Book review: Hot, flat and crowded
Below is a review that I wrote for the book Hot, flat and crowded: why the world needs a green revolution – and how we can renew our global future by Thomas Friedman.
In Hot, flat and crowded, Thomas L Friedman presents a compelling and provocative account of the challenges and opportunities facing humanity as the converging pressures of global warming, a widening middle class and rapid population growth begin to characterize the twenty-first century. Together these pressures could make the planet ‘dangerously unstable’ (5): ‘[L]ike the proverbial frog in the pail on the stove’ (48), human society has not completely grasped the scale of the problem, let alone developed a long-term survival plan.
Friedman begins with the challenges that he sees manifested in five global phenomena; depleting energy and natural resource supplies, accelerated climate change, wealth transfers to petrodictatorships, large-scale loss of biodiversity and deepening energy poverty. His short but lucid description of each portrays the well exposed interdependencies that have dominated environmental rhetoric since the 1992 UN Summit on Environment and Development. Friedman claims that these problems ‘reached a critical mass sometime shortly after the year 2000′ (48) and that we are now in a new historical epoch that Friedman terms in his mnemonic style the ‘Energy-Climate Era’ (26)
But it is not all doom and gloom. Indeed, ‘the future does not have to be a Malthusian nightmare’ (49). As a self-proclaimed ‘sober-optimist, (411), Friedman posits that the challenge of a ‘hot, flat and crowded’ world could very well be seen as an opportunity’ In fact, it is this perspective that differentiates Friedman’s thesis from the wealth of environmental literature that all too often focuses on the problem and not the solution.
The future will be defined by those who embrace the opportunities of a green economy. Friedman notes that ‘green is going from boutique to better, from a choice to a necessity, from a fad to a strategy to win, from an insoluble problem to a great opportunity’ (172). Friedman terms this strategy ‘Code Green, (6), and at centre-stage is America. He argues that the only way America will remain a superpower is ‘if it is big in big things’ (181) of which the biggest undertaking is the production of clean power, energy efficiency and protection of biodiversity.
His rationale for an American Code Green strategy is threefold: first-mover advantage in renewable technologies will provide large economic benefits as clean power systems move down the learning curve and begin to scale, reduced dependency on foreign nations for fuel will improve energy security, and most evocative, a status quo in a fossil-fuel economy will undermine the quality of life for every person on the planet. For Friedman America’s role as the leader in developing and deploying a ‘Clean Energy System’ (171) is paramount. It is the key to refocusing America’s position as the forerunner in innovating better technologies as well as providing a sustainable solution for the world’s troubles – ‘We solve our problems by helping the world solve its problems’ (173).
To demonstrate his raison d’etre, Friedman dedicates the second half of the book to how America can meet the challenges of a code Green strategy. He has no illusions about the scale of the problem, and compares it to scaling the summit of Mount Everest. Often misconstrued as something easy a truly green revolution will be disruptive and lead to a profound transformational shift in how we produce and consume energy. Friedman argues that what we need is a combination of integrated government policies – laws, standards, tax incentives, mandates and targets – that will guide and stimulate investment in clean energy along with an advanced energy information technology system, known as the ‘Energy Internet’ (217) which will enable us ‘to do extraordinary’ things by way of saving energy and using clean power efficiently’ (218).
For a proponent of globalization and free market forces, the leftward movement towards government-led intervention seems slightly contradictory. But Friedman is quick to point out that only the free market supplemented with the right ‘incentives and disincentives’ (244) can bring radical improvement and innovation on this scale. Poignantly Friedman notes that ‘we are not going to regulate our way out of the Energy-Climate Era’ (243), we are only going to innovate our way out, and the most effective way is the US marketplace.
Of course the task that Friedman sets himself in providing solutions to the world’s energy and environmental woes is nothing short of mammoth. He covers good ground – from the political energy lobby in Washington to China’s role in the planets sustainable future; from equatorial forest conservation in Indonesia to smart meters in every home in America. Some interesting examples are used to illustrate his points, but understandably many blind spots occur, such as the feasibility constraints for large-scale renewable technology roll-out and the equity stake of developing countries in the climate change debate. Moreover, the American-centric discourse at times distracts from the global relevance of the challenges posed in the book. Yet undeniably, America’s role in taking unilateral leadership in the energy-climate debate will ultimately form the basis for multilateral cooperation. Hot, flat and crowded should thus be considered a common sense book that places the right economic emphasis on our energy future.
About the author
Mark Whitman is a sustainability and management consultant with significant experience in carbon management, corporate social responsibility and environmental management. He has worked with major companies such as Microsoft, BP, Westpac and Aegis Group. Mark holds a first class bachelors degree in economics and environmental science from the University of Cape Town and a masters degree from Cambridge University. He founded the Sustainable Business Toolkit in 2011 and is the lead editor for the website.
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