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Thomas Friedman is a keen thinker with a great idea for tackling some of our biggest challenges. I have just an addition or two to his latest thesis. (Megan Morr/Duke Photography)

Getting Personal With Tom Friedman

by Bill Chameides | September 24th, 2008
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)


Permalink | 5 comments

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.

filed under: climate change, ecosystems, energy, faculty, global warming
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5 Comments

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  1. Stephen carr
    Oct 1, 2008

    I agree with the reviewer that Thomas (whom I greatly admire) failed to do his usally excellent job of really getting to the heart of what needs to change in society at a foundation level and that is the WHOLE issue of eco-system degradation. At the heart of environmental degradation is global crop production. A new patent has just been approved for a mechanical device that works as a soil conditioning device that captures rain water where it falls by consoldating the soil WITHOUT compaction………a breakthrough in crop production that is designed to be used by both large commercial farmers in the developed world AS WELL as the 1.3 billion poor farmers around the globe. One of the goals of the developers was to level the playing field in food production around the world. The low cost device has been tested and proven to increase crop yields by 30% while reducing nitrogen applications by 30% and reducing soil erosion by some 90% (www.terramanustech.com). What is as significant as this development is that it didn’t come out of the development think tanks at some conglomerate with an eye towards profits alone, it came from a tiny R&D start-up company with only two paid employees. The point I think Friedman and other furturist always under estimate is the power of a small group of people to change the world. ” title=”Friedman Missed Key Factor

    • Erica Rowell
      Oct 3, 2008

      Bill Chameides responds – Echoes of Margaret Mead! In fairness to Tom Friedman, I think he would agree that small groups of innovators, inventors, and entrepreneurs may very well hold the key to developing the new energy technologies. The question in my mind and I would guess in Friedman’s mind is what is needed in the way of government policy to empower those folks. ” title=”How to empower

      • Stephen carr
        Oct 3, 2008

        The floor of history is littered with great ideas that simply died crib deaths because as a rule (and a very general rule at that) inventors and innovators suck at marketing, which points out a key flaw that dooms so many great ideas ie; that no one is good at everything! Brilliant minds in all diciplines seduce themselves into believing that because they are brilliant at one thing they must be brilliant about all things. What can the government do to empower people not only folks that have the brilliant ideas to start with but those who are brilliant at getting those ideas out of the crib and up walking around. Really, it is the marketing (really, just gifted coordinators)that can pull a project together and the best the government can do is ask this group of people “What role can or should we play to help facilitate this project”? Certianly, you need an advisory board made up of folks from multiple disciplines to do initial reviews of proposed projects, but even that group must be capable of thinking in new ways as they evaluate the most promising ideas.” title=”How To Empower

        • Erica Rowell
          Oct 3, 2008

          Dr. Chameides replies: Stephen: I will take your admonition about people thinking they are “brilliant about all things” under advisement. But even so, here is a modestly offered comment to your post. I agree that marketing is key in advancing an idea or invention. But there is a very important role for government. Namely, to set up the policies that structure the marketplace to incentivize innovation – for example in green energy technologies. One such policy could be establishing a cap-and-trade on carbon emissions (see my recent post – http://www.nicholas.duke.edu/nicholas/insider/thegreengrok/capandtrade). Others favor carbon taxes. And the list goes on. The point is there is a role for government as well entrepreneurs, and inventors, and, yes, marketers.” title=”Big tent

          • Stephen carr
            Oct 3, 2008

            Dr. Chameides: We’re on the same page. And to be more generous to Tom Friedman, page 166 of his new book does hit the “power of the individual” nail square on it’s head. My experience from working to get a truly sustainable crop production system which will change the economic/environmental paradign on a global scale is based on a model that requires a three legged stool involving an educational leg (such as a university), a private sector leg (venture capital, angel investor, ect), and a public sector leg (like the NRCS in my case for example). Certainly a government element to serve as facilitator that could be made up of a board of folks representing all three stool legs could (and should) do the heavy lifting at the begginning to sort through the potentialy great ideas from the still-need-to-bake ideas. Once the project is deemed as being able to actually improve the quality of life for all on the planet while actually managing to improve our planets natural resources, then the political step to intergrate such systems into programs like the USDA, EPA, and others can proceed. This process of evaluation and determining efficacy must occur first before we can ask for the political capital to be spent that actualy becomes the long term life blood of good public policy (for example, the land grant universities have studied soils to death since the Dust Bowl. Yes, we have mitigated soil erosion but have failed to understand how our approach has neglected the soils true role in the hydrological/agronomic/enivironmental/economic/governmental/and societal/ molecule at the root of human existence on this planet. As much as I admire the original thinker that comes up with the idea (after all, no chicken, no egg) I believe the idea is the easier part. Keeping the idea alive, helping it grow, and building the foundation for the idea to mature into a product or system that can realize the inventors hopes and goals………that’s the tough part. ” title=”Someone Has To Put The Tent Up

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