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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Hot Flat and Crowded- Friedman calls for Green Revolution

Thomas Friedman is about to dive into the green-tech fray. In his latest book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, the multi-Pulitzer-winning journalist says everyone needs to accept that oil will never be cheap again and that wasteful, polluting technologies cannot be tolerated. The last big innovation in energy production, he observes, was nuclear power half a century ago; since then the field has stagnated. "Do you know any industry in this country whose last major breakthrough was in 1955?" Friedman asks. According to the book, US pet food companies spent more on R&D last year than US utilities did. "The Stone Age didn't end because we ran out of stone," he says. Likewise, the climate-destroying fossil-fuel age will end only if we invent our way out of it.

But he's not suggesting a new Manhattan Project. "Twelve guys and gals going off to Los Alamos won't solve this problem," Friedman says. "We need 100,000 people in 100,000 garages trying 100,000 things — in the hope that five of them break through."

Our current efforts are not only inadequate, they're hopelessly haphazard and piecemeal. Friedman argues it'll take a coordinated, top-to-bottom approach, from the White House to corporations to consumers. "Without a systems approach, what do you end up with?" he asks. "Corn ethanol in Iowa."

The New York Times columnist, who keeps up a punishing travel schedule, is just back from the Middle East and London. "If you don't go, you don't know," he says. Such wanderings provided the material for his 2005 best seller, The World Is Flat. Now he has added two new terms to his diagnosis of global ills: the intertwined problems of climate change and population growth — "too many carbon copies," as he puts it.

In this new world, governments and companies that take the lead will find themselves with the single most valuable competitive advantage of our time.

To illustrate, Friedman tells the story of a Marine Corps general in Iraq who requested solar panels to power his bases. Asked why, he explained that he wanted to win his region by "out-greening al Qaeda." Instead of trucking in gas from Kuwait at $20 a gallon — money that fuels oppressive petro-dictatorships — in convoys that are vulnerable to roadside bombs, why not beat the insurgents by taking away their targets and their funding?

Coming out months before the presidential election, Crowded is sure to bigfoot its way into the campaign. "McCain and Obama come from the right side of this debate," Friedman says. "They have the right instincts, but neither is quite there yet. They haven't yet thought it through fully." The battle over "green," he believes, will define the early 21st century just as the battle over "red" (Communism) defined the last half of the 20th.