Friday, January 16, 2009

Book Review: Hot, Flat & Crowded

I was happy to see the comment last week on the Monday roundup from Heather at Simple Green Frugal that she was going to review Thomas Friedman's latest book. And even happier when she agreed to share her review here. Heather's review is the premier for Hot, Flat and Crowded at the Bookworm. After reading the review I anticipate seeing more reviews for it though. Thanks for being first, Heather!

Although I've seen him interviewed a number of times on The Daily Show, "Hot, Flat, and Crowded" was my first Thomas Friedman read. The premise of the book is that the Earth as we know it today is "hot" (in the wake of global warming), "flat" (technology in communication and commerce has made it a "small world after all" in that we have access to the world, it's knowledge, and it's products with a second's notice), and "crowded" (the Earth's population is growing at an alarming rate).

As global warming meets instant gratification for a world full of people by today's standards of consumption, we get a host of problems ranging from what he calls "petrodictatorship" (the people against whom we are fighting the war on terror are the same people from whom we buy our oil - just a little conflict of interest) to widespread energy crisis (all the coal in the world can't get every human being up to the American standard of living).

Friedman stresses that America has fallen behind in it's status as a world leader; that while other countries have braced for the challenges ahead and are decades farther along in the pursuit of energy independence, economic stability, and sustainable living, the US has become lax. In generations past, we were such a leader and we can become one again, but only with determination, focus, and innovation.

“We have been living for far too long on borrowed time and borrowed dimes. We need to get back to work on our country and on our planet. The hour is late, the stakes couldn't be higher, the project couldn't be harder, the payoff couldn't be greater.”

He goes on to insist that,

“...if all the world's people start to live like us, it would herald a climate and biodiversity disaster. Does that mean that we don't want people to live like us anymore? No. It means that we have to take the lead in redesigning and reinventing what living like us means... Because if the spread of freedom and free markets is not accompanied by a new approach to how we produce energy and treat the environment, then Mother Nature and planet earth will impose their own constraints on our way of life - constraints and limitations that will be worse than communism... Without it, we are not going to be free much longer - and neither will anybody else.”

So far so good. I'm following along nicely. With the middle classes in China and India growing and demanding the "American" lifestyle, the Earth can't keep up with our consumption requirements. The Earth can't meet our demands and unfortunately, we're not really in a position to call the shots (aka Mother Earth certainly has the power to kick us kids out of the house). But then in his solutions, he contradicts himself from one chapter to another. In one chapter he says we can't "force" companies to go green and in other chapters, he says that in a green revolution, companies must be green or die. Ok.

Another example, and a quote I heartily agree with, Friedman says,

“Green is a value that needs to be preserved in and of itself, not because it's going to make your bank account richer, because it makes life richer and always has. At the end of the day that is what the "ethic of conservation" is also about. An ethic of conservation declares that maintaining our natural world that is a value that is impossible to quantify but also impossible to ignore, because of the sheer beauty, wonder, joy, and magic that nature brings to being alive.”

Sounds great, but in an earlier chapter, in a literary illustration of what the future might look like, he describes a very Jetsonian (as in the cartoon the Jetsons) lifestyle where every little nook and cranny of life is managed for us by a computer. Do you remember the Jetsons being very in touch with the "sheer beauty, wonder, joy and magic that nature brings to being alive?" His quote talks about being in touch with nature, yet an entire chapter earlier in the book is about how the green revolution will mean more "stuff" for everyone. Everyone can have the consumeristic American lifestyle. Yeah. Great.

But if I had to sum up Friedman's solution to "hot, flat, and crowded" in four words it would be "technology will save us." This is where it all falls apart for me. Heaven forbid anyone actually reduce their consumption. That would be un-American. Now, I'm not saying that there's no place for technology (in a sustainable future there certainly is); but this utopia he creates where the US government leads the world to create an entirely new infrastructure where the whole world can live the American dream through constant economic growth as well as endless consumption (but who cares because it's all sustainably powered) theory is a bit unrealistic, no?

Not that I believe it's wrong to work toward that utopian dream where the world's supply of products is produced in sustainable buildings, using sustainable resources; and he is definitely on the right track when he explain how and why we need to rethink the way we build buildings, do business, and engineer vehicles... but that's only one piece of the puzzle and frankly, Friedman pokes fun at what I view as a very equal and necessary puzzle piece - the power of the individual to do great things.

In the chapter, "205 Easy Ways to Save the Earth," he remarks that the efforts of the current "green revolution" isn't a revolution at all, but rather a costume party where we all have fun and the only thing that matters is that we "look" green. It's the fashion of the day. To a point I agree. The movement HAS to be more than everyone changing their light bulbs, but at the same time there are REAL people out there making REAL changes. Tell No Impact Man (or the lives he's inspired) that his journey has been for naught because within seconds consumptive demands in China negate anything he has ever done.

We have to fight this battle for life on planet Earth in two ways. Sure, our government (and I agree it HAS to be the US government) MUST lead the world in making innovative changes to reduce our impact on the Earth. BUT (and I think Friedman greatly underestimates us), there are people who know the stakes, they understand the odds, and they make changes in their life every day as well as inspire others in the process. And so has evolved a generation of individuals who see this goal of endless economic growth as the joke that it is. They know that living a simpler, greener, and more frugal life isn't about deprivation, it's about reconnecting with what makes us human. It's about health, and happiness, and quality of life. Great. Fund technology, give us wind and solar power, give us greener options, but don't underestimate the power of a simpler life; a life more in tune with the earth; a life without the distraction of "stuff."

Ok. I'm off my soapbox. Back to the book. Honestly, I learned a lot and it's worth spending the time to read. I agree with his synopsis of the problems, but in the end his solution sounds like a world with just more "stuff." I don't believe that is the answer. Technology can and will help us, but so will good old-fashioned values where nothing goes wasted. If you do check out the book, don't be discouraged that we are wasting our time in pursuit of a more simple-green-frugal life. I believe the only way out of what he calls "hot, flat, and crowded" is mindfulness. The kind us little guys practice every single day.


Green Bean said...

Fantastic review! Thank you for sharing, Heather. It sounds like a worthwhile read and I'm glad that there are people like him out there talking about it. I do agree with you. It needs to be both - technology and living more simply.

hmd said...

Green Bean - it's definitely worth reading. I'm looking forward to seeing how everyone else responds to the book after reading it.

Kale for Sale said...

I'm interested in the whole book but the chapter with 250 ways to save the planet jumps out. That could be it's own book. I guess I keep looking for some magic action - if we all do this one thing we'll live happily ever after. But maybe if we 250 actions then we will? I know, it's probably more like 250 billion actions or forget about it and live happily ever right now. Mindfully that is. Thanks again for the great review.