A very long review of Friedman’s latest book
Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded condenses much of what has been written in blogs, science journals, and books about the “Energy-Climate-Era,” as he calls it. Though he’s a little late out off the starting blocks, Friedman’s contribution has great value, because it will reach people who only read books on bestseller lists — and then some.
As far as I could determine Friedman does not say anything of significance that has not been said before. But that fact won’t be apparent nor will it matter to readers delving into this complex mess for the first time. In my case he was preaching to a member of the choir who has already seen just about everything presented in his book elsewhere, particularly on internet blogs. Being the last guy out isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Had he written it a few years ago, he would have been telling us about the wonders of agrofuels and hydrogen cars because these concepts had yet to be vetted and found wanting.
You can pick from any number of other books that deal with energy and climate issues if you would rather not spend $27.95 to further enrich someone who already has a purported seven-figure income. Consider reading the free online version of Lester Brown’s Plan B 3.0. You could also read George Monbiot’s Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning, or Joseph Romm’s Hell and High Water. To Friedman’s credit, he gave all of three of these books shout-outs.
This book is surprisingly accurate and up-to-date, and I think I know why.
From the acknowledgements:
I met Joseph Romm, formerly a senior official in the Clinton administration’s Department of Energy, in the later stages of the book, but I am glad I did, because I benefited greatly from this tough-minded critiques of some of the bad science surrounding climate change. Joe also took the time to review many passages. Any mistakes that are still here are my own.
In fact, Romm (a big-time blogger) is mentioned eight separate times in the book. Not mentioned was how Romm met Friedman. It would be interesting to see before-Romm and after-Romm versions.
There is a very long footnote on page 190 that sums up the problems with biofuels. It would fill an entire page if it were a normal font size and looks suspiciously like a last minute edit job:
“…biofuels — as the technology exists today — are not the answer and trying to scale them will produce a backlash.”
The footnote concludes with the sentence, “Our future is with clean electrons.” By that he means electrification of transport using carbon-free sources of electricity, which was a consensus reached by members of the blog intelligentsia a few years ago. There’s even an acronym for it: URGE2 (use renewably generated electricity, efficiently).
Friedman is going to make a lot of money by collecting the many ideas vetted on blogs, in science publications, and in other books (giving credit where credit is due). When you look at all the people he talked to and quoted and how much help he got editing it, you realize that this is very much a collaborative effort. Friedman is the newspaper journalist who condensed the material, spiced it up with travel stories, and turned it into a book in time to capitalize on the success of the one that proceeded it.
Readers get to hear all about the places he’s been and all of the important people he knows. Friedman visited Edward O. Wilson in his lab. Bill Gates had him out for a lengthy discussion about all aspects of the energy issue. He was an embedded reporter with the then Central Command chief, Admiral William Fallon in Iraq.
In reality, Friedman visited Wilson so he could say he did so in his book. Bill Gates does not know anymore about energy issues than anyone else. The “embedment” was also to gather filler material. Being highly social primates, we instinctively status seek and believe it or not, many people will buy this book simply to obtain status by association. Your average writer doesn’t have access to the greatest biologist since Darwin, Central Command Chiefs, or the richest guy in the world. Sometimes the book publishing business looks like a racket.
I noticed that, with the exception of Romm, Friedman didn’t include bloggers’ names when he quoted them:
“And as the Greenasathistle.com blogger rightly observed, “it’s better to be hypocritical than apathetic when it comes to the environment …”
Last year, Wal-Mart announced an ambitious goal — they wanted to sell 100 million compact fluorescent light bulbs in one year,” wrote TreeHugger.
Here we are, living witnesses to the planet’s sixth great extinction event, the one destroying the last of the planet’s forest and grassland carbon sinks, which in turn is the second leading cause of global warming. Friedman devoted an entire chapter (the shortest out of seventeen) to biodiversity loss. The word biodiversity (coined by Edward. O. Wilson) appears in the book a total of thirty times.
The climate and energy crisis reminds me of the biodiversity crisis, which has been on the edge of public awareness for much longer. Hundreds of books have been written describing the extinction event, but when the chatter surrounding the latest book quiets down we dare not look at our feet for the water that was at our ankles is now at our knees. (I may have just quoted somebody by accident.)
Some excerpts from the chapter called Outgreening al-Qaeda:
Whoever heard of a “green hawk” before — a tough-minded army or marine officer who’s as green an advocate of solar power as any sandal-wearing, bicycle-riding, yogurt-eating flower child in Berkeley? Green hawks, though, are just one of the new forces emerging in the Energy-Climate Era …
Nolan a broad-shouldered veteran who looks more like a Patton than a tree hugger, concluded: When we think about green, we have to think about it differently than how we though about it in the past … It has tremendous tactical relevance to us …
I couldn’t help but ask, “Is anybody in the military saying, ‘Oh gosh, poor Dan has gone green — has he gone girly-man on us now?’
Here are some thoughts from a sandal-wearing rider of bicycles. Green is the color of jungles and forests. Green is all about nature and the environment. Green is not about using solar power and insulated tents to help the military blast and burn other human beings into oblivion. The term “green hawk” is an oxymoron. Also, Nolan is in Iraq. Iraq had nothing to do with the al-Qaeda attack on the Twin Towers. The Twin Tower — Al-Qaeda — Iraq connection/deception was crafted by the Bush administration to sell the war to the citizenry. Maybe it is time to stop propagating that deception.
Yet in the past, on the big issues like women’s suffrage and civil rights, the public was out ahead of the politicians — and politicians can underestimate the public’s willingness to do the right thing when it’s clear what that right thing is and what the true costs and benefits of the alternatives really are.
Note that in both examples above (women’s suffrage and civil rights), brave individuals were imprisoned and/or beaten for peaceful (yet illegal) protest and some even gave their lives. Is this really what it is going take or will Friedman back-pedal the first time he’s accused of promoting “illegal” protests? The word protest is found seven times in the book.
It’s not likely that anyone’s going to get arrested demanding a carbon tax, but somehow green advocates have to show the politicians that they mean …
I would not be so sure about that. From a recent article by James Hansen in Gristmill about the arrest of two women who were essentially doing just that:
Hannah and Kate Rooth were charged with 10 more crimes than the other 10 defendants. Their charges included “encouraging or soliciting” others to participate in the action and were topped by “obstruction of justice.” Penalty if convicted: up to 14 years in prison.
Below, Friedman springs a new word on the world:
It won’t be long before “outgreening” will be found in the dictionary, somewhere between “outflank” and “outmaneuver.”
The term “outgreen” was coined by my friends Maria and Dov Seidman over a breakfast we had one morning.”
Outgreen, outgreen, hmmm. The word has a familiar ring to it. A quick Google search found the word “outgreen” being used in the same context on Gristmill almost two years ago; “Get people trying to outgreen each other and watch the shit hit the fan.“
He [Dov] is also the author of a book called How: Why How We Do Anything Means Everything …in Business (and in life).
In a nutshell, part of Friedman’s friend’s thesis is that thanks to the internet you can’t hide your behavior, which can be a liability particularly if you don’t practice what you preach. Inversely, you can choose to “outbehave” your competition, turning a liability into an asset. Towards the end of the book Friedman gives readers some advice:
People often ask: I want to be green — how can I make a difference? My answer is twofold. First, pay attention and personally lead as environmentally sustainable life as you can. Nobody is perfect, I’m sure not. But just make sure your own environmental awareness is a work in progress.
In the acknowledgments he tells readers some of the things he has done, and might I add, considering that he has a seven figure income and has married into one of the 100 wealthiest families in America, he should be able to do a lot! You already know this isn’t going to turn out well.
He bid against developers to buy the last large piece of property in his (suburban) Maryland neighborhood to keep it from being turned into another subdivision. I was expecting to hear him describe how they then placed it into a conservation easement to preserve a piece of nature into perpetuity. Friedman mentions twice in the book that his wife on the board of Conservation International (Conservation International is also mentioned 30 times in the book). Instead he tells us they then built their own house on it and “turned the rest into a parklike green space.”
They incorporated a geothermal heating and cooling system in their new home of (suspiciously) unspecified size and have enough solar panels to provide a whopping 7 percent of their electricity use — leaving 93 percent still coming from Maryland’s grid. Scouring the internet, I find that 85 percent of Maryland’s electricity comes from coal, and other fossil fuels.
A little more sleuthing and I find the reason he forgot to mention how big this 11,400-square-foot, $10 million house is. Although Hummers are held up throughout the book as symbols of unpatriotic conspicuous consumption, references to the house equivalent (the McMansion) is entirely missing. A McMansion is to a Hummer as Friedman’s house is to an M1 Abrams tank.
He went on to mention that he and his wife drive a hybrid, again suspiciously leaving out the details. An article found on the internet told me what kind of hybrid it is. The EPA Green Vehicle website tells me it gets 25 mpg combined. Another website tells me the abysmal average for the American car fleet (a topic touched on several times in the book) is coincidentally also 25 mpg.
What you don’t say can be as revealing as what you do. In an attempt to dodge accusations of hypocrisy and elitism (most likely a futile exercise in this case), Friedman left one too many things unsaid. Too bad really because it will limit his legitimacy in the eyes of the little green people as well as provide fuel for the conservative nutballs.
You may remember the brouhaha that erupted when right wingers got in line to label Gore a hypocrite. His home is too big, and he flew to Oslo to accept a Nobel Prize instead of riding a bike there. I took Gore’s side of course. Seems to me that if he tried to ride a bike everywhere he wouldn’t be very effective at spreading the gospel. Friedman on the other hand (thanks to the internet) could have skipped the travelogue filler material and written a shorter more concise book without leaving his basement:
Anyone who has visited Moscow regularly over the years … I’ve visited China regularly since 1990 … I visited McDonough in his office near the University of Virginia … He gestures from the window of his 26th floor Cairo office … during an interview in his office in Sydney … From an office in Casablanca … when I visited him in his lab at Harvard … I visited Australia in May 2007 … In late 2007, I went to Atlanta … In June 2006, I visited Peru … in Richland, Washington, gave me a … I visited him in his office in Shanghai … I visited Beijing in the middle of … I visited the MIT campus … I was visiting London … I went to Moscow … we went to Brazil … went by riverboat up Peru’s Rio Tanibopata … I was visiting The Hague
A book that has chapters with titles like “Green is the New Red, White, and Blue” will undoubtedly excite the more nationalistic among us (those individuals genetically predisposed to have a near epileptic fit when they hear their country’s national anthem). The problem is that pickup-truck driving patriots are still not going to hold hands with the environmentalists. They are motivated primarily by energy independence, which we already know is often at odds with the environment and global warming. We can increase energy independence by drilling more, by converting coal and tar sands to liquid fuels, shale to natural gas, or by increasing the use of agrofuels, all of which increase greenhouse gases and in the case of agrofuels also destroy biodiversity and screw with food supplies. We don’t know what is going to happen when we try to pump high pressure liquefied CO2 underground in the gargantuan quantities that will be required but Friedman got this much right when he paraphrased a hypothetical property owner:
OK, fine, let’s rely on coal with carbon sequestration, but if you sequester the carbon dioxide from that coal in underground caverns and it starts leaking and coming up my toilet, I just want you to know one thing: I will sue your ass off — so don’t go storing any of it near me.
In a nutshell America’s climate and energy problems boil down to two concepts:
- We have to find ways to generate electricity without releasing green house gases.
- We have to use about half as much liquid fuel.
The lion’s share of this book is about oil and energy independence, but the most difficult challenge before us is item No. 1, which has little to do with energy independence. We primarily use domestic coal and natural gas to make electricity.
Item No. 2 boils down to convincing people like Friedman to drive cars that get 50 mpg instead of 25 mpg. Consumer demand for cars that have the new status symbol (high gas mileage) is being met by market forces with Honda about to introduce a cheaper and more efficient hybrid than the Prius. Friedman, like of lot of other people, mistook the status associated with a hybrid logo for the real deal — high gas mileage.