Jeremy Rifkin is not a man lacking in vision. The broad sweep of his ideas is breathtaking, and his imagination has been working overtime. Unfortunately, he seems in the process to have lost touch with reality.
Like so many futurologists, he starts with the cliché that we are approaching the end of the fossil fuel age. This has been predicted since the sixties, but it has a disconcerting way of not quite happening. It has rightly been said that the Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stones but because we found better technologies. I suspect that the fossil fuel age will end for the same reason. The new technology is more likely to be nuclear fusion than windmills. If fossil fuels are "antiquated", as Rifkin claims, wind power is positively antediluvian.
He seems unaware of the revolution in fossil fuel extraction. The U.S. is awash with gas, which is relatively cheap and much lower in CO2 emissions than, say, coal. Even in Europe we are finding big shale gas deposits – not least in north western parts of Britain. In the meantime, some estimates of the oil available from tar sands in Canada are put at centuries of supply. And when we start to mine it again, the UK has enough coal for many decades.
Rifkin is concerned about climate change. This is a long and complex debate, but in summary the small changes we have seen in global temperatures in the last century are entirely consistent with well-established, long-term, natural climate cycles. Scientists are increasingly questioning the theory of anthropogenic climate change, while governments are less and less willing in these difficult economic times to face the exorbitant costs of renewables. I predict that in 20 years' time we will look back on climate alarmism as an absurd and quaint obsession.
A recent report from the KPMG accountancy firm points out that the UK government's EU-imposed emissions reduction targets could be better achieved by a policy of gas plus nuclear, and that this route would cut the bill for emissions reduction by a third and save £34bn.
We have seen the high-profile bankruptcy of solar power operator Solyndra in the U.S., while Chinese solar panel manufacturers are reportedly in deep trouble. Rifkin skates over the intermittency problem with vague references to "deployment of hydrogen and other storage technologies". But these technologies are nowhere near ready, and like his predictions of electric vehicles, are simply fanciful. When plug-in electric cars have a range of 400 miles with air-conditioning, lights and wipers switched on, and a longer battery replacement cycle, then maybe they will be viable.
Rifkin glibly attributes rising unemployment to "ageing industrial infrastructure based on fossil fuels", without seeking to justify the supposed connection. Most economists would attribute current economic problems to excessive debt and excessive government spending. Some would point to a dysfunctional currency experiment in the eurozone, and many would rightly blame the huge burden of green policies, carbon trading, energy taxes and so on. Renewables are (at least in part) the cause of our difficulties, not the solution.
Rifkin suggests that the EU is "leading the way to the Third Industrial Revolution". If it leads it as successfully as it has "led the world in fighting climate change", it might find that it has few followers.
Rifkin finally flies off to La-la Land in seeking to define a distinction between what he calls "conventional geopolitics" and "fledgling biosphere politics", though it is by no means clear what he means, beyond an amusing verbal device. He seems to be harking back to James Lovelock's old and discredited "Gaia" theory, which saw the earth as a living organism. Great metaphor and great mythology, but no meaningful content, no new insights, no predictive power. Like so many false prophets, Rifkin actually seems to be looking back rather than forward, and to the extent that he does look forward, he points to dangerous and unworkable solutions.
Roger Helmer was first elected to the European Parliament in 1999, and re-elected in 2004 and 2009. email@example.com.