Thomas Friedman: Hope in a Hot, Flat and Crowded World

In an exclusive interview with Yale Environment 360, best-selling author Thomas Friedman talks with Elizabeth Kolbert about his new book and about why he’s optimistic that an energy-technology revolution can revitalize the United States and set the world on a new, greener path.

In his new, best-selling book, Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution — and How It Can Renew America, New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman describes a world in trouble. With climate change, globalization, and overpopulation, he argues, the central challenge to humanity has now become “to manage what is already unavoidable and avoid what will truly be unmanageable.”

In an exclusive interview for Yale Environment 360, Friedman spoke with New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert about the need for an energy technology revolution — a revolution he believes should be led by the United States. The three-time Pulitzer Prize winner told Kolbert that energy technology must be the next great global industry and that “the country that leads that industry is going to have the most national security, economic security, innovative companies and global respect.”

During the 40-minute interview, Friedman talked about everything from Washington and China to E.O. Wilson and Barack Obama, and he dismissed calls for the U.S. to develop more fossil fuels (“drill, baby, drill”) by noting, “There’s only one mantra for America, and that’s ‘Innovate, baby, innovate.’”

Friedman spoke with Kolbert from his office in Washington, D.C.

Elizabeth Kolbert: You’ve written extensively both about global terrorism and global warming, and you talk in the book about the difference in the American response to these both very, very scary problems. Why do think there is such a big difference? Why the war on terror and sort of a shrug on global warming?

Thomas Friedman: I guess it’s a couple things. One is that the war on terror could be personified in the face and person of Osama Bin Laden or the 9/11 hijackers, and I think that’s very important for getting people focused on a threat. It could be manifested in immediacy, literally, in the downing of the Twin Towers and the attack on the Pentagon. There was a clear and present danger people felt.

Thomas Friedman
“It’s unlike any challenge I think we’ve ever seen.” THOMAS FRIEDMAN

Now I’ll just contrast that with climate change. The enemy is a gas called carbon dioxide that you can’t see, touch or smell. So there’s no personification basically.
The effects at the moment tend to be diffuse and hard to see, unless you normally travel through the Arctic Circle during summer.

And finally, the biggest impacts, as we understand them, will fall on people who haven’t been born yet. And getting people, our generation, to take decisive action on a kind of 9/11 scale in response to a problem you can’t see, touch or smell, that will impact most profoundly on people who haven’t been born yet, is a real challenge in stewardship.

And it’s unlike any challenge I think we’ve ever seen.

Kolbert: As you point out, global warming is a really, really hard issue and, as we just talked about, a multigenerational issue that requires really smart, focused leadership over the course of many years.

Friedman: That’s right.

Kolbert: Don’t these two facts sort of point you to the reaction that Dave Letterman gave you the other night, when he just sort of blurted out, “We are so screwed?”

Friedman: Right. This book in many ways — what I tell people when I speak about it now to audiences — is that it masquerades as a book about energy and the environment. But it’s really just a masquerade. It’s really a book about America.

And energy/environment is almost like an allegory I use to talk about our ability anymore to face a big, multigenerational problem in a serious, fixed, focused and sustained way… One of the challenges, and I don’t have to tell you this, is that if you tell people, “We’re just completely toast, we’re fried, we’re cooked.” They say, “Well, if that’s the case, let’s party.” And if you say, “No, no, no, no, no. No, we can actually do this. If we get our act together, we can do this.” And they say, “Oh, we can do this? Well, let’s party.”

So the problem is, either way people want to just party, and finding that kind of happy medium where people understand the immediacy and seriousness of starting now, and at the same time aren’t paralyzed by the enormity of the task.

That’s why I end the book, I love Donella Meadows’ line, “We have exactly enough time, starting now.” You know?

Kolbert: Yeah, that’s a great line.

Friedman: I kind of live by that mantra. Because I always tell people, pessimists are usually right. Let’s face it. Optimists are usually wrong. But all the great change in history, positive change, was done by optimists.

So what I’ve really tried to do in my own politics and in this book is really two things: One, is basically to say, well, if the world is getting hot, flat and crowded, what does that mean? It means that these five big problems are the next big problems of the 21st century — energy, natural resources supply and demand, petro-dictatorship, climate change, biodiversity loss, and energy poverty. What does that list mean? That means the next great global industry has to be — energy technology. The production of abundant, cheap, clean reliable electrons through a combination of innovation, energy efficiency, and conservation.

Well, if that’s the next great global industry, then it means that the country that leads that industry is going to have the most national security, economic security, innovative companies, and I think global respect. And my point is, simply, that country has to be the United States of America.

Kolbert: You talk in the book about how crucial it is to put the right regulatory policies in place, to encourage the development of clean energy sources. But you always hear, and I’m sure you always hear it when you go out into the U.S., that anything that we do, that China, say, isn’t doing, puts us at a competitive disadvantage. So how do you answer those folks?

Friedman: Well I answer that really with a story I tell in the book. Last year, I was invited to the China Clean Car Conference. China has a clean car conference — who knew? — in Tianjin, China, their kind-of Detroit, kind of a rather grimy city, the Marriott Tianjin.

And, I was the closing speaker. The audience was all Chinese car guys. All kind of grizzled Chinese car guys, all listening to me — nobody spoke English, they were all listening on headsets through an interpreter. And I thought, “What do I tell these guys?” And so, my basic message was this: “Guys,” — it was only guys — “guys, I have got to tell you, every time I come to China young Chinese say to me, ‘Mr. Friedman, you guys got to grow dirty for 150 years. Now it’s our turn.’ And my message to you, on behalf of all Americans, is to tell you, ‘You’re right. It’s your turn. Grow as dirty as you want.’ Because I think we just need about five years now to invent all the clean-power technologies you’re going to need as you choke to death, and we’re going to come over, and we’re going to sell them all to you. And we’re going to clean your clock. I don’t know how you say that in Chinese, we’re going to clean your clock in the next great global industry. So, please, if you want to give me a five-year lead, I’d love five. I’d prefer 10. Take your time. Because we are going to clean your clock in the next great global industry.”

“All the great change in history, positive change, was done by optimists.”

Now it takes about 30 seconds for the translation to get through — and that’s when you see everyone adjusting their headsets, eyes lighting up — and then about one second for them to understand exactly what I’m saying: That they basically have a choice. They can do what they did on telephony, which was to go from no phones to cellphones, and skip landlines, and they can do that in clean power. But unless they really change, they’re going to miss the new IT, which is ET.

And so they can sit back and say, “This is unfair. You guys ate the hors d’oeuvres, you ate the entrées, and you invite us for dessert and ask us to split the bill. We’re not going to do that.” And I understand, I say, “I know why you’re pissed. I’d be pissed, too. But I’m here to tell you, this is the next great global industry in a world that’s hot, flat and crowded, it has to be.”

Kolbert: Now, have you delivered that to an American audience? What kind of response do you get?

Friedman: They all kind of get it. But I just tell you, parenthetically, it’s been amazing… I had 8,000 people come to hear me at Miami of Ohio, in the basketball stadium, 4,200 in Purdue, 3,000 at Ohio State. I’ve had crowds I never had before. I’d like to think it’s about me. It’s not. And this is not false modesty. People are desperate for someone to point them out and forward in a way. And they’re just so hungry”¦ But they also want to know, “What can I do?”

Kolbert: You have an interesting passage in the book, where you talk about how in a campaign, a candidate might frame an energy tax, I think you talk about a gasoline tax. Can you talk about that?

Friedman: Politicians will always say, “If I do this, my opponent will hit me on taxes.” And I say, well, let’s just think about this. Let’s imagine I’m the pro-green candidate, and Elizabeth Kolbert is the pro-nontax candidate. And I come out and I say I’m for a gasoline tax and you say, “There goes my opponent, Mr. Friedman.” Just like Sarah Palin you would say, “He’s never seen a tax he didn’t like. And now he wants to come to Wassila, Alaska, and tax your gasoline?”

I’d say, “Let’s get one thing straight. My opponent and I, we’re both for a tax. Because if you don’t think what OPEC oil cartel is doing to the real price of oil isn’t an artificial price, isn’t in effect a tax, then you’re not paying attention. So we’re both for a tax. I’d just prefer my taxes go to the U.S. Treasury to fund U.S. schools, U.S. roads, U.S. highways, U.S. research, U.S. innovation. It’s just a little tic I have, that I like my tax dollars to build my country, not Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Kuwait, or Abu Dhabi, or Dubai, or Russia or Venezuela”¦ My opponent is indifferent where your tax dollars go.” If you can’t win that debate, you don’t belong in politics.

Kolbert: Right, but of course if we look at what we’ve actually seen over the last few months, it’s “Drill, baby, drill.”

Friedman: Absolutely. And that, as I’ve written and been saying, that is just so stupid. I mean, it is as if on the eve of the IT revolution, on the eve of the birth of the Internet and the PC, we are out there pounding the table for more IBM Selectric typewriters. Carbon paper, baby, carbon paper! That’s nuts. There’s only one mantra for America, and that’s “Innovate, baby, innovate!”

Kolbert: You had a column the other day which I thought skirted pretty close to an endorsement there.

Friedman: Yes, you noticed!

Kolbert: But do you actually like Barack Obama’s energy plan or is it just better than “Drill, baby, drill?”

Friedman: I think it’s just, right now, better than “Drill, baby, drill.” I give Obama credit for generally leaning in favor of all the right things. And not falling off the wagon on things like “Drill, baby, drill” or on lifting the federal gasoline tax in the summer. And he did vote in favor three times for the renewable energy and production investment tax credits.

McCain missed all eight votes. He came out for lifting the gasoline tax in the summer, which was just a stunt that would have simply added more driving, more CO2 to the atmosphere, and pushed up the price of oil. And then he came up with “Drill, baby, drill.”

So, to me, basically there’s a clear, clear choice. Now there’s only one green candidate. It is Barack Obama.

“If you don’t have an ethic of conservation, you basically have a license to drive a Hummer through the Amazon.”

Would I like Obama to make the things I’m passionate about more central to his identity and his campaign, rather just another spoke in the wheel? There’s health care, there’s green technology, there’s new roads, there’s education, there’s Iraq. Yes, to me, it’s the center. It’s not another spoke. But, you have to ride whatever horse you got. And right now he’s all we got. And he’s a lot better than the other guy. And so I ride.

Kolbert: Can you talk about the media’s role in all this. I mean, what do you think of the job that we all have done?

Friedman: You know, it’s such a hard issue. I’m a big believer, to name something is to own it. And if you can name an issue, you can own an issue: “The World is Flat.” And that’s why I spend a lot of time naming things. And trying to find ways to convey enormous complexity in a very simple way. And one of the things, and I’ve said this before, that’s always struck me about the green movement, is that it was actually named by its opponents. They own the definition… Because they named it liberal, tree-hugging, sissy, girly-man, unpatriotic, vaguely French.

And the whole purpose of my book is to redefine green. To redefine it as a geo-political, geo-strategic, geo-economic, patriotic. Green is the new red, white and blue.

Kolbert: But as you also discuss, there’s a real reason to be afraid that even unlimited clean energy is not going to save the planet, in fact quite possibly it would just accelerate the loss of biodiversity.

Friedman: Well, bless your heart! You’re one of the few people who’ve picked up on that. You know.

Nobody gets the conservation part of the triad — that if you don’t have an ethic of conservation, you basically have a license to drive a Hummer through the Amazon.

I tell you, it goes back to your Barack Obama question. Why am I still hanging in there with him? Because I believe, once elected, he has the potential — the potential — to really be a transformational figure on this issue, if he wants to be. The president of the United States’ bully pulpit is unlike any other in the world. And what we have lost sight of, because we’ve forgotten what it would be like to have a president who — unlike the current one who cannot choke the word c-c-c-c-c-conservation out of his mouth — what it would be like to have a president who on inauguration day gives his inaugural speech and then hops on a bicycle, and bikes to the White House.

Kolbert: That’s a great idea.

Friedman: And that’s what I’m going to propose, if this guy wins. You and Michelle ride your bike from the Capitol steps to the White House. Do you know what happens the next day? A hundred thousand bicycles are sold in America. The people forget the symbolic and rhetorical power of the president of the United States. We’ve forgotten, you know, because we’ve had this troll who comes out once a week now and tells us the economy’s OK. And Dick Cheney, when was the last time you ever heard him speak to anybody? I mean, who would know?

Kolbert: You talk to an amazing array of very smart people, the people we would all like to talk to, from John Holdren to E. O. Wilson. If you had to pick, and maybe this is unfair, but something that someone said to you that really got you thinking about things in a new way, and that you’d point people towards, what would that be?

Friedman: You know, you mention E.O. Wilson, and Ed Wilson is just one of the great treasures of America. And he said something that really struck me. And I’m not going to get it exactly right, but he basically said, “Nature is regulating our climate for free. Mother Nature, she’s been doing that for free, for a long, long time. Now do you really want to get in there and do geo-engineering and all this kind of stuff? Well, if you don’t want to do that, then we need to get out of Mother Nature’s way. Because do you want to be turning the dials and pulling the levers and think we can do that better than Mother Nature?” I don’t think so. And it is a very, very powerful point.

“We’re only going to innovate our way out of this problem. This is not a problem for regulators, it’s for engineers.”

Kolbert: One of the themes of the book and explicit messages of the book obviously is the importance of making advances in clean-energy technologies, so you write, and I quote, “Incremental breakthroughs are all we’ve had, but exponential is what we desperately need.”

Friedman: Yes.

Kolbert: Can you just talk a little bit about what you mean by that?

Friedman: I went to Bali last year. It really was an epiphany for me, because I just sort of looked around, I looked at the process and I said the following to myself: We’re not going to regulate our way out of this problem. We’re only going to innovate our way out of this problem. This is not a problem for regulators, it’s for engineers. Because, my attitude basically is that I’m not against Bali, and Kyoto - if you can get 190 countries all to agree and implement verifiable reductions and limits on their CO2 emissions, may God bless you and keep you. But I don’t want to hostage my future and my kids’ future to that necessity.

And so I’m trying to change the model here. I’m trying to say, let’s make America the leader, the country that demonstrably grows richer, more innovative, more energy secure, more economically secure, more nationally secure, and more respected, by taking the lead in the green revolution. I am absolutely convinced more people will follow us, by emulation, than will ever do under Kyoto, what we expect them to do by compulsion.

Kolbert: But you also write, and you know that real energy innovation is hard.

Friedman: That’s right. Our nose is pressed right now against the boundaries of physics, and chemistry and biology. And that’s why so much of what we need to do is just push out that boundary. Because only in the arbitrage between all those disciplines will we find, I think, the real breakthrough.

Kolbert: But what makes you think that breakthrough is out there?

Friedman: I do. I really do. Here’s the upside of the book tour I’ve been on. Every stop I come home with a pocketful of business cards. Because all these people come up to me with their energy companies that they started — solar, wind, cellulosic. “I’ve got a duck that paddles a wheel, blows up a balloon, the balloon issues methane, burns fuel, turns a turbine.” You hear the craziest stuff, but everyone’s trying. And so I’m a big believer in the wisdom of crowds here.

Kolbert: You had another great fact in the book, which I did not know, which was that green was the single-most trademarked term in 2007, and you go on to point out that a lot of the ways in which green is used is [the idea that] green should be easy. But the fact of the matter is there is no easy way to be green. I mean, if it’s easy, it’s not green.

Friedman: That’s right.

Kolbert: I though that was a very good point. Of course people, as you point out, we don’t like hard things. That, I suppose, is the $64 trillion question”¦ But can green be sold as something hard? Can it be sold politically with the acknowledgement that it’s hard?

Friedman: The way I try to sell it is that it’s something big, it’s aspirational, it’s about national security. That it’s not just about electric power, it’s about national power.

Kolbert: You had a column the other day titled “Green the Bailout.” What do you mean by that?

Friedman: Well, from “The World is Flat,” one of the things I was keenly aware of is the importance of bubbles. It was actually the railroad bubble back in the 19th century that all these people went in, bought railroad stocks, and built railroads — most of them actually lost money. But what they left behind was the national railroad system.

The boom bubble bust — you know, people went out, bought dot.coms, most people lost money, some people made money, but what they left behind was a national Internet bandwidth highway. And unfortunately now we’re going through a financial system or industry bubble — and what it’s leaving behind is a bunch of dead derivatives, empty condos in Florida, and Gulf Stream jets that the mega-rich can’t afford anymore. It will be a tragedy, and what makes it even worse, we borrowed a lot of it from China, and we didn’t borrow — we put it on our kids’ Visa cards. And so if we’re going to do this mega-bailout we have got to make sure we are laying the foundations with it of another great industrial revolution.

“People are desperate for someone to point them out and forward in a way. And they’re just so hungry.”

Kolbert: Here’s my last question. In the process of writing the book, did you become more or less hopeful about the prospects for a world that’s hot, flat and crowded.

Friedman: I’m from Minnesota. I’m optimistic. I mean, that’s just who I am.

Kolbert: Yeah, you call yourself a sober optimist.

Friedman: Right. But I’m more sober, you know, but I am still an optimist. I’ve had the opportunity to talk to Bill Gates a lot about this and the previous book. And Bill’s kind of, I would say, an innovation determinist. He believes innovation can, will and must solve every problem. And maybe I’m not quite there yet, but I lean on his side of the debate than the other side. And as long as I have breath issuing forth from this body, yeah, that’s where I’m going to put my time and energy.