Do lower gas prices put Friedman’s ‘green revolution’ in jeopardy?

Hot, Flat & Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution–and How It Can Renew America

detail from The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450–1516) from the Wikimedia Commons.

When Thomas Friedman’s new book “Hot, Flat, and Crowded” was published on September 8th, the price of gas was $3.65 a gallon, and a barrel of oil was $106. Today, less than two months later, gas has dropped to $2.73, and oil to $62 (a 17-month low). For many, the pain at the pump has been replaced with sighs of relief. Lower gas prices are widely seen (except by environmentalists) as one of the few bright spots in a dire economic landscape. Does this put the green revolution in jeopardy?

Thomas L. Friedman book Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Franke James comment: The book's title Melting Financial Markets vs Melting Ice Caps

Ironically the melting financial markets are causing more consternation than the melting ice caps. But unlike Wall Street, Mother Nature can’t be bailed out. The financial panic we’re seeing now is nothing compared to what we’ll see if the world reaches the tipping point, and the climate goes really haywire.

Some would like to believe that lower gas and oil prices mean that we can forego the green revolution, concentrate on our stock portfolios and skip reading “Hot, Flat, and Crowded.” But I believe it’s more urgent than ever. Going green is the best way to help the economy recover — and preserve a livable planet for our children and grandchildren. Personally, I’ve found that going green puts money in my pocket. We’ve saved thousands by going car-free and by insulating our house (and others have been employed as a result. e.g. insulation manufacturers, window manufacturers, Energy Auditors, etc.).

Friedman offers a plan that could revitalize America. I found it so fascinating my copy is already dog-eared and decorated with margin notes.

What did I learn?

Well, here are just a few of my must-turn-over-page-corner-and-mark-this-to-remember-it moments:

Invisible greenhouse gases: Page 34
A visual analogy by Nate Lewis, California Institute of Technology, on invisible greenhouse gases where he compares driving in your car to throwing a bag of garbage out the window — for every mile you drive. Hummers toss two garbage bags out the window!

Why worry about the world warming a degree or two? Page 37
“Your body temperature is normally 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, and when it goes up just a few degrees to 102 degrees Fahrenheit, it is a big deal — it tells you something is wrong,” says John Holdren, who is a professor of environmental policy at Harvard…. “The same is true with changes in the global average surface temperature.”

The meaning of ‘hot, flat and crowded’: Page 37
“CNN founder Ted Turner is not a scientist, but in his own blunt way he summed up what it means when the world gets hot, flat and crowded. “We’re too many people — that’s why we have global warming.”

We are the proverbial ‘boiled frog’: Page 48
Friedman writes about the proverbial boiled frog syndrome: “I hope we will write a different ending, but let’s not fool ourselves: We are the frog, the pail is getting hot, flat and crowded, and we need a long-term survival plan — a ladder out of the pail.”

Home Sweet Home: Page 49
Friedman comments on the profound realization that we’d entered the Energy-Climate era. “I am reminded of something Bill Collins, one of the top climate modelers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, said to me after showing me a supercomputer-aided simulation of climate change over the next century: “We’re running an uncontrolled experiment on the only home we have.”

Our addiction to oil: Page 81
Friedman writes, “Our addiction to oil makes global warming warmer, petrodictators stronger, clean air dirtier, poor people poorer, democratic countries weaker, and radical terrorists richer. Have I left anything out?

Many questions popped into my head as I read through the book.

I wondered how I could keep track of global warming statistics. I follow the economic indicators and can tell you what the price of oil is, whether the DOW went up or down, how the real estate market is doing, and what the GDP is versus past years.

But what are the global warming indicators? What is the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, today? Is it higher than the IPCC’s number of 379 ppm in 2005? How much higher? Will 450 ppm cause a rise of 2 degrees and represent a tipping point? Or are we already seeing negative feedback loops such as melting polar ice, that mean humans are underestimating the speed of climate change? How fast are species disappearing? Friedman writes that one species is going extinct every 20 minutes. How bad is that? Well, it’s a thousand times faster than the norm during most of earth’s history. Clearly there’s a lot of education needed to bring each of us up-to-speed on the impact of global warming. I’m starting with “me” — I am going to learn these numbers so I can understand just how hot the water is getting… (BTW, I found a site that tells me what the CO2 in the atmosphere is now. To see for yourself go to: CO2now.org)

Part III of ‘Hot, Flat and Crowded’ is where Friedman outlines 205 ‘easy’ ways to save the earth. He’s partly poking fun at the multitude of newspapers and magazines that promise that going green is easy but underneath that is a brilliant strategy on what we can do individually — and what the ‘powers-that-be’ should do. If they were smart and listened. Which brings me to my “big wish”.

Hot, Flat & Crowded should be “Required Reading” for Politicians

The group that should be required to read “Hot, Flat & Crowded” are our political leaders (and they should be tested on their understanding of it afterwards!). Politicians have the legislative power to make the green revolution happen – but do they have the knowledge and the political will?

Green is the new Red, White, and Blue

We need the brightest (and most ethical) political leaders to read Friedman’s book, and use it to explain to the American public why going green is in their best interests. Why kicking the fossil fuel addiction can simultaneously protect their security, their incomes, their childrens’ future health… And let the USA shine once again as global leaders. In fact, Friedman argues that ‘going green’ is the most patriotic thing Americans can do, and that “green is the new red, white, and blue.”

Just as JFK ignited the passion and commitment to ‘land a man on the moon and return him safely to the Earth’, in 1961, we need a new generation of leaders to commit to a race to be the clean energy superpower within a decade. Friedman says that the best way for America to ‘get its groove back’ is to solve the world’s problems.

“If we take the lead in solving the world’s problem, we will solve our own problem. We will precisely be generating the kind of innovation, competitiveness, respect, security, breakthroughs to help the world in the most fundamental challenge it faces today; and in so doing, we will make ourselves more respected, stronger, more secure, entrepreneurial, richer, and competitive. And I think this is the ball game; who claims that industry in a world that’s hot, flat, and crowded.” Thomas Friedman, Scientific American, 09.09.08

The World needs Leadership on Climate Change. Can the USA be that Leader?

Now, some readers will know that I’m Canadian, and wonder why I’m speaking of Friedman’s message mainly in terms of the U.S. Do I not see a huge opportunity for Canada too? Well, I do believe that Canada could be one of the clean energy leaders, but currently we lack the political will. (See my recent Dear Prime Minister essay to understand what we’re up against. The Conservatives won the recent election, despite 62% of Canadians voting for other parties that pledged to reduce greenhouse gases and combat global warming.) Canada has lost its leadership position on environmental matters. We will likely do what we so often do — and only adopt green policies after the United States has already paved the way. And after we have been embarrassed internationally. Which is why I’m urging U.S. politicians to seize the opportunity and run with it. Please set an example that the whole world can follow.
detail from The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450–1516) from the Wikimedia Commons.
Making the green revolution a reality is going to take a huge amount of effort beyond politicians. All levels of society will need to be enlisted to do their part. Raising awareness and educating people about the scientific facts behind climate change — and how their lives will be changed by it — is crucial. Towards that goal, reading “Hot, Flat, and Crowded” is a great start.

The Garden of Earthly Delights or Hell?

In closing, I cannot resist commenting on the book cover which features the middle panel from Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights triptych. As a young child I discovered this artwork in a book at home. I was both intrigued and frightened by it. What was this decadent world of bodies cavorting around in the nude, with animals and fantastical fruit? What was its’ meaning? But the panel that made the most searing impression on me was the 3rd panel with its hollow ‘Tree-man’.

It’s perhaps a relief and sign of hope that Friedman chose to feature the more luscious and decadent 2nd panel on his book cover. Will Bosch’s 3rd panel below be the bookcover for a Friedman sequel…

“Hotter, Flatter & Unbelievably Crowded: Why did we blow the Green Revolution and hand the Green Energy crown to China?”

Hell panel detail from The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450–1516) from the Wikimedia Commons.

“Hot, Flat & Crowded” review by Franke James

Book link: Hot, Flat & Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution–and How It Can Renew America

Image credit: The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450–1516) courtesy Wikimedia Commons.