Monday, May 16, 2011

A Morning With Thomas Friedman

We don't talk much about non-fiction here at The New Dork Review of Books, so I hope you'll bear with me for a post — because this was exciting. Last week, I got to hear one of my heroes speak live and in person. At a convention in New Orleans, NY Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman delivered a witty, profound, educational and immensely entertaining keynote about how America needs to take the lead in solving some of the biggest problems we Earthlings are facing.

If you've read any of Friedman's books — I loved both The World Is Flat and Hot, Flat and Crowded — or his regular column, you know he has an easy, conversational style and a way to make complex geo-political issues easy to understand without much prior knowledge. Not surprisingly, that is exactly how he speaks, too.

After he made it clear that he's no dyed-in-the-wool greenie (On writing Hot, Flat and Crowded: "I wasn't inspired by environmentalism, I was inspired by the fact that America has lost its groove.") he continued on to make two really interesting points.

First, he explained that what the Great Recession really was (is?) was both the market and mother nature "getting together to send us a message: 'The way you are growing is not sustainable.'" There were three key characteristics of the recession that apply to both mother nature and the market — underpriced risk, privatizing gains and socializing loss — that made this message painfully clear. The subprime mortgage crisis was clearly a case where risk was underpriced, but certain entities were still profiting hugely...and when it all came tumbling down, the bailouts for the banks funded by taxpayer dollars were the ultimate example of socializing loss. In terms of the environment, as we continue to use cheap (underpriced) energy sources like coal-fired electricity and foreign oil, we're creating huge profits for (in some cases) energy conglomerates and foreign petrodictators. And the socialized loss is climate change and its effects — because the detriments of our continued dirty-energy growth accrue to the entire planet. 

The second highlight was when he explained that, "when it comes to climate change, I'm just like Dick Cheney." That elicited more than a few gasps from the audience. But he explained: When Cheney was making the case for the Iraq invasion (which Friedman actually backed, but now regrets), he argued that if there was even a 1 percent chance that Saddam had nukes, we had do whatever was necessary to eliminate that potentially existential threat. Friedman called it a low probability, but catastrophic risk proposition. Well, doesn't the same logic apply to climate change, he said? The only difference is that there's much more than a 1 percent chance that climate change is going to cause catastrophic damage at some point in the future — so we should do everything humanely possible to mitigate that risk. And America needs to lead that charge.

Friedman spent the second half of his talk summarizing the arguments made in Hot, Flat and Crowded, so there wasn't much new there, for me anyway. He did acknowledge that there are still many climate change deniers out there (climate change is the "hot" part of Hot, Flat and Crowded) — "That's fine if you don't believe in climate change, that's between you and your beach house" — but the intersection of the "flat" (how interconnected the world is now) and "crowded" (overpopulation, and at a higher standard of living) are enough to show that our model of growth is not sustainable. If you're interested in this type of thing, I'd highly recommend that book. It's a very clear, concise explanation of why we do need a green revolution and why America has to lead it.

Now, back to fiction...

Any other Friedman fans out there? Which of his books have you read/enjoyed?


  1. I haven't read any Friedman but now I want to. It sounds like his books are incredibly relevant to understanding what's happening in the US.

  2. I think we earthlings give ourselves too much credit. When it comes to climate we are insignificant yahoos. As far as mother nature is concerned we are non-entities, much like the many dead skin cells that come off your body everyday.

    While we certainly should do everything we can to cut down on pollution it should be within reason.

    I wonder what Mr. Friedman, which I might add is always entertaining and though provoking, thinks about the "hybrid tax"?

  3. @Brenna - Yeah, I often think that Friedman should be required reading for every American. Sometimes we idiot Americans tend to be a bit myopic - he gives great context given all his travel and knowledge.

    @Man - Well, I wholeheartedly disagree (as do 99 percent of scientist who study the issue), but if you want to tempt fate, that's between you and your beach house. ;)

  4. This is the best kind of non-fiction: relevant and necessary. I've been meaning to read Friedman's books for some time (I do read his articles, given the chance). Thanks for a good overview.

  5. I had to read "The Lexus and the Olive Tree" in college and I've been hooked on Friedman ever since. I will admit that, at times, I have to groan over his nonchalant celebrity cameos and "gee whiz" moments of inspiration - "I was having lunch with Bill Gates and the Sultan of Brunei when Warren Buffet strolled by with a club sandwich and I suddenly realized that this was just like the deforestation of the Brazilian rain forests!" - Still, he's a insightful guy who can really package complex ideas and processes into engaging and easily understood passages. Wish I had gotten to see him!

  6. FROM BEIRUT TO JERUSALEM is one of the best non-fics written about the conflict in the Middle East ever, period. I also like his subsequent work quite a bit, but it doesn't have the same place in my heart as FBTJ. Am also a Friedman fan, thanks so much for giving us the jist on the keynote, great, fascinating stuff!

  7. @bibliophiliac - Relevant and necessary, indeed! His books are great - highly recommended.

    @petekarnas - You're certainly right - he does have tendency to name drop and sensationalize. But the ends justify the means for me with him. And I think you said it better than I did - about how he's can package complex ideas into engaging passages. He's also really good with easily understandable metaphors.

    @books - You know, that book's been on my shelf for years, and I've never read because I keep telling myself it's kind of ancient news. If I'm not mistaken, that won a Pulitzer, right? Would it still be useful to read today, or is it obsolete?

  8. It's still spookily and in so many ways unfortunately relevant. FBTJ captures so much of the cultures of Israel and Lebanon (and the conflicts between them) and Friedman's memoir-like take as an American journalist thrown into the fray is near perfection.

  9. I've been reading his columns for years and I've always enjoyed them. His recent columns in light of the Arab Spring have been particularly interesting interesting. I agree with Booksaremyfriends, From Beirut to Jerusalem is a great book and one of all time favorites on the Middle East.
    You have inspired me to read Hot, Flat and Crowded. Thanks !!