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The United States must launch an “Energy-Climate Era” to solve the world’s connected crises, an outspoken columnist writes.

Hot, Flat, and Crowded:
Why We Need a Green Revolution — and How It Can Renew America
by Thomas L. Friedman, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 448 pages

Thomas Friedman is issuing a national alert. Instead of the Department of Homeland Security’s Code Red, his is a Code Green, sounding the threat of climate change, hydrocarbon energy shortages, and their accompanying environmental and political fallout. The title of Friedman’s latest book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, sums up his message succinctly: The world is hot, experiencing escalating global warming; flat, highly-connected, so that each country’s problems impact all other countries; and crowded, with human population spiraling out of control.

Like many, Friedman is alarmed by this state of the world and the urgent need for sustainable development. But he also believes that an opportunity is waiting: If America were to become the global leader in building clean energy technologies and promoting conservation, he argues, “it would tip the whole world decisively in that direction.” By assuming such a mantle, the U.S. would not only combat global climate and fuel problems; it could regain its position as an international leader and market competitor. In Hot, Flat, and Crowded, this outspoken New York Times columnist weaves together an ambitious but rousing thesis, heralding American renewal through an “Energy-Climate Era.”

The book’s early chapters take up the first part of this argument, targeting specific problems of global warming and overpopulation. Some of this is now familiar territory — the dangers of deforestation and species extinction, spiking temperatures and powerful natural disasters. But Friedman also builds an intriguing argument linking the demand for petroleum to the rising “petro-dictatorships” of oil-rich countries. He points out, for example, that Bahrain, the one Middle Eastern country whose oil reserves are depleting, is also the one moving most aggressively toward greater political freedom and economic reform. Oil-rich Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Kuwait, and outside the region, Venezuela and Russia, are moving in opposite directions.

Friedman further asserts that the world must address the issue of global “energy poverty.” Until we find ways to assist the billions of people lacking access to adequate electricity, many located in Africa, the gaps between them and the rest of the world will only widen, exacerbating existing problems of marginalization. Finding ways to provide that electricity — as well as phone lines, Internet connectivity and technical training — would arm the world’s poor with the tools they need to “compete, connect, and collaborate.” Such a true flattening of the world could lead to an explosion of global innovation.

It is in the second half of the book that Friedman advances his vision of an American energy revolution. He recognizes the crucial role of engineers in this struggle, quoting Microsoft’s chief research and strategy officer as stating that “ultimately, this problem is going to have to be solved by engineers.” Numerous examples are provided of the many hard at work to do so: Princeton’s engineering professor Robert Socolow, who leads the Carbon Mitigation Initiative; MIT student energy clubs collaborating globally to build an open-sourced plug-in electric hybrid; and engineer Noah Horowitz, whose push for more efficient vending machines will save five billion kilowatt hours per year.

Yet Friedman emphasizes that while “green” is the current hot concept, very little enduring change can occur without the commitment of the government. America needs leaders who recognize the importance of tackling the problem systematically, and moreover, “who can actually generate the vision and authority to pull that system together.” Washington needs to stop subsidizing big oil and automotive companies, while ensuring a great deal more long-term funding for scientific research on energy matters.

Readers may find fault with Friedman’s habit of cribbing so much of his material from others: Lengthy quoted passages fill out the text, often spanning entire pages — and sometimes representing Friedman’s best material. His petro-politics thesis belongs to UCLA political scientist Michael Ross, for example. Yet it is Friedman who manages to gather up so much disparate information — tirelessly consulting with experts from around the globe — then distill and synthesize, delivering an argument that is easily understood and remembered.

Less persuasive is the author’s conviction that America can and should lead a global movement for sustainable development. The sobering examples he offers of Washington gridlock and special interest favoritism suggest just the opposite. And as he points out, “right now, green is just a box politicians have to check, not a governing philosophy.” With Europeans already making real strides with new technology development and stricter environmental legislation, America is trailing, not leading. Can this situation really be turned around, and to the extent Friedman envisions?

Hot, Flat, and Crowded may not be as path-breaking as Thomas Friedman’s earlier The World is Flat, but his contribution to the debates surrounding climate change, and his championing of America’s potential, make, as always, for provocative reading.

Robin Tatu is a senior editor of Prism.




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