Hot, Flat and Crowded

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Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why the World Needs a Green Revolution – and How We Can Renew Our Global Future
By Thomas Friedman
Allen Lane £20, 448 pages
FT Bookshop price: £16

Tom Friedman has done it again. In 2005, he seized on the big political and economic trend of the moment – globalisation – popularised it with a few dozen folksy stories and some half-awkward, half-endearing acronyms, and gave it a catchy, new name. The world, the New York Times columnist told us, was flat, and the fact that that phrase has become our verbal shorthand for the phenomenon is a testament to Friedman’s accomplishment.

Three years later, Friedman has lit upon what he might describe as another Big Idea, and, given his track record as a zeitgeist thermometer, we should all pay attention. His concerns today in Hot, Flat, and Crowded are the twin problems of climate change and the growing shortage of commodities, particularly fossil fuels: one of the ways Friedman names this problem is to re-dub our millennium the “Energy-Climate Era”, or E.C.E.

As with globalisation, Friedman isn’t exactly opening up virgin terrain. But his métier is not to be an intellectual or reportorial frontiersman – he is best when he talks to us about something we already know is an important issue, helping us to define it more clearly and in the round. Friedman is what Isaiah Berlin called a hedgehog – he knows one big thing (or at least one big thing per book) and he devotes 412 pages to cramming pretty much all of the world, ranging from his younger daughter’s school projects to the Chinese Communist party, into that over-arching paradigm.

Friedman’s central thesis is that the combination of global warming – the “hot” of the book’s title – and mounting demand for scarce natural resources – hence “flat” and “crowded” – is the defining challenge of our time. The first part of the book focuses on what’s going wrong. He offers vivid accounts of some familiar aspects of the malaise: climate change, biodiversity loss and the natural resource crisis. More interestingly, Friedman also points to two important and less frequently diagnosed symptoms: the massive transfer of wealth to the petro-powers and the malign influence that money has on their domestic politics, and “energy poverty”, which he argues is creating a division between the world’s electricity haves and have-nots.

Hedgehogs tend to be crusaders, and Friedman is an ardent one, of the sunny, can-do American variety. So the second part of this book is about solutions. Friedman makes the important point that in America, so far the vaunted “green revolution” is really a party – of the festive, not political, sort. He warns that green fashion is not enough and that the world, particularly the US, needs to knuckle-down to tough, structural change. But Friedman is more at ease as cheerleader than a scold, and he soon shifts into lively, sympathetic accounts of the entrepreneurs whose technologies could make that shift possible.

Friedman is a global star – just try keeping count of each of the international lectures he mentions. And he has a gift for weaving anecdotes and examples from around the world into his broader tapestry: China, Detroit and Denmark can happily co-exist on a single page. But the focus of this book, and the prism through which he views the challenges of energy and the environment, is resolutely red, white and blue.

Like a lot of his compatriots, Friedman thinks that since the end of the Cold War, America has lost its sense of national purpose, and that instead of finding it again in the aftermath of 9/11 the country went further down a cul-de-sac of self-absorbed consumerism. That concern gives the book some edge – “dumb as we wanna be” is a refrain Friedman uses to describe one of the dominant attitudes he sees in American public life.

America’s current, Oblomovian mood has Friedman really worried – he even has a moment of nostalgia for the cold war, which, he recalls, at least had the virtue of uniting Americans around a big, global project. Friedman’s hope is that hard-core environmentalism, something he alternately describes as “Code Green” or a green revolution, will be America’s new national mission. By becoming the world’s green superpower – intense exposure to the Friedman style means I can’t resist calling it the Globe’s Green Giant – the US, he hopes, can win back some of that city-on-a-hill glow which, at least from abroad, has been looking a little tarnished of late.

Even more importantly, from Friedman’s perspective, Code Green could be the way that, at home, America rediscovers its true, united, crusading, campaigning, messianic self. Friedman calls this the need to do nation-building at home (italics his, of course). While he’s not a man you would accuse of being aloof about anything, this is the idea he is really excited about. To give you a sense of his enthusiasm, it is probably enough to quote six words and three punctuation marks in a separate paragraph: “America wins! America wins! America wins!”

Friedman’s call for a new, defining national cause could well strike a powerful chord in today’s dispirited United States: after all, this is a moment when even the Republicans, who have been running the country for the past eight years, have decided their only chance of hanging on to the White House is to promote their candidate as a crusading reformer who will bring radical change.

But enlisting the entire country in a massive new project carries with it a darker temptation, and, to his credit, Friedman admits it. Friedman worries that American democracy is too fractious, too responsive to diverse interests, too – frankly – democratic to tackle issues as vast, long-term and inter-related as energy and the environment. That prompts him to fantasise about how wonderful life would be if smart, patriotic, selfless technocrats were in charge – just like those Chinese mandarins. He describes this yearning for authoritarianism as his wish that “if only America could be China” – though he assures us that his “mischievous thought” is to suspend democracy for just one day!

Of course, that’s the problem with political systems – we’re not allowed to toggle between them. Friedman’s book will get people talking about green technologies and the need for a green revolution. It will probably introduce new phrases into the discourse of the chattering classes: I’m betting on “petropolitics” and “flat, hot and crowded”, though I have my doubts about E.C.E. and “Code Green”. But this ultimately optimistic volume also calls out for someone to write a darker follow-up – if even Friedman, one of the original cheerleaders for the spread of liberal, western democracy, is having authoritarian day-dreams, then the history Francis Fukuyama once thought was over really has come back with a vengeance.

Chrystia Freeland is the FT’s US managing editor

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