Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution--and How It Can Renew America

By Thomas L. Friedman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2008) ISBN-13:978-0-374-16685-4, ISBN-10:0-374-16885-4, 438pp

The Green Era is upon us and America must lead the way in solving the world’s global warming problems. This is Thomas Friedman’s message. He is an award winning American journalist, columnist, and author. His op-ed column appears twice weekly in the New York Times. He has won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize three times, twice for international reporting and once for commentary. In his reporting he consults with a variety of people, adding vitality to his writing and making his reporting interesting and controversial. This book builds on his previous The World is Flat by adding hot and crowded. He attempts to integrate these into the mix necessary for the whole earth system. In the process he makes interesting suggestions on international affairs, including a chapter on China and its place in the green era.

The book's first half diagnoses the world's unique energy, climate, and biodiversity problems. The second half is about meeting those challenges.

Friedman sees five key problems: the demand for scarcer energy and natural resources; the massive transfer of wealth to oil-rich countries and petrodictators; disruptive climate change; energy poverty; and accelerating biodiversity loss. These are big problems accentuated by the flat, hot, and crowded convergence. They demand big solutions.

Friedman suggests four ways our oil addiction is changing the climate system and also the international system. First, our energy purchases are helping strengthen the most intolerant, anti-western, and anti-pluralistic strain of Islam--the major strain in Saudi Arabia. Many Saudis would prefer a more open Islamic State, but it is not their progressive outlook that is being exported to the madrasahs of Pakistan, London, Mosul and Jakarta. Second, energy purchases are helping to reverse democratic trends in Russia, Latin America and elsewhere. Friedman introduces his "first law of petropolitics": Whenever governments can raise most of their revenue by simply drilling a hole in the ground rather than tapping their people’s energy, creativity and entrepreneurship, freedom is curtailed, education under-funded, and human development retarded. Third, our growing oil dependence fuels an ugly energy scramble that brings out the worst in nations. And fourth, our energy purchases fund both sides of the war on terror. So our refusal after 9/11 to do anything significant to reduce gasoline consumption funds the rope that will hang us.

Of the 23 nations that derive most of their export income from oil and gas, none are democracies! From this, Friedman derives his second law of petropolitics: Any American strategy for promoting democracy in an oil-rich country that does not include a plan for developing renewable energy alternatives to reduce the price of oil is doomed to failure.

Friedman does not go into a discussion of the finer details of global warming but refers to Joseph Romm’s book Hell and High Water from which he quotes "the only holes left in the science of climate change is whether it will be serious or catastrophic." What we don’t know are the positive and negative feedback systems yet to be encountered. Until these are fed into computer systems, there may be surprises. Despite this, climate will continue to change and with it the world as we know it

Energy in the green era is not only a matter of soaring energy demand, climate change, and proliferating petrodictators. A hot, flat, and crowded world is also a threat to biodiversity. Friedman suggests that it is our responsibility to follow Noah in creating metaphoric arks and not floods. Biodiversity, the total sum of life on earth, is directly linked to non-living components forming one great independent biosphere. Consequently, we must think of the problems facing us in integrated comprehensive ways. The remedies must start now. There is no "later" that we can postpone to.

Today, more than ever, economic growth comes via electricity. Developing countries suffer from energy poverty resulting from misgovernance or persistent civil war, leaving them no way to finance power plants and transmission lines. They need all the help they can get to protect their forests, coral reefs, and other natural habitat. They will also miss out on the education required to enjoy the benefits of electronic media serviced by a reliable green source of electricity. This is one reason we quickly need abundant, clean, and reliable power sources.

In the second half of the book, Friedman examines the solutions to the problems studied in the first half. In a flat world everyone can see what everyone is doing. There is no way of avoiding accountability, and this is one more reason why the effects of our American way of life must be recognized and remedied. "Green" can no longer be a fad or boutique statement. It must be a way of life. Friedman believes that America must lead the way in a green revolution that brings to the world’s most disadvantaged the energy to improve their lives. One priority is to get rid of dirty fuel systems, and to Friedman this means producing "clean electrons"--Friedman’s phrase for green electricity that solves problems and stimulates innovations.

Clean electrons must be accompanied by energy efficiency and conservation, which in turn involve attention to protecting our natural resources and educating people about their value. We need a new ethic of conservation that's not dictated by laws but rather by voluntary values and attitudes.

There are two avenues for pursuing clean electrons: the short term improvement of what we already have, and "eureka" breakthroughs from research and experimentation. Both are necessary but breakthroughs take about 25 years after commercialization to reach even 1% share of the global market. Clean energy that's cheaper than the true social cost of fossil fuels can be accomplished through government policies, regulations, research funding, and tax incentives.

Today there is a proliferation of "easy" ways to save Earth, ways that can lull the public into false confidence. But the easy way does not exist, and it is essential to learn the magnitude of the challenge. Friedman outlines the monumental nature of the task, but is convinced that there is hope based on the intelligent green energy technology which he believes can give us more growth, fewer power plants, and better energy.

This by itself is not enough. In his view we must put in place a set of policies, tax incentives and disincentives, and regulations to mobilize the American market place. At the moment this is designed to keep fossil fuels cheap and renewables expensive. We need regulatory policies pushing on the boundaries of materials science, chemistry, physics and biology. Taxes must be applied to things we don’t want and subsidies to the things we do. A renewable energy mandate should be imposed in which power companies in all states must generate a certain percentage of their power from renewable energy sources.

Friedman muses on how good it would be to have the Chinese system, but for one day only. With a top-down bureaucracy a country can do so much by fiat in one day that would take months in a democratic society.

We will know that the green movement has succeeded when energy inefficiency, carbon excesses and dependence on dirty fuels are the news and not the norm.

Peter Schroeder
Emeritus Professor of Physics
Michigan State University

This contribution has not been peer-refereed. It represents solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of APS.