A Blueprint, or a Green One?

Thomas L. Friedman, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution—and How It Can Renew America (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, September 2008)

Thomas L. Friedman is the anti-Cassandra. Unlike the figure from Greek mythology, his warnings are never prescient, but they are always heeded—if one judges by bestseller lists and dinner party chatter. Friedman’s last prophecy arrived in 2005, when he introduced globalization to the masses. In The World Is Flat, Friedman argued that sometime in the last decade – sometime while he was “sleeping”—we entered globalization 3.0, wherein 21st century technology leveled economic prospects from Boston to Bangalore. I must confess that I waded through about two-thirds of it before I gave up. It is a book about the Internet Age for people who have yet to buy a computer.

Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution—and How It Can Renew America begins where The World Is Flat left off. It is more careful and complex, in large part because Friedman has revised his own thesis. To describe our world, he discovered, he would need a title with more adjectives.

“Two other enormously powerful forces are impacting our planet in fundamental ways,” he writes: “global warming and soaring global population growth. As I absorbed these into my analysis, it became obvious that it’s actually the convergence of global warming, global flattening, and global crowding that is the most important dynamic shaping the world we live in today.”

Friedman’s main argument in Hot, Flat, and Crowded is that America must lead the world in fighting climate change, not only out of our own self-interest, but also out of our “moral responsibility.” Investing in homegrown energy alternatives, regulating American industry, and beating China in the green innovation race will build the nation—and save the world.

As Tom Brokaw noted in an interview with Friedman, “it really is a textbook study of what’s going on in the world today.” He’s right. What is a textbook, after all, but a compilation of information for the uninitiated, written in simple language, stocked with definitions, and calculated to appeal to a wide spectrum of potential learners? This is that book: the global warming manual for readers who missed the Live Earth concerts, coverage of Hurricane Katrina, and the Reader’s Digest “Going Green” issue.

Like a textbook, Hot, Flat, and Crowded is jam-packed with Friedman’s jargon: Energy-Climate Era, petrodictatorship, Code Green, “abundant, clean, reliable, and cheap electrons,” E.T., and Dirty Fuels System. Chapters have headings like “Outgreening al-Qaeda,” “Green Is the New Red, White and Blue,” and “Fill ’Er Up with Dictators.”

These are not Friedman’s only creative uses of language; he also has a way with metaphors. “We are the frog,” he writes of humans confronting climate change, “the pail is getting hot, flat and crowded, and we need a long-term survival plan—a ladder out of the pail.” Or, “the air in the Koran class was so thick and stale you could have cut it into blocks and sold it like cakes.” Or, “We flew to Colstrip through a winter gale that tossed us around like salad pieces.” What?

Friedman exploits this shaky trip to Colstrip, Montana to demonstrate an important point: climate change is no longer a theoretical concept, nor a distant mirage. The premature start date of the local deer-hunting season prompted even red-blooded Red Staters to contemplate the consequences of global warming. Friedman hits his stride here, and the passages where he addresses climate change skeptics are among the best. (Disbelievers are likely the only readers to find wholly new content in this book).

Friedman’s discussion of the history of American dependence on oil post-1973 and his emphasis on energy as a national security issue are useful and breezy; he includes a straightforward exploration of Islam and oil that plays to his background in Middle East studies. He writes, “There must be a correlation between the price of oil and the pace, scope, and sustainability of political freedoms and economic reforms in certain countries. … Oil-backed regimes that do not have to tax their people for revenue—because they can just drill an oil well and sell the oil abroad—also do not have to listen to their people or represent their wishes.”

It’s a smart point, so Friedman embroiders it with graphs, napkin drawings, and a snazzy label, the “First Law of Petropolitics.” The author embellishes almost every observation with these cutesy flourishes: personal anecdotes, italicization (“We haven’t really tried. That’s right, we haven’t really tried.”), and quotations from newspapers that continue for pages at a time. He takes epigraphs from Wikipedia and “from the Internet.” He pelts the reader with clichés: “We have been living on borrowed time and borrowed dimes. We need to get back to work on our country and on our planet. The hour is late, the stakes couldn’t be higher, the project couldn’t be harder, the payoff couldn’t be greater.”

These faults are stylistic. Yet their occurrence, as George Orwell might have pointed out, reveals sloppy research and imprecise reasoning. If Friedman’s writing is this lazy, it’s difficult to imagine his thinking is more robust.

At one point, he cautions, “if you take only one thing away from this book, please take this: We are not going to regulate our way out of the problems of the Energy-Climate Era.” The next chapter glorifies regulations: “When it comes to implementing a green revolution, the more boring the work, the more revolutionary its impact. If it isn’t boring, it isn’t green. I call this the ‘Naked Gun 2 1⁄2 rule.’”

The problem is not that these ideas are incompatible: we cannot depend entirely on regulations to solve the crisis of climate change, and we must not discount the influence of legislators. The problem is that Friedman relies on wordplay and cheek, not method, to demonstrate his points. Of course global warming is the biggest challenge of our era—don’t you remember that trip to Colstrip?! But the pop references, rules, labels, zingers, and anecdotes only muddle his conclusions. Which is a shame—because Friedman’s ends are noble.

“How will we know when Africa as a continent stands a chance to climb sustainably out of poverty? My metric is very simple: It’s when I see Angelina Jolie posing next to a vast field of solar panels in Ghana.” Right. That’s exactly the problem. Friedman’s metrics are always very simple. The green revolution is just like the civil rights movement; the competition with China to invent energy technology is just a space race do-over; and everything just needs a system. What kind of a system? Preferably one with a catchy title.

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