A Green New Deal for saving America’s soul

Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded captures the extent to which green thinking is ingrained in the psychology of the Western elite, especially in that seat of has-been power: the United States.

Josie Appleton

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In essence, Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded could be seen as the political theory behind Barack Obama’s Green New Deal. As Obama and other Western leaders float green thinking as the solution to the economic crisis, Friedman – New York Times columnist and all-American mover and shaker – offers 400 pages of reasons as to why the USA needs a ‘green revolution’.

Friedman sketches the flabby, slothful figure cut by America today. After the Cold War, he said, America lost the Red enemy against which it organised and sought to prove itself: ‘[The Soviet Union] kept us focused as a country. It was a disciplining mechanism.’ The loss of an enemy has ‘made us complacent and lazy’. From lean dynamic world leader to bumbling world debtor – today’s America is an embarrassment, fumbling overseas interventions and relying on the Chinese to prop up its domestic economy.

The book convincingly documents how American industry has lost its innovative edge. Innovation occurs mainly for fripperies – so American companies have produced iPhones galore, but there has not been a new nuclear power station built in the country since 1979. The US energy infrastructure, says Friedman, like much of the industrial infrastructure, is wasteful and leaky, and business bets and borrows rather than makes things for itself: ‘We’ve become a subprime nation that thinks it can just borrow its way to prosperity – putting nothing down and making no payments for two years.’ The American consumer dream is fuelled by Middle Eastern oil and financed by Far East cash.

Friedman’s solution to the crisis is what he calls ‘Code Green’. It is this, he says, that could ‘restore and revitalise’ America, and could mean a new upright and disciplined America freed from dependency on the Easts. It is solving the climate problem that will solve America’s moral problem, says Friedman: ‘I am convinced that the best way for America to solve its big problem – the best way for America to get its “groove” back – is for us to take the lead in solving the world’s big problem.’ If America can reorganise its economy and society on cleaner and energy-efficient lines, this will mean ‘an America that will have its identity back, not to mention its self-confidence, because it will again be leading the world on the most important mission and values issue of the day’.

This book indicates that green thinking is absolutely engrained in the psychology of the Western elite. Environmentalism is perhaps the single lens through which the elite can understand its problems, and propose solutions. Environmentalism is no longer a particular lobby group, or a school of politics or economics: as far as Friedman is concerned, green is politics, green is economics. In his vision of a transformed capitalism, the term ‘green’ will disappear: ‘Green will be the standard. It will be the new normal – nothing else will be available, nothing else will be possible.’ Nor is contemporary environmentalism about saving tigers or rainforests. This is less a programme for nature conservation than for the reorganisation of social relations: ‘This is not about whales anymore. It’s about us.’

Yet the New Green Deal, or Code Green, or éco-croissance (as one leading French politician calls it), are based on a mystified understanding of the problems of Western capitalist societies. The political class is simply unable to understand what is wrong – where the dynamism has gone, what is the cause of the West’s decadence and loss of direction. And so these problems are naturalised, and transmuted on to the terrain of nature or the atmosphere. Fossil fuels are fetishised as the origin of the West’s ‘false wealth’, and the cause of America’s economic dependency. It’s all down to oil! Or alternatively, America’s problem is located in a betrayal of the figure Friedman calls ‘Mother Nature’: unable to identify what has gone wrong with American values, moral decay is instead located in the abandonment of some planetary Earth Mother. Meanwhile, the climate threat functions like a Soviet substitute, providing a source of external pressure and challenge, as the enemy that will again force Americans to rise.

Nature here functions primarily as a muse. It is the extra-social terrain on which the leading capitalist countries can understand their limitations, and issue stirring proclamations about getting to work and getting their energy back. This is indicated when Friedman considers the possibility that there is no climate crisis. If America had its green revolution and yet there was no crisis, says Friedman, this would be as if it had trained for the Olympics but in the end doesn’t make it to the Olympics: it would still have the benefits of the training and be left ‘healthier, stronger, fitter’. The main aim is to get America fit; the climate threat provides the reason and timetable.

The somewhat forced nature of this exercise is indicated by the book’s over-abundant use of metaphor and simile. We variously read that climate change is ‘like…’: like driving in a car towards the edge of a cliff in the fog without proper breaks, or like throwing a 20-sided dice. Destroying biodiversity is like burning down a library before we have catalogued all the books, and it is also like ‘burning all the paintings of the Louvre to cook dinner’. Our underestimation of the climate threat is like climbing Mount Everest but stopping to open a celebratory brandy at base camp six. These urgent-sounding scenarios are conjured up in an effort to give dynamism to the quest – but there are just too many of them, and they just don’t ring true.

At base, the New Green Deal could be seen as a kind of losers’ justice. It is a way of America leading in an economic game that it is losing, by changing the rules. Code Green is a way in which America could tighten up its economy and innovate, without having to compete in terms of sheer economic productivity. America could again have the edge on China, which is something it can no longer do in conventional economic terms. ‘Can America lead a green revolution?’, asks Friedman, ‘Can China follow?’. The aim of the new game becomes not to outproduce, but to ‘outgreen’ – not to make more stuff, but to make it in a way that is cleaner and smarter. Friedman’s vision of a green revolution is a society in which nothing is wasted, where every car battery feeds back into the national grid when it is idling, where energy forms a closed loop of a system and nothing is spilled. It is a system that doesn’t make more, but makes better, which reduces waste to a minimum and reuses again and again in closed cycles.

Friedman argues that the best form of power generation is power saving – ‘the best form of power is the power that doesn’t have to be generated at all because you eliminated demand’. This is basically how the economy can produce more outputs with the same inputs. His sketch of an eco-topia has Dominos Pizza sharing a school’s kitchen by night: people stop building and start sharing, re-using and refining. China will have to follow America – if America has changed the rules and to be ‘American’ is not, any longer, to produce more. Non-production would be rewarded: electricity companies will be rewarded for falling demand for electricity, and ‘regulators would act to reimburse the utility for any out-of-pocket losses’. Whether China will agree to this rule-change is another question.

Hot, Flat and Crowded is a fascinating read, full of vivid reports from Friedman’s enviably extensive travels. The book provides a valuable glimpse into the reasoning of the American elite at this point in time – yet ultimately, suggests that Obama’s New Green Deal is likely to be a no-deal.

Josie Appleton is convenor of the Manifesto Club. Email Josie {encode=”” title=”here”}.

Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why the World Needs a Green Revolution – and How We Can Renew Our Global Future, by Thomas L Friedman, is published by Allen Lane. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)


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