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The US and the impossible green revolution

A dream beached by the economy

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Book Review Feel a little pity for Thomas L Friedman's Hot, Flat and Crowded, his new book on what must be done to deliver a green revolution in America. With the economy collapsed, political will in the United States is now decisively hostile to almost everything in it.

Nevertheless, Friedman's premise is easy to absorb and reasonable. The world's growing middle class (and the desire of those not yet in it to join ASAP) is bringing environmental and energy catastrophe. And if the rest of the world follows the same pattern of consumption as practiced by the US, it will only end badly. The real limits to growth have arrived, Friedman says, taking the place occupied by the Club of Rome over thirty years ago.

He even deploys the lily-pads-in-your-pond analogy. Go on vacation thinking you have time to trim the vegetation. When you get back, the overgrowth has exploded exponentially. The pond is choked. Your fish are all dead.

Friedman tells us a "Code Green" must be established, not as an advertisement for business as usual - which is what it is now - but as a systemic and global way of moving the world's energy economy to one of distributed super-efficiency. In this, he wrote before the chances of it happening evaporated, the US must take the lead.

For the book, Friedman goes to China, relating a lecture he gives to the locals on how America is going to innovate, innovate, and out innovate the Asians in smart green energy technology. And then we'll sell this innovation to them, helping China to achieve even more prosperity for its middle class as the environment is rescued from ruin.

And there must have been at least a few in the group thinking, "Listen to that Yankee brag."

The cognitive dissonance occurs in Friedman's view of the US, taken from a man who calls his job the best in the world, hop-scotching the globe and country to sample from the wisdom of a small number of the scientific and political elite. You get Edward O Wilson and his ant collection. "Destroying a tropical rain forest and other species rich ecosystems is like burning all the paintings in the Louvre to cook dinner," reveals the Harvard scientist. No kidding. And there's Friedman's ever-present friend, Nate Lewis of Caltech in Pasadena, drinking strawberry lemonade at the faculty club with the author, telling readers, "[The US] has energy politics, not policy." And when did that first occur to anyone with common sense and the power of observation? Quite a while ago.

The view from the faculty club

Being around such people, along with a seemingly abundant supply of sunny optimism, Friedman's world view doesn't quite align with this reviewer's. Over a decade of living a few blocks from the Caltech faculty club, in the heartland of energy super-consumption, I've cobbled together the opinion that this country is no longer capable of the efforts required to get those things done which Friedman deems critical.

Briefly, the author describes it as the installation of a systems approach to everything involved in energy generation. It's a massive national upgrade in which billions of smart energy transfer nodes, from household appliances to the national network, constantly analyze the energy cloud for the greenest electrons at the best operating hours. A few pages, printed in italics so one knows they're special, are devoted to describing this future. "Your car, by the way, is no longer called a 'car,'" it reads. "It is now called a RESU, or rolling energy storage unit..." A little bit of this goes a long away as techno-virtuous pap for boys who enjoy watching TV shows about what the marvelous future has in store. (Which it turns out, Friedman has been involved in briefly for a US cable network.)

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