Thomas Friedman is the prime leading indicator of the conventional wisdom, always positioned just far enough ahead of the curve to give readers the sense that they’re in-the-know, but never far enough to cause deep mental unease. He performs a useful service as a kind of political GPS unit, telling us where the country is, and could reasonably be expected to go. And this is his best book, more nuanced than his last, the best-selling The Earth Is Flat. But it needs to be viewed as a snapshot of the current dilemmas of policy, not as the oracle that it often aspires to be.
By this point, even casual readers of t he New York Times Op-Ed page are familiar with the arguments in his book, because he’s rehearsed most of them several times. Post–September 11 America, he writes, is in danger for a pair of overarching reasons: fear of terrorism has caused the country to throw up walls even as the rest of the planet becomes more open—thus we don’t get to take full advantage of the new “flatness” that technologies like the Web are yielding. And a hangover of triumphalism from our cold war success has left us unfocused—our politics have slipped into rancorous and petty division that prevents Washington from going to work to fix very real problems like Social Security’s huge deficits or our strained and overpriced health care system. “We’ve become a subprime nation that thinks it can just borrow its way to prosperity—putting nothing down and making no payments….” He calls this “dumb as we wanna be” politics, and says nothing better exemplifies it than the demand last spring, from both Hillary Clinton and John McCain, for a “gas tax holiday” in the face of rising fuel prices. (Barack Obama opposed it.)
Against our fearfulness and flabbiness, we retain a single saving grace: a legion of innovators and small entrepreneurs who are engaged in what Friedman calls “nation-building at home.” (His slogan-coining twitch has never been more in evidence than in this volume.) “Every week I hear from people with their new ideas for making clean energy, or with new approaches to education, or with new thoughts about how to repair something in our country that desperately needs repairing,” enough to convince him that America is still “bursting with vitality from below.”
Thus armed analytically, he sallies forth against what he sees—rightly, I think—as the most severe of our challenges, and hence the greatest of our opportunities: the need to rapidly transform our energy system away from fossil fuel, so that we can head off climate change and free ourselves from the grip of “petro-dictators.” He calls his program “Code Green,” and argues that just as we invented ourselves as the world’s leading industrial power and then its greatest information society, so now America must become the world’s “greenest country.” Where once we sought to best the Soviets or to put a man on the moon within a decade, now we need a new, overarching national project, to become an America
where inventing a source of abundant, clean, reliable, cheap electrons, which could enable the whole planet to grow in a way that doesn’t destroy its remaining natural habitats, becomes the goal of this generation.
His basic policy guidelines, and most of his specific suggestions, for managing this crucial transition are sound. He really does get globalization, in a way only ceaseless travelers can—he’s transfixed, for instance, by the rapid growth of Asian cities, and manages to convey how impressive it is to watch cities like Dalian in northeastern China and Hyderabad in southern India grow by millions of people in a year or two. “The Dalian I knew already had a mini-Manhattan. But when I returned I saw that it had given birth to another,” with a convention center “bigger, more luxurious, and more whiz-bang modern than any convention center I’ve ever visited.”
In a world marked by that kind of dynamism, it is as pragmatically useless as it is morally lame for Americans to tell the Chinese, or anyone else, to go without. “We invented that system. We exported it. Others are entitled to it every bit as much as we are,” he writes.
We Americans are in no position to lecture anyone. But we are in a position to know better. We are in a position to set a different example of growth. We are in a position to use our resources and know-how to invent the renewable, clean power sources and energy efficiency systems that can make growth greener.
Among his specific recommendations:
• The replacement of liquid fuels and coal (“fuels from hell”) with renewable sources like wind and sun (“fuels from heaven”). He understands that the key here is electrifying the economy—indeed this section of the book reads like a gloss on Al Gore’s highly important early summer speech when he called for the conversion of our economic base to renewable electricity inside of a decade. Crucially, Friedman understands that while some “eureka breakthroughs” would be nice, most of the technologies we need are already “hiding in plain sight” and could rapidly drive down costs if they were put into commercial use.
• The fast conversion of the car industry to hybrid electric vehicles that will plug in to numerous outlets, PHEVs, which are scheduled to go on sale with the advent of the Chevy Volt in model year 2010 (i.e., in the fall of 2009), are indeed a big deal, as Friedman insists. Unlike today’s hybrids, which use a relatively small gas motor with electric power as a supplement, the plug-ins will run primarily on electricity, with the gas kicking in only if you drive more than, say, forty miles. For most trips, that is, they’ll use electrons, not gallons. That means that we’ll need to convert the underlying electric grid—which now depends on fossil fuels to run turbines—to clean sources, which will be hard, but not as hard as figuring out some other low-carbon replacement for liquid fuels. And in fact, plug-in hybrids should help with the inherent problem in using sun and wind, which is their intermittency. Friedman quotes Felix Kramer, the California innovator who has done the most to promote the new vehicles: their widespread adoption, he says, will give “utilities what they have never had—the potential for distributed energy storage, using all of our car batteries.”
• As we electrify more of our lives, we’ll need a smart energy grid to make the most efficient use of power. Your basement, he says, should eventually house a Smart Black Box, which will track the energy use of every appliance in the home—all of which
can now be programmed to run at lower levels when demand for electricity on the grid is highest and electrons are most expensive, and they can be instructed to run at fuller power during the night—or, in the case of your electric car, to charge and store energy at night, when electricity demand is lowest and power is cheapest.
Indeed, the whole grid will be similarly intelligent—you’ll be able to sign up for a service that lets the black box—“the utility”—automatically tell your water heater or your fridge to cycle off for short periods of time, “so short that you don’t even notice.”
• “Bottom line: America needs an energy technology bubble just like the information technology bubble. In order to get that, though, the government needs to make it an absolute no-brainer to invest in renewable energy.” The federal government, he says, should intervene in markets in a few crucial ways, first by making sure that carbon remains expensive. Friedman favors either a cap-and-trade system that would make energy companies buy permits for carbon, or a more straightforward carbon tax—or maybe a “floor price.” The latter idea is new, and interesting: it’s hard, he notes, for politicians to tax $50-a-barrel crude oil so its price rises to $100. But once it’s $140, it’s politically easier to say that we won’t let it fall back below $100—and that kind of guaranteed long-term price would help spur innovation, letting companies build and install new technologies without worrying that the price of conventional energy is going to collapse. So would a national renewable energy mandate, much like the ones that several states have adopted in recent years. In Colorado, for instance, where the state is forcing all utilities to generate 20 percent of their power from renewable energy by 2020, the biggest power producer—Xcel Energy—recently announced plans to shut down two coal plants and replace them with concentrated solar power stations. And Friedman calls as well for a “feed-in tariff” like the ones that Germany and Japan have used; by rewarding individuals with guaranteed good prices for energy they produce from, say, solar panels on their roofs, they have turned those two not-very-sunny nations into solar pioneers.
Friedman knows that innovation in the financial services industry will be almost as important as progress in engineering. Since a house retrofitted with good insulation saves energy, and hence dollars, at a predictable rate, banks should be able to figure out how to fill your walls with fiberglass and both pay for the cost of the job and turn a profit by taking half of the resulting stream of savings. So far this has proven an elusive goal—but surely an industry that was capable of relentlessly bundling subprime mortgages for sale could address itself to generating profits from the homes people still own. As Friedman argues, “the cash flow from all these efficiency deals is very predictable,” so they should be able to sell them to investment banks, “which turn them into green savings bonds.”
Friedman even comes up with one idea that I think will be new to many readers of the energy literature, as it was to me: to turn many existing office or institutional buildings into “dual-use” facilities (his example involves turning school kitchens into Domino’s Pizza bakeries during idle hours). You could go farther still, and note that most American suburbs and rural areas already have a mass transit system—it’s just painted yellow and goes nowhere on weekends.
In short, he delivers a very hopeful and fairly persuasive pep talk. He’s chipper—because we’ve got big problems, we’ve got even bigger opportunities. “There is a Chinese proverb that says, ‘When the wind changes directions, there are those who build walls and those who build windmills.’” Instead of more walls around our embassies, and more tariffs around our products, and more trade barriers to protect our aging economy, he opts for windmills. And he does it with the kind of high-flown rhetoric that sounds like it could come from the podium of a Democratic convention:
In such an America, birds will surely fly again—in every sense of that term: Our air will be cleaner, our environment will be healthier, our young people will see their idealism mirrored in their own government…. That is also an America that will have its identity back, not to mention its self-confidence, because it will again be leading the world on the most important strategic mission and values issue of the day.