Friedman Scares Us Straight

scared-picToday 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 author, Thomas Friedman.

Our featured essay of the day is by freshman, Sarah Callahan.

Friedman wrote Hot, Flat, and Crowded with a similar mission as the men who started the program, Scared Straight.  For those of you not aware of this program it is for juvenile delinquents who are straddling the line between juvenile detention centers and jail.  These kids, children between the ages of 9 to 17, go to jail for a day and are yelled, spat, and sneered at by the inmates who started this very program.  The goal is as in the title: to scare them straight.  As I fervidly read through Friedman’s accounts of “unmanageable and irreversible…droughts and floods of biblical proportions” and that “if there is no action before 2012, [it will be] too late” I felt myself staring straight into the lions dens.  The inmates sneering and asking me “What the hell were you thinking?”  “How can you be so dumb?”  I was scared straight.  A cool sweat came over me as I read figures that included the loss of a whole genus and the deforestation of “an acre a second.”  Friedman is screaming with facts, figures, and examples that if we don’t do something NOW there will be consequences of “biblical scale” that will not happen tens of thousands of years from today but tomorrow.  At times, through Friedman’s words, I felt the instinctual urge to run out on the streets and start to furiously fling Friedman’s philosophy onto the ignorant faces of the climate nay-sayers; to pull America’s mood away from as “dumb as we wanna be” to lets start a green revolution!  Although my impetuous favors these abrasive actions, the opposition might poorly misconstrue this green thumping as flat out crazy talk.  Friedman in Hot, Flat, and Crowded, is able to speak to fervently passionate environmentalists without scaring away those who teetered on the fence between complete ignorance and climate acceptance.

So what is in this book that would be able to keep crazy environmentalists, such as myself, and doubters to listen up?  Friedman’s speaks of a revolution to save not just the planet from our overpopulation and overuse of natural resources but to rip the American people from the state of mind 9/11 has put us in and back as a prominent world leader.  After 9/11, our goals have been to stop terrorism.  Friedman has asked what has that done to us but made us more scared to step out of our embassies where “no birds can fly.”  Friedman uses the example of our conclave in Istanbul where it looks more like a high-risk prison then an embassy.  What have we accomplished since then but a laundry list of problems.  Friedman talks of a revolution.  He explains that no matter whether you believe in global warming this green revolution can bring America together and put us back in the spotlight that we have shied away from for too long.   With America’s motto moving away from the land of the free to the “We’ll get to it when we get to it,” it is now the time to start a new project.  We need a project to shape the world and allow us to be again what we are so used to be – the knight and shining armor of freedom and justice.

The world is hot.  Yes there have been warming’s and cooling’s in the past but not like what we are experiencing.  Experts in the Pew Center on Climate Change state that, “Scientists studying the rapid rise in global temperatures during the late twentieth century say that natural variability cannot account for what is happening now.”  Question: What is that new factor that is affecting climate change? Answer: Us.  Rochelle Lefkowitz, president of Pro-media Communications defines coal, oil, and natural gases as “fuels from hell,” due to their production under the earth and their harmful emissions.  While “fuels from heaven,” come from above ground and have no harmful emissions.  They consist of wind, hydroelectric, tidal, biomass, and solar power.  Harmful emissions consist of CO2 gasses that come from cars that are odorless and colorless and are extracted every mile we drive.  Greenhouse gases such as methane are also silent and invisible but just as deadly as Co2 emissions.  Rice farming, petroleum drilling, and solid waste landfill sites can omit methane.  The most outstanding way methane is released into the air is through cattle belching.  Yeah, weird huh?  Cattle’s belching is one of the chief global sources of methane gas.  With on average cattle belching 600 liters of methane a day.  So with this new green living fad and everyone’s fear of greenhouse gases, what exactly is the greenhouse effect?  Friedman explains greenhouse gases as a “unique molecular structure, [that] traps the sun’s heat near the earth’s surface before that heat radiates back into space.”  So if greenhouse gases trap the suns heat to warm the earth, which is a good thing because the usual temperature of earth is 45 degrees, what happens if too much greenhouse gas is admitted?  The gases trap too much sun and cause the temperature to rise aka global warming.  To all those skeptics, Friedman always has evidence to back up the ideas in his books.  With the 2005 study from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, with help from satellites, data from buoys, and computer models, scientists studied the earth’s oceans and concluded that, “more energy is being absorbed from the sun than is emitted back to space, throwing the earth’s energy out of balance and warming the globe.”

In chapter three where Friedman discusses “our carbon copies,” he explores the “American Lifestyles” that are being copied all over the world.  The American Lifestyle that uses up energy deforests to builds highways, and place McDonalds, mini-malls, and Wal-Mart’s all around the turnpikes.  This lifestyle has been copied all over the world and if we are not to change how we approach our energy use other countries will continue to follow us as we dig a deeper hole into energy overuse oblivion.  Friedman takes us on a journey to Doha and Dalian where only in three short years it is unrecognizable to Friedman.  He recounts “barely recognizing them” and “a skyline that looked like a mini-Manhattan.”  Tom Burke of the group E3G states that, “one Americum is any group of 350 million people with a per capita income above $15,000 and a growing penchant for consumerism.”  With only two “Americums” the world seemed that it would be able to sustain the lives of these “Americums.”  Unfortunately today Americums are spreading like an infectious disease.  Burke predicts that by 2030 “we will have gone from a world of two Americums to a world of eight or nine.”  The world could not possibly harbor enough resources for this style of life.  Countries have copied our bad habits so it is time for them to copy our good ones, the ones that will save this earth from becoming unbearably hot, flat, and crowded.

As our need for resources soars so does the countries that we look to for their “fuels from hell”.  In the Middle East, suburban America has been replicated and gated communities have been spreading like wild fire.  With the need for water and energy to refurbish these communities it is no wonder why the Middle East is spending more time consuming the very resources we thirst for rather then exporting.  So if the Middle East starts to run on empty what will they stop first: consuming or exporting?  How much the world values its new found American Lifestyle will determine how strong of a backlash the countries without foreign oil will react to the lose of their exports.

As the middle class grows to as many as 1.8 billion people in the next 12 years the main question that needs to be asked is, “Can the world afford a middle class?”  32 Kenyans now consume as much as 300 million Americans consume.  This was not the case years ago and has caused our resources to thin.  Thomas Malthus “alarm about a world where the population outstrips its ability to feed itself” is beginning to ring.  The scariest part of this is that many countries are not listening to this ringing.  A World Bank expert in Iraq wraps up other countries lack of concern in this quote, “Here, energy is taken for granted-conservation is not even on the agenda, and when you look at the planning here, there is very little critique on the environmental side.  You are almost speaking a foreign language with them when you bring up environmental standards and controls.  They are burning all sorts of stuff in all sorts of machines and putting all sorts of shit in the air and water, and nobody cares.”  “Nobody cares.”  If America cared I wonder if other countries would too.

Although Friedman shows that things look gloomy, there are still lights at the end of the tunnel.  There are innovators who have suggested and started projects to help pull the world out of its consumerist state.  William McDonough and Micheal Braungart suggest a project called “cradle to cradle.”  In this every appliance we use must be either completely reusable or able to be turned into fertilizer.  McDonough further explains “cradle to cradle as a “counter distinction to cradle to grave, that we close all the cycles, so we don’t just send things to landfills and incinerators.”  These kind of inventive techniques might be able to rip us from the jaws of energy consumption and into a much more green world.

Not only does our addiction to oil cause our environment to suffer but also our interests abroad.  As oil barrels become more expensive the countries that are swimming in oil production gain the upper hand over countries, such as us, that are buying oil from them.  Friedman found a frightening correlation between the price of oil and basic freedoms.  As the price of oil increases, basic freedoms begin to slowly diminish.  Countries that have not drilled a drop of oil are the ones that are pushing more democratic practices and electing more revolutionary leaders.  When oil was at $20 a barrel Iran elected Mohammed Khatami as president who called for a “dialogue of civilizations.”  Coincidently as soon as the price of oil barrels rose to $60-$70 a barrel Mohammed Ahmadinejad who stated that the Holocaust was a myth was elected as president of Iran.  These frightening correlations also are relevant when we see where the money for oil is being funneled.  Our addiction to oil is funding the terrorists who have caused a stalemate in the war in Iraq.  If our addiction is not kicked; the war, our place as a world leader, and freedoms of oil-ridden countries will be at stake.

Freidman states that the world is not global warming but “global weirding.”  While in a debate with one of my friends, I refrained from using the term global warming due to the negative connotations.  When I used the term “global weirding” my debate partner was instantly intrigued and wanted to learn more.  I began to explain that our environment is facing problems that not just the scientists are noticing.  Farmers, hunters, and just regular people are beginning to notice their traditions and expectations of seasons to come have begun to change.  For instance, fishers have had to push the fishing season back due to excessively high waters.  Citizens are being asked to pray for rain by their politicians.  The environment has no longer become an issue that only the politicians discuss, but one that is facing our daily lives.  As species begin to fall off the extinct list into oblivion, we begin to wonder when it will be our turn-as Rob Watson states, “every day you look in the mirror now, you’re seeing an endangered species.”

Unfortunately after all of this research, that proves the existence of “global weirding,” there are still many out there who wish to believe that it is non-existence.  It is infuriating to have people who still believe that climate change is a hoax.  Holdren states that there are three different levels of skeptics.  First level is they tell you that “you’re wrong and they can prove it: ‘Climate isn’t changing in unusual ways or, if it is, human activities are not the cause.’  Second stage is, “OK, it’s changing and humans are playing a role, but it won’t do much harm.”  Then finally they say, “Yes, climate disruption is going to do some real damage, but it’s too late, too difficult, or too costly to avoid that, so we’ll just have to hunker down and suffer.”  These stages are experienced by the masses and if we are not able to rewire the thought process of these non-believers we will face some serious problems.  Hypothetically if global warming is not a problem and nothing is wrong with the climate, what would be the harm in making companies more energy efficient, or making animals have a safe home they can thrive in, or giving energy stricken nations the tools to become connected to the modern world.  Also what would be the harm if America were the one leading these changes?  It would but us back as a world power and back in the forefront pushing forward for a more clean tomorrow.

In the words of the Beatles, “Say you want a revolution, well you know we all want to change the world.”  Well the Beatles of course always spoke words of wisdom.  Everyone wants to change the world.  Unfortunately everything will not be “alright” if we don’t move towards cleaner electrons, energy efficiency, and conservation.  We do not need to turn to drastic measures to conserve the environment as Friedman states, “we don’t know whether we’ll need to opt for drastic, because we haven’t yet tried the obvious.”  So what is the obvious?  Turning of the lights when leaving a room, taking a bike to the corner store, and taking the metro instead of driving; are all small ways that can lead to the energy revolution.  Of course we need new innovations but we do already have technology that is cheap and waiting to be used by the masses.  Joseph Romm says that, “Wind and solar technologies are already cost-effective today.”  We do not need a breakthrough in technology but more of a breakthrough in our states of minds.  We need to stop thinking we can wait for a magical inventor to come and clean up our world and start to take the giant leaps toward a world where we will not have to be the first generation to tell our children, “you can’t have a life as good as I did.” *

First day of high school: new Jansport backpack – check, new hairdo – check, green is the new black t-shirt, CHECK.  I was a victim of the “green party” as Friedman states and thought that by wearing this shirt and turning of my lights when I left a room was part of the green revolution.  Although my heart was in the right place I was not willing to make the sacrifices that are needed for us to be completely green.  Although my shirt was the new must have, it would not stop petro dictatorships, energy overuse, dirty fuel systems, or CO2 emissions.  Friedman shows a list of books and clips that explained easy ways to be eco friendly.  Unfortunately what we must learn is that there is no easy way to be eco friendly.  To truly be eco friendly the steps we must take are anything but easy.  For example Robert Socolow an engineering professor at Princeton and Stephen Pacala an ecology professor at Princeton also gave eight “easy” steps to avoid the doubling of CO2 by mid-century.  A few are to “add twice today’s current global nuclear capacity to replace coal-based electricity, halt all cutting and burning of forests, and Drive two billion cars on ethanol, using one-sixth of the world’s cropland to grow the needed corn.”  These are the kind of measures that need to be taken for a true green revolution to occur.  However difficult the road to a clean world might be, the rewards are boundless.  If we are able to make drastic changes in our lives our future can be an episode of The Jetsons.  Where the communication between you and your house is not one sided anymore.  Our houses would be powered by a smart box that would decide, based on the market, how much energy to use and when to use it.  Our energy bills would drop drastically.  We would save not only the money but also the environment and our position as a world leader.

It baffles me how people moan when they hear about saving the earth.  Friedman describes how seeing the beautiful wonder of nature instinctively drives a person towards saving it.  No matter if you’re a republican, democrat, white, black, or brown you have experienced the soft rustling of a brook silently spreading its fingers out as if to just grace upon the rocks and leaves sprouting from the river bed; or the beauty of a sunset, free of a coal plant spewing smog into the luminescent colors that light up the sky.  Weather you believe in global warming, overconsumption, or extreme deforestation, would you really want to take a chance on loosing the splendors mother nature has offered us?  I sure wouldn’t.  Give me taxes on dirty fuels, replace my gas consuming cars with electric ones, make me ride my bike to school, but whatever you do, do not take away mother nature’s garden.  Friedman humors those who stand strong in their convictions on the non-existence of climate change and asks them one simple question: if this whole climate change is hodgepodge what is the harm in cleaning up our planet?  If we were wrong we have a cleaner planet but if, just if, we were right would you like to tell your children that they would never experience the grand symphony a garden can construe on a spring evening because you couldn’t admit that something odd was happening to the climate?  Again, I sure wouldn’t.

As a finished Hot, Flat, and Crowded I felt like one of those children stumbling out of the jail with a look of awe on my face and a hint of a silent drive to better myself in my eye.  Looking back at the jail thinking, “I never want to go there.”  Like those children who look weary from their experience with the prisoners, I have seen the light with them and have come out a better person.  Ready to fight for my freedom to not just survive but thrive.  To not every experience what those inmates (Friedman) so vividly described would be my life if I did not change my (wasteful) ways.  As Friedman, along with the inmates, encourages us to stop what we are doing and redirect our lives towards a better future.  His goal is the same as the inmates: to scare us straight into a better life.  In Friedman’s eyes it is a life full of smart houses, clean energy, the fulfillments of nature, and freedom from petro dictators.  I am truly inspired to join Friedman in his quest towards a world that is not so hot, flat, and crowded.

* K.R. Sridhar



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