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Tom Friedman: Green is the New Red, White and Blue
Ethan Zuckerman, 19 Oct 06

After lunch here at Pop!tech, we’re serenaded by Rodrigo y Gabriella, who play flamenco-styled music with the passion of their Mexican thrash-metal background. Then Ze Frank introduces the evening’s three-minute standup talks with his own three minute talk on making an Earth Sandwich.

Which leads Tom Friedman to get up and start his talk by saying, “My reaction to Ze Frank’s earth sandwich is the same reaction as to the lady guitarist: What the fuck am I doing here?”

What he’s doing is giving a talk titled, “Why this is not your parents’ energy crisis.” His first reason: the war on terror is fueled by our energy purchases, on both sides of the equation. He gives the example of two stories he saw emerging at the same time in the New York Times: a refusal to expand CAFE fuel standards, and the refusal to cut American agricultural subsidies. He tells a story to tie the two together:

Because CAFE standards allow the American consumer to buy a big car, he uses more energy. Which puts more money in the pockets of the Saudis, who use it to fund a Madrassa in Pakistan. The farmer in Pakistan is in tough straits because he can’t compete against subsidized cotton from the US. He sends his two sons to the Madrassa because they serve a hot meal at lunch. The Madrassa gives the boys a religious education, and just a little bit of political science: a course that teaches that all problems are the results of America, Israel and the jews. And so one of the kids goes to war - Jihad - and gets killed by the American’s son, who is in the special forces. “And we think we’re winning the war on terror.”

The second factor: the world is flat. The three billion new consumers (I’d call bullshit on that figure) coming from India, China and the former Soviet Union all want cars, computers, printers… and these all require energy. These new consumers are “going to help us heat up the planet even faster than Al Gore predicts”.

Friedman tells us that green industry is the growth industry for the 21st century. If you want a job, go into green design or consulting - there has to be growth in these secrots or we won’t have a planet. He warns that China is going to go green in a big way - they’ll be using low-cost, scaleable green technologies which they need to build for their own uses. If you’re frustrated that you need to buy Japanese to buy a hybrid engine, imagine how frustrating it would be if all green technology is Chinese.

He tells us that what we need is government regulation that doesn’t rig the market, but sets stringent standards for mileage, appliances, power generation… like Governor Bush did years ago in Texas. “If only President Bush could meet Governor Bush…” But there are market fundamentalists like Dick Cheney who passionately believe that the market will fix all problems, including energy efficiency.
As the price of oil goes down, Friedman argues, the level of freedom goes up in petroleum dominated economies. When the oil price is low, the Freedom House index is high. At $20 a barrel oil, Iran was asking for “a dialog of civilizations” - at $70, they’re denying the holocaust. We’re seeing the emergence of Petroauthoritarian states like Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Venezuela, Iran and Sudan. The reason we can’t stop the genocide in Darfur is that China’s blocking UN action in Sudan. Why? They own 40% of the Sudanese oil company.

The first Arab state to run out of oil was Bahrain. They were also the first state to hold an election where women could vote. Friedman believes this is not a coincidence.

He briefly mentions the role of the Internet, arguing that the server farms that Google and Yahoo! are building will make them competitiors to India and China in the struggle for power in the future.
Friedman’s current quest: “trying to redefine green.” To name something is to own it, he says, and “green” was named and appropriated by the people who hated it, calling it “liberal”, “girly-man”, “unpatriotic”, and “vaguely french”. Instead, Friedman believes, “Green is the new Red, White and Blue.”

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Friedman is an interesting fellow. I'm all for his "fury" and we need more of it. Liberals tend to prefer emotion-free leaders these days (like Gore and Obama). There was a time when righteous fury moved people to great and positive strides. . . men like Malcolm X and MLK Jr have no place in contemporary liberal politics. Though Friedman isn't exactly my kind of progressive, at least he isn't afraid to publicly give a damn. An aside -- according to Wiki, the man lives in an 11,000 square foot home!

Posted by: Tod Brilliant on 19 Oct 06

I like Tom Friedman's zest for change. We have to become the promoters of change, or else we'll become the victims of change that will occur in spite of our lethargy. Mankind is growing very big, very fast, and we're heavily straining at the Earth's boundaries. If we don't keep moving towards ever higher levels of existence, the consequences of our existence will catch up to us.

Posted by: Sanjay on 19 Oct 06

"The first Arab state to run out of oil was Bahrain. They were also the first state to hold an election where women could vote. Friedman believes this is not a coincidence."

This may be the smartest thing tom friedman has ever said.

On the other hand, is he really blaming madrasa-based terrorism on US farm subsidies? Am I really the only one who thinks this is a bit of a stretch? And it's a little confusing that he then goes on to decry "market fundamentalists like Dick Cheney." So, an open global market will fix terrorism, but not energy problems? But he also makes it plain that those are intimately related, in his view. Isn't this a little confusing?

I have always been very frustrated with Friedman's shoddy logic and mixed metaphors, and it seems to me like we've got a lot more of the same here. I don't disagree that a lot of what he's saying is even right . . . that is, that market fundamentalism is problematic and even dangerous (in lots of ways), that a lot of the students at pakistani madrasas are there for socio-economic rather than ideological reasons, that "green" as a term needs to be reappropriated and rehabilitated, that green is mos def the way to go in the future for all kinds of reasons, including those he seems committed to, here.

but here's my concern: his approach to green-ness is pure political realism (in the technical sense) grounded in pretty straightforward national security interests. i'm not saying these aren't good reasons to go green, within a certain context. i just want to make sure that his understanding of green and mine are clearly distinguished.

is and should green be good business? yes. is it a national security concern? yes. but in the first place, open markets are neither a panacea nor inevitable, except to fundamentalists. and when it gets mixed up with "dependence on foreigners," i start to get uneasy. For example, "If you’re frustrated that you need to buy Japanese to buy a hybrid engine, imagine how frustrating it would be if all green technology is Chinese."

Do you understand where I'm getting confused, here? The world is flat, all the markets are (going to be) open, but we shouldn't "have to buy" japanese or chinese products and market fundamentalism is bad.

Again, some good stuff, but it all seems to me to hang together not very well, and/or in some deeply problematic and even troubling ways. at least from my perspective.

Posted by: egil skallagrimsson on 20 Oct 06

I was able to watch (remotely) some of the "Green Shift" presentation at Pop Tech. The speakers were Stewart Brand, Lester Brown, Tom Friedman and Robert Freling.

Especially when Friedman spoke, I was reminded of Russell Ackoff's observation that there are 4 approaches to the future:

  • The Inactive: trying to forestall the future, e.g. through committees and analysis;
  • The Reactive: devoting your efforts to opposing change and preserving the status quo;
  • The Proactive: extrapolating short-term trends to posit an inevitable future, asserting that we must get on the bandwagon or become history's victims;
  • The Interactive: envisioning what kind of future is both possible and desirable, then working hard to create it.

Lester Brown and Robert Freling seem to me clearly Interactive. For years, I would have said the same about Stewart Brand, but these days I'm unsure. Tom Friedman seems a curious mix of Proactive and Reactive. But then, smarter people than I think he's just the cat's meow. Maybe I don't get him.

Posted by: David Foley on 20 Oct 06

Egil - interesting point about the apparent contradiction between the subsidy issue on the one hand and the "market fundamentalists" on the other.

With respect to buying Chinese/Japanese/etc. I think Friedman's point is about US competitiveness: he's worried that we'll have no choice but to buy green technologies through foreign trade, as there will be no viable American-made option. That is what we see with hybrids today. With the exception of the Ford Escape, I can't think of a single meaningful American hybrid (I don't count the Silverado), thus if I want hybrid I am forced to go with the duopoly of Toyota and Honda.

Implicit in Friedman's assumptions is a certain nativism. Going back to the subsidies, he is against agricultural subsidies b/c their effects can be linked to the conditions in which the inappropriately-named "jihadist" attitude flourish -- because that attitude has the potential to harm Americans. But he is for subsidies to keep the Chinese and Indians from dominating the market for green technology -- because Americans would be harmed by not being a/the dominant player in this field.

Thus it feels like Friedman's ideological vision is primarily restricted to his national boundaries. He goes green not because it is good for the world but because it would be good for America. I would that his vision were more world-embracing. On the other hand, a competitive market for green tech would probably mean quicker American adoption of that tech, thus helping lower US-impact on climate change, thus benefiting the rest of the world…

Friedman’s vision often has the kind of wrap-around positive global effect, which does make me wonder if he’s really not so nativist as I think – but rather playing the role to cater to an audience that truly is (or is perceived to be) nativist.

Posted by: Stephen A. Fuqua on 20 Oct 06

David -

I love the breakdown you provide. And, I think your assessment is spot on - especially when it comes to Lester Brown, who is extremely interactive and a genuine visionary.

"Cat's meow" is just a figure of speech. We need our leaders to be much more tangible. Heh. I'd vote for Brown over Obama, Hillary or anyone else being mentioned in 2008.

Posted by: Tod Brilliant on 20 Oct 06

Friedman would have a lot more credibility with me if he gave props to Bruce Sterling and the Viridian Greens. It would be good if he also learned the difference between a Lexus and an olive tree, that a Lexus is a dead, metal machine and that an olive tree is a living organism that produces food year after year.

It is clear to me that Friedman doesn't understand this crucial difference.

Posted by: gmoke on 20 Oct 06

It is interesting to note that Ethan Zuckerman left out Friedman's summary, which was that he wanted to make "green" "stand for something geopolitically astute, progressively capitalistic, and patriotic." Ideologically incorrect, huh?

On the other hand, Ethan does report Friedman's unjustified contention that we need "government regulation that sets broad, clear and stringent mileage standards, power generation standards, and appliance standards."

The truth is that while promoting "renewable" technologies such as wind, biomass and terrestrial solar may make greenies feel noble, these approaches will always be limited to small niches; they cannot possibly make more than a trivial contribution to the overall energy suppy. Similarly, energy conservation may be justified if it saves money, but it has practically nothing to do with meeting the energy needs of society.

The energy intensity (i.e., the energy consumed per dollar of GDP) in the IEA countries (i.e., advanced nations, members of the OECD) has fallen by a third since 1973 -- and the USA has led the way, cutting energy intensity by 50%. This is a stunning achievement, which should be celebrated but is ignored by ideological environmentalists. Perhaps they are embarrassed to admit that their green shibboleths are simply irrelevant.

There is in fact no shortage of energy: (a) Compared to current Light Water Reactors, Fast Neutron Reactors can increase the energy derived from a kilogram of uranium by a factor of 100, reduce the amount of radioactive waste by the same factor, and reduce the waste storage requirement from 10,000 years to just 400 years. With this technology, terrestrial uranium resources could supply the current total world consumption of energy for at least 1000 years – and we will have licked fusion technology by then. (b) The USGS estimates that methane hydrates under the arctic permafrost and on continental shelves may represent enough energy to meet all world needs for 100,000 years. (c) Solar Power Satellites can provide all the energy we need until the sun dies, a few billion years from now.

Another statistic rarely mentioned in green circles is that the world population growth rate has fallen by 50% since 1967, and will probably be negative by 2050. This is not due to agitation by alarmists like Paul Ehrlich, but to the demographic transition as world living conditions have improved.

The environmental movement made a fundamental mistake 40 years ago, and has clung to it stubbornly ever since. The green vision is of contented people living by cooperative cottage crafts in modest wind-powered houses in a pristine landscape, but this kind of life is only possible for a small elite, supported by industrial workers. As one small example, gardeners need at least simple tools, such as spades and axes -- but providing such tools requires iron mines and steel mills. The Eloi cannot exist without the Morlocks. The vision is of a kind of worldwide Vermont -- but the world current green policies would give us is, at best, a universal Bangladesh.

It is time for the green movement to recognize that the key to protecting the planet is not some imaginary pastoral idyll, but a real commitment to the education and economic growth needed so that people everywhere can enjoy a decent standard of living, and can afford concern.for the environment. When your children have the distended bellies of kwashiorkor, when you spend the whole day looking for a few sticks so that you can have a fire that evening -- but it doesn’t really matter because you don’t have enough food and the children will go hungry again -- then it is hard to work up any real enthusiasm for the importance of recycling.

Henry Thoreau needs correction: in affluence, not wilderness, is the preservation of the world.

Posted by: Phil Chapman on 20 Oct 06

A whole lot of assumptions there, Phil. Some good points as well. Understand that there is no such thing as a cohesive "green movement". I don't know many in my circle who prefer the idyllic wind-powered cottage. No, many of us are more in line with, say, Richard Register, who promotes Eco-Cities - very densely populated cities that are far more efficient than existing car-centric metros.

This is not to say that you don't hit the nail on the head for a portion of the populace, but the portion you smack so squarely isn't inordinately poulated by the green movement. It's a huge portion of our society that works itself up over banal daily distractions. Whether it's a cottage in NorCal, a new Harley, or which of the over 100 (you count them at your supermarket - there will be in excess of 100) toothpaste packages to choose from. Your fury is very important, and needed, but your targeting mechanism, in this case, is a bit off.

Posted by: Tod Brilliant on 20 Oct 06

Excuse the snark on such a positive website but Tom Friedman was one of those few pundits who was in a crucial position to provide real courage in the run-up to the Iraq War. Instead, he went along. And he gave many indications that he knew it was wrong but went along anyway.

I don't think I can ever put that out of my mind when ever he comes up with something "profound".

He didn't have quite the stature of Blair or Powell, but his voice could have made a difference.

Posted by: JC on 20 Oct 06

My impression of Friedman is that he tells people what they want to hear even when he's trying to be radical. Friedman takes a very safe position and that for a public intellectual in this day and age is pathetic.

Oh and the people who send their kids to madressas are not sending them for a hot meal, believe me.

Posted by: Zaid Hassan on 22 Oct 06



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