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The U.S. Needs to Lead in Clean Tech


By Steve Mirsky and Thomas L. Friedman
Scientific American
December, 2008


Talks with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Thomas L. Friedman on how
green technology can save the world economy


iStockPhotoDo the environmental and energy crises driving so many of today’s
headlines actually represent a unique opportunity for revitalizing the global
economy? That is the argument that Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Thomas L.
Friedman advances in his latest book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a
Green Revolution—and How It Can Renew America (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008).
Steve Mirsky, a staff editor and writer for Scientific American and host of its
Science Talk podcast, spoke with Friedman about his book in August; what follows
is adapted from that conversation, which can be heard/read in full here.
—The Editors

MIRSKY: Why do you call the book “Hot, Flat, and Crowded”?
FRIEDMAN: What we’re seeing in the world today is the convergence of three big,
seismic events. The first is obviously global warming. Second is what I call
global flattening, which is my shorthand for the rise of middle classes all
across the world in bigger numbers than ever before, from China to Brazil to
India to Russia. Those middle classes increasingly have the energy and
consumption patterns, demands and aspirations of Americans. Third is global
population growth. When I was born in 1953, there were about 2.68 billion people
on the planet; if I live to be 100, according to the U.N. there will be more
than nine billion. The population will have more than tripled in my lifetime.
These three huge events—global warming, global flattening and global
crowding—are like three flames that have converged to create a really big fire.
And that fire is boiling a set of five problems that are going to shape the 21st
century and a new era of history that I call the Energy-Climate Era.

Those five problems are: climate change; petro-dictatorship (the rise of Russia,
Iran, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela); constraints on energy and natural resource
supply and demand (we see that from food to fuel today); biodiversity loss (the
fact that we are right now in the middle of the sixth great extinction in
Earth’s history); and finally something I call energy poverty—the 1.6 billion
people on the planet who still have no on-off switch in their life because they
have no direct grid electricity. How we manage these five problems will
determine the stability or instability of the 21st century.

In a world that is hot, flat and crowded, clean power and clean technology are
going to be a currency of geopolitical and military power, every bit as much as
tanks, planes and nuclear missiles have been. In a world that’s hot, flat and
crowded, clean tech has to be the next great global industry. Therefore, the
country that takes the lead in clean power and clean tech is going to be by
definition an economic and strategic leader in the 21st century. That’s why
there’s absolutely no contradiction—not only between going green and being
patriotic but also between being geopolitical and geostrategic. They go together.

You’re emphatic that the U.S. needs to develop a new set of systems to tackle
those problems successfully.

If you don’t do things systematically, you end up supporting corn ethanol in
Iowa and thinking you solved the problem, when all you have really done is drive
up food prices and encourage more people to plant palm oil in the Amazon.
Right now we have a system: it’s the dirty fuel system, and it works really
well. Within a mile of your house you can probably find a gas station to fill
your car with dirty fuel. So this system works really well for getting that
dirty fuel from the oil well, to the tanker, to the refinery, to your
neighborhood and into your car. That system allows ordinary people to do pretty
extraordinary things: to get personal mobility at what for many years was a very
cheap price. Of course, we now know that in doing so we are also despoiling the
environment, strengthening petro-dictatorship, driving biodiversity loss, and so on.

 

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