Friday, January 16, 2009

Hot, flat, and crowded - A book review

Although I've seen him interviewed a number of times on The Daily Show, "Hot, Flat, and Crowded" was my first Thomas Friedman read. The premise of the book is that the Earth as we know it today is "hot" (in the wake of global warming), "flat" (technology in communication and commerce has made it a "small world after all" in that we have access to the world, it's knowledge, and it's products with a second's notice), and "crowded" (the Earth's population is growing at an alarming rate). 

As global warming meets instant gratification for a world full of people by today's standards of consumption, we get a host of problems ranging from what he calls "petrodictatorship" (the people against whom we are fighting the war on terror are the same people from whom we buy our oil - just a little conflict of interest) to widespread energy crisis (all the coal in the world can't get every human being up to the American standard of living).

Friedman stresses that America has fallen behind in it's status as a world leader; that while other countries have braced for the challenges ahead and are decades farther along in the pursuit of energy independence, economic stability, and sustainable living, the US has become lax. In generations past, we were such a leader and we can become one again, but only with determination, focus, and innovation.
We have been living for far too long on borrowed time and borrowed dimes. We need to get back to work on our country and on our planet. The hour is late, the stakes couldn't be higher, the project couldn't be harder, the payoff couldn't be greater.
He goes on to insist that
...if all the world's people start to live like us, it would herald a climate and biodiversity disaster. Does that mean that we don't want people to live like us anymore? No. It means that we have to take the lead in redesigning and reinventing what living like us means... Because if the spread of freedom and free markets is not accompanied by a new approach to how we produce energy and treat the environment, then Mother Nature and planet earth will impose their own constraints on our way of life - constraints and limitations that will be worse than communism... Without it, we are not going to be free much longer - and neither will anybody else.
So far so good. I'm following along nicely. With the middle classes in China and India growing and  demanding the "American" lifestyle, the Earth can't keep up with our consumption requirements. The Earth can't meet our demands and unfortunately, we're not really in a position to call the shots (aka Mother Earth certainly has the power to kick us kids out of the house). But then in his solutions, he contradicts himself from one chapter to another. In one chapter he says we can't "force" companies to go green and in other chapters, he says that in a green revolution, companies must be green or die. Ok. 

Another example, and a quote I heartily agree with, Friedman says
Green is a value that needs to be preserved in and of itself, not because it's going to make your bank account richer, because it makes life richer and always has. At the end of the day that is what the "ethic of conservation" is also about. An ethic of conservation declares that maintaining our natural world that is a value that is impossible to quantify but also impossible to ignore, because of the sheer beauty, wonder, joy, and magic that nature brings to being alive.
Sounds great, but in an earlier chapter, in a literary illustration of what the future might look like, he describes a very Jetsonian (as in the cartoon the Jetsons) lifestyle where every little nook and cranny of life is managed for us by a computer. Do you remember the Jetsons being very in touch with the "sheer beauty, wonder, joy and magic that nature brings to being alive?" His quote talks about being in touch with nature, yet an entire chapter earlier in the book is about how the green revolution will mean more "stuff" for everyone. Everyone can have the consumeristic American lifestyle. Yeah. Great. 

But if I had to sum up Friedman's solution to "hot, flat, and crowded" in four words it would be "technology will save us." This is where it all falls apart for me. Heaven forbid anyone actually reduce their consumption. That would be un-American. Now, I'm not saying that there's no place for technology (in a sustainable future there certainly is); but this utopia he creates where the US government leads the world to create an entirely new infrastructure where the whole world can live the American dream through constant economic growth as well as endless consumption (but who cares because it's all sustainably powered) theory is a bit unrealistic, no?

Not that I believe it's wrong to work toward that utopian dream where the world's supply of products is produced in sustainable buildings, using sustainable resources; and he is definitely on the right track when he explain how and why we need to rethink the way we build buildings, do business, and engineer vehicles... but that's only one piece of the puzzle and frankly, Friedman pokes fun at what I view as a very equal and necessary puzzle piece - the power of the individual to do great things.

In the chapter, "205 Easy Ways to Save the Earth," he remarks that the efforts of the current "green revolution" isn't a revolution at all, but rather a costume party where we all have fun and the only thing that matters is that we "look" green. It's the fashion of the day. To a point I agree. The movement HAS to be more than everyone changing their light bulbs, but at the same time there are REAL people out there making REAL changes. Tell No Impact Man (or the lives he's inspired) that his journey has been for naught because within seconds consumptive demands in China negate anything he has ever done. 

We have to fight this battle for life on planet Earth in two ways. Sure, our government (and I agree it HAS to be the US government) MUST lead the world in making innovative changes to reduce our impact on the Earth. BUT (and I think Friedman greatly underestimates us), there are people who know the stakes, they understand the odds, and they make changes in their life every day as well as inspire others in the process.  And so has evolved a generation of individuals who see this goal of endless economic growth as the joke that it is. They know that living a simpler, greener, and more frugal life isn't about deprivation, it's about reconnecting with what makes us human. It's about health, and happiness, and quality of life. Great. Fund technology, give us wind and solar power, give us greener options, but don't underestimate the power of a simpler life; a life more in tune with the earth; a life without the distraction of "stuff."

Ok. I'm off my soapbox. Back to the book. Honestly, I learned a lot and it's worth spending the time to read. I agree with his synopsis of the problems, but in the end his solution sounds like a world with  just more "stuff." I don't believe that is the answer. Technology can and will help us, but so will good old-fashioned values where nothing goes wasted. If you do check out the book, don't be discouraged that we are wasting our time in pursuit of a more simple-green-frugal life. I believe the only way out of what he calls "hot, flat, and crowded" is mindfulness. The kind us little guys practice every single day.


ttammylynn said...

I don't believe that living in a world with everything is any kind of solution. There are of course things we need for our physical health and things we need for our emotional or spiritual health. These needs are greatly overestimated by the vast majority of Americans and apparantly the Chinese middleclass who strive to be just like the Americans. People, in general, need far less than they want. Faster, more and is there any room for nutrition left in my fast-food option? It is pretty gross, really, but in defense, I do have to say that Americans are also very overworked with little vacation time. So, it would seem to me, some of us work 10-12 hours a day to help supply some of our lazier counterparts with the things that they think they need, yes, commercialism in action. It is pretty vile, but I just take a deep breath and hope that I am doing something right, somewhere, somehow...
on Sunday, I am heading to Brenham to pick up seed potatoes(not sweet potatoes--those are different), but Brad said he would have some cabbage plants and stuff. If you are interested in coming with me or me picking up some plants or veggies for you, let me know. The info is at I could call Nicol if you want a pizza crust, also... let me know.

Michelle said...

Heather, I read this book just before the holidays and I swear it tossed me into my funkity, funk, funk, funk. I was feeling so depressed that whatever I do will never make a difference, and your comments on the book sort of pulled together what I had not been able to do myself.

I completely agree that he does miss out on the everyday individual (thus my funk, I guess). That said, I do think he is right on about inventors in their garages coming up with some great solutions. And let's face it - the vast majority do not want to go far, far backwards in their lifestyle. I would love to keep some of our great innovations, too - say the washing machine, for example.

I guess that is what freaks me out - that if we collectively do not wake the heck up and soon, we will loose our ability to enjoy all the great innovations and things that make life easier because we just consumed, consumed and consumed.

There is one major point not to be missed: The Earth cannot naturally sustain the population today. We will HAVE to have technology to prevent billions of people from perishing.

So really, you hit the nail on the head - we will have to have reduced consumption (big time in the US) and increased innovation (with clean energy) in order to make this work - and he is right, we are running way out of time.

To tell you the truth, it freaks me out!

I also found it contradictory that he says we have not suffered nearly enough for this to be a green revolution (I agree), but when he paints the picture of the future, I don't see where we are giving up much.

Thanks for the review!

tapsearcher said...

Let's tell it like is. Free Trade and Globalization have failed and Friedman's Flat World is upside down. He rides planes and trains to talk to world leaders when all you have to do is take a cab drive in most of our major cities and talk to the cab drivers who come from all around the world. They tell it like it is.

If we truly want a green earth, we have to talk about certain things that are left unsaid and not said.

Take a energy saving light bulb made in China ( 90 percent are ). It takes 8000 miles of long haul shipping with extra packaging to get to USA. The product is made in China for the sake of cheap labor and being outside the USA, the product is made under "dirty" manufacturing conditions. Reportedly mercury is out in the open in the process. Workers are not only the ones getting affected but the mercury rides on everything near it.

A new software company has a program that calculates the cost of long haul shipping to the environment. They do it only for the USA so far but just imagine what the cost to the envirnoment be if all the long haul equipment and fuel is added up.

This is only one example - Read more about it at

The computer age has provided us with instant communications but is this a good thing or a bad thing. I takes a long time each day deleting all the scams emails that come from across the globe. This demonstrates that when you centrailize anything, you comes in an uncontrollable fashion. In comparison, decentralization in the past was able to divide the bad from the good more quickly. It takes human dynamics.

We know with computerization, we lost this element. Many systems were transferred from local settings to central systems with the local people cut out of the picture. It not only cut out human dynamics but it froze many systems in time since the core of the systems no longer exist.

If people like Thomas Friedman want adjust to this, than they better be ready for a system without any real quality control and values as we know them.

For more see and

Heather @ SGF said...

Tammy - I totally agree with what you said, "I just take a deep breath and hope that I'm doing something right." It's hard to know what the right thing to do is, and honestly, there are probably a million "right" things. The point is that we think about it and most people, I don't believe ever get past the "wanting" to the point where they think about the consequences of "having."

Michelle - I'm glad to hear someone else had a similar reaction to the book that I had. It was a good read in that the problem is a lot bigger than we sometimes want to think about and we do, in fact, need technology. But it's not the only, end-all answer. I think it's people like you and me, and all the others - we are out there trying to make a difference in our own way. I don't believe that is for nothing.

tapsearcher - thanks for the links. I'll be sure to look into those. You're right. technology, just like anything else, has good and bad and we certainly can't put our proverbial eggs in only one basket.

We do need to move quickly. We need technology. We need people to cut back and conserve. And we need sanity in the process. Technology can't do it all.

The Cooking Lady said...

The one thing I disagree with and not so much at this author, but people in general who think that the little things do not make a difference. I totally disagree.

And I also think that we lead by example. If I keep talking to people about how I do not use plastic bags at any store, it may one day click with them. And if I keep telling them I do not purchase cleaning products, but make my own, it may click with them one day.

Small moves people, small moves.

Anonymous said...

ho hum..... same today as it was in the seventies. this green movement thing will be forgotten in about another year. and the world will return to the same old way of life.

Chile said...

Comment unrelated to post: got an award for you over here, Heather.

Heather @ SGF said...

Cooking lady - I agree. The little things we do make an impact in ways we can't even imagine. People notice you carrying those bags whether you realize it or not. We have plenty of work to be done for sure, but even now, we are doing important work - changing hearts and minds.

Anonymous - I guess I won't say much since it would require an entire new post to respond, but there are many people out there making significant changes in their life towards a more symbiotic relationship with the earth. For so many of us, this is a way of life, not a fad. And if you are wrong, it may no longer be a lifestyle choice, but a necessity.

Chile - Thanks!

Wendy said...

I have to agree with you, in that our future must be a marriage between technology and simplicity. There are so many things I hate to see us lose (the Internet, hot showers, some medical knowledge - though I'd change much of the "practice" if I could ;), but there are so many things we ought to be willing to give up (gas-powered lawn equipment, agri-business).

I probably won't read this book, and I thank you for your review ;). I would have a hard time working my way through a tome that promoted the idea of "green technology" as the answer to our problems, given that a lot of the green technologies are highly dependent on non-renewables.

Beany said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Beany said...

I read this review when you first posted it and thought about it quite a bit. I love the word "petrodictatorship".

Like other commenters here I get very annoyed when people who are the spokespersons for global warming/climate change/population issues jetset around the world giving little powerpoint presentations. I think I ranted about this very thing on your blog before. It just really ticks me off.

But anyway. I do believe that reduced everything is the way to go (including reduced workweeks - which you are already attesting to). But in order to get people to see that its worth doing, I strongly believe that advertising that relies on psychology ought to be banned. Because it plays on all these human insecurities it seems that people are always trying to catch up to some mythical happiness state that is always elusive. And I think everyone should meditate.

(recommenting to subscribe to comments)

livingmyrichlife said...

Wow. Great review Heather. I certainly want to read this book.

Chile said...

Heather, I hope you don't mind but I'm going to hijack your comments for a sec to respond to something Beany said. (If you do mind, just delete this comment!)

Beany, I agree that meditation is very helpful. However, not everyone is open to it. I had developed a nice little friendship with the wife of a Seventh Day Adventist minister some years ago. I then signed up to participate in a meditation study at the University.

After the first month, I mentioned it to her and her reaction was almost complete silence. The next time we got together, for a bike ride, her husband dropped her off. When he picked her up, he grilled me about the meditation. His view was that by trying to "empty your mind" (of thoughts), you leave an opening for the devil to come in. I assured him this wasn't the case and we talked a few more minutes. I never heard from his wife again.

There are some folks that think prayer is the same as meditation but I disagree.

Nor is meditation the same as mindfulness in daily life. The question is, I suppose, can people reach the point of careful and constant mindfulness in their lives without the aid of meditation? (There, Heather, I managed to bring it back on-topic just in the last second. hehe)

Beany said...

Chile: In talking with Kate yesterday we agreed that in order to accept and adopt a particular world view, one has to be in a position mentally where that world view is acceptable to them. I know I can't convince people that my views are the right views, because my views are a result of my experiences. But in adopting many of my lifestyle choices I had to be in a place mentally in order to adopt these choices.

I think (based on my experience and readings) meditation makes one more mindful of situations. So I have trained myself to not get pissed of political arguments because I can see the root as well as the suffering it causes. I get ticked of at some of the technology will save us arguments, but its really my own resistance to the idea. It could, I don't have a crystal ball.

Many U.S. Americans seem to have a distorted view of meditation and my husband says its because of the Hari Krishna scandals and promises. I don't blame the reactionary view to meditation because of it.

There are some folks that think prayer is the same as meditation but I disagree.

I think there is merit to that view. Based on Karen Armstrong's readings, something like the Nicene Creed could be meditative like a loving kindness type thing.

Nor is meditation the same as mindfulness in daily life.

Depends on the type of meditation. I focus on my breath which is the most basic level of mindfulness. Everytime my mind wanders, I bring back the attention to my breath. That eventually translates into mindfulness in daily activities - like being mindful when eating or walking or talking.

I think people can be mindful with meditation. When you have a calm mind alot of thing become easier - you can eliminate alot of neurotic thoughts, and see yourself as someone interconnected with everyone else. Hence my own need to live a life consciously.

Sorry for tangent Heather and hopes this made some sense Chile.

Beany said...

Also...I really don't know for sure whether meditation is helpful. It certainly is to me and to many millions of people.

In fact thinking about this is a mindful activity. Else the cook will wind up with crap.

Heather @ SGF said...

Wendy - I agree, there are some niceties that I wouldn't want to give up either - running water, electricity, hot water... But I think that's where we technology can help up work better. But in the end it's not the answer. It's just a facilitator. We have to consume differently too.

Beany - you mention that people need to see that making changes are worth doing. That's a huge part of this - changing hearts and minds. And as Friedman says, we really don't have much time. I'm not sure there is a solution. In the end, I think what will most likely happen will be the earth MAKES us cut back. People won't have a choice. Maybe we should be "bracing ourselves for impact. I don't know. Thoughts?

livingmyrichlife - Let me know what you think of it. I'm curious to see what others' responses will be.

Chile and Beany - no, run with it. I'm really interested in what you guys are saying...

Beany said...

O before I go out...part of my comment was meant as a joke. I have this long standing desire to be a dictator. One where its required that people be nice to one another or else...Meditation is required in this dictatorship. :)

Michelle said...

I first became truly aware of the climate and fossil fuel issues when I read The Long Emergency. It is about both those situations, as well as the history of the world and how at this point in time, we are long overdue for a huge flu epidemic, a shifting of climate (naturally, then we make it tons worse with what we are doing), how we have built the majority of our country (and others) on being able to drive places, building on farm land, losing sustainability, etc. For sure, that version of things is far from candy coated, and does sort of lay out a worse case scenario - but (being mathematically inclined) I just do not see how we can beat the odds on all or even most of those things - like The Long Emergency says - do you want to go through those other things with the lights on or the lights off?

I think your (Heather) comment about "Maybe we should be bracing for impact" sums up how I feel. I don't see how it is possible that it is not already too late to suffer major consequences for the damage already done. I know that on my blog I say that I want an emergency food storage on hand for a financial emergency (job loss or something similar), but deep down I really feel that it is more likely that we will need it for emergencies related to the climate change, loss of fossil fuels, the futher collapse of our financial system or over crowding - likely all combined in some way. Sort of like my grandmother's medications - you start getting symptoms from the treatments of the symptoms and pretty soon no one can tell which medicines are reacting with which other medicines and the whole body just sort of shuts down.

In one way I agree with Thomas Friedman when he says we should be like China, but only for one day - let it be a dictatorship for one day and get the laws in line - then still have our freedoms from there. I really hate to be so darn practical, but I just don't see how we can get our whole country, much less the entire world, to make the huge changes necessary without entering into some of the inevitable demise and destruction - enough to really shake all people into supporting real change.

I don't think enough people will wake up in time to prevent that - and it may be too late anyway. Now it is about doing the best you can, trying to raise awareness, making change while it is still a choice, learning to sustain yourself and your family, and being prepared to help and teach others when the you-know-what hits the fan.

I am not living my daily life wearing a sign that reads "The End is Near", but I am preparing for it, just in case...

BTW - I agree that Friedman flying all over the globe to talk about the dangers of mindlessly using fossil fuels was incredibly hypocritic. How could he not notice that? How much more impact would he have on these important leaders if he said, "Sorry, flying is irresponsible, unnecessary and I will teleconference with you."

Chile said...

Thanks, Beany, for your comments. I don't really have anything to add. I think you make some good points and might not make a bad dictator. ;-)

Heather @ SGF said...

Beany - I'd vote for you. But then that wouldn't be much of a dictatorship would it? Hmmm.

Michelle - sometimes I struggle with trying to do so much and seeing others do nothing. Like one of the comments earlier on this page from someone anonymous. I do it, because these changes make my life better, happier, and contributes to making the world a better place. Why don't more people care?

Chile - I'm not sure about the whole Obama thing (i.e. how much real change we are going to get). I say we go with Beany instead. Anyone who moves by biking across the US is A-Ok in my book :)

timeus said...

You people are all amateurs. timeus routinely eats a salad whose ingredients are all home grown in his backyard, while watching his television powered by a generator which is powered by two gerbils and one field mouse all running on wheels. The gerbils and mouse are fed all natural, vegetarian ingredients (not Iowa corn) and are kept "free range." timeus does all this while simultaneously meditating, which on a good day gets him to hover 3-5 feet off the floor.

You may be telling yourself(with crossed arms) that "you can't watch tv, eat a salad, and meditate simultaneously...that goes against the very nature of meditation."

That's just because you aren't as advanced as timeus is. He can can't, remember?

Try harder.

As an aside, timeus would also like to mention that he would be a much more superior candidate than any of you for the role of dictator. He already refers to himself in the third person, a common trait among many famous overlords.

Good day, minions.

And brace for impact.

Heather @ SGF said...

Timeus - I'm definitely interested in those gerbils. Would cats work instead?

Ruth said...

Great review! I've been hearing a lot about this book lately, and your review has cemented my decision to pick up a copy this weekend. :)

Another great book on the environmental issues facing us is Agenda for a Sustainable America. It's a collection of essays written by several environmental experts and offers a sort of report card on policies as well as practical recommendations for dealing with the issues.

Chile said...

Ruth, if you want to review the book you recommended, we'll link to your review on the Blogging Bookworm...

Heather @ SGF said...

Ruth - Thanks for the book recommendation. I'll add it to my list!

tapsearcher said...

Newspaper story about Dirty Energy Saving Light Bulbs at

It is a story about dirty manufacturing and dirty shipping. It takes energy saving bulbs 8000 miles to get to the market. Just about 20 large container cargo ships pollute the world more than all the automobiles in the world.

And the debate about electronic devices ( which are also made in dirty environments during or after the manufacturing ) creating health hazards in their use has not even begun. In the beginning of the computer industry there were many discussions about display screens etc causing health problems. Now we have everything imaginable coming down the pike with hardly no one talking about the transmission signals causing health problems.