The World is Greening
Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution--And How It Can Renew America
Comparing Thomas Friedman’s newest tome, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, with his world-renowned bestseller The World is Flat is inevitable. Both are timely books about global trends; both, by title, examine the “flattening” of the world by globalization. At first glance, the new book stirs the same gut anxiety as The World is Flat, that America had better get its act together fast or it will be out-competed by the rest of the world, especially China and India. After finishing Friedman’s rambling 400-page pastiche of all things to do with energy and the environment, however, one finds a slightly more complicated picture. Perhaps unintentionally, the jacket artwork, scenes from Hieronymus Bosch’s medieval painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights, captures the competing messages of the book quite neatly. The painting is a triptych, depicting heaven on one side, hell on the other, and humanity in the middle reveling in life’s pleasures, a strikingly heavy work for a journalist’s book on current events. Scholars have debated whether the elaborate tableau is a moral warning to desist from such a carefree life, or a depiction of a paradise lost. The same can be asked of Friedman’s writing.
At the core of Hot, Flat, and Crowded is a call for a “Code Green” in America, a green revolution that will restore America’s economic and political leadership in the world while preventing disastrous climate change. Friedman identifies five major problems greatly exacerbated by the combination of global warming, an ultra-competitive world, and a growing population. These problems are the widening mismatch between energy supply and demand, which will stress the world’s economy as the price of everything increases; “petrodictatorships,” which will continue to stifle democracy and threaten the rest of the world, propped up by oil revenues; climate change itself, which will have drastic effects; the lack of access to energy for many of the world’s poor, which will cause them to fall further and further behind; and biodiversity loss, which will leave future generations with far fewer natural resources. The first half of the book describes these problems, while the second half is meant to offer a vision for “how we move forward,” based around a call to leverage America’s resources and ingenuity to create the innovations in clean energy and efficiency that will carry the world into a sustainable future. Such a concerted effort, which Friedman warns will not be “205 Easy Ways to Save the Earth” and which he likens to the Civil Rights Movement, World War II, and the Industrial Revolution, will have world-changing results.
For many concerned environmentalists, much of what Friedman writes about energy and the environment will be old hat. The book, however, is far too general to fit into the genre of books on climate change. Friedman does explain the problem of global warming and the huge efforts that must be taken to reverse it, but he moves beyond those questions to the economic, political, and social benefits from a green revolution. In the new Hot, Flat, and Crowded world, a world that Friedman claims has entered the Energy-Climate Era (2000 C.E. = 1 E.C.E.), businesses and countries will prosper based on how environmentally friendly and energy efficient they are. Those who take the lead on being green — those who “outgreen” everyone else — will yield enormous dividends. Friedman claims to speak to both environmentalists and conservatives, because in his revolution a green America and an economically strong America will go hand-in-hand. Friedman could be speaking to anyone; his perpetual world travels and immersion in current events provide a wide range of intriguing examples to support his arguments. Army commanders in Iraq ask for energy-efficient air conditioners and solar power in order to reduce their need to transport diesel fuel across dangerous territory. The Chinese demand for scrap metal in 2004 led to manhole covers being stolen and shipped to China from locations as far away as Chicago. Near Cairo, an olive farm that began in the middle of the desert in the 1990s is now surrounded by gated communities with golf courses, putting pressure on the water tables. Friedman includes everything at least tangentially related to his points, from the freak storms that have resulted from climate change, to an Oakland environmentalist’s mission to bring green jobs to poor neighborhoods, to a discussion on how an environmental movement in China could lead to more political freedom, to an ethic of conservation espoused by Harvard’s popular philosopher, Michael Sandel. Friedman unwisely claims that “for me, the crucial question of this book is actually two questions: ‘Can America really lead a real green revolution?’ and ‘Can China really follow?’ Everything else is just commentary.” If this is the case, two thirds of his book is commentary.
But capturing an era while it happens is no easy task, and if Friedman’s weakness is focus, his strength is inclusion. From the journalist’s juxtapositions of a hundred different snippets of the world — the Denmark boom in wind energy next to America’s failure to extend tax credits for renewables, or the maids who leave Indonesia for low-wage domestic work next to the priceless Indonesian forests that are cut down for the world market — emerge patterns of global change. Companies redesigning their buildings and products from the start, whether they are cars or server banks, save energy and money. Diverse groups, from energy barons to indigenous tribes, are finding that acting in the planet’s good is in their interest. The world is taking a million baby steps in a green direction, though by no means is it moving quickly enough on the problems that Friedman lists. But extrapolating these baby steps to giant strides is difficult to avoid and makes Friedman’s call to action convincing.
The future, however, is hard to predict, and Friedman has been known to overstate the importance of current trends (in 2006 a blogger humorously coined the Friedman Unit, which is equal to six months, after the fourteen columns that Friedman wrote in the span of two and half years in which he predicted that the next six months would determine the success or failure of the American military in Iraq). Even this reviewer, who has every predisposition to embrace Friedman’s “Code Green” proposal, finds that he goes a bit far at times. In the chapter “China for a Day (But Not Two),” for example, Friedman muses on the great benefits that could result from America adopting an authoritarian government for a day — in order to put into place energy policies and efficiency standards — and then reverting back to the democratic and capitalist society that will grow immensely from them. Though the issues surrounding energy and the environment are immense, they do not yet warrant an undemocratic government.
But it is the moral cause of protecting the planet for future generations that compels Friedman to consider such drastic measures. In several instances, he makes an impassioned plea for the world’s people to cease the actions that will leave their heirs with a damaged planet. In other places, Friedman looks back on the America’s moral leadership in the World Wars and the Cold War, and sees in the environmental problems an opportunity for the U.S. to continue to be “the country that can always be counted on to lead the world in response to whatever is the most important challenge of the day.” Saving humanity from a fiery future, restoring a past ideal of international respect, and growing the economy at the same time, there are as many ways to view Friedman’s “Code Green” as Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. Ordering the importance of those reasons is not Friedman’s concern, but will be necessary as hard decisions have to be made. Let us hope our politicians are up to the task.
Antonio Baclig ‘09 is optimistic.