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Hot, Flat and Crowded: why we need a green revolution – and how it can renew America

April 2009: A Pulitzer-Prize-winning author and columnist for the New York Times, after his best-seller, The World is Flat, Thomas L. Friedman has presented us with yet another sharp insight into the problems that beset our planet. Focused on the impact of global warming, the book examines the problem under the microscope, simultaneously exploring both the causes and solutions, which he makes clear at the very start of the book:

 

America has a problem and the world has a problem. America’s problem is that it has lost its way in recent years – partly because of 9/11 and partly because of the bad habits that we have let build up over the last three decades, bad habits that have weakened our society’s ability and willingness to take on big challenges. The world also has a problem: It is getting hot, flat, and crowded. That is global warming, the stunning rise of the middle classes all over the world, and rapid population growth have converged in a way that could make our planet dangerously unstable.

 

I read the book, written by a man who calls himself a ‘sober optimist,’ very carefully. Then I re-read the meticulously researched texts that run you through the causes and chronology of our planetary ailments. The potential solutions and the inevitable question of what on earth can be done for a warming planet – now that American-style development has taken grip of China and India – dominates this manuscript. It’s an easy to read book, written in a clipped and absorbing style. Not surprisingly, I came away with more than grudging respect for the author, even though I differ strongly with some of his cures, notably nuclear power, that in my view will aggravate the disease (climate change).

 

In the balance, Friedman’s head and heart are in the right place. But here in India you have to question his due diligence. Admittedly written prior to the Satyam Computer Services Ltd. exposé, Friedman’s trust in this rotten company’s management will, nevertheless, prompt a short intake of breath for readers! Endorsing the now-discredited Ramalinga Raju strongly, Friedman quotes him thus: “If you view green as a cost, it is a failure. If you view it as an ordinary investment, it is a failure. If you view it as an extraordinary investment that will bring transformational rewards and dramatic benefits, and therefore a huge opportunity, you will find success.”

 

Right thoughts, expressed by the wrong man. Friedman falls still deeper into the quagmire of the hypnotic nuclear option:

 

…we (the U.S.) built over a hundred nuclear power plants in the quarter century before 1979, when the accident at Three Mile Island brought a halt to all nuclear plant building in America. We need to do the same thing again… (because) the threat of a nuclear leak, with today’s new technology, is much less serious than the threat from climate change.

 

My quarrel with Friedman is that despite his very incisive mind, and upfront statements that exhort us to reinvent ourselves in the “Energy-Climate era”, he feels obliged to provide readers with comforting alternatives, that not only encourage business as usual, but would seriously misdirect scarce resources and mind space if ever his advice was taken (which it probably will be).

 

To begin with, setting up a nuclear reactor, mining uranium, storing waste and then decommissioning it would cause more greenhouse gases to be emitted into the atmosphere than any new reactor could possibly save within its operating life. Then, of course, there is that other piquant problem – the availability of uranium. Today uranium stocks are believed to be good for at least 40 years. But it stands to reason that when you quadruple and then further double the number of nuclear reactors in operation, these stocks would soon vanish like wisps, leaving the nuclear dreamers with no fuel (and no dump yards to store) for their lethal machines.

 

If Friedman’s naïve faith in nuclear power were actually implemented we would need to replace every single one of the planet’s over 400 existing nuclear reactors with new ones and replace over half of the world’s coal-fired thermal plants with nuclear reactors. We are talking about making something like 3,000 nuclear reactors of 1,000 MW each – safely! We might as well start research on how to make pigs fly.

 

But this is just an unfortunate blind spot in a man who nevertheless gets my vote. Look at what he says about our attitude to wildernesses, which he correctly identifies as critical to our fight against climate change:

 

At the end of the day, no amount of investing, no amount of clean electrons, no amount of energy efficiency will save the natural world if we are not paying attention to it – if we are not paying attention to all the things that nature gives us for free; clean air, clean water, breathtaking vistas, mountains for skiing, rivers for fishing, oceans for sailing, sunsets for poets, and landscapes for painters. What good is it to have wind-powered lights to brighten the night if you can’t see any green in the day? Just because we can’t sell shares in nature doesn’t mean it has no value.

 

My admiration for Friedman who succinctly suggests that this is “not about the whales anymore. It’s about us,” is encapsulated in his endorsement of E.O. Wilson’s expression of ‘sober optimism’:

 

We have exactly enough time – starting now.

 

By Thomas L. Friedman
Published by Allen Lane (an imprint of Penguin Books),
Hard Cover, 438 pages, Rs. 795

 

Reviewed by Bittu Sahgal
 
 
 

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