Saturday, June 16, 2012

Hot, Flat, and Crowded

Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why America Needs a Green Evolution: And How it Can Renew America
© 2006 Thomas Friedman
438 pages

   The world is changing. Regardless of the consoling reassurances of corporations, industries, and the silk-tongued politicians who lobby on their behalf, our environment is deteriorating – and that loss is driven by our actions as a global society.  Our comfortable and relatively carefree days are numbered. But the changes to come need not be our undoing. The challenges of the future may indeed be a boon, forcing us to work hard to meet them, fueling innovation and creating new sources of strength. Such is the premise of Hot, Flat, and Crowded, a thought-provoking work of interest to anyone concerned about the future or the health of their respective nation, or the human enterprise in general.

            Friedman begins by establishing the conditions – hot, flat, and crowded. Global warming is a fact, not media myth or political hyperbole. His account illustrates amply that even minor changes in temperature can cause drastic changes in the weather, spurring on calamitous flood/famine patterns and making the environment as a whole more chaotic, wrecking havoc on our ecological systems. We need those systems to make sense, because we have ever-more people to feed. We are already seven billion strong, but our task isn’t limited to simply feeding those billions. As the developing world continues to mature, more people in the old ‘third world’ are demanding the lifestyle of the first. (“Flat” refers to the elimination of barriers between various populations; the idea is that free trade agreements, globalization, and the Internet are putting more people on even ground.)  And they should get it, says Friedman: it’s simply not fair to deny them the same opportunities the west has enjoyed for the last century and a half.  So how on Earth are we going to meet those ‘needs’?

            Well, we need to figure that out. We need ideas, because our current approach isn’t cutting it. We’re still thinking like 19th century industrialists, but the old ways are defunct. The resources aren’t there to support them, and even if they were, we can’t absorb the damage anymore. Green has gone global: even coal is billing itself as “clean”. But green adverts don’t mean a thing: we’re not putting in an effort, Friedman says, we’re having a party. We have to change the way we live on a fundamental level, not just be content with throwing a can in the recycling bin instead of the trash and patting ourselves on the back. One idea Friedman proposes is an ‘energy internet’, interlinking all of our devices which require electricity, and having them coordinated by a home computer which itself is integrated with the computer system of the power company, so that usage can be managed to minimize waste.

 Today the global economy is slowing down: even China’s momentous growth is finally feeling friction. Some fear that forcing companies to limit themselves in order to maintain the environment will cause stagnation, even depression…but Friedman also demonstrates how ‘going green’ can make companies more financially resilient –  more efficient and stable – as well as competitive, for the company that finds a better way of doing things will  vault over their rivals.  Even so, Friedman acknowledges that we have done a poor job of helping these new companies get their start. Despite already having an easy time of it – abundant resources, little regulation – the old coal and oil companies enjoy comfortable subsidies to boot.  There’s nothing to be gained in propping them up,  especially when those financial resources could be put to work building a future. Friedman speaks for the need for strong, visionary leaders who are willing to face up to the impressive challenges of the future, and his account gives some reason for hope, as it is sprinkled with stories of political and business leaders who have revolutionized their sphere of influence.

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.

At One with Nineveh: Politics, Consumption, and the Human Future. Paul and Barbara Ehrlich
Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less are the Keys to Sustainability, David Owen 

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