Over the past few weeks, when I’ve wanted a break from water law and election politics, I’ve read Thomas Friedman’s newest book, “Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution – and How It Can Renew America.” My only disappointment with the book is that it didn’t give me a mental break from either water issues or presidential politics. On the contrary, the book offers a compelling thesis and lens through which I’ve viewed both the presidential campaign and water problems worldwide.
The gist of the book is simple and straightforward. We are entering a new era – the “Energy-Climate Era.” The Energy-Climate Era is defined by growing demand for scarcer energy supplies and natural resources, transfer of wealth to unstable oil-producing countries, climate change, energy poverty in the developing world, and loss of biodiversity. Most of this is well-known to environmental policy wonks, although Friedman’s connection of rising oil prices to anti-democratic trends in oil producing countries adds another element to the standard story. Where the book shines is in presenting an exciting challenge to the United States to lead, innovate, and excel in the Energy-Climate Era. Friedman demonstrates that success is within our reach, but only if we act right now.
Friedman offers a pragmatic yet inspiring view of how to combine government regulation and spending with private entrepreneurial innovation to unleash the American market on the energy-climate challenge. Too often, discussions of solutions devolve into tired debates between advocates of government regulation and disciples of the free market (this is certainly true in water management). Lost in this ideological debate is the truth that the two forces (both of which are critical to success) can complement each other, or be used to undermine each other, depending on how policies and government incentives are structured.
Right now, U.S. energy policy (if we even have one) is a mish-mash of subsidies for the fossil fuel industry, ambivalence towards nuclear power, scraps for renewable energy R&D, and ineffective incentives for energy efficiency. All of this needs to be drastically changed, and fast. Not only are we causing irreparable harm to our climate and environment, but the United States has already fallen behind other countries in the new economy of clean energy, electric transportation, and energy efficiency. Refocusing American policies, resources, and markets on solving the energy-climate problem is the single most important task for the next president to ensure long term security and prosperity.
Thanks in part to Friedman’s work on this issue, both presidential candidates have used these terms and raised these issues during their campaigns. And Barack Obama, when he recently visited Flint, Michigan, said that "Hot, Flat, and Crowded" is the book currently on his nightstand. But neither candidate seems politically capable, at least during a campaign, of fully committing to the tough decisions and major investments needed to succeed in the Energy-Climate Era. That said, from his New York Times columns and other media appearances, Friedman clearly views Obama as the better choice to lead America and meet this great challenge.
While Friedman stresses the importance of presidential leadership, I was also pleasantly surprised that he recognized the critical role of “civil society” – citizens, non-governmental organizations, advocacy groups, and the media – in changing old priorities and practices. I’ve always thought that Friedman didn’t give these people their due in his prior works, especially his defining book on globalization and capitalism, “The World Is Flat.” But in looking at China, Friedman notes that the critical missing ingredient is civil society, and sees America as the leading example of engaged citizens.
The engaged citizen is America’s most unique contribution to globalization and most valuable export, Friedman quotes approvingly (page 357). They help each other, organize around issues, and hold the government accountable. Engaged citizens are also the only reason a social change law gets enforced. So no matter who the next president is, citizens can’t sit on their hands and expect government to solve the energy-climate challenge. They must be prepared to be the solution themselves and make the changes we need.