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Jeremy Rifkin on San Antonio, the European Union, and the lessons learned in our push for a planetary-scale power shift

Photo: , License: N/A

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The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power is Transforming Energy, the Economy, and the World, Jeremy Rifkin, Palgrave MacMillan, $27, 291 page

I was going to ask you about that, but before we switch over let me ask you real quickly: why do you think Americans don’t get what you call “biosphere consciousness”? And is that what Obama is missing when it comes to, I think you paraphrased Bush in there, “the vision thing.” Does he just not get the immediacy of climate change?
I don’t know what's in his head. I don't. I do know if you go to any school in this country, any school in San Antonio — and this is true in any school in Europe and its even true in a lot of the developing world — the kids are learning this every day. They are coming to daddy and saying, “Why are you using so much water when you shave? Why do we have an SUV? Where did this hamburger come from that's on the table? How did my clothes get grown?” Not every kid does it, but you've got a generation that is becoming aware that every single thing they do has an ecological footprint that affects some other human being or family or some other creature in the earth. That’s new. That’s all in the last seven years. It shows the biosphere conscience can emerge very, very quickly. That’s a generational shift. I don’t know what’s in President Obama’s mind. … My sense is that he doesn’t have the narrative. In other words, he has the individual senses but he has no story. So when he talks about a green economic revolution, it’s all a policy list, it's like a laundry list. First he shows up at the battery factory, then he goes to an automobile company that is putting out an electric car, then he talks to solar-panel people in a factory. It’s all isolated, it doesn’t tell a story. What he hasn’t grasped is that the Third Industrial Revolution is the real revolution; the technology is a five-pillar infrastructure that has to be phased in simultaneously. And it’s those five pillars, this energy created in those five pillars, that is the technology revolution. Just like in the Second Industrial Revolution, you had pillars: You had centralized electricity. You had the telegraph and telephone, and radio and television as a communication vehicle. You had to have the automobile, you had to have pipelines. You had to have the highways and interstates. And then you had to have the incentives to build out the suburban extensions and then create the travel and tourism industry. It was all part of an infrastructure shift. What he’s doing now is he wants to mend up that infrastructure. What I say is you cannot let the Second Industrial Revolution infrastructure collapse. The business people in my group, we have 120 companies, big companies, we know you can’t let it collapse. It’s dangerous and in a delicate period in the next 25 years when we have to keep the old infrastructure alive, on life support, but aggressively move into the new infrastructure and the new communication-energy convergence. And that’s a difficult thing because it’s two different business models, two different portfolios, two different ways of thinking that you have to do on a parallel track, because we're stuck with the old model and we can't let it die. But we’ve got to put the new model in place. If we're just rebuilding the roads and fixing up aging infrastructure, we're not going to be there.
Print technology, organizing coal steam and rail gave us the First Industrial Revolution. Centralized electricity, organizing the auto, oil, and suburban roll-out gave us the Second Industrial Revolution. And so we start in the EU. The lucky thing there is that we actually have the beginnings of a new convergence emerging. Sometimes in history, there is no new convergence. Rome fell there was nothing to replace it in the 6th century. So what we’ve been noticing is that we had this really powerful internet revolution in the last 15 years, and what’s interesting about the internet, unlike centralized communication electricity in the 20th century, is this communication is distributing collaboratively. So the power scales laterally not pyramidically. And so you’ve got a couple billion people now who can send their own video, audio, and text to each other at the speed of light laterally, nodally, with more power than the top 10 centralized television networks of the 20th century. What we're beginning to see in Europe, and now is spreading to the other countries, and a little bit here, is that this distributive, collaborative internet communication revolution is now merging with this new energy regime [of] distributed energies. So when distributed IT and internet communication technologies begin to actually become the communication vehicle to manage distributive energy, we have a very powerful nervous system in which we can set up a 5-pillar infrastructure for the Third Industrial Revolution where we have the possibility of thousands and thousands of new businesses and millions and millions of jobs because you have to build the whole infrastructure over the years.
Now, what people have had a hard time grasping is what we mean by distributed energy. That's been difficult. When we think of energy, we think of energy as centralized, because they all need coal, gas, and uranium — they’re not found everywhere. You have to organize and centralize and then the scale has to be vertical, and the money, huge amounts of money, to bring them from the source back to the end user. And you have to have a lot of geopolitical management and a lot of military intervention to secure these very, very precious resources. But those energies are clearly sunsetting. The prices are never going to go down for any fossil fuel again. That we know. The way the tar sands are going, they’re only going to go up. And now the entropy bill is only going to go up. So how do you grow an economy when you know your basic energy regime and prices will never go down again, only go up, and the entropy bill you have to pay for them in terms of climate change is going to go up and never go down? That’s where the denial comes in versus the acceptance.
The EU is committed to this 5-pillar infrastructure for the Third Industrial Revolution based on the idea that renewables are found on every square inch of the world: in the wind, the heat underground — you’ve been writing about it for years. It’s found everywhere. So they are distributed by nature because they're found everywhere in different proportions and frequencies so they can be a little bit less distributed and more centralized, but they are distributed because they’re found everywhere. Under Merkel’s presidency to the EU in 2007 we committed to 20 percent renewable energy by 2020. That’s a mandate; that’s a third of the electricity in Europe. Germany hit the mark two weeks ago. They hit it way early and they’re going to 33 percent. They’re moving really aggressively and they’re exporting all their technologies to everyone else. But that’s Pillar 1. Pillar 2, and this will interest you in all of your coverage over the years, is how do we collect this energy? The first thought in Brussels was, “Oh well, you know, the Spanish, the Greeks, the Italians, they got all the sun. Let’s go down to the Mediterranean and grab it. Centralize it. Big solar projects. Send it back. The Irish have the wind, the Norwegians have the hydro, they'll put in big lines and send it around Europe.” I don’t oppose using large solar, wind, geothermal, and, with some big qualifications, hydro, all right?

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