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Green alert

books Updated: Dec 13, 2008 23:02 IST
KumKum Dasgupta
KumKum Dasgupta
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

Hot, Flat and Crowded
Thomas L. Friedman
Allen Lane Rs 595
pp 438

RG, a fellow journo, called me from Bangalore last week. He had just come back from a party hosted by a liquor baron and was terribly excited. “He’s so rich that his limousine sits idling at his doorstep so that he can walk into a perfect environment. Amazing, nah?” Apocryphal story, but alarming nonetheless — not because the host was burning up subsidised fuel and polluting an already-polluted city, but because RG found this colossal waste so enthralling.

For The New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, RG (and the host) would be a fit case for his ‘affluenza’ theory. In his latest book, he writes that a concern for today’s world, among other challenges, is the growth of “carbon copies” of the US: a lifestyle based on cheap fossil fuel foundation and marked by high consumption. That, according to the author, is the frightening part. By doing so “we are going to make Planet Earth so hot and strip it so bare of resources, that nobody... will be able to live like Americans anymore.”

This is roughly the starting point of the argument from the ‘thrice-Pulitzered’ Friedman. He takes the readers through a full circle of the energy and climate change debate: how we all landed up where we have (a hot, flat and crowded world), the way forward, how emerging economies like China are poised on this energy debate and how America can make the transition from their ‘Dirty Fuels System’ to ‘Clean Energy System’. The rest is on how to make it happen.

The main argument of the book is that “America has a problem and the world has a problem”. The former is facing a crisis because it lost its way after 9/11 and because of the bad habits it has built up over three decades that have weakened its ability to take on serious challenges. Meanwhile, the world has also developed, consumption has increased and there has been a rapid population growth. This has led to pressure on resources, extinction of plants and animals, deepening of energy poverty, strengthening of petro-dictatorship and accelerating climate change. “How we address these interwoven global trends will determine a lot about the quality of life on earth in the 21st century,” writes Friedman.

To take on these challenges, the author says that America should adopt, ‘Code Green’ — “making America the world’s leader in innovating clean power and energy efficient systems and inspiring an ethic of conservation toward the natural world”.

Friedman in his signature snappy style — it’s not A.D. 2008, but 1. E.C.E or Energy Climate Era — he joins the dots, inter-linking global events with local ones. In an era of information overload, such analysis helps readers to understand our consumption-led growth trajectory and its pitfalls.

Two sections stand out: ‘How We Got Here’ and ‘How We Move Forward’. In the first section (in the chapter on petro-dictatorship), Friedman draws a graph that shows the correlation between the price of oil between 1975 and 2005 and the pace of freedom in those oil-producing States during the same years. The message: when one goes up, the other falls down.

In the second section, Friedman draws a scenario in 20 E.C.E. when the world lives in an era of real ‘green revolution’ where calibrated use of all kinds of energy is the norm. Standing today, it might sound like science-fiction novel, but the author assures us that it is not so because a similar prototype of Energy Internet is already under experimentation.

The neat turn of phrases and anecdotes makes the book pleasurable reading, although, at times, it could be too detailed for the lay reader. However, while the US and China are seen as the leaders of this race against time to save the world, India finds very little mention (unlike in The World is Flat) even though the richness of India’s fast-losing culture of conservation and thrift is worth re-learning and re-discovering.