About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Friday, October 8, 2010

#72 - Hot, Flat, and Crowded

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

Jacket Summary: "Thomas L. Friedman's phenomenal number-one-bestseller The World Is Flat helped millions of readers to see the world in a new way. In his brilliant, essential new book, Friedman takes a fresh and provocative look at two of the biggest challenges we face today: America's surprising loss of focus and national purpose since 9/11; and the global environmental crisis, which is affecting everything from food to fuel to forests. In this groundbreaking account of where we stand now, he shows us how the solutions to these two big problems are linked -- how we can restore the world and revive America at the same time.

"Friedman explains how global warming, rapidly growing populations, and the astonishing expansion of the world's middle class through globalization have produced a planet that is 'hot, flat, and crowded.' Already the earth is being affected in ways that threaten to make it dangerously unstable. In just a few years, it will be too late to fix things -- unless the United States steps up now and takes the lead in a worldwide effort to replace our wasteful, inefficient energy practices with a strategy for clean energy, energy efficiency, and conservation that Friedman calls Code Green.

"This is a great challenge, Friedman explains, but also a great opportunity, and one that America cannot afford to miss. Not only is American leadership the key to the healing of the earth; it is also our best strategy for the renewal of America.

"In vivid, entertaining chapters, Friedman makes it clear that the green revolution we need is like no other revolution the world has seen. It will be the biggest innovation project in American history; it will be hard, not easy; and it will change everything from what you put into your car to what you see on your electric bill. But the payoff for America will be more than just cleaner air. It will inspire Americans to something we haven't seen in a long time -- nation building in American -- by summoning the intelligence, creativity, boldness, and concern for the common good that are our nation's greatest national resources."

Table of Contents:

Part I: Where We Are
  • 1. Where Birds Don't Fly
  • 2. Today's Date: 1 E.C.E. Today's Weather: Hot, Flat, and Crowded
Part II: How We Got Here
  • 3. Our Carbon Copies (or, Too Many Americans)
  • 4. Fill 'Er Up with Dictators
  • 5. Global Weirding
  • 6. The Age of Noah
  • 7. Energy Poverty
  • 8. Green Is the New Red, White, and Blue
Part III: How We Move Forward
  • 9. 205 Easy Ways to Save the Earth
  • 10. The Energy Internet: When IT Meets ET
  • 11. The Stone Age Didn't End Because We Ran Out of Stones
  • 12. If It Isn't Boring, It Isn't Green
  • 13. A Million Noahs, a Million Arks
  • 14. Outgreening al-Quaeda (or, Buy One, Get Four Free)
Part IV: China
  • 15. Can Red China Become Green China?
Part V: America
  • 16. China for a Day (but Not for Two)
  • 17. A Democratic China, or a Banana Republic?
My Take: Typical Friedman (though I have only The World Is Flat to compare it to): sweeping and occasionally overwhelming, but an engaging, provocative, and well-written volume. The author does a better job than you might expect of combining climate change and American hegemony without putting the reader to sleep. No mean feat, that.

The book starts with the premise that the US and the larger geopolitical economy have one foreboding thing in common: namely, right now, it looks like their best days are behind them. On the international stage, Friedman summarizes his earlier argument about the world's being flat: with the technological advances and the collapse of Soviet-style Communism we've seen over the last few decades, we have a more level global playing field, which increasingly allows workers in China, India, and elsewhere to compete for the same good jobs and aspire to the same high-consumption lifestyle that was once the exclusive providence of North America and Western Europe. On top of this, he suggests, it's also become hot and crowded, i.e., affected by global warming, and more heavily populated. Friedman expands upon the oft-cited fact that the world's population is expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050 with some alarming details: nearly 8 billion of these people will live in developing countries, and the bulk of this growth is expected to show up in the developing world's smaller cities, which already lack the infrastructure to support current populations. Closer to home, we in the U.S. have become steadily more disconnected from what's going on in the larger, warmer and flatter world, and too bogged down in petty red state-blue state cat fighting to tackle significant domestic issues (let alone international ones).

Those of us (or more accurately, those of you) who like warmer weather might not care, except that these trends have other, more troublesome consequences:
  1. Energy and resource supply and demand: Deep down, most of us know that the world's supply of fossil fuels isn't inexhaustible. Bottlenecks for many natural resources already becoming apparent; witness the 2004 gas crisis, which Friedman attributes to a sudden spike in China's demand for oil. With worldwide energy consumption needs projected to double by 2050, and three times as many people living or approaching US levels of consumption, short. The problem is exacerbated by a long-standing American tradition of heavily subsidizing the energy industry, which lessens the impact of rising prices on demand, and thus reduces our incentives to cut back on our use and/or focus more on cleaner, greener alternatives.
  2. Petrodictatorships: Yes, this is another of Friedman's catchy neologisms, but despite the sarcastic title phrase ("Fill 'Er Up with Dictators"), I found this to be one of the more intriguing parts of his argument. That our seemingly-limitless appetite for as much oil as we can get regardless of cost keeps prices high and funnels massive amounts of wealth to those countries that produce it is self-evident. What's interesting is where Friedman goes from here. For starters, he states that this is a bonanza for those countries' leaders; they've got enough money coming in to keep themselves and their friends in power without needing to tax their citizens. This isn't as good a deal for the citizens as you might think, though; few taxes means little incentive for the government to build public support through, oh, investing in education, or in infrastructure other than what's required to get the oil out of the country and to market. Not only does this pattern fund precisely the most intolerant, anti-modern, and anti-Western strands of Islam in the Middle East; it's also helped beat back many of the hard-won pro-democracy gains in Russia and Latin America, and helps subsidize both sides of the War on Terror.
  3. Climate change: Here, Friedman borrows his catch phrase from environmentalist Hunter Lovins, writing not about global warming but "global weirding" -- greater and more rapid extremes, be they hot or wet or dry; tremendous geographical variability; and multiple changes that interact in ways we can't begin to predict. He asserts that the vast majority of scientists may disagree on the rate and degree of climate change we can expect, but that there's little question change is happening, and draws an analogy to a car driving towards a cliff on a dark, foggy night: even if you don't know exactly where the drop-off is, it's still a good idea to use your brakes.
  4. Energy poverty: This was probably the least well-argued of Friedman's "consequences of hot, flat, and crowded" chapters, but still not without merit. Here, he argues that the world isn't completely flat ... and those yet untouched by the information revolution are at a greater comparative disadvantage than they were 50 years ago. With reliable energy, heat is more tolerable and (if fewer people are forced to move to megacities for work) crowds more comfortable. Without it, it's precisely those people most at risk from climate change who have the least ability to adapt, i.e., by digging deeper wells or desalinating water. While I'm not sure I agree fully with all his claims here, I certainly can't argue that regular rolling blackouts can't be good for political stability ... and that if and when those at the bottom of the world's economic ladder do come online, we'd better darned well hope it's powered by clean technology.
  5. Biodiversity loss: Here again, our warming, "weirding" atmosphere and increasingly crowded cities have a tremendous impact on the world's non-human species. A few snapshots, according to Friedman: half the Earth's forests are now gone, along with 90% of our large predator fish and 20% of our corals.
Just when you've started to get good and depressed about the current state of affairs, Friedman presents a plan for what he thinks we should do about it. The world desperately wants and needs a new clean energy system, and whoever invents and deploys it will be all but guaranteed a dominant place in the 21st century global economy. The United States, with its well-established capitalist framework and unparalleled research universities, is particularly well-poised to be that someone. In addition to the obvious financial benefits, doing so would restore our international moral authority to a degree we haven't seen since World War II. If, however, we fail to seize the opportunity, we can rest assured that India or China will ... and reap all the rewards thereof.

A viable clean energy system requires three components: clean electrons, efficiency, and conservation. Since the Industrial Revolution, the world economy has been driven by "dirty fuels" (oil, coal, and gas) -- which are highly efficient, but not sustainable. Future growth will need to be powered by cleaner fuels that are reliable, abundant, and cheap. We can't get there without both increasing the level of research funding and finding ways to make those clean technologies we already have (i.e., wind, solar voltaic, solar thermal) more efficient and scalable. Moreover, our growth needs to be efficient, with producers supplying and consumers demanding buildings, appliances, cars, and packages that use less energy. Lastly, it must be predicated on an ethic of conservation, in which seeking to minimize one's energy impact is the norm.

Despite the plethora of "205 Easy Ways to Save the Earth!" articles in the media, a transformation of this nature is far more revolution than fad or party, and won't be easy. Our circumstances call for fundamental overhaul of our energy, transportation, and agricultural systems, to name a few -- a long-term, multi-trillion-dollar investment. To date, we haven't begun to exert even a fraction of the effort needed to make this work. Friedman argues that only the free market can effectively foster the supply of and demand for clean energy that we need, and that our current energy infrastructure is far from a free market; it's a system designed by coal, gas, and oil interests to keep those fuels cheap and pre-eminent. Appropriate tax and regulatory policy, coupled with adequate research funding, would (if you will) flatten the energy playing field, thus nurturing a variety of nascent clean energy options and allowing the market to cultivate the best ones.

Perhaps it was information overload, but I found the latter (Part III and subsequent) sections of the book significantly less compelling than the earlier pieces. I enjoyed the "Energy Internet" chapter, in which Friedman lays out a comprehensive, entertaining vision for how everyday life might look in a kinder, greener America, but couldn't help wondering if it wasn't a tad simplistic, or just how we might get from here to there in the time frame Friedman proposes. His skill at laying out a big picture that's both broad enough to seem important and sufficiently detailed to hold your interest is impressive, but by the latter half of the book, the overreliance on zippy phrases and colorful anecdotes starts to wear thin. Vignettes loosely tied together by broad brushstrokes are fine for sketching out a problem, but seem disjointed and superficial when it comes to the solution part of the argument. This quality is made more problematic by the lack of any endnotes or sources other than those referenced in the text -- which seems unusual in a book of this nature, and made me a bit skeptical about how well-founded some of Friedman's claims might be. I still think it's worth a read, but really wish I had a class or study group to chew it over with.

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