The National Catholic Review
Olga Bonfiglio

Thomas Friedman has done it again. The Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist has taken a global situation, this time climate change, and set out to educate the public about how we got there and what we can do about it. In his explanation, however, the self-described “somber optimist” inadvertently ends up salving the public with the expectation that technology will save us and we can go on with our lives as usual.

Hot, Flat and Crowded focuses on the threats and opportunities of climate change in this new age that he calls the Energy-Climate Era (E.C.E.), which is beginning now.

Friedman is an engaging storyteller who can skillfully elucidate complex ideas with pithy phrases. In the book’s title, for example, “hot” refers to the earth’s rising temperatures because of an overdose of carbon emissions from large-scale manufacturing, the loss of forests, urban sprawl, the extraction of resources and the large store of solid waste from animals and humans.

“Flat” refers to the fact that more of the world’s people have entered the middle class, a decidedly good development in the quest to overcome poverty. But middle-class lifestyles, Friedman says, encourage people to acquire more consumer goods, which use up more fossil fuels and thus contribute to more carbon emissions.

“Crowded” refers to the ever-increasing world population, which today stands at 6.7 billion. Demographers estimate that by midcentury it will be 9 billion, with the greatest increases in countries that are least able to sustain a larger population. It is these countries that have the potential for violence, civil unrest and extremism.

To mitigate these interconnecting problems, Friedman advocates an all-out effort to “mobilize the most effective and prolific system for transformational innovation and commercialization of new products.” Americans, in particular, are well poised to develop and dominate such a market by creating a demand for clean energy. We could also put our people to work by encouraging innovators to invent renewable energy generators and by enlisting blue-collar workers to be “green-collar workers” to make and service these products. Unfortunately, the United States is not doing this, says Friedman, but China is. And unless we get going, we will miss an opportunity to “out-green” the Chinese and sell the world our new, green technology.

What prevents the United States from getting on board the renewable energy train is our reluctance to invest the necessary funds for research and development. Friedman says that supplying these funds would be expensive up front, but the benefits of converting to a modern and efficient energy infrastructure would save us a great deal of money in the long term.

Another thing stopping us is some political leaders’ doubts about whether climate change is caused by humans or nature—so they block funds for research and development. The $787 billion stimulus package recently signed by President Barack Obama was a big victory for change because it did designate nearly $20 billion for renewable energy and $11 billion to modernize the U.S. electrical grid. But the nagging question remains: where will lawmakers find more funds in the future?

Meanwhile, Friedman deftly illustrates how our oil addiction is encouraging petropolitical dictators and strengthening “the most intolerant, antimodern, anti-Western, anti-women’s rights, and antipluralistic strain of Islam—the strain propagated by Saudi Arabia.” He reminds readers that 15 of the 19 hijackers of Sept. 11, 2001, were Saudis.

Another complication to our response to climate change is Friedman’s contention that if we want to maintain our present way of life, “we will have to leverage and exploit our intellectual resources through innovation and technology.” Here he reveals his basic worldview: “We as a global society need more and more growth, because without growth there is no human development and those in poverty will never escape it.”

While Friedman should be commended for his concern for the poor, he believes that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” as President John F. Kennedy once noted. After nearly 50 years of operating on this assumption, we have seen the gap between rich and poor widen and the utter and insidious collapse of our economy.

Friedman’s statements about growth show him to be what energy experts call a “cornucopian.” A cornucopian believes that there are few intractable limits to growth and that the world can provide a practically limitless abundance of natural resources.

Friedman conducted extensive research to prepare this book, but there is a curious omission about our energy future: “peak oil.” According to the Energy Bulletin, “peak oil” refers to the high point in the rate of global oil production. Because oil is a finite, nonrenewable natural resource, once we use up half the world’s total reserves, oil production will begin to decline. It is important to recognize that a peak in production does not mean that we are running out of oil. It signals that we are running out of cheap oil. We got a taste of that future last summer when oil reached $147 per barrel and gasoline prices topped $4 a gallon.

No one knows when we will hit the “peak” and begin to decline, so the urgency to do something about it depends on one’s estimate of remaining oil reserves. The Cambridge Energy Research Associates (www.cera.com), one of the world’s leading energy consulting firms, estimates we have 20 to 30 years before reaching peak. Many peak oil theorists (as seen in the documentary, “The End of Suburbia,” www.endofsuburbia.com) believe oil could peak as early as 2010.

Perhaps the most disturbing word on peak oil comes from what is commonly known as the Hirsch Report, sponsored and published in 2005 by the U.S. Energy Department. It states that “the economic, social, and political costs [of peak oil] will be unprecedented.”

Organizations like the Post Carbon Institute and the Rocky Mountain Institute are working hard to inform and organize policy makers and the public to “understand and respond to the challenges of fossil fuel depletion and climate change.” Unfortunately, they are unable to capture much attention from the media or policy makers, so the public remains largely uninformed about peak oil.

In the end, people will believe what they want to believe; there are always plenty of data around to substantiate whatever position makes them feel comfortable—including very smart and influential people like Thomas Friedman. But readers must ask themselves: why is America willing to gamble on the possibility that we have more time rather than less time not only to take care of climate change but to curb our dependence on oil to fuel our economy?

Olga Bonfiglio is a professor at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Mich., and author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq.