Thomas Friedman's Hot, Flat, and Crowded gets it mostly right on the environment. | Pittsburgh City Paper

Thomas Friedman's Hot, Flat, and Crowded gets it mostly right on the environment.

Hot, Flat, and Crowded
By Thomas L. Friedman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 438 pp., $27.95


In his new book about the environment, Thomas Friedman gets it right -- to a point.

Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution -- And How It Can Renew America finds the widely syndicated New York Times columnist arguing that the huge and urgent challenges of global climate change, population growth, deforestation, water shortages and more together constitute the defining issue of our time. His scope is systemic: Rather than our current piece-meal approach, he writes, we must completely alter how we create and distribute energy, for starters. He contends such change is not only compatible with economic growth, but necessary to it. How we respond, starting now, will determine whether humanity prospers or suffers.

Enviro-cataclysms both ongoing and predicted -- many due to our thoughtless burning of fossil fuels -- suggest to Friedman that we've entered a new epoch. He calls it the Energy-Climate Era. While rapidly developing countries do increasing damage, Friedman says that, as the world's biggest per-capita resource-hog, the United States must be the first responder to this Code Green.

He proposes a comprehensive national energy policy (something we sorely lack) and new government regulations, funding, incentives and disincentives (like a tax on carbon emissions) to spur massive entrepreneurial innovation in efficiency and conservation, and a wholesale shift to clean, renewable energy. This last he considers the next global boom industry. Thus, he says, can the U.S. turn itself, and the world, around. He even outlines how Code Green can decommission the world's petro-dictators.

Friedman is an engaging writer and adroit epigrammatist, especially on favorite topics like the global economy. "It is hard for France to maintain a thirty-five-hour workweek when China and India have invented a thirty-five-hour workday," he writes in a chapter about how the burgeoning developing-world middle class is stressing the planet.

There are environmental writers more incisively wonky, more scientifically profound, more philosophically searching. But Friedman -- an inveterate globe-trotter who here reports from rainforests and Chinese factories, and from Hyderabad to Sydney -- weaves the strands as well as anyone this side of leading environmental thinker Lester Brown, adducing knowledge gained from years of studying globalization. (This book's title plays on Friedman's 2005 best-seller The World Is Flat, about how technology is leveling the global economic playing field.) His urgency is galvanizing, and his optimism, though qualified, can be infectious.

It is encouraging that a high-profile pundit demands that environmental sustainability become the American priority. Still, the sweep of Friedman's work masks big problems. One is that while he thinks "flat" is good (because it increases economic opportunity), and has plenty of ideas about addressing "hot" -- from plug-in cars on up -- he suggests only coping strategies for "crowded." With world population headed for 9 billion by 2050, and ever more humans seeking high-consumption "American" lifestyles, he could at least spare a word for condoms.

Another problem is that Friedman's strategy all but bets the farm that the technological innovations sparked by government stimulus will result in a "magic bullet": some clean, cheap and limitless source of energy we've yet to invent or discover. Wind farms and solar arrays, even joined to the revived nuclear-power industry and massive efficiency initiatives he proposes, will get us only so far. A breakthrough, Friedman admits, though needed, is not assured.

That yawning gap in his argument looms even larger in light of Friedman's stance on economic growth. It's obvious that the U.S. has no right to lecture other countries about sustainability. But Friedman doesn't just insist that Westerners should seek to maintain their standard of living; he contends others deserve it, too. In short, he says, we require "greater abundance."

Readers might take with a grain of salt Friedman's faith that technology and capitalism, the twin carbon-burning engines that got us into this global mess, can also get us out. (The last "Green Revolution," after all, an agricultural one, increased world farm production while also poisoning the planet and stripping it of resources.) He wants "a whole new system for powering our economy" -- not a whole new economy to replace the one that's fevering the planet.

This approach suggests planting a new tree in toxic soil. Famed environmentalist Edward Abbey wrote, "Growth for growth's sake is the ideology of the cancer cell"; Friedman believes that with careful planning, the tumors can be benign.

"Healthy economies and healthy ecosystems have to go together," he writes. But because a conventional economy must grow in order to be "healthy," Friedman presents as mutually reinforcing two propositions that might be mutually exclusive. Growth economies have been premised on cheap, abundant fossil fuel; Hot, Flat, and Crowded sometimes feels like an attempt to continue the party after the keg's kicked. If we're reinventing ourselves, why not redefine "success" as something other than raw growth? Why not, for instance, cultivate efficient regional economies instead of inherently energy-intensive global ones?

To some extent, Friedman gets this. His Smart Grid scheme, for instance, would let both consumers and utilities profit from conserving energy. But when conventional growth is your goal, even renewable energy is not infinitely compatible with sustainability. What's to stop solar panels lining Death Valley like bathroom tiles -- or, as Friedman himself approvingly imagines, "wind turbines as far as the eye can see"?

Friedman does rank a "conservation ethic" right alongside "clean electrons" and "energy efficiency and resource productivity" as the essential components of a sustainable economy. To save biodiversity, he proposes "a million Noahs, a million arks" -- locally administered, internationally funded preservation schemes interwoven with human economies. And environmentalists should thank him: He's among the few bigfoot pundits who understands that biodiversity isn't just about sentiment or aesthetics, or even about miracle drugs from exotic plants. It's essential: Humans need nature psychologically and biologically. Without healthy wild plants and animals, fungi and microorganism, soil and water, we too are doomed.

But while Friedman's brief for conservation is sincere, he clearly seems most excited about "innovation." And one wonders whether the click-of-a-mouse economy he celebrates isn't fundamentally at odds with a conservation ethic. Can a society whose desires are fulfilled via little boxes on our desks, and inside bigger boxes filled with shopping carts, really embrace nature's slow, endless cycles and deeply "inconvenient" ways? Friedman lauds an engineer who instituted large-scale energy efficiency for vending machines -- but who will explain vending machines to the heirs of a ruined planet?

Critics of privileging human desires over the limits of the biosphere are surely part of "the anticapitalist, anticonsumerist, back-to-nature wing of the environmental movement" that Friedman briefly notes. But he acknowledges that such arguments might be correct. His own approach -- he calls it "obvious stuff that we do know would have real effects and would not involve fundamental changes in our lifestyle" -- also deserves the benefit of the doubt.

Moreover, Friedman is the guy at university podiums and on Good Morning America. He's got the mic. Code Green's appeals to patriotism ("It's about national power") and the profit motive are salable. And clearly, we could do a lot worse. Because, of course, we already are.


The Pittsburgh Middle East Institute presents Thomas Friedman 8 p.m. Tue., Sept. 16. Heinz Hall, 600 Penn Ave., Downtown. $42.50-62.50 ($22.50 students). 412-392-4900