05/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Flat Thinking of Tom Friedman

Recently, New York Times Columnist Tom Friedman offered readers of Newsweek a surprisingly peculiar suggestion about how Americans should fight climate change. "My motto is change your leaders, not your light bulbs," said Friedman. Really? Is one of the most recognized thought leaders on energy and the environment actually implying that it's ineffective, or even pointless, for each of us to perform everyday actions that help save energy?

It doesn't make sense. I doubt that the venerable author of Hot, Flat and Crowded is saying it's okay to, for instance, let our Hummers idle for half an hour -- as long as it's while we're running into the polls to vote for the candidate who's promising fuel efficiency standards.

Given that Earth Day is upon us -- a time when we are supposed to strengthen our personal environmental efforts and accountability, and learn to become better stewards of the planet -- his 'leaders not light bulbs' notion is worth challenging.

For one, the idea that the single best solution to the U.S. energy problem is electing certain people to office is historically inaccurate. Ironically, Mr. Friedman references the ultimate example of consequence to this thinking in the same interview. He notes that President Reagan enthusiastically ended clean energy and efficiency initiatives made during the Carter administration. It was an unfortunate, but typical demonstration of how policies are often vulnerable to capricious political winds and public attitudes. So while smart government and sound policy are imperative to the environmental effort, they clearly do not form a panacea.

Yes, Americans must vote smart. But it's critical that more of us also start to spend money, use resources and simply live our lives in ways that best promote a healthy world for future generations. Collective actions are not empty gestures.

For one, an energy conscious consumer can become an energy conscious voter.

Two, the environmental benefits of being Energy Smart -- buying clean energy, conserving energy and being energy efficient -- are each of ours to deliver right now. We don't have to wait for government, utility companies and automobile manufacturers to provide us with the means to be greener this Earth Day. We can easily and effectively promote environmentalism and reduce our carbon footprint by cutting back our own energy waste.

For instance, each year Americans waste the amount of electricity equal to what's produced by 17 average sized coal-fired power plants through what's called phantom load, or vampire power. It's the energy our electronics consume when we think they're turned off. (Look at each item in your home or office that has a light indicating when it's "off." The reality is that those electronics are still consuming electricity. You can think of them as vampires.)

This kind of largely unheard of energy waste has millions of us contributing to countless tons of toxic emissions from coal-burning plants, which are pumped into the air just so our TVs and other toys can maintain a useless, constant energy draw.

However, anyone can also take the surprisingly effortless actions of using power strips to eliminate phantom load and reduce the CO2 emissions that have our names on them.

There are also literally hundreds of other easy ways to be green this Earth Day by reducing energy waste. The website,, and the America's Greenest Campus contest have information all about them.

The enormous potential for advancing environmentalism in the U.S. through cultivating energy-conscious consumer behavior must be taken advantage of. Particularly in efficiency, where people can save money and protect the planet.

Consumer research shows that when someone takes one basic Energy Smart action, (again, think light bulbs) that person is then more likely to make increasingly significant energy choices. When individuals put CFL bulbs in their homes, we should not think of that as an isolated gesture, but instead as the "gateway drug" to sustainability. In other words, someone who buys CFLs has made the connection that saving energy saves money and/or helps the environment. That person is then more likely to purchase other goods -- appliances, automobiles, homes, etc. -- with the same qualities. These products, and concepts, just need to be effectively marketed to American consumers.

Consider the potential of having sound energy policy and a consumer-driven approach to reducing our country's energy use. The result would be transformational. America could even reach the kind of "tipping point" described by another influential, contemporary thinker.

This Earth Day, let's, indeed, change our light bulbs and put in CFLs. Anything we can do to save energy in our day-to-day lives does have true environmental value. To say otherwise is just flat thinking.