Read With Caution

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, Maria Luz Beatriz Guevara Sy.

Friedman has various argumentative flaws and issues of knowledge that remain unaddressed in Hot, Flat, and Crowded.  Having been very much involved in my high school’s Model United Nations and Forensics, I am inclined to attack Friedman’s various argumentative flaws, hidden beneath the frilly, lacy clothing that is his rhetoric.

Hot, Flat, and Crowded is not a serious book for serious readers.  I do not mean that Hot, Flat, and Crowded is a joke, no.  Friedman, through Hot, Flat, and Crowded, is merely trying to inform his readers of the affects of an overpopulated, globalised world that is undergoing an acceleration of the global warming phenomenon—but that’s just it.  He’s just trying to inform.  More informed, more sophisticated readers would be able to see through this. Hot, Flat, and Crowded is little more than Friedman’s own reflection on the world through his many travels, be it to the Amazon rainforest, Dalian, Moscow, or Doha; in other words, Hot, Flat, and Crowded is little more than a travelogue.  Stories from around the world would certainly engage and convince a more uninformed, less involved reader, leading them to believe every proposal, every statistic in the book and follow through with Friedman’s plans of conservation, exposition, and efficiency.  That’s Friedman’s goal.  Al Gore did the same with An Inconvenient Truth, as did President Obama in his many electoral speeches.  The effectiveness of Friedman’s rhetoric relies mainly on these:

· Storytelling (he tried to get away with his biodiversity argument by simply telling us a story of the Amazon and the orang-utans.  The two chapters on biodiversity are just stories!)

· Personal experience

· Quotes from people on the same side of the argument

· Not providing counter-arguments

· Disregarding other issues, making everything he says complete theory, written ceteris paribus

In any formal debate, personal experience is deemed the least credible source, and this is the source he uses most.  His statistics are also flawed.  If one will notice, many of them are taken from organisations such as Conservation International and the Environmental Protection Agency.  Of course they’ll give these statistics—models are based on their theories, their core beliefs, and their missions.  There are also many false claims to authority, citing “experts”—experts who are already on one side of the argument.

I congratulate Friedman.  I really do.  His rhetoric is astonishing and very convincing, which is particularly useful when you want to get movement from the bottom-up.  Rhetoric inspires, empowers, engages—but does it solve?  The frilly words and lofty claims seem to dissipate all doubt—if it sounds so good, it must work!

As thus, Friedman’s book must be read with caution, otherwise we will be in for another “green party”—another case of political pretension.  We don’t need inspiration.  We need knowledge.

Despite my irritation toward these argumentative flaws, however, that still does not answer the question as to how I feel about Friedman’s book.  How does the world according to Friedman, along with his proposed measures, affect me as a Filipino-Chinese, as an international student, as a global citizen interested in international affairs?  Answer: the same way I felt about his argumentative flaws—irritated.

I will not say that Friedman is wrong.  He does not have Pultizer Prizes for nothing.  In fact, there are several sections that I agreed with (“dumb as we wanna be” politics, the green party, the need to become less dependent on oil) and some that I found very intriguing and enlightening (the indirect funding of al-Qaeda through oil dependence, “out-greening”).  There are, however, many points in his book that I strongly disagree with.

The first would be going “all in” on the Clean Energy business.  I agree that there is huge potential in the clean energy industry, and it should be developed—supported by governments and developed by the private sector.  There are two issues here: one, there are no funds, and without funds, this is not feasible; two, I do not believe that clean industries should be any country’s top priority, as suggested by Friedman.  Friedman suggests that funds for these industries will come from taxes on any dirty industry and from oil, as if it’s that simple.  Various countries have already tried to implement huge oil tariffs, and yet Friedman’s desired outcome has not been achieved.  Counter: these countries are not using these taxes to support the green industry.  That brings me to my next point.

Clean industries should not be America’s or any other country’s top priority.  Friedman’s proposals require huge investments, particularly in his proposal to restructure utilities, distribute solar panels, provide incentives for these utilities, promote the development of these enigmatic “clean electrons” (no one knows what they are, another flaw in Friedman’s argument), the mass distribution of this “Smart Black Box”, and so on.  Yes, if it is in the interest of the people, go ahead and do so.  My question lies in if clean energies are of so much importance that less attention must be paid to what I believe are more urgent issues.  I would much rather know that my state is using its resources to end drug and human trafficking, poverty, hunger, crime, and to provide education and healthcare.

Friedman counters: these systems will provide for the poor, as the green industry will create millions and millions of new jobs.  That is where the cycle starts.  Green industry leads to more jobs leads to less poverty leads to more education leads to less crime…the cycle continues.

This brings me to Friedman’s biggest mistake.

Friedman is a close-minded American nationalist.  How can he sing praises about globalisation when he thinks of his self-dubbed “Energy Climate Era” as a race between countries?  Yes, more industry will provide more jobs and reduce poverty, but Hot, Flat, and Crowded suggests that these industries take place in two countries: America and China.  How will that help poverty?  And remember, we’re only thinking of poverty here.  What about ending human trafficking and funding education?  I suppose that he means that the green will create foreign investment from China and America to other countries.  How will this help the country’s overall growth?  It won’t.  This will lead to a worldwide monopoly in the green energy industry—exploitation of labour-rich countries will definitely take place.  China and America will be full of white-collar workers while 95% of Filipinos (my country is 95% impoverished!) work for their factories in sweatshop conditions, raising income in the Philippines by a tiny bit and boosting the GDP of China and America.  Nope.  No way.  I disagree.

It seems to me that Friedman is so obsessed with America and making America “win” the race that he has forgotten a simple economic concept: the theory of comparative advantage.  Friedman’s proposals suggest that absolutely everything involving the green revolution should be done in America.  No, they will not consult engineers from other countries; no, they will not take the advice from businesses abroad; no, leaders will not lobby to make the green revolution work out for the rest world.  Friedman wants America to benefit from the Energy Climate Era, to “be in the lead”, as he said.  Based on the theory of comparative advantage, this is significantly more expensive and this “learning curve” take much longer to shoot up—definitely longer than 20 years.  In other words, Friedman’s plan to have the Energy Climate Era take place only in America will be extremely inefficient.  How ironic!

Incidentally, the world will not necessarily look upon America for leadership.  Friedman paints America as the world’s shining beacon of hope for the next century, and all other countries look to it for direction.  Maybe that’s what he sees, but, in layman’s terms, it was America that got us into this mess.  Now they will be self-imposing themselves on China’s development, as if they had a role in it.  Move over, America, we’ll handle it from here.  At a time when humanity is threatened, humanity needs to work together.  Get down from that ivory tower.  Now you’re one of us.


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