Hot, Flat, and Crowded

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman exhorts us to unite to fight global warming and excess consumption.

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Reading New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s latest book, it’s hard to know how to describe him. A genial Jeremiah, perhaps? Or maybe Thomas Malthus with a clipboard and a 10-point plan for avoiding global catastrophe?

As a professional opiner, Friedman is unusual. He’s not your typical journalistic chin-stroker, content to gin up a few deep thoughts before knocking out 800 words twice a week.

From world capitals to remote villages, Friedman travels around the world, interviewing world leaders, business dynamos, and ground-breaking innovators. (It helps to have a New York Times expense account, I suppose.)

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And he does it with an enthusiastic curiosity that’s infectious. He comes across as an intellectual who’s also down-to-earth.

Plus, there are those three Pulitzer Prizes he’s won for his reporting and writing.

Having backpedaled from his initial support of the United States-led invasion of Iraq (as have all but a handful of Americans), Friedman in recent years has tracked and explained how the world has become “flat” – his phrase for economic and social globalization.

Meanwhile, in his twice-weekly syndicated column he’s written more and more about energy and the closely-related issue of global climate change.

In Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need A Green Revolution – And How It Can Renew America, Friedman brings it all together, adding in the inexorable growth in world population and consumption because much of the rest of the world is becoming more like the US in levels of wealth and therefore has the ability to buy stuff that depletes natural resources, creates greenhouse gases, and ends up in landfills.

Although he seems always hopeful, Friedman’s message is sobering. Two sentences sum up his warning:
“… global warming, the stunning rise of middle classes all over the world, and rapid population growth have converged in a way that could make our planet dangerously unstable. In particular, the convergence of hot, flat, and crowded is tightening energy supplies, intensifying the extinction of plants and animals, deepening energy poverty, strengthening petrodictatorship, and accelerating climate change.”

(It’s both sly and appropriate that the book jacket is illustrated with “The Garden of Earthly Delights” painted by Hieronymus Bosch in 1500.)

If this “we’re in a heap of trouble” message sounds like Al Gore, it is. But it’s broader – beyond climate science – and it represents the best kind of mainstream media reporting: highly informed analysis with a point of view and a conclusion that make sense.

Friedman loves lists, and he loves phrasemaking. We have now entered the “Energy-Climate Era” or “E.C.E.” We need a “Code Green” revolution in which America leads the way in innovative development of clean energy and “an ethic of conservation toward the natural world.”

Antidemocratic leaders whose coffers swell because of Americans’ appetite for oil he calls “petrodictators.” This is gimmicky, but useful.
And lists: “Three broad trends” in America today. Five key problems “that a hot, flat, and crowded world is dramatically intensifying.” “Four fundamental ways” in which the nation’s oil addiction is changing the international system.

That’s OK, too. Lists help organize thought and form understanding.
Friedman can be a bit windy at times (what columnist isn’t?). And he frequently quotes others at great length, which can be useful to readers while also giving the book its 400 page-plus heft. But he also writes excellent tutorial chapters on climate change, biodiversity, and “energy poverty” in Africa and other parts of the developing world.
As he has in his columns over the past few years, Friedman expresses frustration at the lack of national leadership regarding energy and climate policy. And he sees this as one of the nation’s most important security issues, directly related to the growth in militant Islam.
President Bush’s refusal to do anything significant after 9/11 to reduce our gasoline consumption really amounted to a policy of ‘No Mullah Left Behind,’ ” he writes.
This is not a book designed to cheer us up but to get us off our backsides. And Friedman doesn’t mean just changing light bulbs and installing low-flow toilets. Saving the world will be a lot harder than that.

But the tone and the innovative ideas reviewed here leave me optimistic and energized. And certainly with a better understanding of the connections between energy, the environment, the economy, and national security.
“The future does not have to be a Malthusian nightmare – if we think strategically about how to mitigate what we can, adapt to what we can’t, and innovate our way to new possibilities that right now seem unimaginable,” he writes.
But, he adds, “The longer we wait to set out on such a strategic path ... the deeper the pail out of which we have to climb.”

Brad Knickerbocker is a Monitor staff writer.

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