Book review – Hot, Flat, and Crowded By Thomas L. Friedman | BusinessWeek

Enlisting Father Profit to Save Mother Nature — Tom Friedman makes a gripping political, environmental, and economic case for green innovation

Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution— and How It Can Renew America. By Thomas L. Friedman. Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 438 pp; $27.95

When the U.S. Marines, General Electric (GE), and even China—an energy-poor, environmentally challenged industrial giant—are betting on green innovation to gain a competitive edge, you’d think U.S. policymakers would pay attention. Not yet, though, says Thomas L. Friedman in Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution—And How It Can Renew America. It is urgent, he says in this cri de coeur, that we unleash U.S. creativity—and capitalism—on the challenges of energy and climate change. “There is only one thing bigger than Mother Nature and that is Father Profit, and we have not even begun to enlist him in this struggle,” he writes.

Expanding his horizons beyond globalization, the subject of The World Is Flat (2005), the three-time Pulitzer Prize winner argues that a trio of powerful dynamics is shaping our future. The “hot” of the title refers to global warming, or “global weirding,” as he calls it, referring to the bizarre climate effects we are encountering. “Flat” refers to globalization, enhanced here with a look at how trade growth fuels energy use and hurts the environment. “Crowded” refers to humanity’s relentless expansion and its perilous effects on biodiversity and the planet’s finite resources. The only solution to these ills, he forcefully asserts: innovation in the form of a green revolution.

Of course, these topics have been addressed by others: If Fareed Zakaria and Al Gore met and co-authored a long-winded book, this would be it. Many sections were first explored in Friedman’s New York Times column, and with over 400 anecdote-chocked pages, Friedman asks a lot of the reader.

Stay with him, though. Surprising material is scattered throughout, and the final sections may be the book’s most rewarding. Its very sprawl emphasizes the scale of these problems and allows the author to make a strong case for the possibility and necessity of addressing them. With a tone of urgent hopefulness—or “sober optimism,” as he says—he beseeches voters, executives, and politicians to get on with it.


Friedman hops across the globe to document the intimate interplay of the three trends. In the jungles of Sumatra, he visits a conservation activist who worked with an energy developer and with villagers to create an economy that fosters rather than destroys the rainforest. Then Friedman is on to Iraq, where a U.S. general on the front lines installs solar panels to reduce the need to transport diesel to fuel electric generators. Cut to Connecticut, where CEO Jeffrey R. Immelt (a recurring character) talks up how tougher environmental standards have made GE’s high-efficiency locomotives best-sellers and a leading export to China.

Innovation, whether the result of policy or entrepreneurialism, is the key to these success stories. Unfortunately, America remains caught up in what Friedman calls a “dumb as we wanna be” mindset, where “drill, baby, drill” is an easier sell than long-term, comprehensive energy policy.

This has security implications. There’s a simple, negative correlation, says the author, between oil and democracy: As oil prices rise, petrodictators grow rich and democracies weaken. Conversely, as oil prices fall, petro-dictators grow weaker and democracies flourish. Think of the reforms of Russia and Iran in the 1990s, when oil prices were low, compared with the countries’ troublemaking in the era of $100-per-barrel oil.

What’s more, he notes, petro-states tend to undereducate their youth, fueling unemployment and creating a breeding ground for terrorism. How to reverse this pattern? Radically cut energy demand and invent fantastic substitutes.

Which brings us to China’s green ambitions—and the U.S.’s failure. If you read only part of this book, let it be the final chapters, in which Friedman explores how China could emerge as a green prodigy. Sure, Chinese leaders unleashed two decades of environmental turmoil by replacing communism with “GDPism.” But increasingly, Friedman says, those leaders are recognizing that environmental harm threatens not only the land, water, and air but also their political future.

So they’re acting. China’s voluntary goal of decreasing carbon emissions, for example, would result in five times more greenhouse-gas savings than the targets set by Europe under the Kyoto Protocol. China also has higher national targets for renewable energy than the U.S. (where there are none) and tougher mileage rules for its burgeoning fleet of vehicles.

If China’s leaders see the necessity of this approach, Friedman wonders, why can’t ours? Despite the scale of the challenge, he is optimistic that the political, technical, and economic means are at hand to spark a U.S. economic revolution. From windmills to advanced batteries, the results could mean new exports and jobs.

When Friedman completed this book in July, he may have been encouraged by the green leanings of the men who eventually became Presidential contenders. If so, he has good reason to worry now. John McCain, the author of some of the Senate’s most progressive climate proposals, is now promoting offshore drilling as a fix. And Barack Obama, having argued the potential of green innovation to jump-start economic growth, has become less vocal.

Yet, Friedman is certain the public can tackle the challenge. He criticizes articles that offer “205 easy ways to save the earth.” Such pandering implies that the revolution will be painless. It will not be: It will demand ugly political battles, the fall of dirty industries, and the rise of new, clean ones. “I am convinced,” he writes, “that the public is ready; they’re ahead of the politicians.” For now, though, the petro-dictators are surely the only ones smiling.

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