Hot, Flat, and Crowded by Thomas L. Friedman

A while ago, I finished Hot, Flat, and Crowded. Why the World Needs a Green Revolution – And How We Can Renew Our Global Future by Thomas L. Friedman (I’ve mentioned it several times). Here are some thoughts on it.

Hot, Flat, and Crowded

 The main theme of Hot, Flat, and Crowded is that the path the world is on is unsustainable in several aspects. Global warming has the potential to change the world as we know it in ways we cannot imagine. More and more people around the world take part in the globalized market place, and they all demand a middle-class consumption level; development and modernization flattens out differences in living standards and consumption levels around the world.  The increased consumotion puts an enormous pressure on the worlds resources. Friedman has already discussed this extensively in the book The World Is Flat. Finally, the current, explosive population growth will put even further pressure on the worlds resources and potentially make the global warming problem worse. In a world that is hot, flat, and crowded, a whole range of important issues needs to be addressed, and fast. Friedman gives a good overview of the most important issues, discusses how they are all connected and different potential solutions.

Friedman is a good writer. He has won the Pulitzer price no less than three times. He has traveled the world for decades. He has interviewed world leaders, business leaders, scientists, and activists around the world. He knows his stuff. Nonetheless, I still have some criticism.

First of all, Thomas Friedman is an American and a patriot. That may be okey, but it shines through; Hot, Flat, and Crowded is written to and for Americans. At several places, Friedman discusses how the environmental crisis provides America with an opportunity to build the nation and yet again become the definitive super power and world leader. I was unprepared for this kind of perspective that permeates the book, and I didn’t like it. I’m not an American, and neither are many readers around the world. To deal with the environmental crisis requires global participation and coordination, and that may be jeoparized if it comes off as pro-American. Furthermore, it takes some of the focus away from the really important issues that Friedman brings up.

Second, much of the book consists of citings from various interviews, news stories, and op-eds Friedman has either written or read the last years. In parts of the book, Friedman cites more than he writes himself, and that is not good writing. It chops up the text, and the reader has to deal with new writing styles all the time. I’ve never seen such a heavy use of citations in any printed text; it reminds me of the way blogs are written. The language suitable for a blog is not necessarily suitable for books.

This is a blog, however. So, I’m taking the freedom to cite and comment on some passages from the book that stroke me as particularly interesting.

To Friedman, the issues raised by a hot, flat and crowded world are so serious and fundamental that they define a new era in the history of the world: the Energy-Climate Era. From pages 26-27:

This book focuses on five key problems that a hot, flat, and crowded world is dramatically intensifying. They are: the growing demand for ever scarcer energy supplies and natural resources; a massive transfer of wealth to oil-rich countries and their petrodictators; disruptive climate change; energy poverty, which is sharply dividing the world into electricty haves and electricity have-nots; and rapidly accelerating biodiversity oss, as plants and animlas go extinct at record rates. I believe that these problems – and how we manage them – will define the Energy-Climate Era.

China is a big country with a lot of people (see Million Cities in China), and will have a determining impact on the environment in the future. Friedman devotes an entire section of the book to China, and his illustration of China’s potential impact is sobering. It also leads Friedman to the crucial questions in his book. On page 344 he writes

It’s all in the numbers: China is one-fifth of humanity; it’s now the world’s biggest carbon emitter; it is the world’s second-largest importer of oil, after the United States; and according to a report in The Times of London (January 28, 2008), it is already the world’s largest importer of nickel, copper, aluminum, steel, coal, and iron ore. Timber is certainly up there as well. It is not an exaggeration to say: As goes China, so goes planet earth. If China can make a stable transition to clean power and an energy-and-resource-efficient economy, we as a planet have a chance to mitigate climate change, energy poverty, petrodictatorship, and biodiversity loss in significant ways. If China can’t, China’s emissions and appetites will nullify everything everyone else does to save the earth, and the Energy-Climate Era will careen toward the unmanageable. So for me, the crucial question of this book is actually two questions: “Can America really lead a real green revolution?” and “Can China really follow?” Everything else is just commentary…

What if China wants to be in the front seat? If Friedman is right that energy and climate issues will shape our global future, and I think he is, China will realize this at some point, and when they’re already leading the world in so much already, why should they settle for anything less when it comes to the most important issues in the decades to follow? More importantly, will America ever settle for second place?

Friedman has tons of arguments for acting on the environmental crisis. One of them is that it is necessary to preserve nature in a pristine state because it is beautiful. On page 142 he writes

From what landscapes or flowerbeds would future painters draw their inspiration? What would move poets to write their sonnets, composers to craft their symphonies, and religious leaders and philosophers to contemplate the meaning of God by examining his handiwork up close and in miniature?

The argument resurfaces on page 314:

[…] we need to get beyond these economic and […] practical arguments and get back in touch with the deepest truth of all: Green is a value that needs to be preserved in and of itself, not because it is going to make your bank account richer but because it makes life richer and always has. At the end of the day, that is what an “ethic of conservation” is also about. An ethic of conservation declares that maintaining our naturla world is a value that is impossible to quantify but also impossible to ignore, because of the sheer beauty, wonder, joy, and magic that nature brings to being alive.

I disagree; I’ve already discussed why in the post Beauty Schmeuty; I think human needs towards natural beauty are adaptive, and more is that if less beautiful nature can make people less religious, I’m fine with that.

In the end; a small curiosity. The image of the book above has a different subtitle than my book (Why We Need a Green Revolution – And How It Can Renew America vs. Why The World Needs a Green Revolution – And How We Can Renew Our Global Future). The image is stolen from Friedman’s homepage. I suspect that I got the international version, while the image on Friedman’s homepage shows the American version of the book. I’m convinced that the subtitle on the American version is the original subtitle, and that the alternative subtitle on the international version is a tradeoff between remaining the same structure on the subtitle (Why Green – How Renew) and a good, selling subtitle. I don’t think Friedman was too lucky with that; ‘Renew Global Future’? What is that supposed to mean? Can you renew the future, something you don’t have, don’t know how is, and isn’t new?

I enjoyed reading Hot, Flat, and Crowded, but I found it too long. Friedman is a master of rhetoric, and a rhetorical mean he grips to repeatedly is repetition of key words and arguments. He really wants to hammer the message home. He overdoes it, however. The words hot, flat, and crowded, and climate change, energy poverty, petrodictatorship, and biodiversity loss, and compete, connect, and collaborate are repeated so many times that it becomes boring; and the repetition of arguments becomes predictable, and boring. Friedman has still written an important book, a book that opened my eyes to a lot of problems I didn’t knew existed, and a lot of new, exiting ideas. We are living in exiting times; we are living in the Energy-Climate Era!

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