Thursday, June 24, 2010

Hot, Flat, and Crowded

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman explains his book Hot, Flat, and Crowded as the coming together of three forces in the world. "Hot" refers to global warming and the assorted environmental problems that go with it. "Flat" refers to the rise of the middle class in places such as India and China living like the American middle class and advances in technology linking nations and populations more than ever. "Crowded" refers to overpopulation and the strain on resources this brings. Friedman argues the United States, to reassert its status in the world and overcome economic and environmental issues, needs a green revolution from the people, business, and government. Otherwise, we'll struggle to live in a world increasingly hot, flat, and crowded.

The United States must get off oil. In addition to environmental harm caused by emitting carbon into atmosphere or damaging wildlife by drilling, the U.S. is indirectly funding its own enemies in the War on Terror. Billions of dollars in oil money go to Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, and that ends up in the hands of radical Jihadists. With the amount of money they receive, these groups go into poor Muslim regions, usually where there are lots of angry, unemployed young men, to build mosques to preach radical Islam and provide these young men food, shelter, and other essentials in return for loyalty. By weaning ourselves off foreign oil, the U.S. can cut off a major source of terrorist funding. Also, oil money also props up petro-dictators by giving them more funding to secure their base, build up their army, and suppress their people. Friedman advocates for some form of carbon or gas tax to encourage conservation and other means of energy. In one of the book's best points, he argues we are already paying a tax on cheap oil, but instead of the U.S. Treasury receiving it, the money is going to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other countries.

Friedman also criticizes the American energy infrastructure as inefficient and built to accommodate increasing power usage without incentives for conservation or development of clean renewables. The oil and coal industries, in particular, rely on billions in subsidies and tax credits from the government to keep oil and coal cheap, and they have the influence to lobby against similar advantages for solar, wind, and other energies. To Friedman, this is not free market capitalism; it is one industry propped up by the government. Friedman also argues green energy will be the dominant marketplace of the 21st century, with only those countries taking the lead in renewables being the ones to get advantages. Even China, long criticised for lax environmental policy, is striving to catch up in this field while the U.S. as a whole remains uncommitted to green energy and conservation.

Many businesses, scientific enterprises, and other green entities are cited by Friedman as examples of green development and innovation. My favorite is how a branch in the army known as the "Green Hawks" found that reducing their reliance on diesel fuel in Iraq left soldiers less vulnerable to enemy bombs (less need to send trucks loaded with fuel out in the open), reduced their energy consumption by seventy percent (saving money), and endeared them with the local populace (they had energy left over to share). Similar projects are planned for military all over Iraq and Afghanistan. The key thing, Friedman says, is that once people see green energy as an opportunity rather than a burden, the floodgates for innovation and consumption will open. Less money on energy means more money for other aspects of a business.

Hot, Flat, and Crowded is both uplifting and depressing. It's encouraging to read about this bubble of innovation and technology just waiting to swell up under the right conditions, but it's frustrating to read about the various wasted opportunities over the past forty years (Carter placed money in renewable research, but that was overturned by Regan when the price of oil fell in the eighties). Currently, less than one percent of money in the U.S. energy industry goes to research and development (other industries devote 8-10 percent). From an environmental, national security, and business standpoint, Friedman effectively calls for a green energy revolution in America, and while it won't be without sacrifice, the risks of doing nothing are too high. Highly recommended.

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