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The surprise greening of Thomas Friedman

September 28, 2008|Susan Salter Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — It IS 90 degrees on a crisp fall day, 89% humidity. One-hundred thousand refugees are stranded in Texas, courtesy of Hurricane Ike. Could just be a bad day. Then again, it could be something worse.

The headline of Thomas Friedman's column in this morning's New York Times reads, "How to Make America Stupid." Friedman is reacting to Rudy Giuliani's rallying cry at the Republican National Convention: "Drill, baby, drill!"

"Why would Republicans," he writes in what we might call classic Friedman-ese, a tone best accompanied by beating the forehead with one's open palm, "the party of business, want to focus our country on breathing life into a 19th-century-technology -- fossil fuels -- rather than giving birth to a 21st-century technology -- renewable energy?"

This is also the tone of Friedman's "Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution and How It Can Renew America" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 438 pp., $27.95), a book so combustible it makes a reader want to skip the palm of the hand altogether and bang the offending forehead against the nearest power line. In other words, it is Friedman's column times 438 (the number of pages in the book). Here's the gist -- Americans are facing five critical issues created by our dependence on fossil fuels: increased demand for energy, biodiversity loss, climate change, energy poverty and the transfer of wealth to oil-rich nations whose politics (human rights, distribution of wealth, treatment of women) are often less than commendable. Dependence on oil, Friedman argues, has negative effects on both the freedoms we associate with democracy and on innovation.

What we need is a Green Revolution. This is our chance to show the rest of the world how to create a sustainable future. And we are blowing it. We have the knowledge, Friedman believes, but we lack the political will. We need leaders who are willing to make ending dependence on fossil fuels a priority. We need leaders who are willing to use tax incentives and other mechanisms to encourage innovation and help shape the market, leaders who are willing to invest government money in clean energy research. Recycling and buying green products is all well and good, but what we have now, he believes, is a flimsy excuse for a Green Movement -- we have a Green Party. "We need leaders," Friedman writes, "not lightbulbs."

Of course, Friedman travels so much he must have the biggest carbon footprint in the country. When asked about this, he says, "Hey, I'm a work in progress." A few hours before he's due to speak at the 92nd Street Y on Manhattan's Upper East Side, he visits an exhibit on the life and work of legendary innovator Buckminster Fuller at the Whitney Museum on Madison Avenue. Friedman takes his exercise wherever he can get it, which is why he's game to go.

Along the way, he talks about what first set him on fire. For Friedman, it all began in 1968, when he was in 10th grade, with two separate experiences: He took a journalism class and his parents took him to Israel. "It was my first time on an airplane," he recalls. "It was my first time out of the country. I was blown away. Remember, this was post-1967 -- an incredibly heroic phase in Israel's history."

Friedman spent the next three summers living on a kibbutz. He took Arabic in college and majored in Mediterranean studies at Brandeis. When he was 19, his father died. "Losing my father," he says, "made me focus. It made me a more serious person."

Friedman is nothing if not serious. He received a master of philosophy degree in modern Middle Eastern studies from Oxford. He then went to work for UPI, reporting on OPEC as a global force. In 1981, he landed at the New York Times, where he became Beirut bureau chief in 1982 and Jerusalem bureau chief in 1984. He has won three Pulitzer Prizes and knows more about the oil business than any living writer, inside or outside academia.

According to Friedman, his new book is a perfect storm of ideas that have been brewing in his mind for several years. His 2005 book, "The World Is Flat," about the rising international middle class and the environmental effects of increased consumption, was an enormous success. U.S. News & World Report named him one of America's Best Leaders, an unusual honor for a journalist. He worked on several documentaries about oil for the Discovery Channel. The work of Al Gore, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and his wife's involvement as a board member of Conservation International brought issues of global warming into focus.

"I had this pregnant moment a year ago in May at a conference in Aspen," Friedman recalls. "I realized that the IT revolution would inevitably be replaced by the ET [energy technology] revolution." It was then that he began to understand that America faced a momentous opportunity. He decided to write "Hot, Flat, and Crowded."

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