Science Talk

Tom Friedman's New Book--Hot, Flat, and Crowded

Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Tom Friedman discusses his new book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution--And How It Can Renew America. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. Web sites mentioned in this episode include

Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Tom Friedman discusses his new book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution—And How It Can Renew America. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. Web sites mentioned in this episode include

Podcast Transcription

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Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American. On this episode we will talk to Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times columnist Tom Friedman about his newest book: Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution—And How It Can Renew America, which was published on September 8. Plus, we will test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. Tom Friedman is the foreign affairs columnist for the Times. His first beat for the Times was in 1981 as a financial reporter, specializing in coverage of OPEC and oil-related issues. I spoke to him back on July 24th, just before he left for an extended visit to the melting glaciers of Greenland; I called him at his office in Washington, D.C.

Steve: Tom Friedman: "Hot, flat and crowded"; tell us what that means.

Friedman: Well, you know, basically what it means is that what we're seeing out in the world today, it seems to me, is that the convergence of three, you know, big, big seismic events. The first is obviously global warming. Second is what I call global flattening, which is really just 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; middle classes that increasingly have the kind of energy and consumption patterns, demands, and aspirations of Americans; and at the same time, global crowding—global population growth. The fact that when I was born in 1953, there were about 2.68 billion people on the planet, and if I lived to be a hundred—God willing and keep eating yogurt—then according to [the] U.N., there will be over nine billion people on the planet. Hence that means the planet's population will more than triple in my own lifetime, which also has its own energy resource implications. And so what the basic argument in the book is, [is] that these three, you know, huge seismic events—global warming, global flattening and global crowding—are like three flames that have converged to create a really big fire, and this fire is boiling a whole set of problems, five in particular, that I think are really going to shape the 21st century and a new era of history that we're going into which I call the energy–climate era. And those five problems are climate change, petro-dictatorship—the rise of Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela—energy and natural resource supply, and demand constraints, and 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 phase in the Earth's history that we know of; and finally something I call energy poverty, the 1.6 billion people on the planet we [who] still have no on-off switch in their life because they've no direct grid electricity. And the basic argument in the book is, you know, hot, flat and crowded are driving these five trends into wholly new rounds and how we manage these five problems is what is really going to determine the stability and instability of the 21st century.

Steve: I don't want to spend too much time on this, but you used the word at the beginning of your comment, you said, obviously, global warming.

Friedman: Right.

Steve: And it is not obvious still to some people.

Friedman: Sure.

Steve: And until we recognize the reality of this, you're not going to have the political will to put any kind of system in place to deal with it, so let's just spend a minute on that. Are you going to convince Rush Limbaugh and Jim Inhofe?

Friedman: Well you know there's a kind of political answer and then there is a scientific answer as your own magazine has, you know, been so effective at conveying. The political way to approach this is to say to them, "Well, let's say the climate believers those who believe in climate change are wrong, let's say they're wrong, but we do everything we can in our power to prepare our economy for world of climate change anyways. We shift to a clean energy system. We adapt how we use energy. We become hyperefficient. What's the worse [worst] that will happen?"

Steve: All right.

Friedman: What's that will happen is in a world that's just flat and crowded—forget hot, lets take hot off the table—in a World that's just flat and crowded, we will be leaders in the next great global industry because we are going to have to do this just because flat meets crowded.

Steve: Right. In the book you referred to the fact, you know, you sort of quote Inhofe, because he thinks climate change is a hoax, but you wrote, "if climate change is a hoax, it's the most wonderful one ever perpetuated."

Friedman: Absolutely, because everything you would do to prepare for climate change is almost like training for the Olympic triathlon. You know, if you train for the Olympic triathlon maybe you will make the Olympics, maybe you'll win, but even if you don't, you make yourself fit or strong or healthy or more independent and more secure. So, if the climate, you know, believers—and I am one of them—are right, you know, we'll be better prepared for climate change; and if we're wrong, we'll be simply be stronger, healthier, more competitive, entrepreneurial and respected because we'll no longer be addicted to a dirty fuel system. So to me it's a win-win. And that's why, you know, in someway this book avowedly speaks out of both sides of its mouth; avowedly, because basically what I am trying to say is that [to] the Limbaughs and the Inhofes, I have got a plan to make America stronger, more competitive, more entrepreneurial: it's to go green. And to my friends in the climate and environmental community and scientific community is [it's] that I've got a plan to make America greener. It turns out, it's the same plan.

Steve: Right.

Friedman: And that's what I really hope people will take a bite from this.

Steve: Yeah, you say that going green is a national security imperative, and green is the new red, white and blue. So why don't we talk about that for a little bit?

Friedman: Well, it['s] precisely because—and again [this] goes back to the thesis—in a world that is hot, flat, and crowded, clean power, clean technology, the ability to have your energy in both the clean form where you know the cost of your power and you can control that much better; that's going to be a source of power generally and that's going to be a currency of power, every bit Is [as] much as tanks, planes, and nuclear missiles have been during the cold war. In a world that's hot, flat and crowded, clean tech has to be the next great global industry and therefore the country that takes the lead in clean power and clean tech is going to, by definition, be an economic and strategic leader in the 21st century; and that's why there's absolutely no contradiction not only between going green and being patriotic, geopolitical and geostrategic. They actually go together.

Steve: And you talk about the fact that, though, to accomplish this—and you're not sure that right now we really have what it takes to accomplish it—but in order to accomplish it, we're going to have to put in place not just some strategies but an entire[ly] new system and one of the things you talk about is the problems you personally had just trying to install a couple of solar panels at your home. But we need to overhaul the entire system from making these changes in this country.

Friedman: Well, I love the way you've read the book and gotten just what it's about, if I may say so, because let's start to go back why a system, why do I start to stress a systematic approach? Well, if you don't do things systematically, you end up doing corn ethanol in Iowa and thinking you solved the problem, when all you have done is really drive up food prices and encourage more people to plant palm oil, basically, in the Amazon.

Steve: Would corn ethanol even be on the table if Iowa wouldn't [didn't] have the first caucus?

Friedman: There is no question; it would not be on the table. This is another form of agricultural welfare in my view and it is not a systematic approach, and so let's go back, why is the system so important? Because, first of all, right now we have a system, is[it's] the dirty fuel system, and it works really well. One mile from your house probably you can find a gas station to fill your car with dirty fuel.

Steve: One block actually.

Friedman: Exactly. So this system works really well and it gets that dirty fuel from the oil well, on to the tanker to the refinery, to your neighbor and into your car, and it's a system; and what that system allows is for ordinary people to do pretty extraordinary things; to get personal mobility at what for many years, was a very cheap price. Because we now know in doing that we are also spoiling the environment, strengthening petro-dictatorship, driving biodiversity loss, etc. So what I am basically saying is, we have a system now and you've to replace that system with a clean fuel system. Because only a system allows ordinary people to do extraordinary things, and if we don't enable ordinary people to do extraordinary things by way of energy efficiency or clean power and conservation, you'll never ever achieve the scale of change we need, to address the problems of climate change, biodiversity loss, petro-dictatorship etc.,

Steve: So, what are some of the actual things that have to change to put that new system into effect?

Friedman: Well, you know, a lot of people have different takes on this and one of the things you hear most often, people say, "We need a Manhattan Project." I am against [a] Manhattan Project [approach], because I don't think 12 scientists in Los Alamos are going to solve this problem, are going to give us what we need by way of a system. So, for me, there's sort of two big things [to] the way I think about this. First of all, you know, a lot of people will ask me and many others, are you a solar guy? [Are] you a nuclear guy? [Are] you a wind guy? And what I tell everyone is that I am an ecosystem or innovation guy. That's my fuel. What do I mean by that? What I mean by that is, we're not going to regulate our way out of this problem. The only way we're going to get the scale of abundant, cheap, clean, reliable electrons—which is what we need: abundant, cheap, clean reliable electrons—is through innovation breakthroughs that we just do not have right now; to pretty give us those kinds of electrons at a scale we do not have right now. And so the first question is, What would create that ecosystem? It's not to me a Manhattan Project. It is a market. What we don't have in energy today is a real market that would encourage a 100,000 Manhattan Projects in a 100,000 garages with a 100,000 ideas, out of which 100 will be really promising, 10 will be actually workable and 2 will be the next green Google; and that's what we're looking for. How do you get that kind of market? You've got to shape it in two ways. One is with the right price signal. We have to have a tax on carbon that is long term, fixed and durable. So those 100,000 inventors know if they do come up with their breakthrough, that if OPEC lowers the price of oil, it won't knock them out of the game, number one.

Steve: But what politician is going to actually ....

Friedman: Let me finish this.

Steve: Okay, sure.

Friedman: And the second thing we need is we need to re-write the rules around our utilities, as people started to do in California, Idaho. So our utilities are incentivized not to act like $5 all-you-can-eat electron buffets where they get richer by the more electrons you consume and use, but we actually turn them into partners for energy efficiency. So they're paid not for fill of what's sold, but to save a lot for what is saved.

Steve: Right.

Friedman: And those are the kind of the two big things. Now you asked the question, what politicians are going to do that? And the answer is, so far Kevin [we haven't] found him or her and you can say, well, you know, what does that mean? And what's happened to us is basically, precisely because every politician has looked at this as a, "Oh, no, no; tax and that's off the table." What has happened is that the market has done it and if politicians won't do it, the market, they basically said the world is going to get hot, flat and crowded; keep converging and we'll let the market do [it]. Well that market brought us a $140[-a-]barrel oil and it bought us a $4 gasoline; and if you like letting the market do this, that's what you're going to get. Now, you could say "Well hey isn't the market stimulating the alternatives?" Yes to some degree, but here's what happened. Here's what['s] bad about just letting the market do this. Three bad things happened. First of all, when you let the market run all this policy, all the biggest rent, all the biggest profits from the old system, go to people who have drawn a bull's eye on their back, go to the petro-dictators, okay. Because when the market sends the price up to $140 a barrel and you don't have a tax on it to capture some of that you sell, all of it goes to bad guys, number one. Number two, what doesn't go abroad to bad guys strengthening our enemies and weakening our balance of payments and our currency goes here to legacy industries. Coal companies, oil companies, gas companies, people who don't have a great huge incentive for moving to a new system. Thirdly what happens is the people who have the incentive to move to a new system, the renewable energy people say, "The market is in charge." Well, if the market is in charge, it can send the price up, but it can also send the price down. So, do I really want a bet the farm on renewable energy? Because maybe the price will go to $70 a barrel tomorrow and my wind and solar will be out of business

Steve: Which is why you really promote the idea of some price floors in some of these things?

Friedman: Exactly. So you remember what Jeff Immelt says in the book, to me is a very important quote. He says, "Tom, I am not going to make a 40-year multibillion dollar bet on a 15-minute price signal." And who would?

Steve: And you also have the hypothetical presidential candidate coming back to that issue of, where do you want that money to go? You can call it a tax, but right now we are in fact paying a tax that's going to fund madrassas that are preaching anti-Americanism all over the world.

Friedman: Yeah, that's why I say, people say, you know, "How could you raise this in a campaign?" So, let's imagine you are in a campaign. Let's imagine the discussion, okay, and your opponent says, "There goes my opponent Mr. Friedman. Another tax and spend liberal once again; now it's for an energy [tax]tech, never met a tax he didn't like, now he wants to tax your gasoline more;" but what I say, I would say, "Let's get one thing straight. My opponent and I, my Republican opponent and I, we're both for a tax. I just prefer my taxes should go to the U.S. treasury and he does not mind that his taxes go to the Saudi, Russian or Venezuelan treasuries. But let's not fool ourselves that we're not paying a tax here. I just have this, it's a quaint tick I have. You know, there is a little saying, don't know where it comes from, that I like my tax dollars to go to the American government. It is just that tick I have, but it turns up [out] my opponent, he doesn't care if it goes to Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia or Venezuela.

Steve: Yeah! Wouldn't be ...

Friedman: But if you can't win that debate, you know, you don't belong in politics.

Steve: There you go. Well, talk about the energy Internet and what life could potentially be like in 2020.

Friedman: Well, you know, the energy Internet is really my name for what happens when IT meets ET, when the information revolution meets the energy technology revolution, and that is, I believe, the platform, the breakthrough platform in which a lot of this innovation is going to happen and will be built. And basically in that world, you'll have a smart grid that is spread by clean, abundant, cheap, reliable electrons. They will be connected to a smart home. [A] smart home is a home in which every electrical and energy device will have a URL, will be connected wirelessly to either your utility or to your home, what I call [a] smart black box as well as your car, and they will manage in the most efficient way possible without you having to think about it, the purchase of the cleanest, cheapest, most reliable electrons at the lowest cost price and running things with most extreme efficiency at the precise hour of the day. It is bringing all that intelligence to how we use energy, which we have never done before.

Steve: And let me go back to the market business.

Friedman: To just say one last thing ...

Steve: Yeah, sure.

Friedman: Just think about in the old days; what happened was, you know, first of all when your electricity went out, your power company didn't even know that.

Steve: Yeah, you've [have] to call them.

Friedman: You've to call them and basically the power system stopped your meter and all that happened was the meter-maid came out and read your meter and said "You've used these many electrons", but what happened inside your house was completely dumb, it was not connected to any intelligent form of efficiency management.

Steve: And the idea that we would somehow be manipulating the market as opposed to the totally free market that it is today, that's just the faulty idea because ...

Friedman: Oh, yeah ...

Steve: The market ...

Friedman: The faulty market dominated globally by the world's biggest cartel, dominated domestically by fossil fuel companies who have written all the rules in congress, you know, you need two pages of Scientific American to go through all the rules, the depletion allowances, the tax shenanigans these guys have written in to give them advantages. We wouldn't want to upset that free market, would we? There is no such thing as a free market anymore. Than [Then] you think crops would grow on a farm or a garden without, you know, fertilizer, without proper plowing without proper rows, without intelligence brought to them. Markets are shaped and they are shaped by rules, incentives and disincentives, and right now, our market is shaped by the dirty fuel system.

Steve: Let's talk a little bit, for the Scientific American audience, let's talk about the importance of biodiversity and ecosystem services and why conservation is economically a good idea.

Friedman: Well it is really for two reasons. One is that we forget how many services, it sounds like gobbledygook, in [we forget how many services] ecosystem[s] provide; it is hugely important. The things that nature regulates for us, the water that it filters, the natural pesticides that it produces, not to mention the beauty and aestheticism that make life worth living. Do we really want to get rid of all that? And if E. O. Wilson says, you know, "Start, kind of, run nature ourselves as if it is some spaceship and we can just turn the dials." Well, you know, we are on the cusp of an era. We are now, according to conservation international, seeing species go extinct at a rate of one every 20 minutes. We're in the middle of a massive extinction phase, simply as a result of economic development and growth. John Holdren, you know, I think says in the book, "It's like we are burning down wings of a library with these rare amazing books that we haven't even read yet"; that's what we're doing and that's also a big part of the story, and therefore if you do not have an ethic of conservation as part of your energy system, if we ever do come up with abundant, cheap, clean, reliable electrons, what's going to happen is that, that will become for many people a license to drive their hammers through the Amazon. Because if electrons are abundant, cheap, clean and reliable, why not? And that's why, you know, I have this three-part system of energy efficiency, innovation and clean, abundant, cheap, reliable electrons and an ethic of conservation.

Steve: You say we are the flood, we are the asteroid, and we better learn how to be the ark.

Friedman: Absolutely, because without it, if we aren't Noah and we don't build the ark, we could—and I think this is so important for our Scientific American's audience to really understand, because I know they appreciate it—and that is that we could actually save the climate and kill the planet. You know, that is, we could create a world, where we combated and mitigated climate change but without paying attention to what's going on in the realm of biodiversity, we could save the climate and wake up in a world with so many fewer plants and animals.

Steve: And there are many studies that show that the more varied your ecosystem is, the more productive it is.

Friedman: It is not only more productive, but it gives you so many more tools for adaptation. How many medicines, you know, are there lurking, you know, in the tropical forests of the world that we haven't even explored? Natural medicines that we already use, it's, diversity is the key to adaptation.

Steve: Because every single species has had to solve it's ...

Friedman: Some problem.

Steve: Right, its problems chemically, and we've barely scratched the surface of what the chemical compounds are that are out there that these species have come up with.

Friedman: Absolutely.

Steve: I've actually been saying this for months now, because I'm pretty pessimistic, and one of my big fears is that in the future, another generation, you'll see a lot of Americans go off to work as maids and luggage carriers in fancy European hotels; and then I read your chapter about the Indonesian maid export business. And so what is it that we have to do, you've talked about some of this, how do we make sure that that doesn't happen here?

Friedman: That's a really important question and it's a subtext to the book. This isn't just a book about hot, flat and crowded, it's also a book about America and in many ways the overarching message of the book is, the world has a problem and America has a problem. As the world's problem is getting hot, flat and crowded and driving these five trends, America has a problem though [too] and our problem is we've lost our groove. We've lost our edge and our focus as a country and lurking down the road, sitting down the road, inviting us down the road, is the next great global industry. It's called clean power, clean energy; clean tech has to be the next great global industry in a world that's hot, flat and crowded and my argument that calls for in this book is that we take the lead in that industry. If we take the lead in solving the world's problem, we will solve our own problem. We will precisely be generating the kind of innovation, competitiveness, respect, security, breakthroughs to help the world in the most fundamental challenge it faces today; and in so doing, we will make ourselves more respected, stronger, more secure, entrepreneurial, richer, and competitive. And I think this is the ball game; who claims that industry in a world that's hot, flat, and crowded.

Steve: Yes, somebody that you quote in the book, I forget which one says, "It's not just win-win, it's win, win, win, win, win, win ...."

Friedman: Exactly right. You know when you go down that road of clean tech, you not only have cleaner air, you not only have a new industry—an export industry that can't be outsourced so easily in global demand—you not only become more economically stable, because you're not shipping all those dollars abroad; you are not only able to become more secure because your source of fuel isn't dependent on the whims of some petro-dictator. So, it is not just win-win, it's win, win, win, win, win ....

Steve: Why don't we finish up, why don't you tell that Naked Gun 2 1/2 story.

Friedman: Well you know the Naked Gun 2 1/2 role really comes from one of the worst movies ever made. Naked Gun 2 1/2, which is a perversely, though funny, movie really about environmental regulation; and it's a Leslie Nielsen movie, and he is a cop who is basically been called upon to protect, in a fictional Bush administration, the president has decided we're going to have a whole new fuel system which isn't going to be nuclear or kind of fossil fuels, coal and oil—it is going to be based on alternatives. And in the movie the fossil fuel industry and the nuclear people get together and kidnap this renewable energy guy to make sure the president can't choose that system. And Leslie Nielsen basically, you know, saves the day and the movie ends with the renewable energy guy laying out his plan to a roomful of reporters at the National Press Club and everybody is asleep. But the subtext of that movie is very important. And the subtext of that movie is a chapter in the book which is called, "If It Isn't Boring, It Isn't Green". And what I mean by that and it is really addressed to young people today, which is that, you know, this revolution is so much about writing the rules and that's why my motto has been, "Change your leaders, not your lightbulbs"; because leaders write the rules. The rules shape the market. The markets give you innovation at scale, at a piece scope and scale that we need, and the reason I wrote that chapter, "If It Isn't Boring, It Isn't Green" is to really try to share with young people that you've got to understand ExxonMobil, Peabody Coal—or Peabody Energy, whatever they call themselves now—they're all not out there on Facebook, they are in your face, they're not in your chat room, they're in the cloakroom. They know just where the rules get written; and if you aren't as smart about writing the rules as they are, if you are not in their face and in their cloakroom where the rules get written, then you've got a hobby. I like hobbies, I play golf and I used to build model airplanes, but I don't try to change the world as a hobby.

Steve: Tom Friedman's Web site includes a link to download a free excerpt from the new book. The URL is

Now it's time to play TOTALL....... Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories, but only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL....... Y BOGUS.

Story number 1: Satellite images of people's shadows could be used to identify them.

Story number 2: We've had a string of hurricanes in the last few weeks, but last year's hurricane season was fairly quiet. Researchers now think it was because the air over the Atlantic had more than the usual amount of dust blown there from the Sahara.

Story number 3: Canadian teenager Ben Gulak is starting M.I.T. this semester as a seasoned inventor. He has already gotten a patent for his improved pepper grinder. Seasoned inventor—get it?

And story number 4: At a recent major political national convention, delegates actually chanted, "drill baby, drill!"

We will be back with the answer but first I just want to let you know that in addition to this slightly early edition of Science Talk, we are planning on another episode this week. I have an interview scheduled for Wednesday with Nobel Prize–winning physicist Frank Wilczek about the Large Hadron Collider and we planned to have that ready by Thursday the 11th.

Time's up on the quiz.

Story number 4 is true. Delegates to the Republican National Convention chanted "drill baby, drill"; I'm assuming they were talking about oil. Here are a few sentences from Tom Friedman's August 5th New York Times column filed from Greenland. "Our kids are likely going to spend a good part of their adulthood, maybe all of it, just dealing with the climate implications of our profligacy and now our leaders are telling them the way out is offshore drilling for more climate-changing fossil fuels. Madness; sheer madness."

Story number 1 is true. Satellite images of your shadow in motion as you walk could be used for identification. New Scientist magazine reports that Jet Propulsion Lab researcher Adrian Stoica told a meeting in England last month that gait analysis from satellites should make it possible to identify people by their walk and because of the angle of the satellite you have a better chance of getting the image of the shadow than of the actual walk.

And story number 2 is true. The 2007 hurricane season was likely quiet because of hot dry air over the Atlantic associated with air masses and dust from the Sahara. The report appeared in the Journal Geophysical Research. Airborne dust from Africa has in the past been credited with enriching the soil in the Americas, specifically Brazil.

All of which means that story number 3, about the MIT freshman inventing a better pepper grinder is TOTALL....... Y BOGUS. Because what is true is that teenager Ben Gulak has invented an electric vehicle; it looks like a motorcycle but it handles like a Segway. For more check out the September 8th edition of the daily SciAm podcast, 60-Second Science.


Well that's it for this edition of the weekly SciAm podcast. Visit for all the latest science news, videos, and blogs. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

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