Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution—and How It Can Renew America
By Thomas L. Friedman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 438 pages, $27.95
There’s always been a Jekyll-and-Hyde quality to Thomas Friedman’s work—one moment he’s smart and decent, the next smarmy, belligerent and glib. The three-time Pulitzer Prize winner has one of the more irritating styles in American punditry, combining regular-guy banalities, endlessly repeated neologisms and subtle condescension (such as when he refers to Doha, Qatar, as a city “you may have never heard of”). He opines against the destructive insanity of Israeli settlement policies in the West Bank, then urges an even more destructive and insane American approach to the Arab world. (As he famously told Charlie Rose last year, the Iraq war was justified because Americans needed to burst a putative “terrorism bubble” by going into the Middle East, taking out a “very big stick” and saying, “Suck. On. This.”)
Mr. Friedman’s split personality is much in evidence in his new book, Hot, Flat and Crowded, which is a strange combination of rational apocalypticism and irrational optimism. He credibly explains just how much trouble the world is in due to the interlocking problems of global warming, resource shortages and population growth, all auguring a cavalcade of catastrophe. This is the kind of warning that serious environmentalists and peak-oil theorists have been issuing for years, and if Mr. Friedman can mainstream it, he’ll be doing a tremendous service.
But the good he accomplishes in the first half is pretty much undone in the second. After provoking the reader’s anxiety, he salves it by assuring us that we won’t have to change our lifestyle in any significant way, because, properly directed, American capitalism will invent a bountiful, cheap and clean source of energy (although right now no one has any idea where such a breakthrough might come from). Having set up a clear-eyed picture of the dangers we face, one that challenges the reader to grasp the potential scale of impending environmental calamity, he retreats into magical thinking. In so doing, he reinforces the very complacency he means to confront.
“AMERICA HAS A PROBLEM,” he writes, “and the world has a problem.” America’s problem is its defensive, post-9/11 insularity, its drift and lack of national purpose. The world’s problem is that it “is getting hot, flat and crowded. That is, global warming, the stunning rise of the middle classes all over the world, and rapid population growth have converged in a way that could make our planet dangerously unstable. In particular, the convergence of hot, flat, and crowded is tightening energy supplies, intensifying the extinction of plants and animals, deepening energy poverty, strengthening petrodictatorship, and accelerating climate change.” Both problems, Mr. Friedman argues, have the same solution: “I am convinced that the best way for America to solve its big problem—the best way for America to get its ‘groove’ back—is for us to take the lead in solving the world’s big problem.”
That’s all very good. It would be a wonderful and world-changing thing if the United States would ditch the thuggish, know-nothing environmental intransigence of the Bush years and become a world leader in combating climate change and promoting sustainable energy. And Mr. Friedman makes a convincing case that doing so could reinvigorate the American economy, promoting innovations that would find buyers worldwide.
The catch is that right now, there aren’t any new energy sources that will allow the United States to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels and keep consuming the way we do. Mr. Friedman acknowledges this: “All the advances we have made so far in wind, solar, geothermal, solar thermal, hydrogen, and cellulosic ethanol are incremental, and there has been no breakthrough in any other energy source. Incremental breakthroughs are all we’ve had, but exponential is what we desperately need.” And yet he won’t advocate any scaling down of American appetites. Quite the opposite: He imagines a future where, with the right innovations, life in America will be even more convenient, even more full of cool gadgets and easy motoring than it is today, with none of it coming at any other country’s expense.
He devotes a dozen pages of Hot, Flat and Crowded to a rosy description of a day in the life of tomorrow’s American citizen: “Your alarm goes off at 6:37 a.m., playing the Beatles classic ‘Here Comes the Sun’ just as you programmed it to the night before from 10,000 wake-up songs offered by your utility in collaboration with your phone company and iTunes. You have no alarm clock. The music was actually playing out of your home phone speaker, which itself is integrated into your home Smart Black Box—or SBB as it is called.” He goes on to explain how this SBB will regulate the use of energy within the house, cutting waste and expenses. Similarly, in Mr. Friedman’s future, cars not only run on electricity—they’re called RESUs, or “rolling energy storage units,” and actually sell excess power back to the utilities while they’re parked, meaning people drive “for the equivalent of about $1.50 a gallon.” Meetings with international clients are held via hologram. The electricity to run this techno-utopia comes courtesy of some unspecified new invention.
Perhaps this cheery vision is necessary in order to convince people to support environmentally sustainable policies, but it’s also dishonest. There’s absolutely no guarantee that innovation will save us. Miraculous inventions are always possible, but such discoveries don’t come on demand—if they did, we’d have cured both cancer and AIDS by now. Already, Americans don’t take the possibility of real scarcity seriously, because they assume someone, somewhere will come up with a technological fix. Thomas Friedman is encouraging that illusion.
THERE’S A DEEPER KIND of denial at work here as well, one that avoids grappling with the fact that the globalization Mr. Friedman loves to celebrate has both winners and losers. Early in the book he points to the steadily rising cost of food, which is partly the result of the diversion of grains into biofuels and the growth of a global middle class with a voracious appetite for meat. As Paul Roberts reminds us in The End of Food, it takes 4.5 pounds of grain to make a pound of chicken, and 20 pounds of grain to make a pound of beef. The world cannot support billions of people who eat as much meat as Americans do, and as more and more aspire to, food will likely turn into another ever-dearer commodity in an insatiable international marketplace. Hunger will increase, and more rainforests will be cut down to make way for more agricultural land, exacerbating the global warming and loss of biodiversity that are among Mr. Friedman’s major themes.
Yet after mentioning food shortages, he seems to forget about them, ignoring the fact that even if some limitless source of clean power were discovered, people wouldn’t be able to eat it. Besides, as the U.N. has pointed out, livestock contributes even more to global greenhouse gas emissions than transportation does. To acknowledge this, though, is to acknowledge a problem that can’t be solved by even the most creative capitalist.
At times, Mr. Friedman seems to want to warn his readers that dark times might be ahead, but he keeps pulling back, as if by habit. He ends up telling them what they probably want to hear: that with the right investments and leadership, Americans needn’t seriously change how we live, and that the developing world can join us in luxury. Again, maybe presenting the specter of environmental cataclysm as a fabulous new business opportunity is smart salesmanship, but it’s an analytical cop-out. It allows Mr. Friedman to avoid the most crucial of political questions—how we decide who gets what in a world of limited resources, where we can’t take more than our share and have enough to go around.
Michelle Goldberg’s new book, The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, Population and the Future of the World, will be published by The Penguin Press in April 2009. She can be reached at email@example.com.