Getting Personal With Tom Friedman

Tom Friedman, the Pulitzer-Prize winning New York Times columnist, came to Duke this week to chat up his new book Hot, Flat, and Crowded. After his talk we discussed his thesis over dinner. His analysis is spot on, in my opinion, and yet I wonder if there’s another top issue to consider.

Friedman is one of our nation’s leading thinkers. The native Minnesotan decided early on to pursue a career in journalism. It was while working for his high school newspaper where he found inspiration in a teacher he describes as “a strict disciplinarian.” Perhaps this excerpt:encoded provides an insight into what makes Friedman tick.

Friedman’s previous books have been intellectual tour de forces. His most recent best seller, The World is Flat (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005), was an insightful but largely detached analysis of the impact of the information age on the global economy. (It was also required reading for cocktail parties for much of 2005.)

A New Way Forward Via a New Energy Future

Hot, Flat, and Crowded (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008) is anything but detached. It is a passionate call to action — a call for America to blaze the path to the energy technology revolution.

Friedman’s thesis, as his title suggests, is that the world faces three major trends:

  • Hot: global warming will bring climate and ecological stresses
  • Flat: worldwide access to the Internet will help level the economic playing field which in turn will engender growing demand for resources; and
  • Crowded: a rising global population — projected to increase from some 6.7 billion today to more than 9 billion by mid–century — will further strain resources.

He argues that the confluence of these three trends threatens a firestorm that could profoundly undermine our institutions. In his view only one solution is sustainable — an energy technology revolution that would replace our current fossil-fuel based (and increasingly costly) energy infrastructure with one based on cheap, renewable fuels.

An unabashed patriot, Friedman believes that America has lost its way since 9/11. Instead of being about building something, about working together for a larger purpose, our country has become about fighting a war on terrorism. He believes that the United States must get its “groove back,” and joining the energy technology revolution is the way. Americans are ready, he believes — they have the smarts and dedication to lead the revolution. What is required is leadership to unleash our innovative and entrepreneurial spirit. “Don’t change a light bulb,” he advises, “change a leader.”

An Addition (Or Challenge?) to Friedman’s View

Friedman is a captivating conversationalist and his analysis is spot on. But as brilliant a mind as he is, I have a couple of small bones to pick with him.

  • The light bulb/leader scenario doesn’t have to be either/or. I would advise people to “change a light bulb AND demand action of your leaders.” After all, every little bit helps, especially when changing a light bulb becomes a movement.
  • I think in addition to Friedman’s big three, another alarming trend looms, and that is the rapid pace of ecosystem degradation.
    Ecosystems provide us with invaluable services like clean water and air, arable land, wood, fiber, and food. Those services are essential for the continued survival of much of our social systems. But a recent assessment by an international team of scientists concluded that some 60 percent of the world’s ecosystems are degraded. (By the way, for an entertaining parable on the underlying reason for this, I recommend reading Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael[Bantam, 1995].)We have to figure out a way to stop — and reverse — the pace of ecosystem degradation. I am not sure that energy technology alone will do this. Indeed, I can imagine scenarios where the availability of cheap, unlimited energy would increase the rate of development and lead to greater rather than less ecosystem degradation. What will be required in addition to renewable energy is a better understanding of the interactions between the biosphere and social institutions and the use of this understanding to optimize the sustainable tapping of our ecosystem services.

At the end of the evening, I asked Friedman what his next project will be. He laughed and said he hadn’t gotten there yet. Right now, he said, he was working on an updated version of Hot, Flat, and Crowded for the paperback edition, he was preparing for a European tour of speaking engagements, and there’s always his New York Times column. We shook hands and I wished him a safe journey and watched him head out into the night. I thought, more likely than not he’s already at work, thinking about his next column or maybe even the topic for his next book. His high school teacher got it right — discipline.

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