Entering the Climate Change Era on the Right Track

Today we continue our series of the winning essays submitted to Dean of Freshmen, Fred Siegel.  These freshman were selected from over 300 of their peers to attend a dinner with Dean Siegel and a very special guest.

Our featured essay of the day is by freshman, Christopher Bernal Garcia.

1

“America, where are you now? Don’t you care about your sons and daughters? Don’t you know, we need you now! We can’t fight alone against this monster!”

Steppenwolf, Monster (1969)

Words from the past that ring truest to modern ears. One of the band Steppenwolf’s less well known songs, Monster seems to depict a state of affairs independent from its original context. Though composed in 1969, as I read Thomas L. Friedman’s book “Hot, Flat, and Crowded”, the lyrics of the song kept coming back to me. For a very long time the song appealed to me because it represented the best of America, its promise of change and idealism, and the desire to fight against problems in order to bring about the American Promise of a better, “freer” land. To be honest, I’ve always looked up to America as a Mexican national. I am one of those individuals whom Mr. Friedman describes in the first chapters of his book who wishes his country could be like the United States, with its Freedom, its Justice, and its rampant consumption habits. Well, perhaps I’m slightly more critical about the latter, but I still regard America with the highest admiration. As a sidenote, that was one of my main reasons to seek to study in the United States. And so, to conclude the analogy with the Steppenwolf song, I was relieved, even glad, to read Friedman’s book and experience it as a social commentary similar to the classic 1969 song. Because that what this book is all about, a great social message, a call for reformation of certain core aspects of our society but mainly, a summon to action. And that is exactly what we need in today’s world, in order to fight this Monster.

What appealed most to me in this book was the call for a reinvention of the United States of America and its environmental policy by the American people for the American people. Again, this ability to be self-critical and recuperate after setbacks is what sets apart America as a nation. As stated in the book, if anyone can take the step forward today, it’s America. However, this fact does not imply that I am uncritical of Friedman’s approach to the message, its content or the implication. Rather, I felt that remarking the admirable qualities of the book before focusing on its flaws would be a fair approach.

The first aspect that struck me was the national-centric characteristics of the book. Though the cover claims that this book deals with “Why the world needs a green revolution – and how we can renew our global future” I felt there was too great an emphasis on the United States. Granted, as explained in the book, if America leads the way, many others will follow. Others will not. Yet I felt a certain antagonisation of other countries, notably China, and a hidden message of “we as Americans need to beat them”. I understand that as an American, Friedman would seek to make his own country stand out, and that with greater experience in America, its culture and life, the author would seek to focus on it, yet I personally believe that a truly global challenge such as this one must be faced with global cooperation. Friedman bemoans the “patchworky” nature of the American electric grid system in the third section of the book, “How we move forward”. Well, if an international system is not developed to ensure energetic cooperation between nations, the world will still remain a mess of different systems that will generate much inefficiency. And if one nation or another does manage to create an abundance of “green electrons” as Friedman calls them, wouldn’t it be best to export them and help the technology spread throughout the world? If Friedman truly believes in a flat and crowded world, why limit oneself to the American market and consumer base? Tap into the power of the entire human race, in the entirety of inventors and engineers worldwide. In a way, I personally do not care if my green electrons come from the United States or India, as long as they truly are green. As such, calling for greater energy cooperation and international standard-setting for industries would be quite a beneficial step for humanity in my opinion. Rather than antagonising other countries, let America work with them to ensure future prosperity, not of one, but of all. And while truth exists in Friedman’s claim that, in the case of ecosystem preservation, local initiatives are better than international ones, often these international endeavors are much better than none at all, as is often the case. Are there exceptions? Undoubtedly, but not enough to make it a substantial minority, let alone a majority. Nevertheless, this is a minor problem with the book. As previously stated, I do agree that America is central in combating this opponent, I had simply wished for a strategy that better harnessed multinational efforts.

A second interesting element of this book in my opinion is that Friedman never deals with the topic of education. I believe that the first step towards solving the problem of climate change is to have more people understand, or at the very least be informed, of the facts and science behind this monumental weirding of our planet’s climate. If Friedman really hopes to have “10 000 people trying new stuff in 10 000 garages”, then the highest chance of at least one of them coming up with a breakthrough discovery will only come when those 10 000 impromptu inventors are educated in their fields. How could they push back the limit of science and come up with new technologies beyond that barrier if these inventors have no prior knowledge of the limit? And how can we honestly expect a societal change to occur if only scientists, a very small minority of the population, understands the science behind climate weirding? There should be a shift towards factual, scientific information instead of biased political views on the problem, and this shift will only occur if society as a whole embraces education as a whole and becomes better informed. True, this book is not aimed at those uninterested in the issue to begin with, yet I believe for a true revolution to occur individuals should be better informed. Having received several years of schooling in Europe, the different paradigm on conservation and environmentalism is striking. Recycling, conserving energy through any means possible, driving less and many other ways to reduce carbon emissions are not options, they are the norm.

On that note, I was greatly intrigued by the term “a green revolution”. In Friedman’s own words, someone gets hurt in a revolution. Who, then, will get hurt in this one? The oil industry? Petrodictatorships? I didn’t find the link clearly obvious throughout the book but I understand how revolution was a suitable term. I do agree that we can’t continue playing by the same rules or applying band-aids to a sinking ship, I do agree that we need something new. Sadly, Friedman’s recommendations are nothing revolutionary, or new at all. In one of the later chapters, Friedman makes the case for a tax on petroleum and  natural gas in order to boost the appeal of alternative energy sources, not unlike what is common practice in many european countries. Perhaps, but if Friedman is calling for a revolution, potentially catching up to the European standard will not change things greatly, let alone dent the problem we are facing as a species. I understand this is a monumental challenge, that one man alone will face countless obstacles, yet given the lengthy introduction to the issue and boastfulness of Friedman’s proposed “steps to solve the problem”, I was personally slightly disappointed with the presented steps to move forward. I was glad not to see a repetition of the most basic knowledge like “recycle, drive less, etc”. But the “million arks and million Noahs” strategy presented in the chapter bearing the same name, to take an example, seemed wildly idealistic.

Additionally, the question of petropolitics seemed to deserve a longer exposition than it received in the book. The short section on petropolitics quickly covered many nations and trends that show correlation (not causation) between different aspects of a society, yet I felt that all oil-exporting countries were painted with the same brush. Though not without its flaws, Qatar for example was quickly portrayed as just another petrostate. On a recent visit there I personally witnessed a society that is slowly but surely becoming more progressive, through greater gender equality and personal freedom. For example, Doha, Qatar’s capital, is currently home to the Al-Jazeera news station, which allows locals to experience local news with a western touch. Remarkably I attended a conference hosted by several American universities with a campus in Qatar alongside their national counterparts. One of the topics debated was that of renewable energy and environmental conservation and it seemed clear to me that at least the younger generation of people living in this country was determined to bring about a change out of what Friedman termed the “Dirty Fuels System”. Similarly, one of the most important oil suppliers to the United States is Mexico, and while undeniably slightly biased, I know for a fact that oil money has helped elevate the living standards of various people in my country. Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex) is a state owned company and much of its revenue has gone to rural development programmes that were greatly needed. Again, this example is not without its flaws, and undeniably the intention of the chapter might have been another, yet the underlying implication linking oil-consumption to petropolitics throughout the book did make me wary a couple of times. Nevertheless, these small flaws should not deviate the attention from the main high points of the book.

Particularly I found Friedman’s final chapter to be the most captivating and insightful. The choice now rests in our hands, and its time for us to take action, to recognize the problem we are facing, and to oppose it. This challenge is going to take a lot of effort and coordinated effort, and I was glad to see this book expanding on those necessities. Without a doubt I can say that I enjoyed Friedman’s book and that the perspective he offers on the matter is refreshing. Though some analogies are taken to the extreme throughout the book, to the point where I felt that the author kept making up acronyms and metaphors without any effective goal in mind, “Hot, Flat, and Crowded” turned out to be quite an enjoyable read on a contemporary issue that is possibly not getting the attention it should (at least, not the right kind). And I believe that more people should read this book and be critical about it. There are flaws in it, yes, but the book nevertheless offers a great starting point for the discussion that should emerge out of the topic, whether one agrees with Friedman’s point of view or not. It is of vital importance to today’s society that at the very least the debate begins and society gains more interest on the issue. And there is plenty to debate about, ranging from Friedman’s double stand-point of advocating for both market forces and government regulation, both of which are not mutually exclusive, to his alarmist warnings. But as Friedman himself brilliantly put it, if we prepare and we’re wrong, we’re greener as a society. If we do not prepare and our predictions are right, however, we might be in for serious trouble. I’m personally convinced that America, and the world, would be much better of being prepared, much like it has been in the past. Being prepared will require sacrifice and change, however, yet one that shouldn’t be felt as a necessity but as a decision.

Furthermore, I believe that the American people are ready for change. They made it quite clear at the recent presidential elections and have continued to support transformative legislation here and there. What is currently lacking, however, is the inborn desire to actually spearhead that change; change is not something that will occur to us as a society unless we initiate it ourselves. As Friedman points out, the United States is not China, the government can not simply “decide” without prior approval from the people. America is a democracy. Yet more and more the will of the people seems blocked by specific interest groups. Because of the plurality of voices, a common front is difficult to create in order to oppose these powerful lobbies. But as long as the will exists to take on these challenges, and the message is being sent out of why we should face them, hope exists. The next step, the one we as readers take, is the one to bring about reform. And there shouldn’t be any doubts left that we should fix this, and not postpone it or leave it to another generation.

So in brief I believe that what we need now to tackle the challenges of a Hot, Flat, and Crowded world is willingness and social activism. The tools are there, ready to be used. All that’s missing is the desire by us, the people to take them up and build the road to a new era. This desire will come, yet it must emerge from within as well as be influenced from without. We the people, each and every single one of us, has a role to play. It’s time for the message to spread out so that each and every individual does not feel forced to participate and help in this revolution by outside forces such as nature, but rather that one feels the desire to participate. Already improvements are occurring, but we are still a long way off. Thankfully books like Friedman’s will help stir that activism. Books such as this one will help agitate the debate on the issue and bring forward new ideas. Books like this one are our first step towards defeating the Monster. And before the year 2050, we will see dramatic improvement in the earth’s ecosystem without any hindrance to growth and development around the world. At least, that’s my humble hope!

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