© 2006 Thomas Friedman
Hot, Flat, and Crowded commends itself, but not without reservation. These are ideas everyone needs to consider, at least those who are contemplating being alive within the next few decade. Young people considering their future career plans or just settling into the responsibilities of adulthood and considering civic engagement are the ideal audience here: the "Millennial" have their work cut out for them, and Friedman makes a great many fundamentally good points. In "If It Isn't Boring, It Isn't Green", for instance, he drives home the idea that sustainability has to be foundational, so much the background for what we do that we take it for granted. Right now green is just garnish -- decor to entice us to buy one brand of bottled water instead of another. He advocates for "cradle to cradle" manufacturing, for instance, an idea also mentioned in Cheap: the High Cost of Discount Culture as the polar opposite of our current approach, which is to produce useless garbage (broken fiberboard bookshelves from Wal-Mart) from useful raw materials.Cradle to cradle manufacturing consists of making products which can be completely broken down and either reused by the part, or biodegradable to the point that their materials can break down and be reused atomically. Waste must be eliminated, not lessened. Similarly, Friedman suggests improving what we've got when we can: instead of throwing money at projects we hope might work, let's first devote it toward maximizing the value of what we have. It reminded me of what the town of Littleton, Colorado has accomplished with its "economic gardening" approach.This last idea is especially key, because the amount of work Friedman is suggesting will consume an enormous amount of capital -- capital we may no longer have, given the crisis of 2008. Friedman is writing for a popular audience, so naturally he hopes to offer hard ideas with a soft coating to help them go down easier, but the idea that China and India will be able to convert to "western" style consumerism simply isn't believable to me. By 2050, our energy consumption alone is expected to double. That is a staggering prediction (by the Shell Energy Group). Something's got to give.
The great limitation of Hot, Flat, and Crowded is that Friedman still believes we change the outcome by altering what we consume. He praises new cars, for instance, which get better gas mileage, but ignores the fact that marginal improvements in efficiency don't matter when the entire system is broken. Beyond Friedman lies the American landscape, a nation of parking lots and freeways in which everyone must drive. Fuel efficiency is a band-aid on a bullet wound. However, the economic gardening approach which Friedman advocates can be used to transform suburban sprawl into communities with economic and social value. Supposedly his later book, That Used to be Us, addresses transportation matters. If so, I look forward to reading it. In the meantime, I'm still glad to have found this. For its weaknesses, it seems a good starting point for people concerned about the shape of the human future here on planet Earth. The need for a revolution is also a good rallying point for Americans of all political persuasions, whether they are concerned by fiscal or social health. In this age of polarization, Americans need to find common ground in matters like this.