Thomas Friedman wants a revolution

Only an uprising in green technology will revive America and promote world democracy, the New York Times columnist now argues.

Topics: Environment, Science

In his new book, “Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution and How It Can Renew America,” Thomas Friedman, author of the best-selling “The World Is Flat” and “The Lexus and the Olive Tree,” argues that America can fire up its economy and restore its world standing by turning its considerable technological might on clean energy and conservation.

Advocating a green path to world democracy would seem to mark a new direction for Friedman, who initially supported the Bush administration “in trying to bring democracy to Iraq,” he writes in “Hot, Flat, and Crowded.” In a lively interview with Salon, he acknowledges his about-face on the Iraq war and outlines what he now sees as America’s — and his own — environmental responsibilities. He looks at the current presidential candidates and explains why only one appears capable of leading a green revolution.

What does “Hot, Flat and Crowded” mean?

The shortest way I can explain it is that “hot” stands for the increase in global warming, “flat” is my metaphor for the rise of middle classes all over the world, from India to China to Brazil to Russia, who are now able to consume and produce like Americans, and “crowded” is the fact that the population of the planet in my lifetime — I’m 55 — has almost tripled. The year I was born, there were 2.7 billion people on the planet. If I live to be 100, there should be 9.2 billion.

When the world gets that flat and crowded, the energy, climate and natural resource implications are going to be enormous. My core thesis is we’re at a perfect storm or convergence of global warming, global flattening and global crowding, and it’s going to drive five mega-problems that are going to shape the 21st century: energy and natural resource supply and demand, petro-dictatorships, climate change, biodiversity loss and energy poverty. How will we answer those five problems. Who can invent abundant, cheap, clean, reliable energy? Whichever companies, countries and communities do that are going to own the next great global industry, which I call E.T., or energy technology.

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You say a green revolution can renew America. What is it about America that would be renewed?

That’s a good question. The thing about the energy technology industry is that it cuts across the entire economy. It can produce blue-collar jobs or green-collar jobs in either retrofitting homes or building, manufacturing and erecting geothermal plants, solar thermal plants or wind [farms]. So there’s a real chance to bring manufacturing and skilled blue-collar jobs back to America. You cannot outsource a wind farm.

At the same time, the level of innovation and research to achieve these new technologies is a moonshot quality. It’s the kind of thing that can drive our technological foundation to a whole new level. If we lead this revolution, which is the biggest story in the world today, we’re going to have more respect as a country. We become more secure. We are not dependent on some of the worst regimes in the world; we’re not dependent on anybody. We’re going to provide jobs for the working class, drive innovation and build up energy security and economic security. It’s how we get our groove back.

You write that today we don’t have a green revolution but a green party. What do you mean?

The green revolution is still at a symbolic and hobby level. There are a lot of small things people are doing — wonderful things — driving a hybrid car, putting solar panels on their roof, generating their own power. But the problem is, the scale of this problem is so large. I say, “Well, here’s a phony revolution. It’s doing nothing toward that scale.” So that’s why I’m down on Earth Day concerts and more focused on the real engine for innovation and deployment, which is the marketplace.

Do you think symbolism has outworn its use? Or do you think it can be deployed in the service of trying to move things to scale?

It’s a good question. What I’m trying to do is rename green. I’m a big believer that to name an issue is to own it. “The World Is Flat,” you know? My problem with “green” as a label is that it was named by its opponents. They named it “liberal,” “tree-hugging,” “girlie-man,” “sissy,” “unpatriotic”; vaguely French. What I’m trying to do is take that definition and rename it “green geopolitical,” “geo-strategic,” “geo-economic,” “patriotic.” Green is the new red, white and blue. I very much want both conservatives and liberals to wear that color. If this is just a thing for liberals, it’ll never scale. If it doesn’t scale, it stays at the hobby level. If it’s a hobby, we’re cooked.

What’s going to make Americans change their energy-consuming behavior?

Well, I’ll give you a really lame answer. According to some reviews of the book, this answer’s just not adequate! I say, I’m sorry it’s not adequate, it’s the only answer: It’s leadership. You must have a leader who can frame this problem in an exciting way — not just the answer to these big five problems, but this incredible opportunity. It’s why I say, “Change your leaders, not your light bulbs.” Not that changing your light bulbs isn’t important. We’ve done it. Everyone should do it. But leaders write the rules and rules shape the markets — tax incentives, carbon taxes, cap and trade — and markets are what give you scale.

To me, the engine of this whole change is the market. We’re not going to regulate our way out of this problem. We can only innovate our way out of it. But that requires rules. It requires legislators, Congress, to write different rules. There’s no substitute for leadership. You and I could have the greatest green ethic in the world. We could do everything and it wouldn’t make a dime’s worth of difference. Markets must be shaped to scale these things down to a price where people can afford them.

You write warmly of Al Gore. How much closer do you think we’d be to a green revolution if we were nearing the end of a Gore administration as opposed to a Bush administration?

From your lips to God’s ears. I have to believe that given everything he knew, and everything he believed — even though the first time around with Clinton, they really didn’t do much — I have to believe had Gore been president, he would have been a real change agent. But we didn’t not have Gore, we had Bush going the other way, making us stupid. It’s enough to make you weep.

You write that if you don’t run your company or country like a chief energy officer, you’re not going to be effective as a chief executive officer. Of the two presidential candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama, who do you think is more likely to run the United States like a chief energy officer?

I recently wrote a column saying that one of things that excited me about this campaign initially is that there were two green candidates, two people talking seriously about energy. Now there’s only one and it’s Obama. McCain, starting with his gas-tax holiday for the summer, which only would have driven up consumption and the price of gasoline, is missing all eight votes for renewing the reduction investment tax for wind and solar, and then topping it off with the “drill, baby, drill” mantra. I have no reason to believe whatsoever that someone who would run this kind of campaign, who could flip so easily, would be the kind of leader we need of this green revolution.

Maybe Obama will do it. I don’t know. But I think he believes the right things. I think he has the right impulses and instincts, and at least he hasn’t pandered in the worst possible ways on this issue. If he were to win, he’d have a lot more room to maneuver. He’d have very few words to eat. That matters.

Could Obama improve his energy plan?

You know, the one thing I would do to improve the campaign — and I understand calling for a cap and trade or a gasoline tax is not a big winner right now — is connect it up with American renewal, American revival. Get a little excited about it. I just wish he conveyed a little more excitement about it.

Talking about someone who’s conveyed a lot of excitement lately, do you think a Vice President Palin would have a positive or a negative effect on a President McCain’s energy policy?

She comes from Alaska, the Saudi Arabia of America for oil, and I really don’t see anything in her background that suggests she’s thought in any way about an energy technology revolution beyond oil.

You say in your book that you supported the war in Iraq as part of a “strategy to weaken … forces of tyranny,” and you talk a lot about promoting democracy. You now say you no longer think invasion is a good way to do this. Is this book an effort to go back to the drawing board and figure out a different strategy for promoting democracy?

It would be way too grand to say that was part of it. But that’s what the book is about, to be honest. One thing we know for sure is that we’re not going to do this again: try to build a democracy in the Arab Muslim world by invasion, and trying to collaborate with people on the ground. We’re just not going to do this again. Yet if you still believe that this is a really important issue, whether it’s in the Middle East or in Russia, then what strategy do we have? What leverage do we have to try to drive the forces of democratization, women’s empowerment, and all these other issues associated with oil? To me, being the leader of energy technology, and developing alternatives to oil to weaken all those forces, is very much a part of driving that process.

You emphasize that America can promote greening and democracy if it leads by example. But right now the European Union and a lot of other countries, including China, appear to be ahead of us in going green. Is America going to be able to get ahead?

It’s not like we’re out of the game. But it would really be hard to call us the leaders today. Look at what Denmark did after 1973 — wind power, a CO2 tax, energy efficiency. Japan is far ahead of us in many of these technologies. We are not in last place, but given the level of technology we have, we’re just not where we should be.

In terms of moving ourselves ahead, you write, “We have a target. We want to avoid the doubling of CO2 by mid-century and to do it we need to avoid the emission of 200 billion tons of carbon as we grow between now and then.” Do you think we’ll make it?

I have to live my life thinking that we can. I really like the quote from [environmental writer] Dana Meadows at the end of the book. As Amory Lovins remarked at her memorial service, she’d always say, “We have exactly enough time — starting now.” I really think that’s how you’ve got to live your life. “She treated the future as choice, not fate,” Lovins said. I choose to live my life believing that our future is our choice, not our fate, and that we have exactly enough time — starting now. That’s how I want to live my life. That’s about all I can say.

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