Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Hot Flat and Crowded by Thomas Friedman

In this book Thomas Friedman graphically addresses the world issues of hot (global warming), flat (the rise of the middle classes), and crowded (rapid population projections).

The important contribution is Friedman’s conviction about the interrelatedness of these issues and his belief that solutions must be tackled in the same way that an Olympian might prepare for a triathlon (p173).

This is a big book—big in size (400+ pages), big in subject, big in scope, big in ideas, big in challenge and big in optimism.

It is not designed to read at a single sitting but it is a book to study, a reference book to which one might often return.

The format of the book is clear as it divides into five parts—three which explore vital questions and then some words about and addressed to some key players:

1. Where we are.
2. How we got there.
3. How we move forward.
4. China.
5. America.

The first half of the book is a diagnosis of the global challenge while the second half is a discussion or an argument about how we can meet those challenges.

Much of the research (reading, travelling, interviewing and writing) was done while Friedman took a sabbatical from his regular gig as a columnist with the New York Times. The author doesn’t purport to be a climatologist, economist or demographer and this is what makes his writing so accessible. Friedman’s journalistic training helps him to ferret out the questions, synthesize a welter of information and argue the issues persuasively and entertainingly. Hot, Flat, and Crowded is too important a book to be shelved as an academic treatise for the author addresses ordinary citizens who want to do something constructive about these world concerns.

The book is laden with anecdotes and quotes to inspire and share. The author is personable, who tells stories as if he is talking to you across the coffee table with the cappuccino froth settling on his moustache.

But Friedman is also prophetic and fearless in pointing up the ‘dumb’ things that politicians have done while ignoring the serious trends afflicting the globe. He is not afraid to put the acid on American leaders who have taken their eye off the ball before calling them to refocus and try again.

While tackling global issues Friedman addresses specific countries such as China and he has an interesting section on ‘Oil and Islam’ which surveys the impact of the Saudization of the Middle Eastern region.

The book targets the USA because emerging nations are aping America and because the author believes what Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s federal environment minister, remarked to him in an interview: “If the Americas are going green, the whole rest of the world is going green.” (p177)

Behind the words of this book lies a passion borne of a great sense of moral responsibility. Friedman is positive while sounding a note of urgency to his readers.

His insistence on the need for innovation is of paramount importance, as seen in this statement: “If you take only one thing away from this book, please take this: We are not going to regulate our way out of the problems of the Energy-Climate Era. We can only innovate our way out, and the only way to do that is to mobilize the most effective and prolific system for transformational innovation and commercialization of new products ever created on the face of the earth…” (p243)

Seeking to be practical and expecting that his readers will make changes to their lifestyle, Friedman paints scenarios of what an ideal farm might look like in Brazil and how a ‘green’ kitchen in a Californian suburb might differ from the present high-energy consuming models. In the Acknowledgements section with which he concludes, the author reveals some of the ‘green’ choices that he and his wife have made in regard to their property, home, car and lifestyle.

Hot, Flat, and Crowded is recommended for concerned citizens of this planet and should be essential reading for politicians. It is also hoped that President Obama has a well-thumbed copy of this book on his bedside table in the White House.

Thomas L Friedman, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why the World Needs a Green Revolution—and How We Can Renew Our Global Future (London: Allen Lane, Penguin, 2008).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 105.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front covers of Hot, Flat, and Crowded and the author.

More on the author, his web site (with audio and video clips) and Hot, Flat, and Crowded HFC (with a free discussion guide).