Sunday, June 08, 2008

Thomas Friedman's new book "Hot, Flat and Crowded": From the "War on Terror" to a "War on Global Warming"?

(Photos are of Thomas Friedman giving his keynote speech at the 2008 Book Expo, the front cover of his book, my son Joe practicing up for Fathers Day with baby Mena in a front-pack, and a self-portrait of me hanging out with the Undead.)

Okay. Suppose that you are Noah -- yes, that Noah, the one in the Bible. And you know that a huge flood is coming. But instead of building your ark, you spend your days shopping for high heels at Wal-Mart. This is the best analogy that I can come up with in order to point out to Americans which dangers threatening us today are urgently crucially real -- and which dangers are pretty much trumped up.

Even Noah, if he thought long enough, should be able to tell the difference between the minimum level of danger that America is now facing from "terrorists," and the HUGE level of danger that America is now facing due to global warming, population growth and the disintegration of civilization as we know it -- or, as author Thomas Friedman calls these three critical dangers -- "Hot, Flat and Crowded".

If America withdraws from Iraq, what is the worse that can happen? Some Sunni and Shia tribesmen will kill each other, Iran will become a "Superpower" (like that's ever gonna happen), Israel will be forced to stop running a mini-Auschwitz in Gaza and the price of oil will either go up or go DOWN.

But if America becomes "Hot, Flat and Crowded," everyone here will be screwed -- forever. Noah, stop shopping for trinkets and start building that freaking ark. The big flood is HERE.

I dearly love the US military. But it is WASTING ITS TIME fighting foreign wars and Bush's so-called "War on Terror" when the real danger to America is lurking right here at home like some sort of zombie. Or vampire. Or what other form of Undead that is your current favorite right now. Werewolves? Frankenstein? "How about brain-sucking pod-people, mind-slaves and savage alien invaders!" my daughter Ashley calls out from the next room. Sure. Those too.

While America is being purposely distracted by Bush's puny, paltry and poor-spirited "War on Terror" and Noah is out shopping for Gucci knock-offs at Target instead of keeping an eye on the ark, our country is being left defenseless, unprotected and without lifeboats while the biggest Flood ever is rapidly heading our way. "Noah! Get your freaking arse in gear!" I scream at the top of my lungs -- but nobody ever listens to ME. However. Maybe someone will listen to world-renowned New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman.

Even though Friedman apparently claimed back in 2003 that the "war" on Iraq was totally necessary when it was NOT, he now appears to be trying to redeem himself by trying to warn us about an actual REAL danger. And I think that this time he finally got it right.

"But Friedman did not just sell us out on Iraq," stated one former Marine that I correspond with regularly. "He is also a full-blooded globalist who wants to use the Marines to further globalization. Globalization is his God. Friedman is blinded by religion -- and his religion is corporatism."

"Really? I thought that the book he wrote about Beirut made some pretty good points. And now he is one of the few mainstream journalists who is actually talking about the gravest danger to civilization since Genghis Khan." Or perhaps Freddie Kreuger.

"Give it up, Jane," my friend replied. "Friedman is no ecological hero. If you are going to write about Friedman out of the context of what he has been preaching for decades, that's a mistake. The guy flies to India for one week, visits a few tech centers, overnights in New Delphi and then flies back to New York where he writes about the blooming glories of India. How about the 800 million Indians living in absolute squalor with no education and less of a future thanks to 'globalization'? Friedman was too busy to see them. The man should be put in a cage and stuck up on a lightpost at 57th Street and 7th Avenue to entertain tourists." Okay. I get the picture. There are some people out there who are definitely NOT Friedman fans.

Be that as it may, Thomas Friedman was giving the keynote speech at the 2008 Book Expo and I was totally looking forward to that. So I ran up and down a bunch of endless hallways at the L.A. convention center, located his room, pushed my way past three or four hundred booksellers and librarians to an empty chair in the third row, got out some scrap paper and started to take notes.

Here's what Friedman said: "If we want things to stay as they are here in America, things have GOT to change. And fast. Our country has lost its groove and we can get it back by helping the world change too. Global warming and global flattening -- that's what happens when poverty meets crowding -- are the major disasters facing us today. It's like the developed world has filled the bathtub and now India and China have just turned on the shower. And in our lifetime, the world's population will triple."

Hey, this is good stuff. I took notes as fast as I could on the back of a flier put out by Random House about John Zogby's new book because I had just run directly from Zogby's lecture to Friedman's and had nothing else to write on.

"There are five major trends driving us today -- energy supply and demand, petro-dictatorships, poverty, food supply and demand and biodiversity loss. We will have one billion more people on the planet in the next 12 years. And if we gave each one of those new people one single incandescent light bulb, we would need 20 more power plants just to turn on those billion bulbs. The 'Common Era' is over. Today's date is EC 1." I missed what Friedman said that EC stood for but I assume that it was something not good.

"Can the world hold three billion more American-level consumers?" Friedman asked. I guess not.

"Another thing happening these days is what I call global weirding. We can no longer tell the difference between an act of God and an act of man. And as for our energy conservation efforts here in the states, China and Doha can use the equivalent of all the electricity we save here in one year -- in less than one day."

Then Friedman blatantly stole my Noah analogy! "Our generation is the first one that needs to think like Noah because right now we are both the ark AND the flood. And this isn't just our grandchildren's problem either. Everyone in our time is going to have to pay the true costs of the world's poverty, etc. Not our children and grandchildren. Us. So what can we do to turn this tide around? Let's make America the leader. We need to work at transforming our country the same way we would work out for the Olympics. And even if we DON'T make the Olympic final cut and global warming turns out to be a hoax and Rush Limbaugh is right, we will still be stronger from having made the effort."

Sounds good to me. So I rushed off to the press room to type up my notes. And I typed, ate free bagels, cursed because they had run out of cream cheese, fended off other reporters who wanted to use my computer, typed some more and then voila! I had typed up my article. Perfect.

But then when I took the # 40 bus back to where I was staying in Inglewood that night, I discovered that I had missed a whole other page of notes with even more and juicer Friedman quotes. Crap. Now I gotta re-write the whole thing again.

"The future is still our choice, not our fate," continued Friedman on page two of my notes. "This really IS our problem. Our clear and easy paths are all closed now. But America could be the one to show the rest of the world how it's done." And then he quoted Charles Bukowski! "What matters most in life is how you walk through the fire."

So. What will the United States do when the world becomes "Hot, Flat and Crowded"? Will we become heroes? Or will we wimp out?

"America needs a Green revolution," Friedman continued, "and you can't have a REVOLUTION without someone getting hurt. Exxon is staging a Green PARTY right now -- not a revolution. A Green revolution only happens when companies need to change or die. There is no easy way to save the earth." Coincidentally, the sub-title of his book is "Why we need a Green Revolution -- and How It Can Renew America".

While the first half of Friedman's new book is devoted to describing and diagnosing the hot, flat and crowded nightmare that is currently heading straight at us, the second half of his book explores different ways and means to actually meet these challenges and to create and execute an Energy Revolution at home and abroad. "There is going to have to be some fundamental political changes here. If only we could be like China for a day...." In China, if the leadership decides to do something, they just order someone to get it done, a condition that we do not currently have in the United States. "We now have a choice of becoming a democratic 'China' or being a B.A.N.A.N.A. republic -- Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything."

I have used the Noah's ark analogy here but at his Book Expo speech, Friedman also brought up the Titanic. "Americans are still in a state of disbelief -- but we have already hit the iceberg. So. When are we going to get into the lifeboats?" Before or after it's too late? This was great stuff! Highly quotable. And, hopefully, I had captured it all down word for word. BUT. When I finally got back home to Berkeley and was digging through my suitcase for a copy of Richard Engel's new book on Iraq, guess what I found? You got it. Yet another page of my Friedman notes. Double crap. Now I gotta revise this whole freaking article again -- and it's already too long! Nobody's going to read an article this long.

"We have exactly enough time to avoid catastrophe if we start NOW," continued Friedman on page three of my notes. "The issue here is not just about saving the whales any longer. This is about saving US." Apparently human beings have become the new whales. "We can no longer continue to do things the old way, mining the world's economies. We are ALL pilgrims right now, sailing on the Mayflower again, off toward a whole new world. And if we get on board now, we will not only survive but thrive."

Arks, Titanics, Mayflowers, whatever. But after I had finished listening to Friedman's keynote speech, gone through all my poor coffee-stained and wrinkled-up notes several times, slept on the matter for a few days and then added my own twist to the mix, what I came up with was this: If we are going to survive the huge threat of a "Hot, Flat and Crowded" new world that is almost upon us right now, whether we are in an ark, on the Titanic or back on the Mayflower, we are desperately going to need lifeboats. And if we continue to allow our so-called leaders -- be they American, Arab, Chinese, Israeli, European or whatever -- to keep on ignoring this vitally urgent imperative to start a Green Revolution NOW, and to foolishly wallow in the cruel and decadent luxury of "war" instead, we are definitely not going to float ANYONE'S boat!

PS: I just spent this morning up on my soap box again, bouncing some of my own theories about global warming off of my son Joe. "Remember back in the 1980s, when Reagan and Bush Sr. managed to scare American taxpayers into supporting a multi-billion-dollar 'War on Drugs' -- which was totally ineffective regarding drugs but very effective regarding creating a lot of new millionaires out of Reagan and Bush's corporatist campaign donors?" I asked. Hypothetical question. Of course Joe didn't remember. He was in freaking kindergarten at the time.

"And then Bush Jr. managed to terrify American taxpayers into supporting his new 'War on Terror'. And we all know that corporatists made a ton of money on that one too -- and that it too was a failure. Are we any safer now than we were in October 2001? Absolutely not."

"So, Ma, what's your point?"

"What if the corporatists, neo-cons, etc. who now run this show have started realizing that Americans aren't getting appropriately scared enough of 'terrorists' any more? For example, Bush is not only the most unpopular president [sic] in history but Congress has already started the process to get him impeached! So now the corporatists are all looking around for something even MORE scary to scare us with. And frankly, this global warming thing IS really, truly terrifying. On a scale of one to ten, it is a ten and the Iraq 'war' is only a two."

"So you are thinking that the Next Big Thing to terrify American taxpayers enough to allow corporatists to happily go back to picking their pockets will be a 'War on Global Warming'?" Joe is not only a good son but he also catches on fast.


I think that the corporatists, the neo-cons and their Bush-Cheney-McCain tag team are getting ready to use our current ecological disaster as an excuse to grab even more money from us poor gullible taxpayers. And perhaps my Marine friend is right and Thomas Friedman is just being the globalization guys' cheerleader again after all. E tu, Thomas?

"Imagine what a 'War on Global Warming' would be like," I warmed to the subject. "There goes what's left of the Constitution, for instance -- Friedman has already mentioned something about having a democracy like China's. And the Department of Homeland Security would be replaced by a Department of Energy Security."

"And there'd be rationing," added Joe.

"And they would post Code Green warnings nation-wide every time small farmers tried to sell organic spinach at farmers' markets instead of genetically modified food! And instead of screening passengers for Qur'ans at the airport, they'd all be searching for Barbara Kingsolver's new book on how to get us all off the agro-business grid. And gasoline of course would be sold for $20 a gallon 'in order to protect the environment'. And if you used the internet to try to organize protests against the corporatists' highly profitable 'War on Global Warming', your electricity would get shut down...for your own good."

"But what would you suggest that we do about this?" asked Joe.

As usual, I have lots of ideas, hopes and plans. "Thomas Friedman is right. Americans DO need to make cleaning up the environment our Number One priority -- but we must also make absolutely certain that our vital efforts to protect ourselves against the horrors of global warming don't fall into to the hands of corporatists. This is too crucial an issue to allow it to become just one more price-gouging scheme by the folks who brought us the freaking environmental crisis in the first place."

"Go Ma!"