[29 September 2008]
Thomas Friedman hates the whole “green” trend, and who would say that he’s wrong? It’s a strange sentiment to come from the pen of perhaps the best-known purveyor of calm, non-partisan environmental thinking in the mainstream media whose name is not Al Gore. But nevertheless, in his new book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, Friedman makes a good case for why “green” as a brand, well, sucks:
I have read or heard so many people saying, “We’re having a green revolution.” Of course, there is certainly a lot of green buzz out there. But whenever I hear that “we’re having a green revolution” line I can’t resist firing back: “Really? Really? A green revolution? Have you ever seen a revolution where no one got hurt? That’s the great revolution we’re having.” In the green revolution we’re having, everyone’s a winner, nobody has to give up anything, and the adjective that most often modifies “green revolution” is “easy.” That’s not a revolution. That’s a party.
Much of this book is taken up with just these sort of imagined dialogues, the sort of thing that one would be likely to have if you spent so much of your time—as globetrotting columnists like Friedman do—flying from one place to the other to speak with and to very important people. Quite often you would find yourself in an airport with time to kill, and you would start thinking about all the dumb things people say, and what you would say back to them given the chance.
The difference between us and Thomas Friedman is that he tends to actually be in a position to talk to people whose opinions on the subjects of energy and growth really matter. This is why the fact that he’s so annoyed by all the “green revolution” blather coming from the media (magazine headlines like “50 Simple Ways to Save the Earth and Get Rich Trying”) is worth mentioning here. Because if a tested trendspotter like Friedman—who, for better or for worse, is the man whose bestsellers like The World is Flat have probably done more to cogently explain the coming world order to the book-buying masses than anybody else—thinks there’s something wrong with the trend, then there likely is.
Not that Hot, Flat, and Crowded is trying to act as a corrective to the basic environmental message that unless we do something about the way we’re blasting pollutants into the air and ravaging the landscape, we’re toast. Far from it. The first half of the book, in fact, is another iteration of just those very reasons why civilization appears to be headed toward a cliff. Where Friedman is trying to set himself off from the “me too” eco-herd is in the second half where he goes into studious, eye-glazing detail about what to do about it.
Yes, all the talk of electron-trading and Friedman’s data-mining of government policies from here to China that have exacerbated or helped retard the crisis, can be dull as dirt. And his near-compulsive name-dropping of all the extremely important and talented people (from government ministers to scientists) the world over whom he calls his friends and canvasses for their learned opinions, can be as obnoxious as it is tiring. But, as Friedman says in an unusually wry aside, “If it isn’t boring, it isn’t green.”
Strange as it may sound, that may be the most helpful insight to come out of this book. Granted, Hot, Flat, and Crowded contains within it a wealth of important information about the numerous ways in which governments, citizens, and businesses can collaborate to stave off the eco-disaster that’s likely already here. (Most particularly Friedman’s hokey but effective visualization of a futuristic house where all appliances are tied together by a smart network that not only regulates all energy usage for maximum efficiency, but even automatically trades unused energy back to the utility for credits.)
After a particularly grim stretch of proving just how close to devastation the human race has already come, discussing previous massive species die-offs caused by disasters, Friedman writes, “We are the flood. We are the asteroid.” Given such a prognosis, it’s not surprising that the normally upbeat columnist, whose mood is usually that of the can-do cheerleader, occasionally trends here towards the pessimistic.
With the scientific community having determined that doom is quick approaching if not already here, it’s difficult to have any more patience for the green trend than one does for the bipartisan idiocy that has hamstrung any meaningful and systemic (that second part being Friedman’s watchword throughout) progress towards greater energy efficiency or pollution.
Revolutions hurt, Friedman says. But they can also bring about amazing changes. Hot, Flat, and Crowded is unfortunately too tendentious and padded with unnecessary anecdotal information to be the spark that will ignite that revolution. But it does at least make vividly clear that something must.