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Hot, flat, and confused

hot flat crowdedI was invited to a small gathering (about 150 people) on Friday afternoon to hear a presentation by Tom Friedman, based on his latest book Hot, Flat, and Crowded. The hosts—very kind, very generous, and very engaged—are family friends. Apparently, they recalled that I work on energy and environmental issues and so included me in a pretty select group of successful members of the Bay Area technology community, including people like John Doerr and Larry Brilliant.

Friedman is a lightning rod for a lot of people, but I'm not going to comment on his positions on globalization or the Iraqi invasion, other than to say it hasn't taken history long to prove him wrong on both counts. Oops, maybe I did say something.

The truth is that—good or bad—he's very influential with business leaders, policy makers, D.C. talking heads, and the New York Times crowd. What he says, right or wrong, is important, and so I was curious to hear his thinking on energy, globalization, and climate change—particularly in the context of the economic collapse. And I wanted to ask him a couple of questions.

I got there early and so was introduced by the host to Friedman, who was busy signing copies of his book before the crowd arrived. I asked him if he was familiar with Peak Oil. His short response was namely that, no, he wasn't too familiar with it other than to say he expects we'll run out of oil sometime. Since I can't read the man's mind, this may be unfair, but the look on his face gave me the decided feeling that he thought I was a crackpot. So I asked if he was familiar with the work of Paul Roberts, a fellow journalist turned author, who wrote The End of Oil. Friedman told me he's heard of him, but never read his work.

I'm used to getting blank faces or fleeting glances looking for my tinfoil hat when I mention Peak Oil. But I'll admit I was stunned to think that Friedman hadn't explored the issue. I'd honestly rather believe he's looked into it and decided it was bunk than think he dismissed it out of hand or was too lazy to look into it.

Friedman's presentation was very good. He has a skilled way of communicating complex issues with powerful metaphors and anecdotes. He covered a broad and frightening range of issues with humor and creative storytelling. And he covered far more ground than I had expected (honest admission: I have not read Hot, Flat, and Crowded). The theme of the book was three main challenges:

  • Hot: the climate crisis
  • Flat: the rise of the global middle class (with consumptive behaviors paralleling those in the US)
  • Crowded: the population explosion

And Friedman also covered the issues of energy poverty around the world (showing a powerful picture of students in Guinea studying at night by the light of the airport), biodiversity loss, the plight of "petrodictators," and other related challenges. I was puzzled to see that energy decline was not on the list.

More troubling was Friedman's seeming belief that what he calls Energy Technology can fix all these problems. Never mind the assumption that we have the time, capital, supply chains, and natural resources to quickly deploy these technologies (some of which don't yet exist). I wrestled with this question, which I wanted to ask Friedman:

"Let's assume that energy technology can solve the hot part of the equation. [BIG ASSUMPTION.] How does ET solve flat and crowded?"

Friedman himself talked about the loss of biodiversity. That's just one in an array of environmental collapses our population and consumption have caused. Energy technology doesn't solve fresh water depletion, soil erosion, the loss of arable land, depletion of fish stocks, etc.

And he ended his book—and his presentation—with the eulogy given by Amory Lovins when Donella Meadows passed away:

When asked if we have enough time to prevent catastrophe, she'd always say that we have exactly enough time — starting now.

Meadows was the author of Limits to Growth, a report that explored the consequences of exponential growth in population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion on the earth’s ecosystems.

I tried, in vain, to ask about this inconsistency at the end of his talk. I can understand the desire to throw red meat at your audience (the red meat in this case is the promise of technology). And I can certainly see why some—maybe including Friedman—would believe that it's better to inspire people with hope than with fear. But I left the event bemoaning the disconnect between Friedman's apparent understanding of the scope of our challenges and the reality of their solutions. There is simply no way lifestyles as we know them can be maintained. That's true even if you don't believe in or understand Peak Oil. And it's true even if you believe in the promise of human ingenuity and technological advancement.

And then Friedman published this today:

Let’s today step out of the normal boundaries of analysis of our economic crisis and ask a radical question: What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall — when Mother Nature and the market both said: “No more.”

We have created a system for growth that depended on our building more and more stores to sell more and more stuff made in more and more factories in China, powered by more and more coal that would cause more and more climate change but earn China more and more dollars to buy more and more U.S. T-bills so America would have more and more money to build more and more stores and sell more and more stuff that would employ more and more Chinese ...

We can’t do this anymore.

So, I'm confused. But when people like Friedman, Ballmers, and Bill Maher are all talking about the end of growth, now that gives me some hope.

image credit: Rebecca Blackwell

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