In many ways, Tom Friedman stole the thunder at the Delhi Summit on Sustainable Development (Feb 5-7), which The Energy & Resources Institute, headed by Dr R K Pachauri, organises every year. His virtuoso performance, shorn of all the acronyms and jargon which cloud protracted international debates on global warming, where he strode the stage with a cordless mike, dressed - typically for a hardened journalist - in shirtsleeves in an unusually warm winter, took the audience by storm (no apologies for all the climate metaphors).
The celebrated New York Times syndicated Foreign Affairs columnist and author, most recently of Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why the World Needs a Green Revolution - and How We can Renew Our Global Future (Allen Lane, 2008), was billed as the star of the show by Dr Pachauri, no push-over himself as someone who heads an organisation that has shared the Nobel Peace Prize - the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - with former American Vice President Al Gore. Jesting that his latest book was on sale outside the conference hall, Friedman warmed up to his book's theme without any preliminaries, asserting that there is an alternative to deliberations at the forthcoming UN conference in Copenhagen early this December, where the Kyoto Protocol will be re-negotiated.
He castigates the US as a 'subprime' economy and launches into the second of his three big takes, which is that the world was 'flat' - he correctly assumed that the dignitaries assembled at the summit, comprising multilateral institutions, energy experts and foreign and Indian corporates, knew more about the world being hot than he did. He excoriated American-style consumption: "There are too many Americans!" he complained, meaning not just the profligate resource-use in his country but the tendency of elites throughout the world to emulate such extravagant lifestyles.
The globe would have 9.2 billion people by 2050 ('Crowded'), which was a cause of concern. Friedman may partly be a protÃ©gÃ© of the Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich who wrote the best-selling but alarmist The Population Bomb in 1968. In neo-Malthusian mode, Ehrlich argued that population growth would outpace agricultural growth unless controlled. Ehrlich assumed that the population will rise exponentially, but that the available resources, in particular food, were already at their limits. He warned of a potential massive disaster in the subsequent few years. Unlike Malthus, Ehrlich did not see any means of avoiding the disaster entirely. The solutions for limiting its scope that he proposed, including starving whole countries that refused to implement population control measures, were more radical than those postulated by Malthus.
The Population Bomb was written at the suggestion of the executive director of the Sierra Club, following an article Ehrlich wrote for the New Scientist magazine in December 1967. Ehrlich predicted that the world would experience famines sometime between 1970 and 1985. He also stated that "India couldn't possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980," and "I have yet to meet anyone familiar with the situation who thinks that India will be self-sufficient in food by 1971." These predictions did not come to pass. By the time of the book's 1971 edition, the latter prediction had been removed.
Friedman is much savvier; he sees the demand for energy and natural resources outstripping supply as units of 300 million "Americons" (if this writer heard the term correctly) in different countries. In other words, these are US-sized insatiable consumers - or "omnivores" as some environmentalists have termed have termed them. These units are the size of the entire American population, but exist all around the world - India included. There are nine Americons in the world today.
In his writing and speeches, Friedman reserves his choicest bile to revile "petrodictators" - his chapter in the section on how the world got into the carbon mess reads "Fill 'er up with dictators". On a visit to Doha, the capital of Qatar, he was astounded to find a "Manhattan bursting out of the desert" (incidentally, the neighbouring United Arab Emirates has the worst ecological footprint in the world, meaning that it appropriates more productive acres of land and water in the globe for its citizens than even the US). He finds an inverse relationship between the freedom index and the price of oil. He observes how once Bahrain ran out of oil, it turned democratic.
He borrows US environmentalist Amory Lovins' phrase 'Global Weirding' as opposed to Warming to ask: who made us hot? He wonders whether all current and erstwhile climate-deniers will live long enough to see the impact of climate change.
He worries about the loss of biodiversity ('The Age of Noah') as a consequence of global warming. He cites a NYT colleague's report on the world's "last known female Yangtze giant soft shell turtle living in a decrepit Chinese zoo", while the planet's only male of this species was in another Chinese zoo. It was an unlikely consummation, because she was 80 two years ago and weighed 90 pounds, while her match was 100 years old and weighed about 200 pounds. Artificial insemination hadn't worked and Chinese scientists were putting them in the same pool last year to see if something happenedâ¦ "One new species is disappearing every 20 minutes; we are burning the library before indexing the books," Friedman says, referring to the loss of such natural treasures.
He worries even more about 'Energy Poverty'. There are 1.6 billion people without electricity, a full quarter of the world's population. If one takes the whole of southern Africa, minus the Republic of South Africa (the richest country in the continent), its entire consumption of power is 1 gigawatt a year, which China consumes in a mere fortnight. But he wonders if climate change presents problems or opportunities. The next Green Revolution, he believes, will come not from IT but ET - Energy Technology. Such know-how will dominate all global industries, with the decline of oil and growing alarm about warming. He wants to rethink green, as the source of a massive renewal of the US economy.
"Green is the new red, white and blue" (colours of the American flag, the badge of patriotism), he asserts. Some vested interests may get hurt in this process of change; companies must change or die. He sees things like conventional cars as belonging to another, antediluvian age, as are energy-guzzling five-star hotels (like the Ashok in which the summit was being held). The average American golfer doesn't realize that the typical course drinks 41 million gallons of water a year.
He now goes for the jugular: the answer, according to him, is "innovation, not regulation". This resonates with what Bjorn Stigson, President of the World Business Council of Sustainable Development in Geneva, told the Delhi summit when he made out a case for "technical cooperation", not "transfer" of technologies - in other words, the interests he represents aren't prepared to part with know-how to combat change, although the global North had caused global warming in the first place, but are prepared to sell it. Friedman wants nothing less than a marriage of 'Mother Nature and the Market', as he put it, with his characteristic verbal verve. This can prove "the biggest transformational agent".
Friedman finds an inverse relationship between the freedom index and the price of oil. He observes how once Bahrain ran out of oil, it turned democratic. Picture source: Wikipedia)
There is technological innovation only with price signals: "price matters". He cites how cell phones made sense to everybody as they kept dropping in price, and are rapidly replacing land lines. He ends his bravura performance with the remark that strikes a chord with his Indian hosts and the assembled dignitaries from the developing world. He thinks that it is "deeply unfair" that the global North nibbles the hors d'oeuvres, wolfs down the entrÃ©e, finishes off the dessert and then invites India and China and says: '"Let's share the bill!"
In response to a question about whether US politicians are sensitive to imposing taxes on energy-intensive industries, he cites a NYT poll, where 85 per cent said they weren't in favour of a gasoline tax but by the similar token, 65 per cent were in favour of defeating petrodictators and 58 per cent were in favour of defeating climate change. In other words, it depended on how the choices before consumers were posed. "We must change the leaders, not the light bulbs!" he concludes, with a flourish.
There is no doubt about Friedman's good intentions and even more so about his goodwill towards India (as his column on the Delhi summit makes clear), but it is his excessive faith in the market which is misplaced. Sir Nick Stern, who authored the authoritative British government report on the economics of climate change, points out that this man-made phenomenon represents the biggest market failure in history (the present financial meltdown included).
Friedman reminds one of his fellow US green evangelist Jeremy Rifkin, who addressed a meeting in Madrid last year on the impact of climate change on cities. The maverick economist and author has written 17 best-sellers, including the prophetic The End of Work. Pacing the stage, Friedman-like, also with a cordless mike, he announced a third industrial revolution. The first was the advent of electricity and the printing press; the second the era of oil (only discovered in the mid-19th century). Oil is in its sunset stage, even as it reached (at the time) $100 a barrel.
Rifkin, and others of his ilk like Lester Brown, founder of Worldwatch and Jonathan Lash, who heads that other Washington think-tank, the World Resources Institute, are enamoured about the potential of hydrogen, seen as a totally clean fuel. Seven Japanese companies are perfecting the storage of hydrogen in batteries. In New York's Times Square, a skyscraper is already powered by hydrogen. Forty buses are similarly fuelled in Hamburg, while GM will roll out its first H model by 2011 which he described as a "batman or dotcom car" with no steering wheel, only a joystick. When it is not being used, it can generate small quantities of power locally. However, the production, transport and storage of hydrogen, at present, is by no means climate-friendly and if everyone uses even a hydrogen car, the already clogged roads in every city are only going to get worse.
The widespread belief that the world needs technological fixes to solve all its problems is naÃ¯ve. It is not as if Bill Gates developed Microsoft to make the planet literate or Monsanto wants to rid the world of its hunger through genetically modified foods. An alternative technology will only work in an alternative society. This is why the US, the richest nation, has some 30 million poor people, which has prompted Mohammad Yunus of Bangladesh to start a Grameen Bank in New York.
"Power to the people", which Rifkin and Friedman exult in literally, will not be ushered in by the microchip or hydrogen battery, but by a redistribution of wealth. The tragedy is that with all the technological advances already under way, the world is actually witnessing greater inequality. Hence, the environment needs to be protected from both market and technological fundamentalism.