Being European doesn’t look much fun right now. The contradictions inherent in the monetary union are slowly and painfully playing themselves out, with the prospect of severe political and economic pain looming ever larger by the day. The more hysterical of my continental friends are talking of emigration to some new land of hope, either the US (although things are looking fairly ugly there, too), or to the eastern emerging economies.
Now, I pride myself on my qualities as a friend, and so to comfort them in their misery I simply tell them about a conversation I had recently with Jeremy Rifkin. In his new book ‘The Third Industrial Revolution’ (Palgrave MacMillan, 2011) he lays out the principle challenges facing humanity: the collapsing fossil fuel infrastructure on which our life-styles depend, rapidly increasing unemployment, mounting public and private sector debt in developed economies, decreasing living standards, the threat of starvation for 1/7th of the world’s population, and the dangers of climate change.
Usually at this point my friends just feel worse. But hang on, I tell them. Jeremy claims we need a radically new economic paradigm to get us out of this mess; one that prioritises sustainability and equality. For him, it is the confluence of internet technology and sustainable energy sources that provides the answer. He envisages a world in which hundreds of millions of people will produce their own green energy and share it on an ‘energy internet’, much like we create and share information on the internet at the moment. Jeremy claims this democratisation of energy – this Third Industrial Revolution – will lead to a flattening of the social and economic order; a fundamental re-structuring of the global economy from a hierarchical to a lateral system.
Crucially, it is the EU, not the US or emerging economies, that is most alive to the necessity of making such a transition if humanity is to thrive in the long run. Indeed, the European Parliament has already issued a formal declaration calling for the implementation of his vision. Thus, while Europe of course has huge problems, it is actually the most prepared region for the major changes that will need to take place. The rest of the world, he says, needs to follow Europe’s lead.
In this sense, it might be worth sticking around a little while longer. Perhaps, I say in my most soothing tone, being European isn’t so bad after all…
Jeremy Rifkin is a senior lecturer at the Wharton School’s Executive Education Programme at the University of Pennsylvania.