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.
When he writes “So I say we build windmills. I say we lead,” you can almost see the balloons dropping. I’d vote for him in a minute—he might make an honest and courageous politician. This is as good as the conventional wisdom gets.
But it also makes you remember why we don’t usually turn to politicians for deep thinking, or for writing that penetrates beyond the moment (Barack Obama being a possible exception). The conventional wisdom, even the ahead-of-the-curve, smart, progressive version of it, almost always has deep flaws, and those are in evidence here as well. Indeed, those flaws undermine parts of his argument in serious ways.
For one thing, he’s a little late in recognizing what needs to be done. Friedman’s earlier best sellers, The Lexus and the Olive Tree (1999) and The Earth Is Flat (2005), somehow managed to be all about globalization without seriously considering the single biggest change the earth is undergoing: widespread climate change. (There’s one passing reference in The Earth Is Flat : he recommends that America embark on a program of energy independence, one side benefit of which would be to “improve its own standing in Europe by doing something huge to reduce global warming.”) Those omissions struck me as odd when each book emerged. It’s not that we didn’t know about this problem at the time: by 1995 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had declared that we faced a serious problem, and the Kyoto treaty negotiations—given strong support by the Clinton administration—landed in between his two volumes. Most of the countries he often admires—the Western Europeans, the Japanese—were by 1999 hard at work on reducing carbon emissions.
But it seems to have been Hurricane Katrina, late in 2005, that woke Friedman from his nap, and even then it was a delayed reaction. In early 2007, he reports, he was “having lunch with my friend Nate Lewis…at the faculty club on the palm-tree-lined Caltech campus…and I could not resist asking Nate: ‘Why was Katrina so unnerving?'” Nate sips his strawberry lemonade (“a specialty of the house”) and answers with a question of his own: “Did we do that? Or did God do that?” At first, says Friedman, “I didn’t understand—and then it clicked…. Have we introduced so much CO2 into nature’s operating system that we no longer know where nature stops and we start in shaping today’s weather?”
Well, indeed we have—and indeed many of us realized that a good long while ago. (I admit a personal stake here, having published this precise argument as The End of Nature in 1989, a book that appeared in twenty or so languages and that obscure journal The New Yorker.) Eight years ago, for instance, the environment minister in the last Tory government in Britain, John Gummer, said, “We talk of natural disasters, or acts of God, but they’re the acts of human beings. We’ve changed nature.” One can only wonder how much more useful Friedman’s revelations would have been had they come earlier, in the period when few American politicians save Al Gore were willing to make this case. More relevant to this review, his late arrival to the question means that his interpretation of the science is a little off. Mostly he gets the scale of the problem right; thanks in part to interviews with indefatigable blogger Joseph Romm* (climateprogress.org), he understands that the IPCC projections of future warming are almost certainly severe underestimates, and that the potential scale of the looming disaster is large indeed—“biblical,” to use his term.
But something seems to be missing from his mental graph—the axis of time. He bemoans the lack of “celebrity scientists” drawing attention to the problem, which is why his omission of James Hansen, the NASA climatologist, from this volume is puzzling. Hansen was the first to make the public case for global warming as a threat, way back in 1988 in congressional testimony that appeared, among a million other places, above the fold on the front page of The New York Times.
And Hansen has continued, in recent years, to offer the most useful projections of climate change, and the most outspoken interpretation of their meaning. Last December, in a paper delivered at the American Geophysical Union, he said that carbon concentrations in the atmosphere (currently 387 parts per million) were already above the safe line for preventing the possibility of the rapid rise of sea levels, shifts in monsoons, and other civilization-shaking disasters. We needed, he said, to take emergency action to push that number back below 350 parts per million. The only way to achieve that result, he added, was to close all coal-fired power plants in the next few decades, a truly monumental challenge.
This summer’s rapid melt of Arctic ice has served only to underline the magnitude of Hansen’s challenge, and indeed new data released in late September showed that carbon emissions have grown even faster than the most dire predictions of the IPCC. (The new numbers, ironically, came during the worst week so far of the Wall Street crisis, and the financial meltdown served to blot out any discussion of the meltdown meltdown.)
That kind of aggressive time scale appears not to be what Friedman has in mind. Though he doesn’t mention it, the world’s governments are now nearing a real deadline: December 2009, when a negotiation session in Copenhagen is supposed to produce a new climate treaty, the successor to the Kyoto protocols. Friedman says he’s “not against global treaties,” but thinks that they are unlikely to accomplish much. Instead, his plan is for America to become a green economy so that others will then “emulate us voluntarily.” “A truly green America,” he insists, “would be more valuable than fifty Kyoto Protocols. Emulation is always more effective than compulsion.”
This is probably not the iron rule he postulates (indeed, he fantasizes at one point about turning America into China for a day, so that centralized power can compel us to turn green). And there’s no good reason to think that the planet needs America alone to be in the lead position—the Europeans and the Japanese have already done far more, with technology and with policy, to limit global warming, and if you visit China you know that the hotels are already full of foreign consultants and advisers on global warming.
But the real problem is simply the timing. Let’s say America commits to a strong buildup of renewable and efficient technology, and that a decade hence our economy has begun to look somewhat greener. That would mean a huge effort, involving both widespread conservation efforts and the rapid rollout of wind power, large-scale desert solar arrays, and the transmission lines to connect it all. (This is a dream that, frankly, looks even less likely in the wake of our recent financial mess—that $700 billion could have built a lot of windmills.) Under Friedman’s scheme, China and India and the rest would then look up, notice, and begin the process of transition themselves.
Had we started on this process twenty years ago when we first learned about global warming (that is, had the conventional wisdom lined up behind it early on), this kind of approach might possibly have carried the day. But it can’t now. If the Chinese continue building coal-fired power plants for another decade while we wait for America to construct a shiny green city on the hill, the carbon load from those Chinese plants will force us toward many of the dangerous tipping points that Hansen and other scientists have identified in recent years. In that world, the rising seas will be lapping at the bottom of the hill, and the city up on top will be spending most of its dwindling capital dealing with the damage.
There is, therefore, no escaping the need for politics, for a robust international agreement that, among other things, commits America to sharing the burden for helping China and India develop without burning their piles of coal; building wind farms in Mongolia is even more crucial than in Minnesota. The controlling metaphor here is not the Manhattan Project or the Apollo moonshot; it is a Marshall Plan for carbons by which the global north makes up some of the difference between cheap coal and more expensive renewable energy for the global south—another possibility that has probably grown less likely as our financial strains have increased. But if the conventional wisdom doesn’t line up behind such a plan soon, before the Copenhagen talks, then the chance will pass. Consider the words of a scientist, Rajendra Pachauri, who last year accepted the Nobel Prize on behalf of the IPCC, which he heads: “If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment.”
Friedman can’t easily deal with such analyses precisely because of the tenets of the conventional wisdom, American style, which is that fundamental change in direction is essentially impossible. The world is a growth machine and “nobody can turn it off.” Everyone wants “an American style of life,” and “their governments will not be able to deny” it to them. So the only option is to tinker with the American style of life to make it greener. Hence the longest soliloquy in the book, a hymn to the soon-to-be smart home, where the solar panel calls up to tell the “utility” when there’s been a blackout, where the smart lights in your office are triggered by motion sensors, where you plug in your “Smart Card” (“sponsored by Visa and United Airlines Mileage Plus”) into your Sun Ray computer terminal to start your workday. All this gear is so intelligent, in fact, that “when the sun is shining brightly and the wind is howling” (i.e., when your house is generating solar and wind power), your utility turns on your dryer to finish your laundry.
Does it ever occur to him, in the grip of a fantasia like this, that if the sun is shining brightly, or the breeze is blowing steadily, you could dry your clothes on a $14 piece of rope strung off your back deck, or for that matter on a foldable rack in the apartment hallway? And that since most of the world already knows how to do it, we might be smarter moving in their direction instead of insisting that they buy into our entire high-technology suburban dream?
There’s one other odd thing about this book—it’s out of date even before it’s published. Though Friedman follows some trends right up through the summer of 2008 (he has reports from June of this year about trends in Egyptian television, for instance), he doesn’t even mention the largest story of the year, and indeed the dominant new trendline of our time: the sharply rising cost of oil. Though recently off its peaks, the price of oil has risen fast enough to dramatically change the way Americans behave, and indeed how we think about the world. In his book he’s still describing a world, completely consonant with his “flatness” metaphor, where the number of American airline passengers will double by 2025. But in the real world of expensive energy, the air carriers are shedding routes and parking planes—The New Republic reported in August on a new study that showed America might go from four hundred primary airports to as few as fifty by 2025, and traffic might fall by 40 percent.
Americans are driving less too, and the frictionless transport system that undergirded Friedman’s flat world has begun to creak: the cost of shipping a container load has tripled since 2000, and some manufacturing jobs are beginning to come home. I suspect Friedman didn’t include the most important news story of the year because he hasn’t had time to process it—it undercuts the idea of a flat world. With higher oil prices, we live on what a slogan-coiner might call an Uphill Planet, and the grade between you and everywhere else increases as the cost of oil climbs. Friedman blames any shortages on a paucity of drilling rigs and tankers, the mendacity of oil regimes like Russia, and limits on offshore and Arctic drilling in the US and other Western nations. But the possibility that we’re starting to run out seems not to have crossed his computer screen.
Friedman can’t see these new probabilities because they conflict with the one great imperative of the conventional wisdom, which is optimism. Just as you can’t run for commander-in-chief on any platform other than “Our best days are still ahead of us,” so you can’t run for pundit-in-chief either. But those instincts can get you in trouble. Friedman, after all, supported the war in Iraq with a similarly glib but upbeat forecast. The day of the invasion he weighed the two schools of thought: the Europeans were predicting “more terrorism, a dangerous precedent for preventive war, civilian casualties,” while Bush was arguing “that it will be a game-changer—that it will spark reform throughout the Arab world and intimidate other tyrants who support terrorists.”
He chose wrong there, and of course deplores it now; my guess is he’ll rue his dismissal of international diplomacy, and of the possibility that the world should consider more fundamental shifts than technological change alone. Global warming, above all, should give one pause—after all, we are making our mark now in geological, not human, time. But pause doesn’t seem to be one of his modes.