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Books: the green American dreamer

China and other developing nations will shape the global response to climate change and energy needs. John Gray takes issue with the nationalism of Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat and Crowded.

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Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why the World Needs a Green Revolution -- and How We Can Renew Our Global Future
Thomas L Friedman
Allen Lane, 2008

There can be few writers so adept at catching the American mood as Thomas Friedman. In The Lexus and the Olive Tree, published in 1999, the influential New York Times columnist celebrated globalisation in triumphal fin-de-siècle fashion as a process whose end-point is universal Americanisation. The paean continued in The World Is Flat, which appeared in 2005, but by then globalisation was not looking so unambiguously benign and the subtext of Friedman’s jubilation was the threat it was posing to the American way of life. One of the book’s messages was that the United States needed to reduce its dependency on imported oil.

American “energy independence” would allow the United States to delink itself from the global market. In this way, the prophet of globalisation seemed to be suggesting, the country could turn its back on the frighteningly unAmerican world that globalisation was actually producing.

Friedman’s latest book synthesises ideas that have been floating around in America ever since the scale of the disaster in Iraq became undeniable. Supporters of the war believed that once Iraq's oil had been seized and privatised, the price of oil would come down, with Paul Wolfowitz – the former deputy secretary of defence who went on to head the World Bank -- arguing that the invasion would be self-financing and result in a global economic boom. In fact, exploiting Iraq's oil assets proved very difficult, production was lower than under Saddam Hussein and the oil price spiralled upwards.

At this point, even neoconservatives, who had hitherto looked on green thinking as a dastardly leftist plot, became interested in energy conservation. Not himself a neoconservative -- on many issues his views are liberal, even social democrat -- Friedman was at one with the “neo-cons” in urging a fundamental rethink of American environmental policies. Hot, Flat and Crowded is the result.

The book is archetypal Friedman. Breathlessly upbeat in style, seemingly written in a succession of airport lounges, it is a compendium of the bullish delusions of US politics over the past two decades. He instructs the reader in what he calls “the First Law of Petro-Politics”, which says that when the price of oil goes down, freedom goes up. A drop in the price of oil to US$20 a barrel will trigger democratic revolutions throughout the Persian Gulf region, he believes, and in one sense he is right. A collapse in the oil price would destabilise existing regimes and might well result in a spread of democracy. But in most cases, certainly in Saudi Arabia, which remains vital to western oil supplies, it would be an Islamist version of democracy -- hostile to western interests -- that would come to power.

Friedman makes much of the example of Bahrain, where he tells us the prospect of oil running out is leading to democratic reforms. But the upshot of this democratisation is unclear and the so-called Law of Petro-Politics is, in general, not much more than a formula for wishful thinking.

At other times, Friedman is refreshingly realistic. “Rapid economic growth and population expansion,” he writes, “are driving the destruction of forests and other ecosystems at unprecedented rate. The destruction of these forests and biodiversity-rich environments, in turn, contributes to climate change by releasing more carbon in the atmosphere.”

Here Friedman recognises the interconnections that underlie the environmental crisis and which necessitate a shift in our whole way of doing things. He is robust in recognising that any effective response to climate change must include high-tech solutions such as nuclear power, although his proposal for an “Energy Internet” (“one big seamless platform for using, storing, generating and even buying and selling clean electrons”) sounds impractical.

A large-scale fusion of information technology and energy technology could have many benefits, but in a world of states competing for energy resources, and using these resources as geopolitical levers, there is no prospect of such a scheme operating at the global level. Even so, Friedman’s focus on technical fixes for environmental problems is closer to reality than mainstream green thinking, which clings to a utopian faith in political transformation.

Friedman’s discussion of the environmental challenges facing the world contains valuable insights. Yet in the context of the book as a whole, these insights are almost inadvertent. Hot, Flat and Crowded is only incidentally about the environment. As is always the case with Friedman, its real subject is not the world, but America. The concluding paragraph is toe-curling in its parochialism: “We need to redefine green and rediscover America and in so doing rediscover ourselves and what it means to be Americans. We are all Pilgrims again. We are all sailing on the Mayflower anew.”

An Americo-centric perspective of this kind might have made some sense 20 years ago. In today’s world, where the United States is a tottering power, it is comically deluded. It is not America that will decisively shape the global response to climate change and energy crisis. It is emerging nations, above all China, which is definitely not sailing on the Mayflower. True, Friedman gives China’s rulers grudging praise for their environmental awareness, but only on condition that China ends up being more like America: “They will never say so, but I do not think they can go green without, over time, going at least a little orange -- à la the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004.”

Since that was written, events have altered the picture. Russia’s self-assertion in the Caucasus has revealed the geo-political forces that are shaping world politics and the future of the orange revolutions is looking less assured than it did only months ago. More to the point, at least from Friedman’s navel-gazing perspective, Americans now have other concerns. The environmental anxieties that followed the Iraq debacle are fading, along with the war itself, from the centre of American politics. The struggle to avert a catastrophic depression is now all-consuming. The American psyche is grappling with a well-founded fear of economic collapse and it is hard to see it being energised by Friedman’s green-tinged nationalism.

The upshot cannot be known, but as fear tightens its grip, drilling for oil off its coastlines and reopening coal mines may be what the United States resorts to. History has moved on, the American mood has shifted and for once Friedman has been left behind.

John Gray’s Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia is published by Penguin.

Copyright Guardian News and Media Limited 2009



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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


这是一个全面的好评论,看完它我甚至想再阅读一些托马斯•弗里德曼的文章.. 通常我不会想这么做(我不是他的专栏粉丝)。我必须承认,我唯一读过的评论是纽约出版社的这条评论,虽然不免偏颇,但非常有趣。SP

本文由Chen Fangfang翻译

Balanced review

This balanced and well-written review actually made me want to read more Tom Friedman... Something I am not normally tempted to do (I am no great fan of his columns). I have to admit the only review I had read was this rather amusing, if unbalanced one in the New York Press. SP

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



如果我说,语言所造成的问题很大,托马斯•弗里德曼也许不相信。现实是,恐怕,通过翻译出来的先进思想,很大场合都被曲解了。举个例子,去年,世界可持续发展工商理事会发表了全球大企业的CEO给8国集团首脑的一封信,就是关于应对气候变化的政策制定工商界的建议。如果你有幸读过英文版,再看看中文的翻译,你就会发现那简直就是垃圾。中文当然是给中国人看的,可是,可以这么说,那个翻译搞完全曲解了这封信,很多数据,目标,实践都搞错了。我很担心,这种事情是不是在其它重要场合也发生过?!没有英文能力的很多( 绝大多数) 中国人民,实际上还处于文化的“初级阶段”,任由各种垃圾文化所侵扰,得不到真正的,完全的,清晰的信息。托马斯•弗里德曼还谈到了中国的环境以及能源方面的事,我感觉,这个话题他根本没有资格谈。就像他书中提到了很多次的ROB WATSON一样,在中国的环境中,他们的使命注定要失败:后者在中国推广所谓的绿色建筑,这么多年了,也没有什么成效。把中国变绿,我们最需要的是什么?教育。他还没有认识到这一点。至于什么乱七八糟的民主也好,还是革命也好,我们不关心,也关心不了。从专业的角度看这本书,最多就是个启蒙读物,尽管书中列举了那么多专家和顾问。

The world is hot and crowded but it is not flat

For a while I've wanted to say that Thomas Friedman's world may be flat, but we, the people of developing countries don't see it like that: the world is definitely not flat. The Internet has changed many things but the language of the Internet is English or American and as far as the majority of Chinese people are concerned, the result of this language difference is that the world is becoming more and more uneven. Before we used the global language, I thought the world would never be 'flattened'. If I say that language causes a big problem, Thomas Friedman might not believe me. I'm afraid the reality is that in translation sophisticated theories are often misinterpreted. For example, last year the World Business Council for Sustainable Development published a letter from the CEOs of large global corporations to the leaders of the G8 which set out suggestions from the world of industry and commerce in response to policies on climate change. If you were fortunate enough to read the English version, looking again at the Chinese translation you could immediately tell that it was rubbish. The Chinese is of course meant for Chinese people to read, but you could say, the translation completely misinterpreted the letter: many statistics, targets and practices were given incorrectly. I am concerned about whether this has happened before on other important occasions! In reality, many (the overwhelming majority of) Chinese people who have no English language skills remain, in terms of education, in the "elementary stage", are bombarded with all kinds of rubbish culture and cannot get hold of correct, complete, clear information. Thomas Friedman also mentions China's environmental and energy-related matters and I think he is in no way qualified to talk about these matters. It's the same with Rob Watson whom he mentions many times in his book, in China's environment, their mission is doomed to fail: the latter has promoted so-called green buildings in China for many years without results. What do we need the most in order to turn China green? Education. He still has not acknowledged this. Some kind of chaotic democracy or revolution, we don't care, we are unable to care. Looking at this book from an expert's point of view, at most it is basic reading material, although lots of experts and consultants are listed in the book.
(Translated by Jodie Gardiner)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous





Saving energy: what kind of education do we need?

If I can add to what I said about 'education' in the text above, this education specifically refers to specialist education regarding saving energy. Lots of people, including officials like those in development reform committee system, are still unable to answer the question what do you actually "save" when you are "saving energy". How many experts do we have engaged in saving energy? Which of our higher education institutions are developing undergraduate level education in energy saving? In vocational education who is providing classes in saving energy? No one. Why is Japan so good at saving energy - is it that they are clever and we are stupid? No. We'll let the statistics speak for themselves. Up until the end of 2006 in Japan there were over 65000 energy saving experts registered with the Japanese government; even India, a country we think of as lagging behind us, had 6500 energy resource management experts and energy auditors who had passed state exams and been certified by the end of 2006, we did not have a single one. Saving energy needs to be people-orientated; if we do not build a specialist team of hundreds of thousands of energy saving experts, I'm afraid we will repeat this vicious circle: when business is good, no time to save energy, in times of economic crisis, no money to save energy. As for this book, I still think a point worth pointing out is Mr Friedman thinks that China's power consumption from construction makes up 40% of the total, allegedly this is the world's experience. This is a misunderstanding, industry uses over 70% of energy nationally; I'm afraid the percentage for electricity consumption is even higher. Industry is our largest contradiction, as for construction, we'll have to wait and see. (Translated by Jodie Gardiner)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


感谢Jodie的翻译。不过我想指出来,我上面说的建筑节能,翻译成energy consumption in buildings而不是construction可能更准确一点。今天我看了一篇文章,说的是低碳生活的事,我也发表了一篇评论。真是不幸啊,真被我言中了!节能节什么这个问题,看来确实是个大问题。我想重申一下,节能就是省钱,节钱,没有其它含义。省钱为“因”,节能为“果”,因果关系不能颠倒啊。我们的节能主管如果能够明白了这个事情,我看不要你天天那个大棒撵别人节能,别人也会大力节能,为什么,有钱赚吗。我们古话说,无利不赶早。没钱赚,谁会积极。没有经济驱动的行为不可能长久,不管是中国还是外国,都一码事。所以,政府也好好事企业也好,你就要设计符合人的本性的政策以及激励制度,从管理上和制度上,发挥个体节能,省钱的积极性才行。那么,这个又印证了我前面的看法,节能教育最重要,人才最重要。

[email protected],

Chief Energy Efficiency Specialist,
China Association of Resources Efficiency
Certified Energy Manager,
Assistant Director,
CEM China Program
Association of Energy Engineers

What does energry saving for?

Thank you Jodie for your translation. But I must point out that in the translation of energy consumption in buildings above, "buildings" is a more accurate translation than the word "contruction". Today I saw an essay about low-carbon living and I wrote a comment about it as well. My words are pessimistic but truthful. Indeed, saving energy is a big issue. I want to reaffirm that energy saving is saving money, that is it. If saving money is the root, then saving energy becomes the fruit, and this causal relationship can't be reversed. If the director of energy reduction can become aware of this fact, then we needn’t make so much effort in saving energy any more. Why? Because of the economic incentive. There is an old saying goes that people won't get up early without money. Who will be active without the incentive of making money? With this in mind, whether it is the government, or enterprises, if you want to work out a policy and incentive system to meet the basic needs of the people, at the administrative and institutional levels, the only way you can do it is by putting into play the individual’s ability to proactively save energy by saving money. This validates my abovementioned point, that education about saving energy is the most important because people are the most important.
[email protected], Chief Energy Efficiency Specialist, China Association of Resources Efficiency Certified Energy Manager, Assistant Director, CEM China Program Association of Energy Engineers
(Translate by Tian Liang)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




Question Friedman on how much electricity industry uses

We've looked at the statistics on national electricity use for January and February published by the State Electricity Regulatory Commission on March 16. In January and February, total national electricity use was 497218 million kilowatt hours, a decrease of 5.22%; The total electricity used by primary industry was 11241 million kwh, an increase of 4.88%; the total electricity used by secondary industry was 349314 million kwh, an increase of 10.19%, tertiary industry used 62752 million kwh, an increase of 7.66%; domestic use by urban and rural residents was 73910 million kwh, an increase of 10.91%. In January and February, the total electricity used by industry was 343666 million kwh, a decrease of 10.37%; use of electricity in light and heavy industry fell by 10.57% and 10.37% respectively. Or consult http://serc.gov.cn/ywdd/200903/t20090316_11136.htm. I've done the calculations: industry accounted for 69.11% of total electricity use in January and February. Because the power supply department automatically classifies the electricity it provides to industry, this should be fairly accurate. The statistics have already explained the problems, but perhaps many people have not read this interesting book. (translated by Jodie Gardiner)