At the Aspen Ideas Festival Thursday, New York Times columnist and The World Is Flat author Thomas Friedman gave a preview of his new book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution — and How It Can Renew America, which comes out in September. The book's main argument is that the convergence of global warming, global flattening (the rise of middle classes all over the world), and global crowding (the population boom) is driving five key trends that will define the 21st century.
Friedman argues that those five trends — energy and resource supply and demand, petro-dictatorship, biodiversity loss, climate change, and energy poverty — have all been driven past a tipping point such that they have created a new era of history: the energy climate era.
"We're not post-something anymore," Friedman said. "We're not post-war, we're not post-Cold War, we're not post-post Cold War. We're pre-something. And what we're pre-...is the energy climate era, defined by these five problems going over a tipping point. And how we manage these five problems, I believe, is really gonna define the stability or instability of the 21st century."
Friedman also warns of strange new weather patterns — what he refers to as "global weirding" — coming in the energy climate era.
"The weather is gonna get weird," he said. "We're gonna get hotter hots, longer droughts, heavier rains, heavier snowfalls."
In addition to strange weather patterns, Friedman warns that we are in an "extinction period," witnessing extinction rates 1,000 times the norm, giving rise to what he calls "the age of Noah."
"We are the first generation of human beings that are going to have to think like Noah," he said. "We are the first generation of humans who are going to have to think about saving the last two pairs."
Friedman argues that the solution to these problems will require "a serious revolution," and he calls for the development of an "energy internet," which he defines as "basically a smart grid that goes into a smart home that's connected to a smart car, basically, where all your devices are on the internet and can day-trade electrons for you."
"Without an energy internet that basically connects clean electrons to a smart home to a smart car," he said, "you will never get the scale that you need."
"Only if we got abundant, cheap, clean reliable electrons could we deal with climate change, petro-dictatorship, biodiversity loss, energy poverty, and energy resource supply and demand. That is the cure."
To get there, Friedman explained, we will need both a price system and focus on innovation.
"This is an innovation problem," Friedman said. "We don't need a Manhattan Project....What we need is 100,000 Dean Kamens [Segway inventor] in 100,000 garages trying 100,000 things, so maybe ten of them will come up with that holy grail of abundant, cheap, clean reliable electrons."
But despite what Friedman called "a bubble in articles on green investing," venture capital investing in green technologies is currently at a fraction of what it was at the height of the IT revolution. Friedman attributes this to the lack of a market and called for economic policies that would create a market for green technologies.
Friedman said that because there is no market signal, big companies are "afraid the price [of gas], even when it's $4.50 a gallon, is gonna go back to two or three dollars and their green investing is all gonna go up in smoke."
"Without a carbon tax, without a floor on gasoline or oil, you are never gonna have a market," he continued. "Without a market you will not have scale, without scale all you have is a green hobby."
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