Thomas FriedmanÆs lost opportunity

Thomas Friedman issues his standard warning of interconnected economic and ecologic doom in a talk in Hong Kong, but fails to highlight what Asia can do to avoid the coming hardship.
 Thomas Friedman
Thomas Friedman

The Great Recession, according to author and columnist Thomas Friedman, is a "warning heart attack" for Americans to change their economic growth pattern.

"We in America were building more and more stores, to sell more and more stuff, that would be manufactured in more and more Chinese factories, powered by more and more coal, allowing them to earn more and more dollars, to buy more and more T-bills, to be circulated back to America to build more and more stores," he said. A rather appropriate summary of the (American) economy of the aughts.

Friedman spoke at last week's opening of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology's Division of Environment on the latest edition of his book Reflections on Our Hot, Flat and Crowded World, which was released in November. Unfortunately he wasted a perfectly good opportunity to highlight what Hong Kong, China or even just Asia can do to avoid the coming economic and ecologic hardship that he so earnestly highlights in his book, instead giving a stock lecture that, he himself admitted, was designed for Americans.

"Pardon me if I'm a little parochial for the next 45 minutes," said Friedman. "My country has lost its groove and I think this is how we can get it back."

Despite the pro-American rhetoric, he managed to simultaneously malign big banks -- Citibank and Iceland's banks were mentioned -- while calling for an all-out transition to a "green" economy. A transition that he emphasised will not be easy.

"The reason Citibank, Iceland's banks and the ice banks of Antarctica all melted in the same year, is because they were both using, and that is the market and Mother Nature, the exact same faulty accounting," said Friedman. "In the market we were allowing people to massively underprice the risk and privatise the gains and, when [the banks] blew up, we allowed them to socialise the losses. We have been doing the exact same thing in nature."

He explained that the problem is that people, whether they were selling subprime loans or cheap coal, were -- and some still are -- living by the unsustainable moral code of "i'll be gone" or "you'll be gone" by the time the consequences come around.

Friedman's solution to the world's economic and ecologic problems is for Americans to change their ways. His argument is that if Americans change, the rest of the world -- much of which looks up to the country as an example for how to live -- will follow suit.

While he did not mention China specifically, Friedman said the leader has to be the US because the rest of the world would not follow anyone else. A conclusion that strikes this journalist as a bit short-sighted.

China, despite being the world's largest emitter of carbon dioxide, is a hotbed of many of the world's leading green companies. These corporations are able to achieve economies of scale through the country's vast domestic market on an unprecedented level, lowering the price on everything from batteries for electric cars to solar panels and wind turbines for everyone. Initiatives like the Chinese government's 863 Programme have pumped money into green technology research and development and companies manufacturing environmentally friendly products have been met with much enthusiasm when they have gone public. One example is wind power producer Longyuan Power, which raised as much as $2.3 billion from an initial public offering last month.

In one of Friedman's few nods to Hong Kong, he said he was "thrilled" the special administrative region was going to pass a law requiring every incandescent light bulb to be replaced by a compact florescent light bulb. However, he immediately downplayed these gains when he said growth in places like Doha, Qatar and the Chinese city of Dalian would "snack" on those energy savings "for lunch".

He concluded his talk by emphasising how the transition to a greener economy will not be a painless one. Friedman reminded the audience that there has never been a revolution in which no one got hurt and the green revolution will be no different. He called the moves to date a "green party".

"You'll know the green revolution is here when two things happen," said Friedman. "When companies have to change or die and the word 'green' disappears."

"There will be no such thing as a 'green car,' it'll just be a car and you will have no choice but to build it at the highest levels of mileage and sustainability. That's when the green revolution will be won".

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