Green Expectations

Standout Q&A with Thomas Friedman

Thomas Friedman

Thomas Friedman talks about his latest book, Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution and How It Can Renew America.

Contrary to the Minnesota stereotype, there’s nothing passive about Thomas Friedman’s aggressive views, especially when it comes to foreign and domestic affairs. And his readers wouldn’t have it any other way. Friedman’s hard-hitting commentary in The New York Times has earned him three Pulitzers to date, while all of his books (including the smash hit, The World Is Flat) have won awards and topped bestseller lists the world over. This month, he adds another manifesto to the library: Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution—and How It Can Renew America.

When Momentum caught up with the St. Louis Park native back in June, he was busy finalizing his new book. He was also juggling jet lag and a column deadline, but he still made our 15-minute phone call count.

What inspired you to write Hot, Flat and Crowded?

I actually started out to write a book called Green is the New Red, White and Blue, and I came to realize that there was a bigger story going on: What happens when we enter a world where so many people can live like Americans? It’s a great thing that so many people can now enjoy the kind of lifestyle that we enjoy, but with that comes much greater consumption and energy usage.

What’s the big question you tried to answer in your book?

“What do we have to do to have abundant, clean, reliable and cheap electrons?” To me, the answer to the problem is you need a market signal. I’m not a believer in a Manhattan Project. I’m a believer in the market. But markets have to be shaped, and the way they’re shaped is with price signals. You get the price signals right and it will stimulate the market to do massive innovation on the scale we need.

Did your opinions about environmental issues change while you were doing your research?

I think the only thing that changed was it strengthened two views. One is what a huge-scale project this is. If you’re not using words that begin with “T,” as in “trillion,” whether it’s the trillions of watts or the trillions of dollars it’s going to require, you’re getting nowhere. And lastly, the thing that impressed me is the scale of the opportunity. Clean power, clean energy, clean water—those are going to be the next great global industries. Are we going to lead them, or are others going to lead them?

If America doesn’t step up and lead, what are the consequences?

Imagine if we didn’t lead the I.T. revolution. Where would we be today? Well, another revolution is [emerging]. It’s called the E.T. revolution—energy technology—and nobody’s claimed this one yet. We made the I.T. revolution; let’s make sure we make the E.T. revolution. If we don’t, we will not be a superpower.

Given the recent debate surrounding biofuels, what’s your stance on traditional food-crop biofuels like corn ethanol?

I’m not a fan of corn ethanol. I don’t think it really makes sense to put all that water and all that energy into food that is going to produce so relatively little bang for the buck. I am for basically an all-electron system. I don’t think that molecules are the future. We will need molecules for transition, but we have to move to a system of clean power generation, of clean electrons, into a smart grid, into a smart home, into a smart car. That’s what I call the Energy Internet, and that, to me, is the future.

What are your thoughts on the potential federal ban of products, like the incandescent light bulb?

I have a motto which is, “Change your leaders, not your light bulbs.” [It’s important] for everyone to change their light bulbs, but we have to focus on changing leaders. I’ll put it this way: Leaders write rules. Rules shape markets. Markets give you scale. If we have the wrong leaders—leaders who are in no way sensitive to the green necessities—we’re just not going to go anywhere.

Let’s say you have two minutes with the next U.S. president. What’s your advice?

To think big. Swing for the fences. We need a carbon tax, cap and trade, some kind of price signal, a national renewable energy portfolio standard.

How do we get the rest of the world—places like China and India—not to make the same mistakes we’ve made?

My approach to China is very simple. Every time I go there, young Chinese say to me, “Mr. Friedman, you got to grow dirty for 150 years. Now it’s our turn.” And I say to young Chinese, “You’re absolutely right, it is your turn. Take your time. Grow as dirty as you want.” … Because this is going to be the next great global industry, and I want to make sure [America has] the people to lead it.

Photo: Nancy Ostertag, Getty Images