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Thomas L Friedman: Hot, Flat, and Crowded

Hot, Flat, and CrowdedThe subtitle of Friedman’s latest exposition on globalization is ‘Why We Need a Green Revolution and How it can Renew America’.  In the context of what Friedman calls the Energy-Climate era, Hot, Flat, and Crowded presents the state of what is, how it became that way and what it could become.  He traveled the world speaking to leaders and witnessing first-hand the effect that what he calls global weirding (because CO2 emmissions don’t just make the temperature hotter, they make the weather weirder) is having on our environment, especially when coupled with the forces of globalization.  As typical with any Friedman work the book is very entertaining and full of pithy, attention grabbing stories that pull from publications that span the globe and quotes from leaders like GE’s CEO Jeffrey Immelt to Barnabus Suebu, the governor of Indonesia’s forest-rich province of Papua.

The first part of the book is basically a 50 page summary of The World is Flat, with increased attention paid to the growing population and how the two effect weather. For an even more concise summary of how the world is flat read Friedman’s recent op-ed in the New York Times.  We are all interconnected.  A mortgage crisis in the US hurts Icelandic banks which hurts English police forces.

The second part of the book focuses on how the earth’s limited resources will not be able to handle the projected increases in consumption rates and population.   Friedman quotes from James Gustave Speth’s book The Bridge at the Edge of the World to highlight the ever expanding world economy.  Speth said “It took all of human history to build the seven-trillion-dollar world economy of 1950: today economic activity grows by that amount every decade.”  It’s not just about money.  The world is projected to grow from three billion people in 1955 to nine billion people in 2050.   More important than the sheer number of people is the fact that a flat world is rapidly increasing the consumption rates of millions of people.  Whereas one billion people live an American sytle lifestyle now in terms of energy consumption, by 2050 the number is expected to more than double.  The earth can not sustain three billion SUV owning, ipod listening, McMansion owning people.  Friedman did not overlook the fairness factor and relayed a metaphor told to him by an Egyptian cabinet minister: the minister said, “It is like the developed world ate all the hors d’oeuvres, all the entrees, and all the desserts and then invited the developing world for a little coffee and asked us to split the whole bill.”  While acknowledging that Americans are in no place to lecture, we are in a position to invent and innovate and to set a better example.  Friedman has a great belief in the ability of Americans to innovate to solve large problems: though we are not in a position to lecture, we now know better and are primed to set a new example, “to use our resources and know-how to invent the renewable, clean power sources and energy efficiency systems that can make growth greener”.

In a chapter on “petropolitics” Friedman convincingly argues that the pace of freedom in natural resource rich nations is inversely related to the price of oil (prime examples: Iran, Russia, Venezuala and Nigeria) and that our energy purchases are funding both sides of the “war on terror”.  Our purchases enrich conservative, Islamic governments that sponsor mosques, schools and charities that in turn sponsor anti-American terrorist groups.  The addiction also persuades our government to turn a blind eye to countries that oppress women and restrict freedom or other governments, like China, to build partnerships with murderous dictatorships such as its relationship with Sudan.

It is also in the second section that Friedman discusses how weather is becoming more extreme and biodiversity is being threatened due to preventable causes like the use of dirty fuels and deforestation. While espousing the value of beauty and nature, Friedman is sure to point out that people and industries will suffer without major changes in our energy systems and how we live.  Without the right controls and incentives we will continue to destroy the environment.  Two prime examples are the subsidization of corn in the US and the deforestation of Asia to create net loss alternative energy sources.

The third part of the book, “How We Move Forward” is my favorite.  While not understating the difficulty of the challenge, Friedman presents what a day 20 years into the Energy Climate Era might look like.  All devices, from your dishwasher, thermostat and washer and dryer are plugged into the grid and can be centrally managed.  Cars can sell excess capacity back into the grid when parked in particular garages.  Rates for energy fluctuate based on demand so consumption-intensive activities are scheduled during non-peak times.  It’s all very futuristic, but does not seem unattainable.

In his latest op-ed in the New York Times Friedman presents several of the same arguments that are in the book.   Require every utility to produce 20 percent of its power from renewable, clean sources.  Institute a system that rewards utilities for how much electricity or gas they get their customers to save rather than consume.  Taxes, and tax credits for forward-thinking individuals and organizations, are also important and discussed at length.  The goal of requiring utilities to produce power from renewable sources would spur growth in that sector domestically while decreasing the continued dirtying of our environment.  Many states have adopted similar measures but that is not good enough.  Rewarding utilities with monopolies and regulating rates may have been necessary to ensure that rural areas were brought online, but now it is time to completely change the energy infrastructure.

There are two final sections–one on China, one on America–that specifically discuss the challenges and opportunities each country faces in the hot, flat, and crowded world.  These sections were more focused on the political environment.

What I like most about Friedman is his ability to see the whole picture, to see a bevy of huge problems (climate change, the rise of dictators, weakening dollar) and to find opportunity in the problems and to be eternally, practically optimistic.  Hot, Flat, and Crowded is disturbing, hopeful, educational and very entertaining.

katie said,

November 16, 2008 @ 11:18 pm

..FINALLY got around to reading this review. Thanks for giving us a good picture of Friedman’s latest. (hooray for incentivizing companies to DEincentivize consumers from using more energy…or something like that. good stuff.

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