Nonprofits urged to spur new industrial revolution

By Todd Cohen

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. — The earth is dying, choking on its own pollution, and while the European Union has embarked on an ambitious “Third Industrial Revolution” fueled by green energy and networked digital technology, the human species is running out of time.

Nonprofits and other civil-sector players should convene business, government and philanthropy to talk about how to spark that new economic model and “biosphere consciousness” in the U.S.

That was the message that Jeremy Rifkin, a futurist and adviser to the European Union and Germany, delivered this month to 650 people attending the annual conference of the North Carolina Center for Nonprofits.

The civil sector represents a new “commons,” Rifkin said. “That’s where we create social capital, where we create our stories.’

And while that social sector has been surging in the wake of the collapse of the capital markets four years ago, and represents the fastest-growing employment sector, nonprofits also represent a sector that is “parasitic,” relying on support from government and philanthropy, he said.

But the new economy that Rifkin said has been taking off in Europe, particularly in Germany, will create new types of jobs and institutions built on clean energy and collaboration that will result in continuing growth of nonprofits and other social-benefit organizations.

The world, Rifkin said, is in the midst of an “epic-making global economic crisis” that has given rises to a “species crisis” that could mean the end of human life.

“Our species is in trouble,” he said.

The market crash four years ago simply marked the “aftershock” of an “economic earthquake” that exploded 60 days earlier when oil hit its peak price on world markets, sending prices throughout the supply chain “through the roof” and shutting down purchasing power throughout the world, he said.

“We have reached the end game,” he said.

And despite modest recovery in recent years, oil prices surged again in the first quarter of this year, and “purchasing power is shutting down all over,” he said. “We are in a second downturn.”

Compounding that economic crisis is a second crisis, with pollution from the industrial revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries having created a crisis that poses a grave threat to our species.

“Climate change is much worse than we are being told,” Rifkin said.

“Our science models are now showing we are in the sixth-greatest extinction event on this planet,” said Rifkin, who is 67. ” We could lose upwards of 70 percent of all life by the time little kids are my age. We’re asleep.”

The new industrial revolution, like the two before it, is occurring because humans are changing “energy regimes” and will require “new communications systems,”  he said.

Green energies, distributed with the help of the Internet, will produce a new economy that is “organized collaboratively” and “scales laterally.”

Unlike centralized sources of energy like coal, oil, gas and shale gas that are found in only a few places and require “huge military investment” to secure, renewable energies like solar, wind, geothermal, forestry waste, tides and garbage can be found in “our backyard” and are adequate to “provide for our species,” Rifkin said.

The third industrial revolution, to which the European Union has committed itself, will be built on “five pillars,” he said.

Those include generating one-third of all energy from renewable sources by 2020; decentralized collection of that energy, mainly from green buildings and businesses that will function as “micro-power” plants; storing that energy; using the Internet to create a “nervous system” for distributing that energy by converting energy transmission lines to a “smart grid;” and plugging in our cars, buses and trucks, creating electric vehicles and transportation.

Building the infrastructure for that revolution will result in a massive creation of jobs for 40 years, Rifkin said.

It also will result in new roles for business and nonprofit organizations, and new jobs in the social sector.

Power and utility companies will “continually decrease production of centralized power,” Rifkin said. “They’ll make money by selling as little of their own energy as they can.”

That change will require “shared savings agreements” and intermediaries that will broker the sale of power from coops and other micro-producers, including individuals, to the power companies.

The new economy will consist of “distributed capitalism,” based on a decentralized infrastructure.

And anyone will be able to use the internet to buy and sell power and a broad range of products and services, using the web for their marketing and distribution.

“This is power to the people,” Rifkin said. “Peer to peer is power. We are moving from an industrial era to a collaborative era.”

That shift also reflects the move “from ownership to access,” he said.

Still, he said, “we’re really racing against the clock.”

And the U.S. has failed to commit itself to the new economy.

“We have got to change consciousness,” he said. “We have to move from geopolitics to biosphere consciousness.”

Nonprofit leaders in North Carolina should create a task force that includes representatives from business, civil society and government to “talk about how to set up this infrastructure,” he said.

“It will start in the civil society,” he said. “You create social capital. You start the conversation. You bring the parties together. You can do this.”

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