Seven Questions: Thomas Friedman's Plan for a Hot, Flat, and Crowded World

Author and columnist Thomas Friedman speaks about offshore drilling, his new book, and why the United States needs a green-energy bubble.

For more: Read Thomas Friedmans May/June 2006 cover story for Foreign Policy: The First Law of Petropolitics

Foreign Policy: In his speech to the Democratic National Convention last Thursday, U.S. Presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama promised, In 10 years, we will finally end our dependence on oil from the Middle East. Is that even feasible? Does anyone you talk to believe thats doable?

Thomas Friedman: Well, if you just talked about oil imports from the Middle East, I think it is feasible. I dont know exactly how he would want to get there, but I think that it is a feasible goal if youre just talking about the percentage of our oil that comes from the Middle East.

FP: And what about drilling? Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, his running mate Gov. Sarah Palin, and President George W. Bush are implying that lifting environmental restrictions on drilling is the way to promote energy independence.

TF: Well, I think its patent nonsense. No one believes that somehow offshore, theres enough oil in any near term and even the long term to provide us oil independence. Its the wrong approach because in a world thats hot, flat, and crowded, fossil fuelsand particularly crude oilare going to be expensive and exhausting. Therefore the focus should be on the next great global industry: clean energy technology. When I hear McCain pounding the table for drill, drill, drill, it reminds me of someone pounding the table for IBM Selectric typewriters on the eve of the IT revolution.

Im not against offshore drilling, by the way, because I believe the technology and the safety has improved far beyond where it was back in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, even. What Im against is making it the centerpiece of our energy policy. If all McCain said was, Lets drill, but lets also throw everything into innovating the next generation of clean-energy technologies, Id say, Youve got it exactly right, pal.

FP: Your new book is called Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolutionand How It Can Renew America. What do you mean by a green revolution and how do we get there from here?

TF: The green revolution is about how we produce abundant, cheap, clean, reliable electrons, which are the answer to the big problems we face in the world today. I would point to five problems, and theyre all related: Energy and resource supply and demand, petrodictatorship, climate change, biodiversity loss, and energy poverty. They all have one solution: abundant, cheap, clean, reliable electrons. The search for and the discovery of a source of those electrons is going to be the next great global industry. And I think the country that mounts a revolution to be the leader of that industry is going to be a country whose standard of living is going to improve, whose respect in the world is going to improve, whose air is going to improve, whose innovation is going to improve, and whose national security is going to improve. Thats what this book is about.

I want a green-energy bubble. I want so many people throwing crazy dollars at every idea, in every garage, that we have 100,000 people trying 100,000 things, five of which might work, and two might be the next green Google. But I dont want a Manhattan Project of 12 people in Los Alamos. I want it to be like the IT revolution: everyone becoming a programmer. Only in this case, its everyone becoming a green innovator. What IT was to the 80s and 90s, ET, energy technology, will be to the early 21st century.

FP: What conditions dont exist right now that could create this bubble?

TF: Three things. One is a price on carbon, a fixed, durable price signal that says, Carbon is always going to be this price. Lets just use a simple example: We put a floor under the price of crude oil that says, Oil simply will not fall below $110 a barrel. If it does, well tax it up.

Second, we need to change the bargain we have with our electric and natural gas power utilities. Your dad was right when he came into your room and youd left the lights on and he said, What, do you own stock in the utility company? He was right, because the more you left your lights on, the more money the utility made. And we need to change that bargainthis is already going on in Californiaso that utilities are paid by how much energy they help you save, not by how much energy they help you consume.

And third, we need a national renewable portfolio standard that says to every utility, By 2025, you need to produce 30 percent of your electricity by renewable power: wind, solar, biomass, hydro, you name it.

FP: In your book, you paint a picture of what its like to live in 20 ECEyear 20 of the energy climate era. Everyone has what you call an SBB, a smart black box hooked to their electric utility and, of course, to their iPod. And they drive a RESUa rolling energy storage unit, which is another name for their car. What are you trying to do with that vignette?

TF: To give people a sense of how all this would work as a system, because if you dont have a system, you dont have a solution. What you end up with is corn ethanol in Iowa.

Only a system will allow ordinary people to do extraordinary things. And if ordinary people cant do extraordinary things, we have no chance to achieve the scale we need to address this problem. If I have to depend on educating you about the 20 green things you need to do every day, you can forget about that. We need a system in place so that when you walk into a room, the lights automatically turn on, and when you walk out of the room, they automatically turn off. Thats a system: you dont have to think about it.

Every technology I describe in that chapter of the bookeverythingalready exists. It just doesnt exist at speed, scope, scale, and price. Jeff Wacker from EDS Systems, a futurist, says it best: The futures already here, folks. Its just not widely distributed.

FP: You went to China for the Olympic Games, and I know youve been there many times in the past. Do you think China is serious about going green? Is China going to have a green revolution before the United States does?

TF: Every time I go to China, as I say in the book, it always strikes me that people speak with greater ease and breathe with greater difficulty. As the country grows, it gets more integrated with the world, standards of living rise, and people are able to move more and have more personal freedom. I dont want to exaggerate it, but clearly its a more open place.

So, they speak with greater ease but they breathe with greater difficulty. And thats a real tension. Right now, if you said, Tom, snapshot today: Wheres China at? OK, choice: More growth or less pollution? Theyre going to go for more growth. Look what happened after the Olympics. They cleaned up Beijing for two weeks by shutting down factories and limiting driving. But as soon as the Olympics were over, they went back to the old system.

But youre also getting a transition. Youre getting the birth of wind power and solar companies in China, so theyre seeing the market potential. And youre seeing the rise of an environmental consciousness. The inertia and the momentum of the old, pure GDP system is much stronger than the green GDP system, but there is now a competition between the two.

China is hiding behind the United States, saying, If the Americans arent going to do it, why should we? When we move they will move, because we define modernity for them. Theyve copied us: our highways, our carsthe whole thing. And when we change, they will change.

FP: With the timing of this book, which comes out on September 8, youre obviously hoping to inject your ideas into the political debate. What do you hope that low-information votersapolitical people who may not necessarily read your bookwill be able to take away from the discussion? What do you think will trickle down to those folks?

TF: Its the incredible sense of opportunity here. Its not just about saving the polar bears. Its not just about saving three generations from climate change. Its also about rising to the greatest economic opportunity thats come along in a long, long, time.

Its like training for the Olympic triathlon. If you make the Olympics and you run the race and do the whole triathlon, you may win. But if you dont, even if you come in second or third, youll still be so much fitter, so much stronger, so much healthier, so much more respected, so much more secure. Which part of this sentence dont you understand? Why would we not want to run this race?

Thomas Friedman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, a columnist for the New York Times, and the author of Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolutionand How It Can Renew America (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008).