The Way to the New World

Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution -- and How It Can Renew America, by Thomas L. Friedman Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 438 pages, $27.95
Earth: The Sequel: The Race To Reinvent Energy and Stop Global Warming, by Fred Krupp and Miriam Horn, W.W. Norton, 279 pages, $24.95
Coming Clean: Breaking America's Addiction To Oil and Coal, by Michael Brune, Sierra Club Books, 269 pages, $14.95

***

Last year, when An Inconvenient Truth won an Academy Award, there was a sense of triumph and vindication among environmentalists. The interminable debate over the realities of global warming seemed finally, mercifully over.

But the rapture proved short-lived. It soon became clear that the next debate, about what and how much to do about the problem, would be every bit as contentious. Conservatives shifted seamlessly from climatic Pollyannas to economic Chicken Littles, insisting that strong steps to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions would destroy prosperity.

Cute pictures of endangered polar bears have done little to counter that argument, but a more effective response is now taking shape. Rather than focusing narrowly on the ecological, it takes a more expansive view, casting "green" as savvy economics and tough-minded national-security strategy. Curiously, this approach finds its most powerful expression in the writing not of longtime environmentalists but of green's recent converts. Enter New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman.

No matter the subject he takes up -- foreign policy, globalization, now the environment -- Friedman goes at it with the same fervid, hawkish enthusiasm. In his new book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, he embraces green wholeheartedly, but not in the way that those fuzzy-headed, limp-wristed countercultural types do. No sir. This is green for Real Men, green as "the new red, white, and blue."

Friedman's attraction to macho posturing has gotten him into trouble before, most notoriously when he said that the Iraq War was about telling a Mideast country to "Suck. On. This." His dizzying prose -- the endless cavalcade of analogies, anecdotes, aphorisms, and folksy formulae -- has come in for a great deal of mockery as well. But somehow, here, it all works. Just as his Times columns improved markedly when he took to green issues, so too is this book an improvement on his previous one, The World is Flat, which extolled the globe-shrinking (or as he insists on saying, flattening) effects of communication technology. He's finally found the yin to his yammer -- a cause that benefits from his giddy futurism and talent for catchy framing. "Green is going from boutique to better, from a choice to a necessity, from a fad to a strategy to win, from an insoluble problem to a great opportunity," he says, and off we go. Whee!

Friedman's cheerleading for globalization has brought brickbats not only from economic populists but also from environmentalists, who point out that if China and India raise their per-capita resource consumption to American levels, the world is well and truly doomed. Unsustainable development poses a serious challenge to Friedman's globalist vision and indeed, an existential dilemma for humanity. Our disasters are no longer local; we're playing with all the chips now. To his credit, Friedman doesn't try to dodge or minimize the challenges. The first half or so of the book is a solemn tour of woes: "the growing demand for ever scarcer energy supplies and natural resources; a massive transfer of wealth to oil-rich countries and their petrodictators; disruptive climate change; energy poverty, which is sharply dividing the world into electricity haves and electricity have-nots; and rapidly accelerating biodiversity loss, as plants and animals go extinct at record rates."

These metastasizing dangers don't for a second cause Friedman to question his commitment to globalization. He's determined to make the project work, and green is the key that he hopes will open the way. Happily, his instincts on green issues turn out to be considerably more reliable than his instincts on foreign policy. In the name of energy independence, a lot of other self-consciously butch new greens support ethanol and other biofuels, which raise the price of food and encourage deforestation, or "clean coal," which blows the tops off of mountains. Friedman doesn't fall into those traps. He's found the right people to talk to, focused on the correct inflection points, and hit on the best answers to the biggest questions.

Friedman recognizes the core green truth that the future is all about clean electrons -- that is, carbon-free electricity -- and energy efficiency. He wants to electrify as much power use as possible, including transportation, and co-opt the vehicle fleet as a distributed energy--storage network. Moving power use to the grid also opens up the full potential of an "energy internet," Friedman's term for a smart electrical grid infused with information technology ("ET meets IT"). Energy wonks know that the "electranet" (as Al Gore calls it) is a huge piece of the energy puzzle, but it's difficult to discuss without sounding like a dippy Buck Rogers fanboy. Perhaps it takes someone as unabashedly full of himself as Friedman to pull it off, and to his credit he goes in deep, laying out an elaborate future scenario of what life will look like when every appliance, vehicle, and power plant is in constant communication.

The section on China is also extraordinarily good -- sober, insightful, and (something difficult for Friedman) ambivalent -- and the discussion of conservation and biodiversity is a pleasant addition to an otherwise energy-centric work. There are, inevitably, lacunae. Friedman gives only cursory attention to water, the oil of the 21st century, and says virtually nothing about peak oil -- that is, the possibility that global oil production will soon top out and begin to decline -- which could wreak a lot more havoc, a lot sooner, than some of the other problems on his list.

What will most strike veteran environmentalists about the book, though, is not any diagnosis or prescription; the material is familiar to those deeply involved with these issues. What is most striking is the book's sheer, unapologetic, rip-roaring ambition. Like so much of the American left, the environmental movement has become acclimated to the notion that it is operating outside the mainstream, knocking sheepishly on the door. Its rallying cry might as well be, "If it's not too much trouble ...." Friedman, on the other hand, is all confidence. He claims the world and asks for the sky.

***

Where Friedman's book is a cacophonous, ramshackle one-man band, Earth: The Sequel by Fred Krupp and Miriam Horn is chamber music. Each chapter is a tight variation on a theme, telling the stories of entrepreneurs in thin-film solar, geothermal, and other clean-energy technologies. Krupp is the president of the Environmental Defense Fund, and no enviro is more expert at navigating the halls of power and presenting reforms in establishment-friendly language. Ostensibly about the entrepreneurs, the book is really an extended brief for EDF's preferred policy, a carbon cap-and-trade system modeled on the acid-rain trading program the group helped pioneer in the 1990s.

The idiosyncrasies and cleverness of the innovators are entertaining, and there's much to be said for cap-and-trade, but the relentless message discipline seems designed above all to ruffle no feathers. Corporate power brokers will be pleased to find their beloved "clean coal" listed among the solutions and non-market-based policy proposals tucked away discreetly in the penultimate chapter. Readers will be pleased to find that they are not confronted with calls to sacrifice or threatened with changes in their ways of life.

Earth is an easy read and effective in its own limited aims, but one can't help wonder when the environmental movement lost the kind of punch-drunk ambition that Friedman and other newly minted greens offer.

On the other hand, every drunk has to sober up eventually, and after a few shots of Big Picture techno-futurism, Michael Brune's Coming Clean is a cup of black coffee. Where Friedman's prose is flamboyant, Brune's is almost defiantly unadorned and artless. Where Krupp is taken with savants, Brune is all about ordinary folks. Coming Clean is a combined policy-briefing book and citizen-action guide, focused on organizing campaigns to do the thankless work of calling legislators, sending letters to the editor, and protesting outside of corporate headquarters. Nobody knows this stuff better: Brune is head of the Rainforest Action Network, a group that has leveraged its comparatively paltry budget (it spent around $3 million in 2007, compared to EDF's $73 million) to bend to its will such behemoths as Citibank and Goldman Sachs. Brune's message is that nobody needs to wait on geniuses to develop the right gadgets -- the levers of change are in reach.

The newly expansive, inclusive, and confident green turn is an unambiguously good thing. But it will get nowhere unless Americans regain the sense that their future is a collective project for which they bear responsibility and over which they have some measure of power. If Friedman's vision and Krupp's insider chops can be combined with the kind of broad social movement that activists such as Brune are painstakingly trying to build, we might just make it after all.

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