Books: the green American dreamer

China and other developing nations will shape the global response to climate change and energy needs. John Gray takes issue with the nationalism of Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat and Crowded.

Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why the World Needs a Green Revolution — and How We Can Renew Our Global Future
Thomas L Friedman
Allen Lane, 2008

There can be few writers so adept at catching the American mood as Thomas Friedman. In The Lexus and the Olive Tree, published in 1999, the influential New York Times columnist celebrated globalisation in triumphal fin-de-siècle fashion as a process whose end-point is universal Americanisation. The paean continued in The World Is Flat, which appeared in 2005, but by then globalisation was not looking so unambiguously benign and the subtext of Friedman’s jubilation was the threat it was posing to the American way of life. One of the book’s messages was that the United States needed to reduce its dependency on imported oil.

American “energy independence” would allow the United States to delink itself from the global market. In this way, the prophet of globalisation seemed to be suggesting, the country could turn its back on the frighteningly unAmerican world that globalisation was actually producing.

Friedman’s latest book synthesises ideas that have been floating around in America ever since the scale of the disaster in Iraq became undeniable. Supporters of the war believed that once Iraq’s oil had been seized and privatised, the price of oil would come down, with Paul Wolfowitz – the former deputy secretary of defence who went on to head the World Bank — arguing that the invasion would be self-financing and result in a global economic boom. In fact, exploiting Iraq’s oil assets proved very difficult, production was lower than under Saddam Hussein and the oil price spiralled upwards.

At this point, even neoconservatives, who had hitherto looked on green thinking as a dastardly leftist plot, became interested in energy conservation. Not himself a neoconservative — on many issues his views are liberal, even social democrat — Friedman was at one with the “neo-cons” in urging a fundamental rethink of American environmental policies. Hot, Flat and Crowded is the result.

The book is archetypal Friedman. Breathlessly upbeat in style, seemingly written in a succession of airport lounges, it is a compendium of the bullish delusions of US politics over the past two decades. He instructs the reader in what he calls “the First Law of Petro-Politics”, which says that when the price of oil goes down, freedom goes up. A drop in the price of oil to US$20 a barrel will trigger democratic revolutions throughout the Persian Gulf region, he believes, and in one sense he is right. A collapse in the oil price would destabilise existing regimes and might well result in a spread of democracy. But in most cases, certainly in Saudi Arabia, which remains vital to western oil supplies, it would be an Islamist version of democracy — hostile to western interests — that would come to power.

Friedman makes much of the example of Bahrain, where he tells us the prospect of oil running out is leading to democratic reforms. But the upshot of this democratisation is unclear and the so-called Law of Petro-Politics is, in general, not much more than a formula for wishful thinking.

At other times, Friedman is refreshingly realistic. “Rapid economic growth and population expansion,” he writes, “are driving the destruction of forests and other ecosystems at unprecedented rate. The destruction of these forests and biodiversity-rich environments, in turn, contributes to climate change by releasing more carbon in the atmosphere.”

Here Friedman recognises the interconnections that underlie the environmental crisis and which necessitate a shift in our whole way of doing things. He is robust in recognising that any effective response to climate change must include high-tech solutions such as nuclear power, although his proposal for an “Energy Internet” (“one big seamless platform for using, storing, generating and even buying and selling clean electrons”) sounds impractical.

A large-scale fusion of information technology and energy technology could have many benefits, but in a world of states competing for energy resources, and using these resources as geopolitical levers, there is no prospect of such a scheme operating at the global level. Even so, Friedman’s focus on technical fixes for environmental problems is closer to reality than mainstream green thinking, which clings to a utopian faith in political transformation.

Friedman’s discussion of the environmental challenges facing the world contains valuable insights. Yet in the context of the book as a whole, these insights are almost inadvertent. Hot, Flat and Crowded is only incidentally about the environment. As is always the case with Friedman, its real subject is not the world, but America. The concluding paragraph is toe-curling in its parochialism: “We need to redefine green and rediscover America and in so doing rediscover ourselves and what it means to be Americans. We are all Pilgrims again. We are all sailing on the Mayflower anew.”

An Americo-centric perspective of this kind might have made some sense 20 years ago. In today’s world, where the United States is a tottering power, it is comically deluded. It is not America that will decisively shape the global response to climate change and energy crisis. It is emerging nations, above all China, which is definitely not sailing on the Mayflower. True, Friedman gives China’s rulers grudging praise for their environmental awareness, but only on condition that China ends up being more like America: “They will never say so, but I do not think they can go green without, over time, going at least a little orange — à la the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004.”

Since that was written, events have altered the picture. Russia’s self-assertion in the Caucasus has revealed the geo-political forces that are shaping world politics and the future of the orange revolutions is looking less assured than it did only months ago. More to the point, at least from Friedman’s navel-gazing perspective, Americans now have other concerns. The environmental anxieties that followed the Iraq debacle are fading, along with the war itself, from the centre of American politics. The struggle to avert a catastrophic depression is now all-consuming. The American psyche is grappling with a well-founded fear of economic collapse and it is hard to see it being energised by Friedman’s green-tinged nationalism.

The upshot cannot be known, but as fear tightens its grip, drilling for oil off its coastlines and reopening coal mines may be what the United States resorts to. History has moved on, the American mood has shifted and for once Friedman has been left behind.

John Gray’s Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia is published by Penguin.

Copyright Guardian News and Media Limited 2009