Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution—and How It Can Renew America By Thomas L. Friedman New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008
“For all the talk in magazines and by politicians about the energy issue, if you look at our walk and not at our talk, you would have to conclude that the United States has no sense of urgency when it comes to energy research. It’s as if Sputnik has gone up, the nation has been challenged again to reinvent itself, this time in regard to energy, but we’re sleepwalking into the future—still quietly hoping that it’s all just a bad dream from which we’ll soon wake up again, able to fill our tanks with dollar-gallon gasoline and drive off with Green Stamps and a set of NFL-logo glasses.”
Thus writes Tom Friedman in his environmentally focused sequel to the highly acclaimed “The World is Flat.” Friedman strongly believes the government must set the tone for energy policy and development with carbon tax. This could be a cap and trade system, or higher gasoline taxes with a floor price of gasoline. This would encourage long-term investment in solar, wind, geothermal, and perhaps nuclear energies to break our dependence on (foreign) oil. Despite the obvious advantages to such a plan, the political will is not there due to parochial and corporate interests.
The cost of the status quo non-energy policy in the United States is paid for in wars for oil often supporting petro-dictators. Friedman makes a strong case that oil rich countries are often repressive socially and politically, especially against women. Oil money has done little for the masses and frustrated the development of democratic institutions. Examples include Iran, Iraq, Libya, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and several of the Gulf States.
To those who argue against higher energy taxes, Friedman believes the high prices for oil currently enriching oil companies and petro-dictators should instead be taxes in US coffers to rebuild infrastructure around energy efficiency.
No strong energy policy also led to poor choices and failure of many American businesses. Innovation, towards greater efficiency of energy production and use in all sectors of the economy is essential. However, for over three decades, higher fuel efficiency standards on cars and trucks have been strongly resisted by the American auto manufacturers. This reluctance, with no firm lead on the part of government for tighter regulations (due at least in part to auto industry lobbyists in Washington) led many Americans to buy cars from Japan or Europe. Thus, while American auto manufacturers faltered, in the early years of hybrid and electric cars the Japanese dominate the market in a crucial part of the economy.
Innovation comes from individuals, but individuals collaborating with others and improving upon their idea, often very rapidly. Innovative companies can thrive in a tough business environment, but much of the innovation is occurring outside the United States. For windmills, Denmark is a world leader. For solar renovation of homes and commercial buildings, Germany surpasses the U.S. For high speed rail, Japan and China and much of Europe are way beyond current US capabilities.
China’s rapid economic miracle of the past decade has its costs. China is one of the most polluted countries in the world, and many large cities in China suffer with terrible air pollution. The cost social costs of asthma, and other lung and respiratory diseases is very high.
China’s insatiable appetite for energy and economic expansion will need to be fueled by more efficient coal plants, as well as optional sources (hydro or wind, and maybe nuclear). To continue with extensive high sulfur coal plants is just not a tolerable situation for Chinese air quality or reducing global CO2 emissions. Of necessity, the Chinese government will address environmental problems of China—serious air, water, and soil pollution, and increased flood-drought cycles—.
Freidman believes whoever “outgreens” others will be ahead in the long run. Outgreening is somewhere between outflank and outmaneuver, both literally, and metaphorically, pure Machiavellian political and economic pragmatism. Whoever leads in outgreening will lead the energy revolution, shifting from 150 years of oil dominating the world’s energy economy. Innovation in energy and transportation industries, leading to tremendous gains in efficiency and overall less energy use is an essential part of our economic security.
Examples of outgreening include recycling nearly all waste paper, food waste, and plastics, reducing kilowatt hours of electricity used, using less water, cogeneration of waste heat for nearby heating purposes, and so on. Many industries and institutions have found it good for business. Universities find that strong recycling programs and other green policies like bike trails and public transit help attract students.
“The World is Flat” was Pro-Globalization I. Hot Flat and Crowded might be Pro-globalization 2.0, with some environmental sense of reality inserted. Friedman’s premise on higher energy taxes is correct, and essential. However, the book is incomplete.
Friedman downplays the serious social and geo-political disruptions caused by increasing populations scrambling over scarcer resources. He also understates the social cost paid with increasingly frequent severe storms, and greater extremes in temperature or precipitation. He barely mentions the reality of future resettlement of millions of environmental refugees, across wide regions of drought-ridden Africa or flood ravaged China, South Asia, and Australia. Low lying Pacific Islands, Bangladesh and South Asia, and our own Gulf Coast will likely shrink with rising seas, forcing many to relocate further inland.
In futurism, if one is too pessimistic, one is a doomsayer. Too upbeat and positive and one is a naïve Pollyanna. Making sense of future energy use projections, future water use, and future population growth, combined with religious fanaticism, militarism, and corporate control of resources, all of which are in opposition to freedom and democratic principles, is difficult to impossible to fully comprehend. It is a complex equation with too many variables to solve with any certain answer.
A major point Friedman misses is the increasing energy costs that will make the transportation of many items, such as food, prohibitively expensive for the long distances commonly shipped today. Thus, the very urgent need for diversification in local and regional agriculture, which will require limiting suburban sprawl.
Complicating all of this will be the social tensions caused by a world of electronically digitally connected haves, and the digitally disconnected have-nots. This will occur between countries, but also within countries, with pockets of have nots already existing in the United States. This gap will only increase in coming years. Absent or unreliable access to the internet is already a severe handicap in modern life in navigating institutional banking services, utility payments, and employment and educational opportunities.
To best realize the opportunities of energy innovation, the government needs to set a clear signal for the energy and transportation sectors of the economy. A goal should be to reach the maximum amount of energy efficiency in the least amount of time. With sound economic and tax policies, the innovative free market would be “freer” to take off, moving us rapidly towards a future much less dependent upon foreign oil. Knowing energy prices will remain high encourages developing alternatives, which could then be exported. Do we want to continue to buy our highly fuel efficient cars from Japan, our windmills from Denmark, our solar panels from Germany, and our trains from China?
Friedman’s book is very pro-capitalist and pro-growth, despite increasing evidence pointing to the end of growth in the near future. Acknowledging the possibility of limited growth and declining American leadership in innovations is, of course, heresy to the Tea Party and Libertarian free marketers, who see a socialist behind every rose bush on the White House grounds since Obama came to power.
There are paradoxical cross currents at work here, and it is difficult to foresee just which ones will win out. Those who have a strong local and regional sense of identity, knowing who and what they are as individuals, including self-identifying traits of ethnicity, religion, or economic class will be much better off than those lacking this sense of identity. Essential traits of local or regional identity and character are based on food and local agriculture (strongly influenced by geography and climate), local history, ethnic and religious festivals, local music, arts and theater.
Friedman fails to recognize that globalization will likely be King of the Mountain only briefly. Strong support of local customs and businesses that support them will be what will guide us through the difficult decades to come as we inevitably move away from oil dependence.