Yes, Tom Friedman came to Brown University on Earth Day to unveil his new book and got hit by a pie.

Thomas FriedmanBut he cleaned himself up, came back with a joke about surviving Beirut and Jerusalem but running into trouble in Providence, and went on to deliver a stem-winder of an address for an op-ed columnist essentially outlining his latest book.

I found The World Is Flat to be a good window into business models in the 21st century. His new offering, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution — and How It Can Renew America, promises to be a cogent lassoing and explication of many of the biggest things that matter in the 21st century. Friedman chooses as the crucial drivers: energy supply and demand, climate, the spread of democracy versus petro-authoritarianism, biodiversity, and energy poverty.

A few bits from Friedman’s speech to look forward to in Hot, Flat, and Crowded and when he returns to columns this month:

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  • The McCain gas tax holiday: A “dumb as we want to be” approach to energy policy.
  • On high oil prices and petro-dictatorship: With oil at $25 per barrel, Bush looked into Putin’s eyes and saw his soul. At $100 per barrel, look into Putin’s eyes and you’ll see “all the instruments of democracy he’s swallowed.”
  • Did Reagan bring down the USSR — or was it the decline in oil prices from $80 per barrel to $14.50?
  • And finally, China as the Speed bus, except that it must switch from a diesel to a hybrid engine without going below 50 miles an hour. (That’s the first thing since The Matrix that makes you aspire to be Keanu Reeves, isn’t it?)

Before his speech, I had the chance to catch up with Friedman and ask him a few questions. The short interview is below:

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I asked Friedman how it felt to be headlining Earth Day at Brown University with two backstories in mind: First, five years ago, Friedman would have been sponsored by the international relations institute and an appearance in late April would have been entirely coincidental. Second, he would likely have been challenged on his support for free trade and the Iraq war rather than thunderously applauded for his views on clean energy. And although it came before the pie, this question hints at why the incident occurred.

But I believe Friedman has good answers to the questions about whether a progressive environmental movement that is uneasy with neoliberalism should embrace him as a thought leader: His long and personal interaction with Conservation International gives him a deep green awareness that one doesn’t find in most geopolitically motivated advocates. His understanding of the motivations — if not the social histories — of diverse people around the world is sincere and the crucial spark beneath his increasingly fiery writing. (He spoke more in that speech about the 2 billion people who lack electricity than I’ve really ever heard from most of those who criticize him for his support for globalization.)

Friedman also comes to his forceful analysis of the interrelation of energy, democracy, and environment in an organic way, from decades of reporting and observation of oil politics, international relations, and more. And he’s still in the business of reporting and analysis more than advocating specific policies. All this is just to say that given the movement’s struggle to have prominent non-Hollywood faces, it needs all the analytical NYT columnists it can get.

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On with the interview …

I know that your interest in conservation is long-standing, but five or 10 years ago, would you have imagined that you’d be the headline Earth Day speaker at Brown University?

I was hired by The New York Times in 1981 to be their oil reporter. I’ve had interest in energy and environment for a long time. And ever since I’ve actually been a columnist, once a year, I’ve done a trip to a biodiversity hot spot with Conservation International. This wasn’t something that just came out of nowhere.

September 11th, energy, environment — it all came together in the past few years, along with climate change, to be a big story. My interests and the news came together, and it’s very difficult to disentangle them. A lot of my thoughts on energy relate to how we drive reform in the Arab world, like if we bring down the price of oil. Where [my interests] stop and the other starts is hard to determine.

You’ve written on young people and climate change a bit — have you gotten a response to your columns on young people?

I triggered a lot of discussion, I noticed, and that’s good. The point I’m trying to convey is that it’s your world. You’re going to inherit this so you’d better pay attention. … [B]ig energy companies? They’re not on Facebook. They’re not in your chat room. They’re in the cloakroom, and they’re in your face. So unless you get off of Facebook, unless you get out of the chat room into the cloakroom where the rules get made, you’re not going to have an impact. So I’m all for the blogosphere; I love it. I love the fact that my column gets spread all over the world thanks to the internet, and that I can have this dialogue with so many people. And I love the blogosphere for all the wild, crazy ways it enriches the conversation.

But do not confuse that conversation with having an impact. At some point, the conversation has to stop and the lobbying and the arm-twisting has to start. Let us all talk and chat and criticize and yammer, but at some point, if you’re not in the cloakroom when the rule gets written — if you’re in the chat room — you’re not going to have an impact. That’s the point I’m trying to make.

What reaction have you gotten from young people in other countries — in China, in India?

The World Is Flat is a big bestseller in China and India, so I have a lot of young people who read it there, and I hear from them — not so much on climate stuff but on other “techno” stuff. That tends to be where I have a dialogue with them — less so on the environment.

In The World Is Flat, you write about the need to enhance education to compete in a flat world. What do American colleges and universities need to be doing on energy and climate specifically?

I think it’s so great that so many schools are teaching ecology and the environment, and I would have taken that if I could have; I’ve had to learn that myself. The thing I would love to see? We really need a course in every school on environmental policymaking. Do you know how a utility works? I didn’t before I wrote [Hot, Flat, and Crowded]. I had no idea where the regulations got written. You really need a course in policymaking. If you don’t understand where the choke points and the leverage points are in the system, you can have all the environmental awareness in the world and you’re not going to be able to tilt the system. I’d love to see courses on environment and ecology because you need that foundation in science, but I think you also need to know where the policy is made. It’s much more important to change your leaders than your light bulb.

To many people, sustainability means local, but as you see it, a “flat” world means global supply chains. So what does sustainability look like in a “flat” world?

I don’t think that [sustainability in a flat world] is “buy local.” I’m kind of against that. If everyone bought local, there are a lot of people in the developing world who would starve, because they would have nothing to sell. Locally grown things can be grown in a hothouse here, instead of having them come from Chile, and be much more environmentally damaging. You’ve got to really understand the full carbon footprint that’s going on.

My solution is much more systemic. You need a smart grid into a smart house into a smart car. That’s how you get scale. It’s not by buying your peaches here or there. Basically, you need a systemic response. And that’s a much more complicated organism. You just gotta prove [local] to me. What was the carbon footprint of that hothouse, compared to shipping it? And by the way, what are you doing to that farmer in Peru or Colombia? Think about that. He may end up going and chopping down trees, because he has nowhere to sell his peaches.