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Review: Thomas L. Friedman's Hot, Flat, and Crowded

This Magazine Staff

Thomas L. Friedman, Foreign Affairs columnist of The New York Times, has written a new book called Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution – and How It Can Renew America. This is Friedman’s contribution to the growing literature on environmental issues, and it’s an ambitious one.
The first few sections of the text do an admirable job of laying out the problem. The world is getting hot, warming at unexpectedly exponential rates. Some of the consequences will include what he calls “Global Weirding”. Not only will the globe become intolerably warm; but even the smallest of atmospheric changes will bring with it strange occurrences and unpredictably bizarre events.
The world is proverbially flat because of the rise of the middle-class in places like India and China. A greater percentage of people in the world are becoming affluent. Crowded, naturally, refers to the incredible population growth around the world and, once again, places like India and China.
In his story, Friedman’s primary culprits are what he calls “Dirty Fuels”. Coal, oil, and other “fuels from hell”, as he puts it. The world is getting hot because of the carbon they emit. The growing wealth of India and China’s middle-class, and their accompanying consumption needs, are increasing demand for dirty fuels. And the growing global population is increasing this demand even further. So, not only are things very bad, but they can get much worse if we don’t act.
We must, Friedman argues, develop our Energy Technology. Advocating strong state intervention, Friedman says we need a complete re-structuring of our energy system. We need funding for innovation; tax breaks for alternative energy producers; as well as carbon taxes and price floors for oil (if the price gets too low, there will be no real incentive for finding clean alternatives). In one evocative section, Friedman paints a picture of a future Energy Internet of perfect efficiency and synchronization between our energy needs and their supply.

Friedman’s one contentious argument is that the leader of this new movement must be America. Speaking, it seems, directly to his American audience, Friedman warns that if they do not re-organize with clean-energy, other countries will. And if those other countries, like China, do so before America, well, they’ll develop more efficiently, make more money and become more powerful. I can’t help but think: so what? His unabashed Americanism was just a little bit annoying considering the critical condition of the environment.
America should become a participant in the creation of clean-energy. And it should do so, not for a sense of global dominance, but because of the danger we collectively find ourselves in.

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