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Hot, Flat, and Crowded Review – Marshall Willis 2009/12/09

Posted by marshallwillis in Uncategorized.
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In typical Friedman fashion, Hot, Flat, and Crowded is an informative critique on society while remaining entertaining and colloquial in style.  Friedman intertwines fact with personal experience from his travels abroad as a writer for the New York Times.  He incorporates conversations with world leaders, heads of State, influential businessmen, and even a personal experience he had with his daughter.  These conversations make the reading experience more personal than academic articles on international affairs or any lectures I’ve attended at local universities.  His level of engagement makes his argument more persuasive, making the reader feel involved and able to picture Friedman’s experiences.  Below is a summary.

Friedman sets the tone, opening, “We are the flood.  We are the asteroid.  We had better learn how to be the ark.”  The book’s premise is of man’s impact on the environment and how the evolution of our world society led to the need for a “green revolution.”  What changed?  Flat met crowded.  The flattening of the earth happened through the introduction of the computer and explosive growth and use of the internet.  People can now write and exchange their thoughts with virtually anyone in the world.  Market economies became the norm across the world and putting these together Friedman shows the advent of a “seamless, unobstructed global marketplace.”

This flattening co-occurred with an explosive growth in world population.  This doesn’t mean all people have access to these technological tools, and those without access are what Friedman calls “energy poor.”  Lacking access to technology prevents crucial integration to global commerce and education.  Friedman writes of the need to “educate yourself out of poverty” to fully realize one’s potential contributions to the world economy. Those not lucky enough to do this move out of their villages into overcrowded slums like Mumbai, holding onto the dream of living the American middle class lifestyle.

Through development nations become energy-dependent and consume more natural resources.  They need petroleum to fuel their cars and equipment to transform their land into Western-style communities.  In doing so, they pump carbon emissions into the environment.  The rest of the world wants their chance at becoming industrialized and “who are we to tell them they can’t?”  America’s impact in becoming green is more fashionable than impactful: “You can replace tens of thousands of cars with Priuses and the new coal plants constructed in China [to meet increasing energy needs] will eat their emissions savings for lunch.”  The problem is not the number of people per say, but the “number of Americans on the planet.”

America needs to set an example for the world.  Exploiting natural resources, driving our SUVs, and generating our energy by burning coal needs to change.  The more carbon we emit is the “Hot” component of the book’s title.  He challenges us to invest in green technologies both for environmental impact and for America to re-emerge as the world’s leading economy.  David O’Reilly, CEO of Chevron, puts America’s seriousness for becoming green into perspective: “In 2007 there was $5 Billion invested in green venture capital.  That doesn’t even buy a sophisticated oil refinery.”  Friedman calls for America’s investment in green technology in a failing economy because it is the one area where we have a chance to be the profitable manufacturing powerhouse we once were.  “We need to get 10,000 inventors working in 10,000 companies and 10,000 garages and 10,000 laboratories to drive transformational breakthroughs.”

GE Transportation, for example, is one of the few industries in America with a trade surplus with China, Mexico, and Brazil.  They’ve created an efficient locomotive engine that burns less fuel with lower carbon emissions; efficiency puts them in high demand in industrialized countries.  The economic effects are great.  The plant employs 5,200 people making roughly double the average hourly wage in their respective cities.  This injects more capital in the government via taxes and brings in more jobs by needing suppliers for their manufacturing facilities—the economic multiplier effect.

Being green lessens our reliance on petroleum from the Middle East.  Friedman creates a model, petropolitics, the first law of which is “as the price of oil goes up, the pace of freedom goes down; and as the price of oil goes gown, the pace of freedom goes up.”  Through examples he argues petrodictators spread hatred, strip citizens of freedoms, hoard profits, and stunt economic growth.  In the 1990s the price of oil went down and “competition, transparency, political participation, and accountability of those in office all tended to go up—as measured by free elections held, newspapers opened, reformers elected, economic reform projects started, and companies privatized.”  Conversely, since 2000 prices of oil soared and “free speech, free press, fair elections and freedom to form political parties and NGOs tended to erode.”  September 11th is only one example of the effects of suppression and the fueling of hatred in the Middle East.

In conclusion, I believe Friedman makes a convincing call to action for America to invest in green technologies in order to lead the world’s energy consumption patterns.  People in the world, he claims, strive to be clones of the American middle class.  If we can change our own patterns and make the environment of central concern we may be able to make it out of this recession, emerge once again as the largest international economic influence, and prevent global warming from reaching levels that will drastically change the face of the earth.

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