Hot, Flat and Crowded: The Cinderella Complex

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 author, Thomas Friedman.

Our featured essay of the day is by freshman, Preston Reynolds.

Hot, Flat, and Crowded can be separated into three parts, each with its own set of reflections. ‘Hot’, to me, is about the different challenges posed to a green revolution not only in the United States, but around the world. ‘Flat’ is what I would call a cultural globalization, which is important because this is both an obstacle and a useful tool in which we can shape the world to come. Or destroy it. ‘Crowded’ is more than just over-population, yes we’re projected to have close to 10 billion people living on Earth by 2050, but more importantly, where are these people going to live? Urbanization amplifies the problems of over-crowding and population growth.

As Thomas Friedman puts it, we’re all here because we put ourselves here. This is undoubtedly true, but I much prefer Al Gore’s analogy: When you stick a frog into hot water, it jumps right out, but if you stick a frog in lukewarm water and slowly bring it to a boil, the frog will stay in until someone pulls it out. We are the second frog, still waiting for someone to pull us out of the mess we made. We are the second scenario. Because of the global culture that we built in the last century, including our infrastructure, our way of life, our cars, and even our values, we’re too reluctant to renew and rebuild in this new millennium. But just like the housing crisis and our global recession, it only takes one step to lead on to a broader change. Here is what I have to say:

Hot:

The world is a steam room with the doors left open; we’re in the process of shutting, locking, and welding the door closed. Global warming is a sure fact, though we’d all love to debate the cause, the reality that it is happening is evident. Friedman suggests that America is not ready for a green revolution, that it is gradual process that takes decades of preparation and legislative concentration. I wholeheartedly disagree. I think the US is ready now more than ever to renew its values and jump into a green revolution. In fact, I firmly believe the opportunity is staring us in the face.

We’re in a position of financial recovery where taxpayers hold a significant stake in many key players necessary for a green revolution. General Motors, Ford, General Electric, Chrysler, Citibank, Sallie Mae, Freddie Mac, etc. are all pieces in a chess game we’re playing against adversaries of green. Many of these companies, mostly those Detroiters, are reasons behind America’s oil addiction. This puts taxpayers in a very promising place, one that the current presidency has already acted upon. Obama has demanded average miles per gallon of vehicles in the United States reach a standard of 35.5 by 2016, and that these new vehicles be at least 40% cleaner (New York Times). I realize that Friedman wrote his book before these new standards were released, however, I felt it was mentionable due to his emphasis on the slashes of mpg standards in the 90’s and during the Bush administration.

Obama’s standards are goals that are well within reach without sacrificing the American way of life. I am no expert on the mechanics of a car nor the technicalities of an engine, but I do know that there are much higher projected standards among companies like Toyota and Honda. With the backing of taxpayer dollars and government-sponsored incentives, there is no reason why GM, Ford, and other American car-makers cannot exceed expectations.

The goal of American environmentalists is to completely eliminate US dependency on oil. Although the above policies would significantly decrease America’s dependency, it would far from eliminate it. In order to gain petro-independence, we need to build a country that is primarily clean. This is a huge undertaking in infrastructure renewal and restoration. But it is doable, and profitable.

In Israel, a country whose oil dependency is not only an economic brick wall, but also a national security threat, there is a government sponsored program to create a cheap electric car that could travel the length of the country on a single charge. This is highly unrealistic, and lawmakers and scientists realized this. So instead, the government is sponsoring the construction of ‘gas stations’ around the country that house batteries for these cars. The idea is that the consumer does not own the battery, rather it is property of the government and the consumer pays solely for the car itself, then if a car is low on power, the battery is simply swapped out for a fully charged one at one of these stations while the used battery is charged for the next user. In this way, the cost for the car is subsidized by the government (the high cost of electric cars is usually associated with the high cost of Li-ion based batteries, which in this case account for approx. $10,000 of the price of the car), making it cheap for the consumer. Many argue the program stating the cost for the stations and the batteries, however, the construction of the stations and infrastructure systems would put hundreds of thousands of unemployed Israeli’s to work and the quality of Li-ion systems is constantly being improved and the cost cheapened.

Obviously Israel is a much smaller country than the United States, therefore a similar program would be extremely costly. However, only a few decades after the invention of the automobile, America found itself in a depression that the America of today has come so close to reliving. One of the most praised remedies to that depression was the construction of the national highway system and government sponsored infrastructure expansion. This employed millions of Americans, giving them a consistent paycheck in a time of extreme need and unemployment. Today’s America is in need. 9% of today’s America is unemployed. That’s 27.3 million people. Many of our highways are in need of restoration, but it’s not just roads that we’re looking at.

Much of the US’s oil dependency and greenhouse gas emissions come from our power plants. San Diego Gas & Electric Company states that 6 percent of their energy output comes from renewable energy sources. They are 4th in the nation. Meanwhile, in countries like Norway, the environmental and energy agencies expect to be completely energy independent, with over 50% coming from renewable sources. Friedman talks about this, and makes some suggestions as to how America can get to that standard. I have my own.

Many republicans may find this absurd given our nation’s current deficit, but I say sponsor and even grant funds to companies like GE specifically for research and development of renewable energy and expansion of our ‘renewable infrastructure’, that is power plants and facilities to process and produce renewable energy. This is nationwide, and extremely broad. States like California would take advantage of year-round sunshine, or oceanic currents to supply their power. The mid-west would utilize wind currents to generate its power. Meanwhile, like those in Israel, the 27.3 million jobless workers in the United States would receive a paycheck that could most likely push some liquidity into our solid, clogged markets. This cash flow in turn fuels our markets and our programs. And, if need be, our energy programs would be supplemented by Texas oil and cheap petroleum brought in from Canada under NAFTA.

Friedman says we are not ready for this, but we are rebuilding our country from one of the largest financial meltdowns in history, I say we take advantage of this opportunity to make a more profitable, efficient, and cleaner America. I don’t doubt that the process won’t end for at least a decade, but there is no reason why America cannot start now.

Flat:

In The World is Flat Thomas Friedman talks about globalization, the interdependence of nations and the intermingling of world cultures. In Hot, Flat, and Crowded Friedman discusses this in relation to a green revolution.

I spent the second semester of my senior year in high school studying the relationship between independent bloggers and the media. I feel this has huge relevance in examining the importance of cultural globalization. The world is not only flat, but if I scream loud enough, you can hear me on the other side. I found that blogging has an endless audience. I can live in south Texas, have a target audience in Toronto and still have a remarkable effect on my readers. Barack Obama used this to his advantage in the recent election, having attracted voters and readers from around the world to his cause through his election blog. There is a very moving photograph that I saw on the Herald Tribune the day after the election that had a poor Kenyan girl with a Barack Obama pin on her raggedy shirt. She was smiling. Nothing embodies the power of our global culture to connect and motivate than citizen journalism and blogging.

One of the primary barriers to a green revolution is apathy. America is used to where we are now, so what would bring our people to change? People. There are those of us who care enough to speak out, and we have the tools to scream loud enough for the flat world’s horizons to hear us.  We have the power to motivate the unmotivated and check the unchecked. Word is power. Obama brought a record number of Americans to the polls in November with the power of his word. With the right voice and incentives, we can motivate the American people by expressing both the dangers of the road we’re on, and the benefits of taking the right turn.

Globalization is a useful tool in other ways as well. Cuba is the closest producer of sugar cane to the United States, and it also happens to be one of the largest producers of the crop in the world. Most products in the United States that use sugar as a sweetener substitute sugar for corn syrup that is grown domestically (because of the trade embargo with Cuba). The ethanol industry that has tried to make significant growth in the United States as an alternative fuel source has been damaged because of the high price of sugar and the inefficiency of corn (When it comes to producing ethanol, sugar is both cheaper to process than corn and also produces 30% more ethanol). If the globalization principle of free trade was applied between the US and Cuba, the US would gain a number of benefits: 1. Cheaper source of sugar. 2. A surplus of food because of the extra corn growth, which would fall into the global markets, lowering the costs of corn abroad and making it easier for countries like Congo and Rwanda to feed their people. 3. A bigger ethanol industry to supplement fuel costs cheaply and effectively. Cheap fuel means more money in American pockets, which translates to a higher quality of life.

I live in California; it costs me roughly $72 to fill my tank. I drive a Dodge Durango that claims to have an average of 15.3 mpg. Flex-fuel engines in the US usually function off 15% ethanol and 85% fuel, but have the ability to function off 85% ethanol and 15% fuel. Gas costs about $3 a gallon in California and my tank holds roughly 24 gallons of fuel. Ethanol costs $1.74 per gallon to produce (without Cuba’s sugar cane). If I were to fill my tank with 85% ethanol and 15% gas it would cost me roughly $45 to fill. That’s a 37% decrease in fuel costs and the process is cleaner. There is no way I consider my car efficient, in fact, it’s quite the clunker.

As much as globalization has the power to motivate people and drive costs of efficiency down, all the interdependency more often swings the other way. It is increasingly difficult for nations to come to agreement on economic and production standards, this creates much too much tension for scenarios like the one described above. Friedman covers this when he talks about the OPEC crisis of the 70’s and America’s dependency on petro-dictators. This is where I scratch my head really hard. There will be years in America’s future that will be difficult as we sway away from our dependency, but the more I look at it, the more I find it necessary. We are too connected to people who are unwilling to change or give up the prowess of their commodity, but instead of leaning into them, America can see a better future. Oil is not a commodity, energy is a commodity. Oil produces energy, which is the sole reason as to why we buy it and why it has a use. Petro-dictators are a Rockefeller; the United States needs to be an Andrew Carnegie. Rockefeller believed in a horizontal monopoly, meaning to own all of a single resource. OPEC has this kind of monopoly on oil. Andrew Carnegie believed in a vertical monopoly, meaning to own the means of production for a product, and a sustainable amount of all the materials needed to create that product. For instance, if the United States owned a steel mill and they were a vertical monopoly, they would also own a coal mine to provide the coal to mold the steel and perhaps a shipping company to ship it, while the Rockefeller would simply own ALL coal mines. However, the petro-dictatorship’s horizontal monopoly is completely flawed because the product they deliver has one sole function that can be imitated by cheaper, cleaner sources. The US simply needs to abandon Rockefeller and find a new product with the same function. Carnegie’s business model is the model that the United States needs to follow not only to create a stable green revolution, but to re-solidify its position as a superpower in the international arena.

Crowded:

The world is crowded. Crowded, graying, and, for the most part, poor. There are many projections as to how the world population will grow. But the consensus is that by 2050, there will be ten billion people living on earth. Most of these people will live in metropolises around the globe, and most of them will be poor. In the United States in particular, the general concern at the moment regarding population is how we, as a nation, are going to feed and support our people. Even more of a debate is if it is our responsibility. The social security program is criticized for its escalating costs and general abuse. I think some of these are legitimate accusations, but I fall on the other side of the argument; a government exists for its people. It has the responsibility to support its citizens that are in need, and frankly, those strongly outnumber the ones who abuse the power. Granted, it is not flawless but it is more necessary than it is flawed.

What can the United States do to save itself from its own growth and graying? On the note of social security, I think the program is a safety net, and should be viewed as such, if people do not need to sustain the life they had before they retired or became disabled then I believe the government should subsidize. But if they do not have the need for the benefits, why supply them? A government should be able to evaluate the needs of its citizens. Key word is needs.

In regards to over-population, I would bank on education. Much of the world’s growth comes from impoverished areas, including in the United States. Lower class families are typically larger than the upper and middle classes. Given that fact, I assume much of the fault lies in the failure of our education system to bring awareness to the lower classes. Knowledge on the dangers and responsibility of parenting and pregnancy is not common knowledge, this should be corrected. Public schools in areas of America that are known for their low income rates should receive the more federal funding than those of higher income neighborhoods. The amount of funds granted to a school by federal programs should be inversely related to the quality of the institution. Disadvantaged neighborhoods should b granted more than wealthy neighborhoods. Not to say that higher income families would have to sacrifice their education for that of the lower-class, rather the government should reallocate funding from other programs to better educate our children.

In developing nations, this is a task that is both daunting and tried. However, many of the efforts in developing nations have been spear-headed by members of civil society rather than by actually nation-states who have the economic and political backing to ground a much more significant success. With that said, the interdependence of the world should be reciprocated by the international community’s involvement in eliminating illiteracy and poverty.

Statistically, wealthier, educated nations have a much slower growth rate than developing nations. Eliminate poverty, the growth rate slows down significantly.

Go ahead America, it’s your move:

Most of this reflection has been a series of ideas inspired by Thomas Friedman’s word; most of those ideas are about what to do. America is at a crossroad that leads to many different places, many of which we can’t anticipate until we are there. But in my opinion, one road we should not follow is the road we’ve been on. There is plenty of room to change the world, and plenty of time to do it too, but that all starts here and now, in the United States. Before we can even believe we have an obligation or a privilege to shape our world, we need to reshape our country and correct the wrongs we’ve made at home, to ourselves and to our world.

I didn’t like Friedman’s book. I think what he said is important, and I think it is important to heed his message. But I also believe that we are a better people, and that we as Americans are ready to face challenges, even if we are veiled by an illusion of failure and ill-preparedness. We are a nation that has constantly faced adversity and impossibility, and in most cases we emerged prouder as a people, and more successful as a nation. Even in our greatest failures we have stood strong to try again and better our outcomes. We were not the first in space, but we were the first on the moon. We couldn’t win the battle against communism in Southeast Asia, but we brought down a wall in a curtain made of iron. We stood in silence on a day lived in infamy, but we watched our flag wave against all odds at Normandy. We may have made mistakes in the last century that have brought us to these perils, but this is still our world, and we will not watch it burn.

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