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The US and the impossible green revolution

A dream beached by the economy

By George Smith, Dick Destiny, 11 Nov 2008

Book Review Feel a little pity for Thomas L Friedman's Hot, Flat and Crowded, his new book on what must be done to deliver a green revolution in America. With the economy collapsed, political will in the United States is now decisively hostile to almost everything in it.

Nevertheless, Friedman's premise is easy to absorb and reasonable. The world's growing middle class (and the desire of those not yet in it to join ASAP) is bringing environmental and energy catastrophe. And if the rest of the world follows the same pattern of consumption as practiced by the US, it will only end badly. The real limits to growth have arrived, Friedman says, taking the place occupied by the Club of Rome over thirty years ago.

He even deploys the lily-pads-in-your-pond analogy. Go on vacation thinking you have time to trim the vegetation. When you get back, the overgrowth has exploded exponentially. The pond is choked. Your fish are all dead.

Friedman tells us a "Code Green" must be established, not as an advertisement for business as usual - which is what it is now - but as a systemic and global way of moving the world's energy economy to one of distributed super-efficiency. In this, he wrote before the chances of it happening evaporated, the US must take the lead.

For the book, Friedman goes to China, relating a lecture he gives to the locals on how America is going to innovate, innovate, and out innovate the Asians in smart green energy technology. And then we'll sell this innovation to them, helping China to achieve even more prosperity for its middle class as the environment is rescued from ruin.

And there must have been at least a few in the group thinking, "Listen to that Yankee brag."

The cognitive dissonance occurs in Friedman's view of the US, taken from a man who calls his job the best in the world, hop-scotching the globe and country to sample from the wisdom of a small number of the scientific and political elite. You get Edward O Wilson and his ant collection. "Destroying a tropical rain forest and other species rich ecosystems is like burning all the paintings in the Louvre to cook dinner," reveals the Harvard scientist. No kidding. And there's Friedman's ever-present friend, Nate Lewis of Caltech in Pasadena, drinking strawberry lemonade at the faculty club with the author, telling readers, "[The US] has energy politics, not policy." And when did that first occur to anyone with common sense and the power of observation? Quite a while ago.

The view from the faculty club

Being around such people, along with a seemingly abundant supply of sunny optimism, Friedman's world view doesn't quite align with this reviewer's. Over a decade of living a few blocks from the Caltech faculty club, in the heartland of energy super-consumption, I've cobbled together the opinion that this country is no longer capable of the efforts required to get those things done which Friedman deems critical.

Briefly, the author describes it as the installation of a systems approach to everything involved in energy generation. It's a massive national upgrade in which billions of smart energy transfer nodes, from household appliances to the national network, constantly analyze the energy cloud for the greenest electrons at the best operating hours. A few pages, printed in italics so one knows they're special, are devoted to describing this future. "Your car, by the way, is no longer called a 'car,'" it reads. "It is now called a RESU, or rolling energy storage unit..." A little bit of this goes a long away as techno-virtuous pap for boys who enjoy watching TV shows about what the marvelous future has in store. (Which it turns out, Friedman has been involved in briefly for a US cable network.)

At one point, Friedman devotes a few eye-rolling pages on "outgreening" foes as a global counter-terror and military strategy. And how an army unit in Iraq had implemented this by saving fuel through more efficient air-conditioning. Is the US Army in Iraq green? As compared to an Exxon Valdez oil spill or Saddam Hussein's torching of oil wells in Kuwait in the first war, maybe.

More interesting is the author's discussion of petro-dictators and the relationship between tyranny and the price of oil. When oil is up, so is tyranny, the sheiks and mullahs at leisure to spend on their security forces, doling out enough subsidy to the desert peons who are encouraged to work out their frustrations in terror-indoctrinating wahhabi schools. When the price of oil is down, extremist regimes reliant on it for revenue either fail or are forced to make concessions to representative government.

Inversely, one can engage in reverse application of this to the American condition. Cheap oil made bad government. Expensive oil made for worse. Cynically, one might be led to believe that a half decade long cratering of the US economy and the subsequent potential draw down on the price of oil might actually be a good thing for the purposes of democratization and slowing greenhouse gas generation.

The joys of dictatorship

Friedman also spends a good deal of time discussing China. He's bullish on it, claiming "[I] believe history will show that it was Chinese capitalism which put the last nail into the coffin of the postwar European welfare state."

If China tries to repeat the American model of consumption for an extended period of time, he reasons, it will bury itself in poison and waste. However, China - he thinks - has an advantage not found in the US. Its leaders constitute a central authority capable of imposing immediate regulation. Because China can do this (he cites as an example, a decree in which China's State Council banned the production and sale of ultrathin plastic bags "in order to encourage recycling"), it would be nice if the US could be China for a day, Friedman writes. This doesn't factor in that if one looks to see how effective the Chinese central government actually is at stamping out bad practices, one only has to read the many declarations about how melamine is to be removed from food production, now inevitably followed by stories describing new and unique introductions of the compound into the worldwide supply chain.

In any case, in asking to be China for a day, Friedman makes a tacit admission that it's impossible to get anything forward-looking done on energy in the US. If anything, when Hot, Flat and Crowded went to press, conditions were actually better.

For instance, who's going to pay for the massive electrical infrastructure face-lift on the front end? A few suggestions are made about smart companies carrying this out from the private sector, like the transformers of Silicon Valley. But with the economy crashing, one might now view the United States as entering a period where it's perhaps much like Britain at the end of World War II - exhausted, about to go broke and with stuff jammed up everywhere. By the time it pulls itself together, it will be too late.

Friedman still thinks the US is made of the right stuff to pull off a revolution. While he may be right, he has to believe that. Hot, Flat and Crowded is ultimately about how to get to the future, not about the end. However, many others must now see it differently. ®

George Smith is a senior fellow at, a defense affairs think tank and public information group. At Dick Destiny, he blogs his way through chemical, biological, and nuclear terror hysteria, often by way of the contents of neighbourhood hardware stores.

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