Unlike most professors, I'm a defender of Thomas L. Friedman. What is it about the New York Times columnist and best-selling author that sticks in my colleagues' craw?
For starters, he's rich and famous, influential, clear and confident, hardworking and productive. In other words, he's everything most professors are not. (Just kidding!)
His opinions matter to presidents, prime ministers, CEOs and sheiks, while various and sundry undistinguished associate professors at undistinguished directional schools (northeast this, southeast that) struggle to keep their students' attention.
That he is pro-globalization and was an early supporter of the war in Iraq also detract considerably from his charm in faculty lounges around the country, where he is considered as smarmy as he is shallow.
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This is a pity. Few observers of the contemporary scene are as prescient as Friedman, as effective at shaping opinions and as adroit at employing stories, images or metaphors to bring complex issues to life. Sure, he has his problems. But in relative terms, he's Hyperion to most Grub Street satyrs. Despite three Pulitzers and four best-sellers, though, he'll always be too simplistic, too reductionistic and too glib for the water cooler Immanuel Kants who snicker at the mere mention of his name.
His new book, "Hot, Flat, and Crowded," is classic Friedman, which is to say topical, even trendsetting, provocative if a bit bumptious, rich but somewhat bloated. It builds on, while in some ways deviating from, his 2005 book, "The World is Flat." Here, Friedman is concerned with the global social and environmental crisis, which he sees, correctly, as a consequence of a long economic causal chain that began with the Industrial Revolution 250 years ago and became ever more taut during our recent bout of globalization.
As a result of the productivity gains made possible by industrialization since 1750 or so, income and living standards have risen dramatically for much of the world's population. These improvements in material conditions, however, have led to a huge surge in world population, from about 1 billion in 1800 to 6.7 billion today -- with a midrange projection of 9 billion by 2050.
Accommodating more people with higher living standards has placed an increasing strain on natural resources. This pressure has been particularly acute because modern economic growth is based on the brutal exploitation of nature. Until recently, Friedman notes, these effects have been considered a cost of progress -- we have, for example, enjoyed the benefits of oil, coal or chemical farming without much thought as to how they might affect the long-term health of us and the planet.
The upshot is that today we find ourselves in an unsustainable position. Our future as a species is being cast into doubt because of resource depletion and environmental devastation. In Friedman's view, this fine mess is further exacerbated by the U.S. We should, he says, be leading the efforts to address these issues. Bereft of leadership and burdened by an increasingly dysfunctional political system, we have not. For a generation, we've been, as he puts it, "as dumb as we wanna be" in politics, and, unfortunately, it shows in our abdication of social and moral responsibility for the world in which we live.
Out of the welter of social and environmental problems, Friedman focuses on five:
- The worldwide tightening of energy supplies.
- The attendant rise of what he labels "petrodictatorships."
- Climate change, i.e., global warming and increased weather volatility.
- "Energy poverty" and increasing gaps between societies whose populations turn on and tune in, and those whose populations drop out.
- Biodiversity loss.
Friedman devotes the first half of his book to these problems, discussing each in turn (often in excessive detail), before mounting a broader argument that because the problems are interconnected their individual consequences, already alarming, concatenate into ever more dire consequences.
In the second half of "Hot, Flat, and Crowded," Friedman lays out a strategy for dealing with these problems. He is convinced that no effort will succeed unless it is at once systematic (comprehensive) and revolutionary (drastic). His plan, which he calls "Code Green," fits the bill.
It contains many specifics, but generally boils down to a broad societal shift away from the profligate use of "dirty" power (coal, oil and gas) and toward the efficient use of "clean" power (wind, hydroelectric, tidal, biomass and solar). He also calls for a commitment to distribute "clean" power to populations that are energy-impoverished, concerted efforts to preserve or enhance biodiversity through committed conservation and the embrace of a new, non-exploitative ethic toward and relationship with nature.
This strategy, Friedman admits, will be difficult to implement. At a minimum, it will require radical technological innovations, billions of dollars, inspired leadership and a commitment to nation-building not seen in the U.S. for generations. If we fail, however, there may not be a second chance, according to the normally upbeat author. That should give pause to all of us.
At the end of the day, what does one make of "Hot, Flat, and Crowded"?
Far too long and repetitive with a rushed quality, it is not his best book. Though it is replete with the usual Friedmanesque tics (cutesy phrases and clever acronyms), it is definitely important, timely and passionate. One can go elsewhere for better work on the subject -- Jeffrey Sachs' recent work, "Common Wealth," comes immediately to mind. But because of his position as a smart commentator who commands people's attention, Friedman's book is more likely to stir the (reading) masses, even those like myself, who are, to quote Woody Allen, "at two with nature."