3E Intelligence

I am not a big fan of Thomas Friedman’s ideas on globalisation (“The World is Flat”), but his analyis on the “power of green” in the International Herald Tribune (a reprint from the NY Times Magazine) on Sunday 15th is certainly worth spending a few words on.

In the 10-page article, Friedman argues that the US should become the new green “beacon of progress, hope and inspiration”. Only a redefined and “more muscular” green ideology can address the three major issues “facing every American today: jobs, temperature and terrorism”, according to Friedman. Defining his green agenda as “geostrategic, geo-economic, capitalistic and patriotic”, the American author and columnist presents an interesting thesis with which I could not agree more: “We don’t just need the first black president. We need the first green president. We don’t just need the first woman president. We need the first environmental president”.

In an interesting analysis of how high oil prices are filling the pockets of the financiers of terrorism (Saudi Arabia)and new authoritarianism (Russia), Friedman repeats some of the arguments he has made in other articles on the need for the US to become energy independent. In passing, Friedman also again defines his “First Law of Petropolitics”: “The price of oil and the pace of freedom always move in opposite directions in states that are highly dependent on oil exports for their income and have weak institutions or outright authoritarian governments”. For this reason, energy efficiency and energy independence have become major concerns for national security, which Friedman underlines with good examples of “Green Hawks” in the US army. Let me add to that that some of the best analysis on peak oil has been undertaken by the US army (on this, see Energy Bulletin).

Another reason that green has “gone Main Street is because global warming has”, Friedman continues. Using the “stabilisation wedges” approach of Socolow and Pacala of Princeton, he advocates a “huge global industrial energy project” but is also realistic enough to understand that this project will have to include new economic superpowers in the making: “Green will not go down Main Street America unless it also goes down Main Street China, India and Brazil”. On how this global greening of the world is supposed to take place, on the other hand, he does not really give any convincing answer except for an all-American belief in “Father Greed”, technologies and the “mobilisation of free-market capitalism”.

Strangely enough, chapter six of the article then makes the case for government intervention in US energy policy. Demonstrating well how shifting to low-carbon electricity does not provide anything new (“electricity is electricity, no matter how it is generated”), governments will have to put a price on carbon, says Friedman. To make business integrate green into their DNA, the US will need “a Green New Deal”.But Friedman also observes that the “presidential hopefuls are largely full of hot air on the climate-energy issue”. So, in the end, the brilliant article ends with a rather disappointing conclusion. We need a new “ethic of stewardship”, says Friedman and for that this generation has to rise to the occasion, just like “our parents rose to such a challenge in World War II”.

In conclusion, Friedman’s manifesto is an eye-opener and a must-read. There are, however, two important weaknesses in his thinking. First of all, I doubt whether his “green patriotism” is compatible with the reality of “interconnectedness” in a flat or globalised world. In this perspective, it seems quite significant that there is no mentioning of the European Union as a laboratory (although a lame one) for a greener economy.

Secondly, his green manifesto still naively believes that greening the economy will ultimately lead to a “new cornucopia of abundance”. The “pre-climate war era” that Friedman describes in his article, should in reality be called “the Age of New Scarcity”. And the real challenge will be to redefine prosperity and redistribute the declining “wealth” on a planet that has learned to accepts its physical limits. Whether the “red, white and blue lifestyle” can survive such a 21st century renaissance is very questionable.

Read also James Howard Kunstler’s critique of the Friedman article.

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