Saturday, December 6, 2008

Hot, Flat, and Crowded by Thomas L. Friedman

We have exactly enough time—starting now.

There’s no simpler way to summarize Tom Friedman’s new book Hot, Flat, and Crowded that the above statement. Combining many of his ideas from The World is Flat, this book is a progression from that bestselling volume, weaving in the energy crisis to his flat world theories. Anyone who has read the majority of Friedman’s column
s over the past five years wont e surprised by anything here: it’s better written and obviously more extensive than any piece for the New York Times, but the information is essentially the same.

Friedman presents a compelling case for the energy crisis, and is able to explain complicated issue in a way that is easily understandable for the layman. He breaks down the current problems into five categories: energy supply and demand, petrodictatorship, climate change, energy poverty, and biodiversity loss. He argues that only by reducing these effects can we preserve the world as we know it for future generations. His analysis of the current climate is enough to give one an ulcer, but his claims on ways to overcome the crisis aren’t all that convincing.

Calling himself a ‘sober optimist,’ Friedman presents all sorts of fantastical contraptions that we might have in the future. A lengthy section details the energy demands of an average worker through his work day, only with the twist of being able to set his house to only run appliances when energy costs are at a certain level and the ability to sell energy from one’s car batteries into the energy net while one is at work. The idea of an energy internet is fascinating, but he glosses over the huge cost and infrastructure needed to have such a plan work on even a regional level, much less a national one.

He also calls for the new president to set a price bottom for crude oil at something like $100 a barrel. When oil is cheaper than $100, the US Treasury would reap the difference, when it is over $100 then it would just sell for the market value. This would allow energy companies to have a definite cost for carbon and thus allow them to successfully plan for the future with new technologies. But what he doesn’t hit on until the last ten pages of the book is how unlikely this is to happen—and not because of energy companies. Earlier this summer, when it was costing fifty dollars to fill up a small car with gasoline, there was an outcry. People were driving less, vacation revenue was drying up. Now that oil is selling in the forty dollar per barrel range, this pressure has been lessened, but can you imagine what would happen to President-Elect Obama and the Congressmen who voted for a price bottom? They could kiss reelection goodbye. The American public is notoriously near-sighted and on this issue they would be no different.

But where Friedman succeeds is in establishing firmly the principle that the market will have to dictate what kinds of clean energy will be produced and how quickly they will come about. Currently we have a market designed to keep dirty fuel cheap and new energy resources expensive. When it is cost effective, people and organizations will change. He recounts the US Army’s adoption of insulation for its tents in the Middle East, which allow the air conditioners to run less often and at lower power, which in turn means less diesel needs to delivered to camps, which in turn leads to fewer casualties from IEDs since fewer trucks are required to make deliveries. His use of examples and case studies is likely the strongest portion of his book, as I have found the case in all of his writing.

While the pleas for Americans to rise to the occasion and dominate the new energy technologies may be a bit of a surprise coming from Mr. Globalism, the message in Hot, Flat, and Crowded is one that we need to hear. Some of the details are shocking, especially the fact that pet food companies spend more on research and development than energy companies. But Friedman repeatedly hits home with a message to which audiences from tree-huggers to corporate board members will be receptive, and given his prominence in these sorts of discussions, it will prove to be a book that shifts the current conversation to a great degree.

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