Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Green Your Blues Away

By Michael Reid Busk

Posted January 21, 2009 in Arts & Culture

Early in his newest book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman includes a quotation from French poet Paul Valéry, which could be the book’s epigraph: “The trouble with our times is that the future is not what it used to be.” Although the World’s Fair futurists of a hundred years ago imagined subsequent centuries would be clean, peaceful, and carefree, we live in a new millennium ever more polluted, violent, and politically repressive—or, to use Friedman’s words, increasingly hot, flat, and crowded.

Flat intersects crowded in India and China, whose expanding economies have led to an explosion in the size of their middle classes. This higher standard of living is a two-edged sword: while decreasing poverty is laudable, the increased buying power of those middle class Asians has led to demand for American lifestyles—lifestyles literally fueled by oil. This growing demand has empowered OPEC countries—Iran, Venezuela, Russia, Saudi Arabia—and Friedman points out an inverse relationship over time between crude oil prices and personal freedom: the higher the price of crude, the more the rulers of oil-producing nations, feeling secure in their wealth, can safely restrict their citizens’ social and political liberties.

But the problems of oil dependency extend beyond petro-dictatorship. For the last 10,000 years, levels of atmospheric CO2 have remained steady at about 300 parts per million, but since beginning of the Industrial Revolution a few centuries ago, the level has risen to approximately 400 ppm. Current estimates predict that it will grow to 550 ppm within the next 50 years, which will raise the temperature three degrees Celsius. In other words, flat plus crowded equals hot. The result? Massive droughts, Katrina-strength hurricanes, irreversible coastal loss, and the extinction of countless species crucial to the stability and vitality of the biosphere.

However, unless you’ve just emerged from a bomb shelter, you know that the planet is sick and getting sicker. What makes Hot, Flat, and Crowded worth reading is that Friedman spends more space diagramming solutions than bemoaning problems, and since most people are motivated more by their wallets than their consciences, Friedman argues that a nationwide response to the crisis is in our economic as well as our environmental self-interest. Broadly speaking, Friedman believes the entrenchment of clean power and efficiency energy systems is inevitable, and thus that the U.S., if it pioneers their development, will race ahead of the green curve and secure national prosperity in the decades to come. And where America leads, the world will follow.

What are these solutions?  One of the first is for the federal government to set a price signal on oil, a lower limit for the cost of gasoline, decreeing that gas would never again drop below a certain amount, say two dollars a gallon. If the market price of oil caused a dip below two dollars, the government would tax the difference, holding prices constant. Without a price signal the demand for alternative energy fluctuates with the price of crude oil, as it did in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis: after the price of crude oil skyrocketed, interest increased in wind and solar power, as well as electric cars, only to fade as the price eventually dropped. A crude oil price signal, combined with other carbon taxes, clean power subsidies, and a renewable energy mandate, would keep the interest in alternative energies high, spurring private inventors and energy corporations to invest more in green research and development, which would encourage innovation and lead to the creation of corporations and green jobs.

But none of this will be easy, and in closing, Friedman invokes the example of the Civil Rights movement and those who lived through World War II, exhorting America to demand a renewable energy mandate or price signal just as millions who gathered on the National Mall demanded equal rights for African-Americans, and, like the “Greatest Generation,” to sacrifice time, money, and comforts for the sake of future generations, as those who battled fascism did half a century ago.

All in all, Friedman’s charge is creditable, just as his analysis is deft and his solutions both practical and attainable. But behind these lie questionable ideological assumptions, in particular his implicit belief that democracy and capitalism are interdependent—that you can’t have one without the other—and that such a union will result in a happy citizenry. What he ignores is the inequality built into capitalism, that it is not possible for some to be rich without many others being poor. The world’s current environmental crisis is indeed grave, but the response should not be to create a thousand little, green Americas across the Third World, full of entrepreneurs living exorbitantly at the expense of the underclass. What the world requires is a political intervention parallel with an environmental one. The United States indeed must lead the way, with a mandate for a living wage, health care, and urban regeneration in addition to renewable energy. Until the full implementation of the first three, the last will be no more than a stopgap measure to preserve the status quo. The growing chasm between rich and poor mirrors the growing holes in the ozone layer, and Tom Friedman is right in more ways than he knows: “We have exactly enough time—starting now.”

Published by Farrer, Straus and Giroux, paperback, 448 pages, $27.95


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