A Journalist's Archive

Hot, Flat, and Crowded
Thomas Friedman
Reviewed by Kathy Hare

          With three Pulitzers under his belt, Thomas Friedman could be basking in past glories. Instead, he's joined a growing list of authors who want Americans to wake up. And indeed, dear readers, if Friedman's research is correct, we have been asleep at the wheel for far too long. Maybe it's the gas fumes, or perhaps Friedman's explanation is correct, we are "as dumb as we wanna be."

          Friedman, a foreign affairs columnist for the "The New York Times," gained world acclaim for his book "The World is Flat." The internet, an American invention, created a flat world by allowing people from every corner of the planet to communicate with one another. In his latest endeavor, "Hot, Flat, and Crowded," Friedman uses his knowledge of foreign affairs to draft a warning designed directly for an American audience. Friedman said, if America is going "to not only survive but thrive in an age that is hot, flat, and crowded," then we must re-generate our economy by redefining "green" and ending our dependence on foreign oil.

          While that same message has been written before, no one makes such a strong case for stopping the flow of cash to Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, Venezuela, and Sudan as Friedman does. Note: not one of these nations is a democracy. If there is anyone out there who still believes Iraq had anything to do with 9-11, Friedman uses hardcore facts to show the real terrorists were, and are, funded by the cash we spend at the gas pump. Fifteen of the terrorists who controlled the three planes on 9-11 were Saudi Arabian citizens. Today, small schools all over Pakistan are funded by the Saudis with the aim of creating a new group of al-Queda fundamentalists. 

          Saudi Arabia has influenced political events in the United States for the last three decades.  While Americans waited in long gas lines during the 1970's, Sheikh Yamani, the Saudi Oil Minister, warned fellow OPEC members that, "the stone age didn't end because we ran out of stones." Back then Yamani feared a growing movement in America to find alternatives to foreign oil. OPEC took him seriously and dropped oil prices, only to make incremental price increases whenever possible. Unfortunately, finding "alternative energy sources" never became a priority for our government. Why would it when the Big Three auto companies financed Democratic candidates and big oil money backed Republican candidates? Thus, Friedman said, "groups representing the broad national interest were marginalized and derided as part of some eco-fringe."

          Three decades later America is no closer to ending its dependence on foreign oil. Now we have entered a new "Energy-Climate Era," Friedman writes. The population of the earth has doubled since the 1950's, placing an ever-increasing demand for the same "dirty fuels" that have powered the American economy for generations. Now throw in a billion or more cows needed to feed that population. These "belching cows" produce methane gas that traps carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We have now passed an ecologic tipping point, resulting in a "Hot, Flat, and Crowded," world that is currently being ruled by a "petrodictatorship," that cares little for freedom or human rights.

          Yet Friedman thinks we can solve this problem. "There is only one thing bigger than Mother Nature and that is Father Profit, and we have not even begun to enlist him in this struggle," Friedman warns. The only way to stop increasing green house gases, and end the biggest political threat to human advancement, is for Americans to start "out-greening al-Queda," and "out-greening China."

          Friedman hates the multitude of "green articles," such as "205 Easy Ways to Save the Earth," that are currently so popular, because no easy plan will solve the world's climate or energy problems. For politicians and businesses alike, "it's all about looking green," he said. But a revolution, even a green one, requires sacrifices; it requires giving something up. All we have seen so far are symbolic gestures instead of any effort towards "designing a systemic solution," Friedman said. He uses a number of good examples to illustrate his point. When he wanted to add solar panels to his roof, his homeowner's association said, "too unsightly." People love wind power, as long as the turbines are somewhere other than near their favorite vista. And new nuclear power plants, which supply clean energy for France, can not even be proposed without a huge public outcry.

           Americans need to stop associating modern nuclear power technology with the "Three Mile Island" accident caused by out-dated technology and improperly trained employees, Friedman said. He wants to see a systemic approach to the energy crisis starting from the top down. Congress needs to do more than talk green, they need to enforce higher efficiency standards. Entrepreneurs should be encouraged to develop large and small-scale alternative energy sources through tax incentives. "We need 100,000 people in 100,000 garages trying 100,000 things - in the hope that five of them break through."   

          While Friedman has hundreds of references to back his geopolitical facts, the book is lacking scientific references. That's my only criticism of Friedman's latest effort. For example, he dreams of a day when computers and cells phones will be biodegradable. Good idea, except that electrons need gold and other metals to flow, if he's heard of any ideas to overcome that scientific fact, I believe Friedman should let readers know about it.

          After reading his endless examples of how big-oil has increased its stranglehold on the world, I'm not as optimistic as Freidman about America's ability to solve the energy crisis. I certainly hope Friedman is right and I'm wrong. Perhaps his greater faith in American inventiveness is driven by his world travels. He spent extensive periods of time in remote places on six continents, only to return home and still pin his hopes for a better future on Americans.

          "Hot, Flat, and Crowded" is not a fast, easy read, but neither are the problems created by America's insatiable appetite for foreign oil. Put the book on your "must read" list, because it's packed with facts worth knowing. And it's sure to make you think anytime you're filling up that gas tank.

First published in The New Falcon Herald
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