By Rob Foulkes (November 2008)
‘Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why the world needs a green revolution – and how we can renew our global future’ by Thomas Friedman (2008). Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 448 pages, £20 / $27.95
Calls for a ‘green revolution’ in Thomas Friedman’s latest book are spot on, and chime with Barack Obama’s plans. But should both men come down to earth?
Thomas Friedman, one suspects, was among the millions of Americans celebrating Barack Obama’s election victory earlier this month. Much of the president-elect’s energy and climate platform could have come word-for-word from Friedman’s latest book, “Hot, Flat and Crowded” . In it, the New York Times columnist and popular pundit of globalisation, argues that with political commitment and the right leadership, the US can head a green revolution to tackle the challenges of climate change and natural resource consumption while reviving America’s economy and standing in the world.
Given his popularity, his proposed policies and his mandate for “change”, it is hard to imagine a more promising candidate for this role than Obama. But even with such a president, the US will struggle to enact the revolution Friedman prescribes: more practical thinking may be needed to tackle the world’s challenges in the interim.
To many of his progressive fans, the dilemma Friedman discusses will be familiar: booming populations in developing countries are aspiring to energy-intensive Western lifestyles, and together with rich-world consumers are subjecting the planet to unsustainable pressures manifest in climate change, potential commodities shortages over the long term and biodiversity loss.
As with many others converted to the environmental cause, Friedman thinks in terms of systemic change and lampoons the notion of “205 Easy Ways to Save the Earth”. His vision of a sustainable future – a world of ultra-efficient, smart energy and resource use, of research and innovation flourishing under sophisticated government oversight and a world-beating US economy built on green technologies – implies that significant CO2 savings will come only when we redesign entire systems, from electricity grids to the way we commute, rather than individual products.
Obama’s “New Energy for America” plan makes similar arguments for a revolution in energy use and emissions driven by improved technology and efficiency, and like Friedman (among many others) links reliance on fossil fuels to national security as well as to environmental vulnerability. The plan also chimes with Friedman’s case for using a green revolution as an opportunity to drive both US economic growth and global leadership, while also recognizing that deep and difficult changes will be needed. Obama is as dismissive as Friedman of “gimmicks” that tinker with the status quo.
Obstacles along the way
By convincingly electing a president with this platform, American voters have fulfilled a significant part of the responsibility Friedman assigns them. But whether this historic election brings the revolution he hopes for remains to be seen. Much of Obama’s plan may fall by the wayside: even with 52% of the popular vote, the new president may not have the backing he needs to cut through the interests of industries, Congressmen and the many Americans who see less urgency in the move away from fossil fuels (and have indeed already pressured him into a softer stance on gasoline prices).
In particular, pressures on Obama to help revive the crisis-hit US economy will likely hamper other plans, however strong in theory the case for promoting recovery through a “green revolution”. True, calls for millions of new jobs to be created in clean-tech industries will be more popular than ever. But moving against less environmentally-friendly industries will become more difficult given the jobs that will be lost there. And with billions of dollars in taxpayers’ money now used up bailing out the banking system, the scope for further stretching budget deficits with big new green projects will at best be limited.
Another strand of Friedman’s argument is that if America leads the way down an energy-efficient, low-carbon development path then the world will gratefully follow. But this also may hit more obstacles than he expects. Governments of developing countries under enormous domestic pressures will not voluntarily sacrifice growth in pursuit of the global common good, and any attempt to alter their development trajectory must appeal to their own political priorities.
Friedman partly recognises this but also attributes great power to the US’s role as the aspirational beacon for developing-country populations, suggesting for example that if Americans stop driving SUVs then the whole world will be put off them. While painting the city on the hill green is no doubt a useful start, the US can best leverage its influence by leading international efforts to make energy efficiency and emissions reductions work in all countries’ interests. Friedman’s prescriptions (and Obama’s policies) at the national level can only succeed in the context of multilateral and global action.
However important a step Obama’s election proves to be towards the deep and long-term shifts that are undoubtedly needed, by itself it is far from a panacea. Progress will be slow. In focusing on the post-carbon world of the future, Friedman at times misses some of the steps we can take to improve our situation in the meantime. His generally dismissive attitude towards carbon capture and storage (not a complete solution by any means but a necessary stop-gap measure) is one example.
Another is the view that problems of corruption, underdevelopment and brash diplomacy that frequently accompany oil production can only be addressed by the West weaning itself off oil and cutting the flow of money. For Friedman, such revenues serve only to weaken US geostrategic interests by propping up hostile regimes in Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia.
Yet a reduction in government revenues actually might add to political instability in some such countries in the short term. Meanwhile many resource-rich but currently poor countries have little else going for them and are desperately in need of sources of economic development. Without doubt, oil revenues need to be managed wisely and transparently. But if they are, they can provide a foundation for broad-based, sustainable development (they often dwarf international aid contributions, for example). All this indicates the importance of looking for ways to help countries use their wealth to achieve genuine benefits, rather than seeking to cut the funds as quickly as possible.
©Charles Haynes (cc-by-sa-2.0)