and we’re not going to get there. We need to change our thinking. We need to think like Homo sapiens, as a species group in the biosphere. We have to get on the same page in the next 10 years.

“Power to the people!”

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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