Book Reviews

Thomas Friedman, Hot, Flat, and Crowded; Why We Need a Green Revolution — and How It Can Renew America (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), 438pp.Thomas Friedman, Hot, Flat, and Crowded; Why We Need a Green Revolution — and How It Can Renew America (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), 438pp.

           When my family was in Germany in 1990, our friends pulled up to a stop light and obeyed a traffic signal that instructed them to turn off the engine to save fuel and spare the air. Brazil and Denmark have already attained energy independence from Middle East oil. Japan and Europe have fuel economy standards of 35 miles per gallon; the United States won't match that until 2020. In 2004, demand for scrap metal in China was so strong that manhole covers started disappearing from around the world; thieves stole them, chopped them up, and sold them to China. 150 covers went missing in Chicago. Every mile you drive your car you emit a pound of CO2 into the air (and China is adding 14,000 cars every day to its roads). Welcome to what Thomas Friedman calls Code Green.

           Friedman has his critics. His breezy style, jingoistic cheerleading, and free market optimism about profit-motives can be irritating. Others haven't forgiven him for supporting the Iraq war or for his rosy prognosis about globalization. He has a whole chapter in his newest book about why going green will never be easy, but he specifically denies that Americans need to cut their consumption habits because he believes that capitalism can grow a bigger and cleaner pie for all. Everyone knows that America is by far the biggest eco-laggard, but he insists that we can be the world's leader. In a critical review in The New York Review of Books (November 6, 2008), Bill McKibben describes Friedman's vision as a "green fantasia." In the New Yorker (November 10, 2008), Ian Parker contrasts Friedman's carefully crafted persona as your Average Neighbor with his own eco-footprint, namely, the 11,400 square foot mansion he and his wife built a few years ago.

           Still, if our country has any hope for mobilizing the general public in an environmental movement that would match the urgency of the civil rights movement, Thomas Friedman is probably as good as it gets. He's won three Pulitzer Prizes, and his books have been translated into thirty-four languages. He's done his homework and traversed the globe. For many readers, whatever Friedman writes deserves careful attention, and with the current crisis that's a good thing.

           The "flattening" of the world that he described in The World is Flat (which has sold four million copies), global warming, and the population explosion all converge, says Friedman, to create five key problems — energy and natural resource supply and demand, petrodictatorships, climate change, energy poverty, and biodiversity loss. His book describes these problems with a blizzard of anecdotes, facts and figures, and then proposes how we can address them. Friedman sees both a global obligation but also a national opportunity for America to renew itself. There are many moving parts that must act in concert toward the same goal — governments, international treaties, free market and profit-motivated innovators, laws and legislators on the international, national and local levels, industry regulators, NGOs, personal virtue, civic activism, and bold leadership. Friedman describes himself as a "sober optimist," but he admits that there's a very thin line between dire pessimism that we've reached an irreversible tipping point due to apathy and inaction, and optimism that human ingenuity can rise to the occasion.