Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman is best known for his views on foreign affairs as expressed in his popular column and in his books, including From Beirut to Jerusalem, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Longitudes and Attitudes: Exploring the World After September 11 and The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. But over the last few years, Friedman has emerged as a leading advocate for the environment, striving to raise awareness of global warming and the need to transform America’s energy policy.
That his view of the world revolves around energy should come as no surprise. Friedman came of age as a reporter during the Iranian Revolution and the 1979 oil crisis. His first journalism job was covering what was then a new beat—the oil industry—for United Press International. He was the Times’ energy reporter before he began writing the newspaper’s Foreign Affairs column and broke with its tradition of Euro-centric reporting. His first trip as a columnist was to Japan, where cars were being made by robots; Hong Kong, China’s golden goose; and Vietnam, abounding in skilled, cheap labor. He understood that the world was changing rapidly and that a nation’s importance in the future would be defined by its technological prowess, not military power.
“Going green,” Friedman argues, is neither a liberal nor a conservative issue. Because the word “green” itself is associated with the Left, he thinks the concept would be better served by a different moniker: He prefers “geostrategic,” “geoeconomic,” “capitalistic” or “patriotic.” But, whatever its name, Friedman is convinced that a green approach to the world will be the unifying ideology of the future and spur long-lasting economic growth.
As a former Times bureau chief in Israel and Lebanon, Friedman thinks that “going green” could speed up democratic reform in Arab nations, bringing them closer to making peace with Israel. At the same time, he believes the three major religions of the Middle East bear a moral responsibility to promote green thinking. Judaism—with its oft-chanted expression, l’dor v’dor (from generation to generation)—Christianity and Islam all share the legacy of preserving the earth, as cited in Genesis 2:15: “The Eternal placed the human being in the garden of Eden to till and tend it.”
Former Wall Street Journal reporter Robert S. Greenberger talks with Friedman about the fascinating relationships between climate change, oil politics, energy-efficient technology, and the world economy.
RG: When did energy policy become the lynchpin of your worldview?
TF: After 9/11, the oil story took on a much bigger urgency. It seemed to me that [the United States] could not be effective in the Middle East in promoting democracy unless we brought down the price of oil and freed ourselves from our dependence on that part of the world. My standard line was that “addicts never tell the truth to their pushers.” We’re the addicts, and we would never be able to tell the truth to people out there if we didn’t have a different energy policy. The geopolitical importance of this coincided with the rise of the whole global warming story… and after Katrina, the environmental story. I started to meld them together in my head. Now, I believe, as I have written, that green really is the foundation of the next great political movement or ideology for Western civilization. I think it’s the bridging idea between conservatism and liberalism. That’s what I’m working on now, and I’m planning to write my next book about it.
RG: Why is global warming so important?
TF: Climate change is not only going to affect our environment and our livelihood, but it also has a huge geopolitical dimension. The war in Somalia and the war in Darfur are examples. These have climate [change] dimensions to them.
RG: In your 2005 book The World is Flat, you argue that rapid advances in technology and communications have leveled the playing field for economic success, creating new pockets of wealth in countries like China and India. What role does leveling or, as you call it, “flattening,” play in the energy story?
TF: The flattening of the world has an impact on both the oil story and the climate story. Three billion people with the American dream have just walked down to the flat world from China, Russia, the former Soviet Empire, and that dream is of a toaster, a microwave, a refrigerator, a car and a house. If three billion people go from low-impact lifestyle to high-impact lifestyle in a very short period of time, the environmental implications and the demand for oil will be enormous.
RG: Is there a positive side of the energy story in the flat world?
TF: When global competition becomes this intense, when companies can suddenly find a mother lode of savings by just operating more environmentally efficiently and eliminating waste, it becomes a competitive advantage. In other words, why did Wal-Mart go green? Well, yes, its customers wanted it to be green and green’s a good brand, but Wal-Mart discovered that pollution is waste and that it actually could save a lot of money by getting its truck fleet to improve mileage by 50 percent. So, I say green is the new red, white and blue. It’s more than just a boutique ideology: It’s something really central to our politics and economics.
RG: What do you say to China and developing countries who contend that they can’t afford to produce and use energy-efficient technology?
TF: I tell them to take [their] time. Economic costs are going to be enormous. More importantly, give us about five years, and [we] will invent all of the new green technology and sell it to you when you discover you have to be green. When you need that green car, when you need that green power plant, when you need that green locomotive, you’ll come to us.
RG: Why will they come to us?
TF: You can’t make a product greener without making it smarter. You can’t make this tape recorder greener without making it lighter, without designing it to be more energy efficient and to use less battery power and without changing the materials to make them more recyclable. We [the United States] still make things smarter. What does China make? It still makes things cheaper. What does that mean? It means that to the extent we shift the entire global debate to make “green” part of the DNA of everything that we make, design, produce and build, we play to our strength. We create jobs that can’t be outsourced.
RG: Are there U.S. companies that have already made green a part of their DNA?
TF: Erie, Pennsylvania, today has a trade surplus with China and Mexico. Why does Erie, of all places, in the middle of the American Rustbelt, have this trade surplus? It’s basically due to one company, GE Transportation. GE Transportation makes “choo-choo trains”—locomotives—and sells them to China. The idea that an American locomotive maker could be shipping trains to China, which makes them for 30 percent less, is pretty wild. It happens because GE’s locomotive is so energy-efficient in total tons pulled that it’s actually more cost-efficient for China to buy them than to make their own.
RG: What kind of jobs does this generate?
TF: GE Transportation [employs] some 5,000 engineers who make nearly double the average salary in Erie.
RG: Yet, there are those who argue that going green will drag down the economy.
TF: That’s just not true. Take one obvious example: Which country has the highest energy efficiency standards in the world? Which country has some of the highest gasoline taxes and gasoline prices? Which country has the richest car company in the world? It’s Japan. So, what do high prices and high standards get you? They get you innovation. Anyone in business can tell you that. Japan today has the two richest car companies in the world, Toyota and Honda. We say we can’t afford to pressure our auto companies, so we opt for the Dr. Kevorkian solution—assisted suicide. We are basically protecting our auto industry into bankruptcy. Have you been to downtown Detroit lately? People say it’s like a ghost town.
RG: What can be done to encourage more research into alternative energy sources?
TF: A gasoline or carbon tax would not only generate more tax revenue, some of which could support green technologies, but would also stimulate private investment in alternatives to fossil fuels. And price is everything. When you raise the price of dirty fuels, you create a much bigger market for cleaner ones and that naturally stimulates research and innovation.
RG: What do you think of nuclear energy?
TF: I’m a big nuclear fan. Fifty-five percent of our electricity in this country is generated by coal, another 20 percent by nuclear, 17 percent by natural gas, 7 percent is hydro and about 1 percent is wind and solar and bio-fuels. We cannot diminish our use of coal, that 55 percent, without radically and rapidly expanding nuclear power. I’m all for it. I don’t buy any of the safety arguments; they’re all answerable. France takes 70 percent of its energy from nuclear power.
RG: Let me transition to the Middle East. Is there a connection between oil and democratic political reform?
TF: My “First Law of Petropolitics” states that the price of oil and the pace of freedom operate in an inverse relationship. That is, as the price of oil goes up, the pace of freedom goes down. As the price of oil goes down, the pace of freedom goes up. In what I call petrolist states, or states that are nearly or totally dependent on oil revenue for their gross domestic product, that’s the connection.
The motto of our revolution was “No Taxation without Representation;” that’s what the Boston Tea Party was about. The motto of the petrolist state is “No Representation Without Taxation.” Therefore [it believes], “I don’t have to worry about how to construct a society where we integrate with the world, where we trade.” There’s no question that there’s a correlation: Jordan has no oil, Egypt has a little, Syria has a little, Lebanon has none. As I have written, it is no accident that the first Arab Gulf state to start running out of oil, Bahrain, is also the first Arab Gulf state to have held a free and fair election in which women could run and vote… and to sign a free-trade agreement with America.
RG: So expensive oil props up bad governments?
TF: When oil was $30 a barrel, George Bush looked into Vladimir Putin’s soul and saw a good man. When oil is $70 a barrel, look into Putin’s soul and you’ll see gas problems [and government takeovers], Yukos, Izvestia, Pravda. Every institution Putin swallowed was courtesy of $70 a barrel. When oil was $15-20 a barrel, Iranians elected as their president [Mohammad] Khatami, who called for a dialogue of civilizations. At $70 a barrel, Iran elected Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who declared that the Holocaust is a myth and Israel needs to be wiped off the map. I can guarantee one thing: at $20 a barrel he wouldn’t say this. It’s nonsense you can only afford at $70 a barrel.
RG: Does the First Law of Petropolitics apply to recognizing Israel’s right to exist?
TF: I wouldn’t go quite so far as to say there’s a correlation between oil and relations with Israel. But the more oil you have, the more it cushions you from every hard decision.
RG: How does the First Law of Petropolitics apply to Israel? Obviously, it’s the only full democracy in the Middle East.
TF: There’s the old joke: “Oh God, had Moses only turned right into Saudi Arabia, and not left, we’d be sitting on all the oil.” I say no, Moses went just the right way because Israel’s got oil wells that never run dry. They’re called Ben Gurion University and Hebrew University and the Technion, and the Weizmann Institute and Tel Aviv University—those are oil wells that never run dry. I’d much rather have those than the other kind.
RG: Where are the U.S. and Israel among countries currently producing high-efficiency products?
TF: They are somewhere in the middle—not the top, not the bottom. Both have the potential to do more.
RG: Why should Jews in particular care about going green?
TF: Obviously, a world that is less dependent on oil is also a world in which Arab states, if they want to thrive, will have to embrace more globalization, trade and modernism. All those things tend to make better neighbors for Israel, as opposed to countries whose leaders can survive by just drilling holes in the ground and not empowering their people.
RG: Is it Jewish to adopt a green approach to the earth?
TF: I think it’s Jewish to want to preserve God’s patrimony. There’s the old saying, “We did not inherit the earth from our parents; we’re borrowing it from our children,” which has been attributed to many people, from an Indian chief to others. Whoever said it said something that I believe is very Jewish. I also believe it’s very Christian. [It’s part of] Arab culture, too. Look at Arab villages. They are very much in tune with the landscape. I think every major religion has this idea. To be green is to respect God’s patrimony and appreciate that you’re just borrowing this world from your kids, not inheriting it from your parents.
Robert S. Greenberger covered foreign affairs for 17 years as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. His “How Jew-Friendly Persia Became Anti-Semitic Iran” was Moment’s December 2006 cover story.