Monday, January 21, 2013

Book Review: "Hot, Flat and Crowded" by Thomas Friedman (2008)

According to the New York Times columnist, nothing short of a “Green Revolution” is going to keep America competitive in the Era of Globalization. Do Friedman’s energy concerns have merits, or are his suggestions just a load of fracking nonsense?

Thomas Friedman envisions a brave new world where energy consumption is such a major social priority that parking garages PAY individuals to park their hybrid electro-cars there, so the owners of the complexes can suck excess energy out of their batteries and sell them back to the power companies for an extra couple of pennies a month. And the power companies themselves will run on entirely different models than they do now, offering customers a la carte options that result in charges based on how much total energy per month a home uses, which, in a total affront to Henry Jenkins’ “black box fallacy” theory, is regulated by some super-duper, high-tech “Smart Box” that’s connected to literally EVERY energy sucking product in one’s home. And as far as energy policies go, Friedman sees a future where state and local officials aren’t messing around anymore, with the Department of Transportation charging insanely expensive debits to single-car users on the nation’s highways.

There’s no denying the (seeming) far-fetchedness of Friedman’s post-Green society, what, with it’s personal energy plans and congestion pricing models and net zero energy usage mandates and dual use schools and rolling energy storage units (what we currently call “cars,” in case you were wondering.) But amidst all of the futuristic hubbub, the heart of Friedman’s 2008 manifesto - not so subtly subtitled “Why We Need a Green Revolution - And How It Can Renew America” - is a pretty hard-to-debate argument that unless major, MAJOR changes occur to how America views its energy supplies, we’re in for a whole heap of trouble in both the immediate AND long-term future.

While the United States has been gripped in battle over the last decade with that two headed menace, the recession and global terror, Friedman notes that one of the major geopolitical flashpoints we’ve overlooked is just how were going to keep our energy usage rates consistent when natural reserves are being sucked out of the ground left and right by developing nations like China and India. Conservative estimates put the global population at about 9.2 billion people come 2050, and economic growth - and with it, net energy usage - is expected to skyrocket in the “big four” developing nations (the other two, in case you’re a dummy, are Brazil and Russia.)  As more and more global societies develop more American-like appetites for energy - which in turn, inevitably leads to more deforestation and urbanization - Friedman believes that we’re staring down both an environmental and economic disaster; and since so little emphasis has been placed on renewable energy and energy conservation policies, we have approximately five minutes to fix things up or else...uh-oh.

Problem numero uno, per Friedman, is our dependency on what he calls “fuels from hell,” that being rapidly diminishing natural energy sources like coal, natural gas and most especially oil. U.S. dependency on these fuels are bad, he says, because for one, it gives extraordinary political power to anti-pluralistic Islamic regimes in the Middle East. In fact, he argues that petrodollars, a good $200 billion of which went to Saudi Arabian officials ALONE in 2008, are pretty much responsible for the rise and expansion of extremist Islam, noting that predominantly Islamic countries like Bahrain and Lebanon, which aren’t oil-exporting monoliths, seemed to embrace pro-democratic movements much tighter than their Scrooge McDuck-rich OPEC kin. At one point, Friedman breaks out a bar graph, demonstrating what appears to be an indisputable push-pull effect regarding oil prices and democratic movements. In short? When gasoline prices go down, oil-rich countries become less authoritarian, and when gasoline prices increase, “freedom” gets a whole hell of a lot less “free” just about every major oil exporting country on the planet.

The second issue, of course, is global warming. Friedman says that since the modern industrialization era began, the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere have leapt from 280 PPM to about 384 PPM (when an increase to 550 PPM, he states, would trigger a 3 degree Celsius increase in global temperatures). Now, seeing as how a temperature shift of about 5 degrees Celsius might just kick off another Ice Age, you can see why this Friedman fellow is just a little concerned about all of that noxious waste in the sky. And believe it or not, that long-held “urban legend” about how cow flatulence supposedly destroys the atmosphere is actually pretty damn true, with EACH of the planet’s three billion cows farting out about 600 liters of methane gas per day. Methane, by the way, is also about TWENTY times denser than CO2, so…yeah, steer queefs apparently ARE that detrimental to our ecology.

And of course, Friedman sees these two issues converging in a perfect storm of geopolitical and environmental upheaval, with conflicts destined to break out over resources and new mega cities sucking up so much energy that constant blackouts - which, clearly, would result in higher crimes, loss of food and a whole slew of other really bad things - would be going on all across the “developing world.”

Friedman’s response to this daunting future is two-fold. First off, we need some renewable energy out there, damn it, and the only way to ensure that renewable energy becomes sustainable is to get some hot and heavy regulations and legislation on the books. It’s at this point that Friedman starts throwing out some REALLY wild ideas, like establishing a fixed floor price for oil so that investors will have an incentive to pump moolah into renewable energy programs. More than anything, though, he says we need some “revolutionary bureaucrats” to get into the game and goad entrepreneurs and upstarts to invest in renewable energy, via feebates, legislative mandates and government loans out the yin-yang. Surprisingly, the guy he turns to for inspiration here is none other than George W. Bush, specifically citing his 1999 Texas Renewable Portfolio Mandate as just the kind of forward-thinking’ our national energy planners ought to have in mind when it comes time to decide whether they want to put up a wind-mill farm the size of Wyoming or just another coal-burning plant in the Ozarks.

Volunteerism, Friedman believes, will result in “carnage,” so by Job, we’ve GOT to start introducing some new regulations to keep ourselves from turning the planet into a giant snow ball. One of the examples he notes is how Honda’s compound vortex controlled combustion engine revolutionized vehicle production in the automobile industry. Had the Federal Clean Air Act not been passed in 1970, he argues, there wouldn’t have existed an impetus for Honda - or really, any other major manufacturer - to look at ways to create less polluting goods. And before you start calling bullshit on Friedman when he suggests unplugging soda machines at night might save us a ton of money in the long run, just remember - the recent SEER 13 air conditioner mandates, which made such products about 30 percent more energy efficient - ultimately ended up saving enough energy that a DOZEN 400mW power plants never had to be built.

And of course, Friedman’s book just HAS to conclude with a chapter on China, the natural resource devouring titan that he compares to the time-bomb-equipped bus in “Speed.” Basically, Friedman says that China’s economy HAS to grow by eight percent a year, or it’s automatic recession time. Where the U.S. can gain an upper hand here, Friedman believes, is getting a jump on renewable energy projects, so that by the time all of the Chinese and Indians are choking to death on car exhaust fumes, we will be able to sell them renewable energy goods at retardedly high prices.

Two of the final points Friedman makes in the book seemed the most profound to me. First, he said that for all of the Chinese government’s faults, they can pass regulation like mofos when shit gets real. You know how it took the U.S. 20 years to officially get all of the lead out of our gasoline? Well, the Chinese were able to do that in just two years. Friedman argues - and boy, is it a solid one, at that - that China’s ability to actually CARRY out top-down regulations might give them an advantage in the upcoming energy wars - and since the United States Department of Energy has only spent about 20 percent of it’s R&D funds on renewable energy since 1948, you can kind of see where bad turns to worse here.

Friedman’s final argument - which he lays out using some pretty clumsy allusions to the civil rights movement and World War II mobilization efforts - is that unless the government gets behind renewable energy, we are effed, and firmly. While Germany is passing solar feed-in-laws, we here in the States are passing on hybrid cars designed by MIT kids that get 200 miles per gallon. His ultimate call to arms - the consolidation of our nation’s numerous departments into a comprehensive, federal energy behemoth - comes attached with this nice little quote; that when it comes time to truly adopt green energy policies, it’s our leaders, not our light bulbs, that we’ll have to end up changing.

Friedman is one of my favorite contemporary sociopolitical writers, and while his green energy ra-ra can become annoying after awhile, there’s no denying that the dude has laid out a pretty solid argument in favor of his “only renewable energy can save America!” thesis. It’s mildly outdated, but still pretty entertaining, and loaded with tons of facts that you probably never would have learned about, otherwise. For example, did you know that the term “rival” originally meant “people that had to share a river,” and that in Indonesia - a country with almost 250 million people - only about 6,000 of its residents have PhDs?  At 400 pages, it does have its moments were it hit’s a few skids, but overall? If you’re looking for a quick manifesto about what all this green energy hullabaloo is all about, I doubt you’ll find a more thorough - and more importantly, readable - treatise out there.

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