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Saving America Through Energy Innovation

Thomas Friedman is a foreign affairs columnist for <em>The New York Times.</em>
Thomas Friedman is a foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times.

For better or worse, few journalists fashion neologisms with the zest of New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman. In Hot, Flat, And Crowded, his new book about globalization and environmentalism, he puts these word-coinage skills on grand display. For Friedman, we're not living in 2008 A.D. or even 2008 C.E. — we've jumped onto a new timeline, the "Energy-Climate Era," and today's date falls in the year "1 E.C.E."

Friedman sums up his philosophy for 21st-century American energy policy, which he explores here in near-heroic detail and scope, using an equation that he offers with "tongue only slightly in cheek": REEFIGDCPEERPC < TTCOBCOG. Translated, this formula sets the goal of a "renewable energy ecosystem for innovating, generating and deploying clean power, energy efficiency, resource productivity and conservation" that is less expensive than "the true cost of burning coal, oil and gas." Since the "true cost" of burring fossil fuels includes pollution, energy wars and climate change, Friedman argues that we can't afford not to find an alternative.

Yes, the author's embrace of his sui generis terminology is unctuous at best, throw-the-book-through-a-window at worst. But Friedman's no wonk, and he has an uncanny ability to assume accurately what a knowledgeable reader probably already knows about any given subject. Moreover, with three Pulitzers on his shelf and 13 years of Times columns in his portfolio, he knows how to craft a persuasive argument.

To that end, then, Hot, Flat, And Crowded skillfully weaves testimonies from both gung-ho "green" pioneers — folks who want nothing more than a platform from which to tout their oft-ingenious innovations — and from dedicated scientists whose Chicken Little scenarios receive ample and deserved elucidation and validation.

Friedman is at his best when he brings K Street to Main Street, explaining how governmental arcana — price signals, regulatory commissions, agricultural subsidies — quickly metastasize to affect everything from consumer and corporate bank accounts to the health of children's lungs and our ecosystem's biodiversity.

For Friedman, America's need for — and Washington's promotion of — a "green revolution" should lead, like the Space Race of the '50s and '60s before it, to better schools, to a new sector of "green-collar" manufacturing jobs for chronically underemployed youth, and to enhanced moral standing in the global community. Al Qaeda can be defeated if we "out-green" it; petrodictators can be toppled if we quit buying oil from them.

The revolution's benefits are far-reaching and universal, financial and cultural. "This is not about the whales anymore," Friedman argues convincingly in this apposite companion to his bestseller, The World Is Flat. It's about the planet — and the oversized slice of it we've taken for ourselves.

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Simon Maxwell Apter
Simon Maxwell Apter is assistant editor at Lapham's Quarterly, where he also runs the Web site. His commentaries and reviews have appeared in The Nation, The Guardian, The American Prospect, and the San Francisco Chronicle. He is also a frequent contributor to The Huffington Post.