Mother Nature and Father Profit

November 30, 2008
Friedman: Markets must drive environmental change.

Friedman: Markets must drive environmental change. Megan Morr

When Thomas Friedman titled his 2005 best seller The World is Flat, he was referring to the rise of a global middle class that would threaten the American-dominated economic status quo. Now, he says he believes that is only the beginning of a long list of problems that the U.S. must confront—and quickly.

In a speech delivered before a sellout crowd at Page Auditorium as part of the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy's Crown Lecture in Ethics series, the New York Times columnist outlined the ideas behind his new book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, published this fall. Friedman's new book describes what he sees as the core global problems in the twenty-first century: demand for energy and natural resources outstripping supply; the rise of potentially dangerous fossil-fuel-supported dictatorships in places like Russia and Iran; climate change and the ensuing global economic upheaval; energy poverty in the Third World; and biodiversity loss that will damage ecosystems that, like the disappearing Amazon rainforest, buoy our biosphere and broaden our base of biomedical knowledge.

"This book masquerades as a book about energy and the environment; it's really a book about America," Friedman noted. Speculating on how the U.S. lost its preeminence in innovation, he added, "Our government does not work anymore. Our government today can no longer solve any big, multi-generational problems. Somewhere between the system of gerrymandering political districts, money in politics, twenty-four-hour news cycles, and ongoing presidential campaigns, we lost ourselves."

Even so, Friedman's speech was not entirely pessimistic. He said he believes the U.S. can find cures for all five ills by working to develop abundant, cheap, clean, and reliable energy. "Energy technology is the next great global industry," he said. "If we pull this off, it will be the greatest industrial project in the history of mankind."

Citing the pressure that rising costs and energy scarcity are already putting on industry, he said the private sector will seek ways to "outgreen" the competition—with or without a system of government incentives and disincentives. The market, then, will be the final impetus for change. "There is only one thing bigger than Mother Nature, and that is Father Profit."