I don’t usually write about non-fiction books, but I found this one so fascinating that I just had to share it.
The book is sub-titled: Why the world needs a green revolution – and how we can renew our global future. The first half is about the problems, and the second half offers some ways forward. There is some very interesting – and disturbing – information and analysis in the first half, but it is the opportunities outlined in the second half that are the most exciting part of the book for me; it is just so refreshing to be reminded that while we have huge challenges, there are things we may be able to do if we have the will.
Friedman is a journalist, not an environmental scientist, but he is extremely well informed. This means that he can communicate technical information on an every day level to non-scientists. He has interviewed a diverse range of people for the book, and uses many of their stories to illustrate the points he is making.
By ‘hot’ Friedman means that the word is being adversely affected by climate change; by ‘flat’ he means that millions more people are now attaining middle class lifestyles and levels of consumption; and by ‘crowded’ he means that the population of the world is growing exponentially, to the point where resources to sustain them are becoming scarce. He sees these three tendencies interacting to create a situation that is problematic today, but which will become a crisis for future generations if not acted upon now.
Friedman’s discussion of the key problems of energy supply and demand, climate change and biodiversity loss is not new, though it is worth being reminded of the details. But he also links in two other problems: energy poverty and what he calls ‘petropolitics’, which, roughly, is the politics relating to the supply of oil from the places like the middle east and Russia. I found his discussion of the relationship between high oil prices and high levels of social repression in ‘petrodictatorships’ quite illuminating. He also makes a very good argument that all these problems are linked, and cannot be resolved in isolation. I found this section of the book to be quite depressing, as the problems seem so huge.
However, the section entitled ‘How we move forward’ is really stimulating; for the first time, I was being told about possible practical solutions and how they might work. Friedman argues that there needs to be a systems approach which encompasses a renewable energy ecosystem for innovating, generating and deploying clean power, energy efficiency, resource productivity and conservation. He believes that it is up to government to put in place the appropriate legislation, regulation and incentives, most crucially a price on carbon, but also energy efficiency ratings, sustainable building codes and the like. Within these bounds, he believes that the price signals of a market economy are most likely to drive the innovation and changes in behaviour of both suppliers and customers that will be needed to make the transition from reliance on ‘dirty’ fuels to cheap, reliable, renewable ones. He sees this as an opportunity as well as a threat. He is not suggesting that the changes he proposes will be easy – far from it. But it is still refreshing to read how a clean energy economy might work.
Friedman is an American writing for Americans, so it is not surprising that part of his argument is that American should lead the world’s green revolution. Not being an American I found this a bit annoying. He also focuses on problems that are specific to America, like the absence of a national electricity grid, and does not always give due credit to other countries that are making progress in areas where America is lagging. But his discussion of China’s response to the related problems of hot, flat and crowded is fascinating.
Despite his despair at the lack of political will to act, Friedman ultimately feels ‘sober optimism’ about our chances of finding a set of realisable solutions to the interrelated problems he outlines. Such optimism is necessary if we are to find the will to act, and he believes strongly in bottom up as well as top down action. So whatever your views on climate change, conservation, renewable energy or the politics of oil, I urge you to read this book, envisage a possible future, and act on your conclusions.