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Thomas Friedman gives his prescription for saving the planet from apocalypse — technological innovation. And how only a green nation can be the next superpower

Written by Bibekdebroy |
September 28, 2008 2:20:16 pm

Hot, Flat, and Crowded
Thomas L. Friedman
Allen Lane, Rs 595
Thomas Friedman gives his prescription for saving the planet from apocalypse — technological innovation. And how only a green nation can be the next superpower

In some ways, the subprime mortgage mess and housing crisis are metaphors for what has come over America in recent years: A certain connection between hard work, achievement, and accountability has been broken. We’ve become a subprime nation that thinks it can just borrow its way to prosperity — putting nothing down and making no payments for two years.” The author of From Beirut to Jerusalem, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Longitudes and Attitudes and The World is Flat writes extremely well. These books don’t become bestsellers and the author doesn’t win Pulitzer Prizes for nothing. As a journalist (The New York Times), Tom Friedman is mandated to produce good copy. However, what distinguishes his books, including the present one, is a capacity for amassing research, personalising the output so that readers find it easy to relate to and coining or borrowing (with due acknowledgement) neat turns of phrases or anecdotes, so that the packaged bundle provides for compelling reading. Contrary to impression conveyed by the quote, this book isn’t about the US economy. It is about the hot, flat and crowded environment we live in and about what we might do to save it. “We” is with primary reference to US and China. Unlike The World is Flat, India only figures tangentially.

Seventeen chapters are divided into five sections. The two chapters in the first section are introductory. Of these, the first is American in overtone, while the second is more global. In the American overtone, three trends are described — first, post-1991, emerges a Fortress America (“In the process, America has shifted from a country that has always exported its hopes [and so imported the hopes of millions of others] to one that is seen as exporting its fears.”); second, there is a policy paralysis (especially documented for energy policy); and third, there is a countervailing groundswell (in contrast to what government does) of nation-building pressures from below. In the global overtone, we have five trends — first, a mismatch between energy supply and demand because of a crowded planet (perhaps a population of nine billion in 2050) and flattening leading to income and consumption growth in BRIC countries (Brazil-Russia-India-China) and fuelling demand for energy, minerals, water and forest products; second, petro-politics contributing to propping up of petro-dictatorships; third, global warming and climate change; fourth, energy poverty, with a divide between haves and have-nots; and fifth, biodiversity loss. The six chapters in the second section document how we got here and rehash what is already known, including Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.

However, there are juicy twists and turns. “As an Egyptian cabinet minister remarked to me: It is like the developed world ate all the hors d’oeuvres, all the entrees, and all the desserts and then invited the developing world for a little coffee and asked us to split the whole bill. That’s not going to happen.” So much for Kyoto. Or take the 2004 anecdote about manhole covers disappearing from Taiwan, Mongolia, Chicago, Scotland, Montreal, Gloucester and Kuala Lumpur to fuel Chinese demand for scrap metal. Interesting correlations are drawn between lack of freedom in petrolist states (authoritarian states that have petroleum) and crude oil prices. What do we do about these problems? That takes us to the six chapters in the third section. Most discussions on saving planet earth from apocalypse overdo the Malthusian spectre and are impossibly naive in solutions suggested. Friedman does neither and the solution is based not on heavy-handed, government-driven regulation, but on technological innovation, driven by appropriate price signals. Paraphrasing a quote ascribed to Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani (former Saudi Arabian oil minister), the stone age didn’t end because we ran out of stones. It ended because bronze and iron age technology took over. REEFIGDCPEERPC needs to be made lower than TTCOBCOG — an expansion of Google’s RE (renewable energy) being made cheaper than C (coal). REEFIGDCPEERPC stands for a renewable energy ecosystem for innovating, generating, and deploying clean power, energy efficiency, resource productivity, and conservation, while TTCOBCOG stands for the true cost of burning coal, oil, and gas.

China and India will drive the innovation if the US doesn’t. But Chindia won’t do it efficiently and are inside the technology frontier, a point attributed to Ramalinga Raju. “India and China may take away a few American jobs with cheaper labor, but those are transient advantages. However, if one of these countries consistently outgreens America, they will be seizing a sustainable advantage. In the Energy-Climate Era, you cannot be the leader of the world without being the world’s leader in conceptualizing, designing, manufacturing, deploying, and inspiring clean power solutions.” In a way, this ends the book and it has been a compelling read. But, two more sections are thrown in, one on whether red China can become green and the other on America. The lament on American policymaking has already been mentioned. Chinese leaders, in contrast, do what is needed, because nothing like a “democracy tax” exists. Would it be so bad to be China for a single day, though not for two? That’s an even more dangerous thought than the endangered planet.

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