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Thomas Friedman: America Needs a Comeback

September 2011

Interview by Jane Kolleeny

Thomas L. Friedman is an internationally known author, reporter, and columnist. He joined the New York Times in 1981 and has been there ever since. He is the recipient of three Pulitzer Prizes and the author of five best-selling books. His latest book, That Used To Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, written with Michael Mandelbaum (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), was just released in September.

Thomas L. Friedman is an internationally known author, reporter, and columnist.
Photo © Josh Haner/The New York Times
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GreenSource: As a journalist, you used to cover oil. Is that background related to your current interest in renewable energy?

Thomas Friedman: The dirty little secret about me is my interest in geopolitics—I was an oil reporter in the late ’70s and early ’80s and then I was at the Times in the middle of the first energy crisis when solar was taking off. That, plus a great interest in the outdoors—my wife is on the board of Conservation International—are responsible for my interest.

GS: You say that ET—energy technology— is the new frontier, like the IT revolution in its time. Could you say more about that?

TF: In speaking of my book Hot, Flat, and Crowded (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), some of you might not believe in hot, but you better believe in flat and crowded. We are going from 6.8 to 9.8 billion people by 2050 according to every UN population metric. At the same time, in a flat world everyone can witness and pursue the American lifestyle; how we drive on American-sized roads, in American-sized cars, and live in American-sized houses. With a global trend toward this lifestyle, the demand for clean energy will be on the rise; in a flat and crowded world where more people live like us or aspire to live like us, the demand for clean energy will go through the roof.

GS: In your book That Used To Be Us, who is “us” now—China?

TF: It’s not clear who will supplant America’s role in the world—this is still a story to be written. But we are not going to own the 21st century, nor will China—that won’t happen by default, nor does it have to be one country. In fact, it would be better if we were all winners.

GS: You discuss the importance of competition, suggesting that the U.S. and China might engage in a race for leadership in the clean-tech revolution.

TF: I’m a big believer that Harvard is better because of Yale; the Washington Post is better because of the New York Times—competition brings out the best and keeps things focused. Just as we had a space race, we need an earth race. Part of the earth race is we can all be winners; we all have to be winners or we’ll all be losers. All countries should compete with each other. We’ll get there faster that way, rather than trying to have a global agreement—a verifiable agreement will be next to impossible.

GS: You discuss the efficiency of China versus the sluggishness of America’s way of doing business. Is this the core reason for the collapse of our global advantage? Or is it something deeper?

TF: Part of our loss of global advantage is relative—other people have come up in their capacity, and that’s a great thing. What we don’t want is to absolutely fall behind. There’s a real hunger for greatness in China—as there was with the new immigrants in America—we’ve lost that in this country. When we talk about China we’re talking about ourselves, using China as a mirror for our own capacity.

GS: You talk about our need to act collectively while we are prone to seek immediate gratification.

TF: That’s what got us into this mess. My friend Dov Seidman [C.E.O. of LRN, which helps companies build ethical cultures] says we are behaving according to situational values. We react to whatever the situation allows—pollute the water, rape the land—rather than sustainable values: sustaining the environment, relationships, or finances. We’ve shifted from one (our parents’) generation who lived by sustainable values) to current one (baby boomers who live by situational values).

GS: You say we face five mega-problems today: energy and natural resource supply and demand, petrodictatorship, climate change, energy poverty, and biodiversity loss. Can you elaborate on these?

TF: There are five great energy/environmental challenges. We keep bumping up against the limits of supply and demand of resources at a rate that can’t be sustained. Climate change is self-explanatory. Petrodictatorship is the way that regimes use oil wells to ensconce themselves in power. Energy poverty is that we still have over a billion people on the planet that have no access to the electrical grid. Kids do homework in the dark, and they have no computers to access the world’s knowledge. If we are energy-poor we fall behind exponentially. It is a great hidden disease in the world. Biodiversity is that we lose one new species every 20 seconds according to Conservation International. Indeed, we are in the age of Noah. As we meet the last of more and more species, we have to think like the biblical Noah and save the last pair of each.


This article appeared in the September 2011 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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