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How green is my free market?

Book>> Hot, Flat and Crowded, Why the world needs a green revolution and how we can renew our global future by Thomas L Friedman, Allen Lane London 2008

By Pratul Raturi
Published: Monday 15 December 2008


Reading a Thomas Friedman book is somewhat like watching a Steven Spielberg film. The Pulitzer prize-winning American journalist's felicity with words matches Spielberg's finesse with filmmaking. But the analogy fits for another reason like Spielberg, Friedman's canvases are huge. The issues he grapples with are always global terrorism, social and economic fallouts of globalization, and now global warming. And like Spielberg, Friedman's protagonists have their flaws, but they still appear larger than life.

Initially an evangelical for the us invasion of Iraq and its War against Terror, Friedman has changed tracks in the last few years and of late, his energies have been directed at understanding how the world has become flat--his phrase to describe social and economic globalization. But unlike his last offering, The World is Flat, his new work Hot, Flat and Crowded would not cheer us. One paragraph sums up the warning he issues in this book "Global warming, the stunning rise of middle classes all over the world, and rapid population growth have converged in a way that could make our planet dangerously unstable. The convergence of hot, flat, and crowded is tightening energy supplies, intensifying extinction of plants and animals, deepening energy poverty... and accelerating climate change."

The litany of dangers has been told many times before and global warming is no longer just a topic for closed-door seminars or the grist for conspiracy theories. Friedman's voice is compelling, nevertheless. He plays futurist with the lan of a Spielberg the road out of today's mess is studded with wind turbines and solar plants, he says. But such renewable resources account for only a little fraction of current power supply and economists will rightly have the heartburn that Friedman does not dwell much on the cost of various renewable energy options.

Down to Earth There is a more serious grouse Friedman's unabashed Americo-centrism. He believes that the us must be the leader of the new movement against global warming. He says that the country needs to set an example for the world by starting over and constructing an entirely new clean energy system, one that will send "clean electrons" into its homes, offices and cars--generated not by dirty old oil or coal, but by solar, wind and nuclear power--and that will use many fewer of those electrons, thanks to greater efficiency.

He plays futurist again, imagining a world where an Energy Internet puts your home appliances in touch with the power company, drawing out the minimal power it needs to function and at the cheapest, off-peak times. Even your car can charge its battery with solar power, which it then sells back to the grid.

He warns that if the us does not set its house right with clean energy, other countries will. And if other countries, like China, do so before America, they'll develop more efficiently. One might want to turn around and ask Friedman So what if the us is left in the dust? One might also want to turn around and tell Friedman that Europe has already upstaged his country in the use of clean energy.

Even by Friedman's account, the us is not going to adopt clean energy for a song. The very "nature of American capitalism" is threatening the prosperity of the planet, he writes. But he sees no contradiction in the cause he advocates and the agency that he sets forth for reform. This leads him on to a messy track. Freidman is committed to praising the globalizing forces that have flattened the world, but he despairs at their consequences. He waxes eloquent about the free market, but also looks wistfully at the well-oiled mass transit systems of Europe, which keep cars off the road and emit less carbon dioxide--possibly thanks either to state ownership or to enormous subsidies.

Friedman goes back to his universal hero, the free market, to resolve the contradictions. The market, he says, can be tweaked into becoming environmentally friendly. But how? Freidman's hero has come a cropper so far.

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