Thomas Friedman: U.S. Can Lead the Green Revolution and Renew Itself

Oct 21, 2008

"America has lost its groove," argued New York Times foreign affairs columnist and bestselling author Thomas Friedman at a September 29, 2008, discussion of his new book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution—and How it Can Renew America, sponsored by the Wilson Center's Division of International Security Studies and Environmental Change and Security Program. "We need to get back to an America that's about the Fourth of July and not 9/11," maintained Friedman, who believes the United States needs to assume a more active and less defensive posture in the world. "We get our groove back as a country…by taking the lead in solving the world's biggest problems," which he said include climate change, rising energy demand, and biodiversity loss.

The book's title identifies three major trends of this century: Climate change is warming our planet; the rise of a global middle class is flattening the differences between rich and poor; and a rapidly expanding population is crowding the world. According to Friedman, these converging trends are driving "five global mega-trends" that will determine our future stability:

  • Energy and natural resource supply and demand: While some countries are taking steps to become more energy-efficient, the explosive growth of developing-country cities is outpacing these gains. Friedman asserts that there are not enough energy and natural resources for everyone to consume at Americans' current rates and that everyone, Americans included, must address energy supply and demand.
  • Petrodictatorship: We are "funding both sides of the war on terrorism," said Friedman: the U.S. military with tax dollars, and terrorist groups (and the states that sponsor them) with gas dollars.
  • Climate change: Friedman emphasized that the pace of climate change is exceeding many scientists' predictions, including those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and that we have little time to act.
  • Energy poverty: The lack of a consistent electricity supply not only cripples 1.6 billion people's ability to obtain high-quality health care and adapt to the effects of climate change, but also prevents them from accessing the myriad educational and economic opportunities provided by the Internet.
  • Biodiversity loss: The Earth is losing species 1,000 times faster than normal, claimed Friedman. "We are the first generation of humans that is actually going to have to think like Noah," said Friedman, to save rapidly disappearing plants and animals.


Friedman thinks these trends are "a series of incredible opportunities masquerading as impossible and insoluble problems" because all five can be reversed by "abundant, cheap, clean, reliable electrons" and energy efficiency. The country that becomes the leader in new energy technology (ET) will have the most stable economy and garner the most respect on the international stage, said Friedman. If the United States does not take the lead in the ET revolution, others—China, India, Europe—will, but they won't do it as fast or as well as the United States, he says.

Friedman believes the market is the key to igniting an ET revolution. "This country has never been more alive in terms of innovation," he says, but our leaders have not capitalized on it. He thinks the government must play an important role—"for markets to produce innovation, they need to be shaped"—but not by launching a "Manhattan Project" for energy. "We are not going to regulate our way out of this problem; we are only going to innovate our way out of this problem."

Friedman criticized the pop culture environmentalism that claims people can save the Earth by changing their daily lives in small, painless ways. "Easy should not be in the lexicon," he maintained. But even if an ET revolution will be difficult, it is still achievable: "We have exactly enough time, starting now," said Friedman.

By Rachel Weisshaar

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