Technology isn’t the most disruptive force of change in the world

by Jeremy Rifkin

I’m going to  start on a very sombre note. I hope at the end it will be somewhat of a liberating reflection. GDP is slowing all over the world. Productivity is on the decline. 
Unemployment is up. Economists are projecting 20 more years of low productivity, and slow growth. 

If we think about the industrial revolutions we’ve had, half the human race are much better off than before. The other half still haven’t caught up. The wealth of the top 8 wealthiest people in the world equals the accumulated wealth of one half of the human population - 3.5 billion people. There’s clearly something wrong with how we’re organising the economic family. There’s nothing like this in history.

This economic crisis, which is structural, has given rise to a much more profound environmental crisis. 

We’ve had 3 industrial revolutions, all based on digging up the burial grounds of the carboniferous era and turning it into this civilisation, and we have spewed massive amounts of CO2, Methane, and Nitrous Oxide into the atmosphere. We’re now in real-time climate change. This is not a theory, it’s not imminent, it’s not on the horizon. It’s in the house. 

Source: NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies

Source: NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies

What’s terrifying about Climate Change that isn’t often explained clearly is this: Climate Change changes the water cycles of the earth.  That’s what this is all about. We’re the watery planet. It’s never explained, and if it were, every parent and grandparent and teacher would be driven with one purpose and one agenda: to save our species in the next 7 decades. 

Our ecosystems have developed over millions of years based on the water cycles, the clouds that traverse our ecosystems. Here’s the rub: for every 1 degree our temperature goes up, the atmosphere is sucking up 7% more precipitation from the ground. The heat causes that. The water precipitates into the clouds quicker so we’re getting more concentrated precipitation - more violent water events- and also unpredictable. 

The Spring floods we've seen the US in the Carolina’s are supposedly one in a thousand year events -  they’ve had 6 in the past 2 and a half years. We're seeing more dramatic and prolonged droughts and wildfires [as experienced in the Western Cape of South Africa]. We’ve got category 3, 4, and 5 hurricanes. The one that hit the Philippines last year was the most powerful ever recorded. This is the new normal. 

And because the freshwater melts from the Arctic and Antarctica are moving so quickly, the water currents in our great oceans are on an exponential runaway curve. We are expecting storms on an unprecedented level in the coming decades that have never been seen by humans on this planet. Infrastructure will be destroyed and lives will be lost.  

Our scientists now tell us we’re on the 6th mass extinction event of life on planet earth, and it doesn’t even make headlines. We’ve had 5 mass extinction events on earth in the past 450million years, well before humans even showed up. And when they happened, they happened quickly. There’s always this tipping point in the chemistry of the planet, then massive die-out. On the average, it took 10 million years to get life back on earth after the die-out.


Our scientists tell us we’re on the 6th extinction event. We’re chronicling it, it’s not a model. And we’re being told we’re going to lose upwards of 50% of all the life-forms on Earth likely in the next 8 decades. The last time this happened was 65 million years ago. But then it took thousands of years. This is 8 decades. This is a wipe-out. 

We’re just not taking in the enormity of this. We’re greenwashing. We’re going on with business as usual.  This is one of 20 issues. No. This is about Extinction. This is about survival. 

99.5% of species of life that have ever been on this little planet have come, and gone. Actuarially speaking those are not good odds.  Humans are the youngest species, we’ve been here just 200 thousand years. We’re the babies. There’s no guarantee we’re gonna make it. 

So what do we do? 

We need a new economic vision for the world, and it needs to be compelling. We need a game-plan to deploy that vision. It needs to be quick. It has to move as quickly in the developing world as the industrialised world. We need to be off the carbon-based civilisation. Off. OFF in less than four decades. If we want to have any chance of at least avoiding the abyss, it’s about adaptation, resiliency, and later on about regeneration. 


Jeremy Rifkin

Jeremy Rifkin is the author of The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism and The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power is Transforming Energy, the Economy, and the World. Mr. Rifkin is an advisor to the European Union and to heads of state around the world, and president of the Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington, DC.

This is an extract from a talk by Jeremy Rifkin entitled "A history of the future – the world in 2025" delivered at the European Central Bank, published under a Creative Commons Attribution Licence