Canadian Consulting Engineer

A Hot and Crowded Place

Thomas L. Friedman is a three-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize who serves as foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times. His most recent book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolu...

January 1, 2009   By Review by Lee Norton, P.ENG.

Thomas L. Friedman is a three-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize who serves as foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times. His most recent book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution — and How It Can Renew America,1 & 2 is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding what is happening in our world. The book covers climate change and bio-diversity, but also political change, the rising power of developing countries and the rise in the standard of living of some of the world’s poorest people. Friedman also talks about the challenges of population growth, and China.

Friedman argues that we are now entering the Energy-Climate Era. As with the Industrial and Computer Revolutions, it will be the countries that embrace this revolution that will dominate in the future.

Having travelled extensively, Friedman shares his understanding of world cultures and how they affect our present and future. His explanation of how levels of democracy and freedom are lowered in oil producing countries when the price of crude oil goes up is both enlightening and frightening. As he points out, when all you have to do is drill, you don’t need education or an informed and thinking public.

He explains “Dutch Disease,” or the resource curse, a process of de-industrialization that can come about as a result of a natural resource windfall. We witnessed this phenomenon in Canada recently, when Alberta’s oil raised the value of our currency and manufacturing in Ontario suffered.

The world’s energy de-mands do not grow linearly with population growth, Friedman writes, but they grow exponentially, as the rise in the standard of living for China’s growing middle class, for example, has demonstrated. He discusses the moral, economic and environmental dilemma we face in eradicating poverty in Third World countries, when doing so will increase the world’s energy needs by a factor of 11. It is sobering to think of the carbon footprint that will result from a more equitable world unless we change from carbon-based fuels.

The hope that Friedman offers is his belief that future energy will come from electricity developed from a distributed network of renewable energy sources, rather than from our current archaic system of large central generating stations.

He is against large central stations partly because they leave the grid open to damage and extensive outages from storms or terrorism. A distributed network of smaller generating stations would be much more reliable, he says, and in today’s digital age we now have the ability to monitor and control such a system with minimum manpower. Presently we are using mid-20th century analog controls with a human interface to control our stations, he says, but in the future a digital two-way network will flatten the valleys and peaks of the present system, allowing for cheaper and more reliable power.

While some governments such as India, China, Indonesia and countries in the Middle East continue to subsidize fossil fuels out of fear of a political backlash, Friedman points out that others are moving ahead with renewable green energy, and helping — not hurting — their economies. Denmark, Spain and Germany, for example, have imposed portfolio standards requiring utilities to provide a certain amount of their power from wind power. Spain, Italy, France, Greece, Portugal and Germany all have similar tariff markets that fix the price of renewable energy by law, allowing for renewable energy companies to succeed. Germany guarantees tax credits for solar technologies for 20 years to ensure companies in renewable energy remain competitive. Japan guarantees such tax credits for 12 years. In contrast, neither the U. S. nor Canada offers guaranteed tax credits for renewable energy and each is at the mercy of fossil fuel cost variations that leave investors nervous.

After clearly defining all the issues and the consequences of a larger population, Friedman offers a daunting account of what has to be done to save ourselves from an energy and environmental disaster. He warns that the challenges posed by the Energy-Climate Era “can’t be solved at the level of current political thinking.”

He warns: “We are not yet in a Green Revolution, we are at a Green Party. When everyone claims to embrace your cause, you should suspect that you have not really defined the problem. “

Friedman’s book offers great insight, induces fear, and ultimately, gives some hope that with better political choices, humanity can survive.

Lee Norton, P. Eng. semi-retired, was a principal with TMP Niagara in St. Catharines, Ontario. He is an editorial advisor to Canadian Consulting Engineer.

1 Published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (New York: 2008), distributed in Canada by Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver, 438 pages.

2 Among Friedman’s other best-known books are The World is Flat, a Brief History of the 21st Century (2005); From Beirut to Jerusalem (1989), published in more than 27 languages and now used as a basic textbook on the Middle East, and The Lexus and the Olive Tree (1999), which won the 2000 Overseas Press Club Award for best non-fiction book on foreign policy and was translated into 20 languages.

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In Hot, Flat and Crowded, New York authorThomas L. Friedman sees the world entering a new Climate-Energy Era with far-reaching political and cultural consequences.


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