FriHotf 08-12-174

Hot, Flat, and Crowded

Why We Need a Green Revolution--And How It Can Renew America


Thomas L. Friedman

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008, 438 pp., ISBN 978-0-374-16685-4



Friedman is a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner for his work with The New York Times.  He also authored the highly popular books, The Lexus and the Olive Tree (1999) and The World is Flat (2005).  The world is getting hot, flat, and crowded because of the convergence of rapid population growth, exploding middle classes, and global warming.  The first very readable half of the book makes a powerful case for immediate change.  The latter part argues that the U.S. can maintain its moral and technological leadership toward a future habitable planet.  This book has changed my thinking about the environment.


"An America living in a defensive crouch cannot fully tap the vast rivers of idealism, innovation, volunteerism, and philanthropy that still flow through our nation." (5)  Our current situation is a test of whether we are able and willing to lead. (6)  Our political leaders have become a "subprime nation trying to borrow its way into prosperity." (8)  "We have been mortgaging our future rather than investing in it." (9)  Our paralyzed political system appears unable to tackle any big problem.  Our country is full of innovators and idealists.  Let's not choke them off.  (20)


We are entering the Energy-Climate Era (ECA).  We are no longer "post" something.  This is a new era.  The book addresses five key problems: (26-7)

  1. Growing demand for ever scarcer energy supplies and natural resources
  2. A massive transfer of wealth to oil-rich countries and their petrodictators
  3. Disruptive climate change
  4. Energy poverty, which is dividing the world into electricity haves and nots
  5. Rapidly accelerating biodiversity loss


The biggest worry is not terrorism but demographics.  The greatest growth is in the countries least able to sustain it - and that will fuel instability and extremism. (29) 


The rising middle classes demand things, like light bulbs.  If the world adds a billion people in the next 12 years, it will require 20 or more new 500-megawatt coal-burning power plants just so each one can turn on a light bulb.  (31)


Fuels from hell: coal, oil, natural gas.  Fuels from heaven: wind, hydroelectric, tidal, solar.  (32)  "Fossil fuels are exhaustible, increasingly expensive, and politically, ecologically, and climatically toxic." (38) 


Deforestation in places like Indonesia and Brail is responsible for about 20% of all CO2, more than all the world's cars, trucks, planes, ships, and trains. (34)    


About 2000 we crossed a line where so many people were able to increase their standard of living that the global energy and natural resources and food demand grew at a much accelerated pace.  (38)  Too many people are using too much stuff.  Accelerating demand is the new normal. (40) 


"The big geopolitical redline…[is] the massive transfer of wealth--hundreds of billions of dollars a year--from energy consuming countries to energy-producing countries…" (42)  It's strengthening nondemocratic actors and giving power to leaders who have not earned it, strengthening the most conservative hard-line clerics all across the Muslim world. (42)  Russia has gone from poor man to the rich man of Europe, threatening to turn off the gas if any of its neighbors get too pushy.  (43) 


"Half the world's tropical and temperate forests are now gone." (quoting James Gustave Speth at Yale).  (46)


By 2050, two or three billion people will be living the American lifestyle or aspiring to do so.  If we don’t redefine the American lifestyle, we will make the planet so hot and bare that none of us can live like Americans live today. (55)  "Today's global economy [is] a monster truck with the gas pedal stuck, and we've lost the key." (64)


"This is the first time in human history that economic growth has become the prerogative of most people on the planet….  This is an utterly new phenomenon." (65, quoting Carl Pope)  "What really matters is total world consumption…." (66) "The old way is not replicable on the China-India scale…without irreparable harm to planet earth." (69)  "Innovation around sustainable energy and resource productivity is our only way out of this problem." (70)


Americans are still the largest energy hogs by far and our overall energy use is accelerating. (72)  Baby boomers were raised on the notion that it would be good if everyone could live like we do.  But it would be a climate and biodiversity disaster.  We must take the lead in redesigning and reinventing what constitutes the American way. (76)


Ending our oil addiction is a strategic imperative. It is

      Strengthening the most intolerant, anti-Western, anti-women's strain of Islam

      Financing a reversal of democratic trends in Russia, Latin America and elsewhere

      Fueling an ugly global energy scramble that brings out the worst in nations, and

      Funding both sides of the war on terror.  (79-80) "We are funding the rope for the hanging of ourselves." (93) 


"This massive transfer of wealth for oil is tilting not just the Muslim world, but also global politics at large.  Wherever governments can raise most of their revenues by simply drilling a hole in the ground rather than tapping their people's energy, creativity, and entrepreneurship, freedom tends to be curtailed, education underfunded, and human development retarded." (93)  "When oil was $20 a barrel, Putin had 20 percent of the Russian vote; when it was $100 a barrel he had 100 percent of the Russian vote!" (95) 


The First Law of Petropolitics says "the higher the average global crude oil price rises, the more that free speech, free press, free and fair elections, freedom of assembly, government transparency, judicial independence, rule of law, and the formation of independent political parties and nongovernmental organizations are eroded." (96)  Petrolist states are authoritarian states that are highly dependent on oil production for the bulk of their exports and government income. (96) 


"Oil-backed regimes that do not have to tax their people for revenue...also do not have to listen to their people or represent their wishes." (101)  "Of the twenty-three nations in the world that derive a clear majority of their export income from oil and gas, not a single one is a democracy." (105) 


"Perpetually high oil prices will result in a shift in the balance of economic power from the West toward the oil-and gas-producing countries--be it Russia, Venezuela, Iran, or the Persian Gulf states." (106)


You can't tinker with nature's operating system without eventually paying for it. (113)  The climate is changing because of human activity and it is considerably faster than climatologists were predicting three or four years ago. (116)  These are the most important conclusions about global climatic disruption:

      It's real

      It's accelerating

      It's already doing significant harm

      Human activities are responsible for much of it

      Tipping points into catastrophic disruption may occur if we continue business as usual

      There is much that could be done to reduce the danger if we would get started. (124)


"We're driving in a car with bad brakes in a fog and heading for a cliff." (125, quoting John Holdren)


"It takes only a small increase in global average temperatures to have a big effect on weather, because what drives the winds and their circulation patterns on the surface of the earth are differences in temperature."  As the temperature rises you get more extremes in monsoons, dry spells, droughts, etc. (133)


"With more and more species threatened with extinction by the flood that is today's global economy, we may be the first generation in human history that literally has to act like Noah--to save the last pairs of a wide range of species." (141)  Conservation International estimates one species is going extinct every twenty minutes, a thousand times faster than the norm of history. (141)  "The biodiversity of the planet is a unique and uniquely valuable library that we have been steadily burning down…" (132)    "Destroying a tropical rain forest and other species-rich ecosystems for profit is like burning all the paintings of the Louvre to cook dinner." (142)  "Our climate is directly impacted by the health of our tropical forests and other natural systems." (145)


Biodiversity is threatened by the poorest of the poor trying to scrape out a living and from globalization, exporting natural resources to provide more consumption for more people.  (146-47)  There are limits to how much we can encroach on the natural world. (148)  The biodiversity issue is not just about saving nature, it is about saving humanity.  "Later is over." (143)


"The Netherlands today produces as much electrical power annually as all of sub-Saharan Africa…" (154)  "One out of every four people on the planet don't have regular access to an electricity grid." (155)  "The reason is that these countries are plagued by either persistent misgovernance or persistent civil war--or both."  "Much of the debt relief offered to Africa today is actually about forgiving loans made for power projects that were built but failed because of corruption of misrule." (156)


"Every problem of the developing world is also an energy problem." (157)  "Because without electricity you don't have access to a computer, a browser, the Internet, the World Wide Web, Google, Hotmail, or any form of e-mail or e-commerce."  "You can't use any of the basic tools that people in the flat world are using to compete, connect, and collaborate." (161) 


"But if all 1.6 billion people without electricity today were to connect to a power grid based on coal or natural gas or oil, the climate and pollution implications could be devastating."  "This is why we desperately need abundant, clean, reliable, cheap electrons--fast." (163) 


Part II.  Solving these problems is a great opportunity for any country that rises to the challenge. (170)  "It is not pay now or pay later.  It is pay now, or there will be no later."  (171)


"The true costs of all these things are becoming visible, measurable, assessable, and inescapable.  Anyone in the flat world can see what the others are doing and what harm it is causing.  (171)


Green is no longer a fad.  It is the way you grow, build, design, manufacture, work and live.  It is not just better, it is the smartest, most efficient, and lowest-cost way--when all the true costs are included. (172, quoting Andrew Shapiro)


"Everything American (or any country) can do to go green today will make it stronger, healthier, more secure, more innovative, more competitive, and more respected."  "That's why I say green is the new red, white, and blue…."  "We help the world solve its problems by solving our own problems." (173)  But we also have a moral responsibility because we consume the greatest portion per capita of the world's resources. (174) 


We feel best about America when we are doing things for others.  "Leading the green technology revolution would enable us to do just that." (180)


"The first rule of systems is that everything is interconnected…." (183)  We must think and act in a systemic way.  Optimizing individual components makes incremental change but we must optimize the system for a transformational ecology. (185) 


The first task is to stimulate innovation because no one has a source of electrons that are abundant, clean, reliable, and cheap. (187)  "We need a Clean Energy System that is always trying to optimize three things at once--innovation and generation of the cleanest and cheapest electrons, the most efficient and productive use of those electrons and other natural resources, and constant attention to protecting and conserving our natural systems…." (1950


Part III.  How to Move Forward (the more difficult reading)

"A vision without resources is a hallucination.  Right now we are having a green hallucination…."  "Never has so little been asked of so many at such a critical moment." (207, quoting Michael Maniates)


The total world's energy use is equivalent to 420 million gallons of oil per hour.  This raises three issues: the scale of the demand, the scale of investment needed to produce alternatives on this scale, and the time it takes to produce the alternatives in these quantities. (210)  "Do we have the political energy…to undertake and deploy an industrial project of this scale?" (215)


"It's not like we're on the Titanic and we have to avoid the iceberg.  We've already hit the iceberg." (216)


"We are not going to regulate our way out of the problems….  We can only innovate our way out, and the only way to do that is to mobilize the most effective and prolific system for transformational innovation and commercialization of new products ever created on the face of the earth--the U.S. marketplace."  "We don't need a Manhattan Project for clean energy; we need a market for clean energy." (243-44)  Only the market can situate this much innovation.  


But we need the government to stimulate exponential innovation by helping shape the market.  (246)  So far the market has operated by "survival of the fattest."


"We need the government to level the playing field by taxing what we don't want (electricity from carbon-emitting sources) and subsidizing what we do want (clean power innovation)." (252)  The government needs to make it a no-brainer to invest in renewable energy.  (258) 


"I am convinced that most Americans will pay more for energy if they are convinced that doing so will give them cars, homes, and appliances that will dramatically lower their energy consumption--and contribute to a real nation-building strategy." (166)


We also need to develop a global strategy for the preservation of our forests, oceans, rivers, and endangered biodiversity hot spots, to enable smart growth that doesn't destroy our natural world.  That strategy for preservation has to include legal, financial, and educational components…." (298)  "Indonesia is the second-richest country in the world in terms of terrestrial biodiversity, after Brazil, and first in terms of marine biodiversity." (299)  Much of this is under threat, including the fastest rate of deforestation in the world.  Indonesia is losing tropical forests the size of Maryland every year. (299)


"All conservation is local."  "You need coalitions on the ground bound together by an interlocking web of self-interests to preserve a certain pristine region or forest." (303)


"While oceans are still the primary 'lungs' of the world, storing and exhaling CO2, tropical forests also play a critical role in the carbon cycle and in moderating global warming." (206)


"If you want to save the forests, you have to save the people first, and in today's world the only way to do that is with an education through which people can learn service or manufacturing skills that do not involve plundering the forest." (312)   


"I believe we are on the cusp of an era when outgreening will become a strategy for achieving competitive advantage in a variety of fields." (322) 


"When you start to drill inside yourself or your own company or your own community for more sustainable ways to power your future, all kinds of good things start to happen--as the U.S. army discovered.  You lower your energy bills.  You raise your innovation capacities, because it is impossible to make a product greener without also making it smarter--smarter materials, smarter designs, or smarter software.  You develop export products that will be in global demand.  You get cleaner air and water.  And you will have a better handle on your costs." (325)


"China cannot afford to do what the West did: Grow now, clean up later." (343)  It's all in the numbers.  


The two big questions in the book:  Can America really lead a real green revolution?  And can China really follow?  (344) 



 * * * * * *

Your comments and book recommendations are welcome.

To discontinue receiving book notes, hit Reply and put Discontinue in the text.