Green Fantasia

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,…

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