When Tom Friedman speaks, people listen.
We've been listening, too.
A few weeks ago, the popular New York Times columnist came to Boulder for a public appearance at the massive Mackey Auditorium. The event was sold out weeks in advance, which was okay with me because I had no interest in attending.
However, I noticed that a number of people had been recommending that I read Friedman's new book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded
. My usual response, based on my reading of his previous The World is Flat
, was something like, "Why? Tom has been dead wrong about so many things for so long. Has he changed his position?" Yes, I was assured, he is waking up.
So when a Transition supporter showed up at our office to gift us with a free ticket to Friedman's talk, I decided I'd go myself to see what all the buzz was about.
I went early, to make sure I got a good seat, arriving about an hour before the main event, joining hundreds of others standing outside Mackey before the doors opened. There was excitement in the air, reminiscent of a rock concert.
When the doors opened, people streamed in. In a short time the venerable 2,000+ capacity hall was packed.
Friedman is a gifted speaker and entertainer, as slick as they come, and he is obviously much loved by many Boulderites. He laid out his main arguments from his new book, which hinge on the premise that in order to meet the challenge of climate change we need to make our top priority developing technologies which will result in "a cheap and abundant, clean and reliable source of electrons and molecules" that will (among other things) end our dependence on fossil fuels.
This will be the "biggest, hardest project man could conceive of," he admitted. "It will be anything but easy." But he passionately argued that focusing on and putting massive resources into innovation will ultimately be our best and brightest hope for developing such revolutionary technology.
That's right, this is the quintessential "Techno-Fix" position, the quasi-religious belief that technology will solve our problems, allow us to continue to fuel economic growth by some means other than fossil fuels, and maintain our current way of life. ("Our current way of life," means, of course, the Western way of life typified in America.)
I was stunned that the crowd loved it all. I'm still amazed that Friedman has so many smart people completely hoodwinked.
In the face of growing global crises of climate change, resource depletion and economic collapse, placing all bets on Friedman's fabulous as-yet-uninvented technology is at best wildly speculative. At worst, it is deeply and dangerously wrong-headed.
In his speech, Friedman related a story about his telling Al Gore that he owed a big apology to the world for significantly understating the seriousness of climate change. Interesting.
I wanted to jump up and say, "Tom, it is absolutely true Al Gore owes us a huge apology, but for different reasons than you think. And you are going to owe the world the same apology, for failing in exactly the same way that Al Gore has."
Here's what I mean: While it's certainly important to invest massively in the development of alternative, renewable energy technologies, leading people to believe that we will not need to change our lifestyle along the way and that there is therefore no need to reduce our levels of energy consumption, is irresponsible and perhaps morally reprehensible.
Gore and Friedman are both in effect telling us that all we need to do is wait
until the technology creators and the government get the new technology in place, that in the meantime we can confidently continue with life and business pretty much as usual. This is profoundly and recklessly misleading, and both Gore and Friedman should be soundly reprimanded for their behavior (Nobel prize and seven-figure book sales notwithstanding).
Recently, a number of Transitioners and related bloggers were shocked and temporarily hopeful ("Is Thomas Friedman waking up?" and "Tom Friedman's Awakening
") when Friedman posted a column
featuring these surprising thoughts:
"Let’s today step out of the normal boundaries of analysis of our economic crisis and ask a radical question: What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall—when Mother Nature and the market both said: 'No more.'
"We have created a system for growth that depended on our building more and more stores to sell more and more stuff made in more and more factories in China, powered by more and more coal that would cause more and more climate change but earn China more and more dollars to buy more and more U.S. T-bills so America would have more and more money to build more and more stores and sell more and more stuff that would employ more and more Chinese … We can’t do this anymore."
This out-of-character column prompted Asher Miller (executive director of Post Carbon Institute), in a post titled "Hot, Flat, and Confused,
" to write, "When people like Friedman...are all talking about the end of growth, now that gives me some hope."
And with Friedman's apparent new direction, Todd Siegel, initiator of Transition Boulder, wondered , "Who will I love to hate now?"
Is Tom Friedman having some sort of epiphany? Not so fast.
As I told Todd, I'm still wary. After all, Friedman does say in his piece, "We must have growth, but we must grow in a different way," and he promotes green growth, smart growth, and efficiency.
I am reminded that Al Bartlett teaches that smart growth ultimately gets us to the same place as dumb growth. I think Friedman still wants to fuel economic growth by some other means. This is far different from the “steady-state economy” envisioned by ecological economists.
Todd wrote back this morning, referencing a new Friedman column, "The Next Really Cool Thing,
" in which he dangles the game-changing techno-fix promise of "a laser-powered fusion energy power plant that would have all the reliability of coal, without the carbon dioxide, all the cleanliness of wind and solar, without having to worry about the sun not shining or the wind not blowing, and all the scale of nuclear," a concept now being investigated at Lawrence Livermore Lab's National Ignition Facility.
Friedman concludes, "At the pace we’re going with the technologies we have, without some game-changers, climate change is going to have its way with us. Yes, we’ll still need coal for some time. But let’s make sure that we aren’t just chasing the fantasy that we can 'clean up' coal, when our real future depends on birthing new technologies that can replace it."
I'm glad that Friedman acknowledges that "clean coal" is a fantasy. But he's still in denial of the reality that, like it or not, we here in America will be compelled to dramatically reduce our profligate consumption of energy and other resources to sustainable levels.
Disappointed, Todd moaned, "He's lost his mind again. What was I thinking of?"
Meanwhile, I've been reading Gus Speth's A Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability
. I find it extremely powerful, probably required reading (he’s the economist that David Korten applauds in his Agenda for a New Economy
; BTW, we’ll be co-sponsoring Korten’s appearance in Boulder in May).