books environment globalisation

Hot, Flat and Crowded, by Thomas L Friedman

I’d been putting this book off a little, partly because it’s a big book and I’m a little lazy, and also because Friedman tends to annoy me. He’s a great writer and full of useful information, but he’s a die-hard free-marketer and champion of globalisation, two things I’m less enthusiastic about.

The basic argument of ‘Hot, Flat and Crowded’ is that the world is facing a series of challenges. (‘Flat’ refers to the internet creating a more level playing field) “Global warming, the stunning rise of middle classes all over the world, and rapid population growth have converged in a way that could make our planet dangerously unstable.” As a result, we face the threat of energy poverty, petro-dictators, a biodiversity crisis, and climate change.

Friedman’s answer is that America must ride to the rescue. Like it always does. Forgetting that America is most responsible for our current crisis and has shown less inclination to fix it that any other country, it must now become “a beacon of hope and the country that can always be counted on to lead the world in response to whatever is the most important issue of the day.”

Okay then.

The US will lead us all out of crisis by going green, and this it will do by creating a smart national grid (It currently has three badly organised and inefficient grids) and by creating the right conditions for investment in renewable energy. Preferably, it will create a renewable energy bubble, like the dotcom bubble, where everyone rushes to make renewables happen. Personal action and lifestyle changes will not be required.

A lot of things make me uncomfortable here. First, I object to Friedman’s  linking of the green agenda and nationalism. “It’s about national power” he writes. “Everything America can do to go green today will make it stronger, healthier, more secure, more innovative, more competitive, and more respected. What could be more patriotic, capitalistic, and geostrategic than that?”

I suppose he has to say this, being an American. It may also be the best way to win over the entrenched conservatives who see the green agenda as fundamentally un-American. It’s still worrying. Sustainability cannot be competitive. Global cooperation is absolutely vital if we’re going to address the crises of the age in any serious way. How will we be able to secure international agreements if America’s only motivation for participating is to prolong or increase its own dominance?

As for leadership, there’s no doubt that we need the US on side, but it’s a little late for them to lead on the environment. When Friedman suggests that his country include sustainability in “America’s gift bag to the world today, right along with the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution”, it just sounds like jingoism to me.

The idea that going green is ultimately about “making America richer” betrays a bigger problem though: Friedman is still in no doubt that the pursuit of economic growth is still goal number one. There’s no question that going green should accelerate, rather than slow the economy. “I start from the bedrock principle that we as a global society need more and more growth, because without growth there is no human development and those in poverty will never escape it.”

That ‘bedrock principle’, in my mind, discredits Friedman’s whole thesis. It is the pursuit of more and more growth that has created the mess we’re in. More of the same isn’t even possible, let alone a solution. And while it is noble to say we need growth for human development and the poor, neither of those are valid. The poor aren’t excluded because the global economy is too small, but because access and rewards are unequally shared, and human development is far broader than economic growth.

In fact, a recent New York Times column suggests Friedman may be changing his tune on this, and considering the growth question. Let’s hope so. For the moment, it is the fundamental flaw at the heart of his work.

Having said all that, ‘Hot, Flat, and Crowded’ is still a good book.  There is some enlightening material on China and India. He deals with conservation and biodiversity loss, often forgotten in the climate change debate. The book is full of useful examples and on-the-ground perspectives. Friedman hasn’t won the Pulitzer Prize three times for nothing. Wrong he may often be, but he is one of the most interesting and insightful wrong people writing today.

This book has its own preview:

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  1. Yes he gets some of it but still doesn’t get the most important thing that growth even if ‘green’ is out and that we have to share the worlds resources.

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