Do the environmental and energy crises driving so many of today’s headlines actually represent a unique opportunity for revitalizing the global economy? That is the argument that Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Thomas L. Friedman advances in his latest book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution—and How It Can Renew America (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008). Steve Mirsky, a staff editor and writer for Scientific American and host of its Science Talk podcast, spoke with Friedman about his book in August; what follows is adapted from that conversation, which can be heard/read in full here.
MIRSKY: Why do you call the book “Hot, Flat, and Crowded”?
FRIEDMAN: What we’re seeing in the world today is the convergence of three big, seismic events. The first is obviously global warming. Second is what I call global flattening, which is my shorthand for the rise of middle classes all across the world in bigger numbers than ever before, from China to Brazil to India to Russia. Those middle classes increasingly have the energy and consumption patterns, demands and aspirations of Americans. Third is global population growth. When I was born in 1953, there were about 2.68 billion people on the planet; if I live to be 100, according to the U.N. there will be more than nine billion. The population will have more than tripled in my lifetime.
These three huge events—global warming, global flattening and global crowding—are like three flames that have converged to create a really big fire. And that fire is boiling a set of five problems that are going to shape the 21st century and a new era of history that I call the Energy-Climate Era.
Those five problems are: climate change; petro-dictatorship (the rise of Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela); constraints on energy and natural resource supply and demand (we see that from food to fuel today); biodiversity loss (the fact that we are right now in the middle of the sixth great extinction in Earth’s history); and finally something I call energy poverty—the 1.6 billion people on the planet who still have no on-off switch in their life because they have no direct grid electricity. How we manage these five problems will determine the stability or instability of the 21st century.
In a world that is hot, flat and crowded, clean power and clean technology are going to be a currency of geopolitical and military power, every bit as much as tanks, planes and nuclear missiles have been. In a world that’s hot, flat and crowded, clean tech has to be the next great global industry. Therefore, the country that takes the lead in clean power and clean tech is going to be by definition an economic and strategic leader in the 21st century. That’s why there’s absolutely no contradiction—not only between going green and being patriotic but also between being geopolitical and geostrategic. They go together.
You’re emphatic that the U.S. needs to develop a new set of systems to tackle those problems successfully.
If you don’t do things systematically, you end up supporting corn ethanol in Iowa and thinking you solved the problem, when all you have really done is drive up food prices and encourage more people to plant palm oil in the Amazon.
Right now we have a system: it’s the dirty fuel system, and it works really well. Within a mile of your house you can probably find a gas station to fill your car with dirty fuel. So this system works really well for getting that dirty fuel from the oil well, to the tanker, to the refinery, to your neighborhood and into your car. That system allows ordinary people to do pretty extraordinary things: to get personal mobility at what for many years was a very cheap price. Of course, we now know that in doing so we are also despoiling the environment, strengthening petro-dictatorship, driving biodiversity loss, and so on.