Less stuff, or more blood: the world's rich people must decide whether they want to share the planet's resources, or send their children to kill and die for them.

AuthorPrugh, Tom
PositionCritical essay

Thomas Friedman's latest book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, is a ringing and persuasive call for the United States to lead a green revolution that would restore U.S. economic strength and put the globe on the path to longterm sustainability. Amazon describes the book as "brilliant," "incisive," and "groundbreaking," and a worthy successor to his "phenomenal number-one bestseller" The World Is Flat--high praise for a wonkish volume about economic and environmental policy, even one written in the accessible prose of his previous books and New York Times columns. It's gratifying and hopeful to see a popular book (now out in paperback) that faces squarely our increasingly desperate environmental and geopolitical dilemma. Friedman is far ahead of the public on this issue and it can't hurt if his sales soar, and citizens and policymakers heed his message.

So, two cheers.

Why only two? Because, despite the book's insights, there is a deeply flawed assumption at its heart. While Friedman readily acknowledges the rapidly growing scale and urgency of our plight--as the climate threatens to tip into instability, population continues to rise, extinctions race far ahead of background rates, and political elites cling stubbornly to the delusion of perpetual economic growth--in the end he falls back, as most solutions-oriented analysts do, on technology as our savior. More specifically, he argues that we must harness technology to radically increase resource efficiency--the amount of economic benefit that can be squeezed from each input unit of materials and/or energy (sometimes called eco-efficiency). These excerpts from Chapter 3 of HF&C sum up his argument:

[T]he steady rise in energy, food, and other commodity prices since 2000 is surely a sign that the world, at present levels of science and technology, is straining to supply all the raw materials for the growth of so many Americums [sic, meaning large, rich, consumerist nations]. Without a dramatic improvement in sustainable energy and resource productivity, China, India, and the Arab world's strategy of just aping the resource-wasting development model of America is unviable. The old way is not replicable on the China-India scale in a flat world, without irreparable harm to planet earth. ... [I]f the spread of freedom and free markets is not accompanied by a new approach to how we produce energy and treat the environment ... then Mother Nature and planet earth will impose their own constraints and limits that will be worse than Communism. Friedman's book goes on to lay out detailed suggestions for green technology and energy efficiency initiatives. He is absolutely right about the need to become much more efficient in our use of the Earth's resources; economic growth to date has been driven mainly by lavish use of cheap energy and other resources--more than 99 percent of industrial inputs end up as waste--and the result is the multidimensional ecological catastrophe now before us. Moreover, he has lots of company, for several reasons.

Hardly anyone opposes improving technology; advocates always stress the potential benefits, and most of us buy that argument. In industrial societies, technological improvement is routine and often profitable, and we're accustomed to addressing problems of all sorts with technological solutions (even those not really suited to them). And although its ability to deliver on the promise of better lives is mixed at best, we nevertheless expect technology to improve, more or less forever. It's something we do well--we have a huge R&D infrastructure and spend lots of money on it, so it's a ready and familiar tool waiting to be applied to this problem. It contributes to GDP and jobs, scratches our itch for perpetual novelty with new products, and so on.


Nevertheless, it won't save us. Technology-driven improvements in resource efficiency simply cannot solve this perfect storm of problems; they are necessary, but radically insufficient. As economist Herman Daly pointed out years ago, the math just doesn't work.

The Max Factor

Certainly we can do better. We are doing better. Businesses always have some incentive to reduce costs, whether it's labor, credit, or resource inputs, so it is not surprising that some progress has been made in recent years. According to Prosperity without Growth?, a new report for the U.K. Sustainable Development Commission, the raw material intensities (the amount of material input per dollar of output) of five advanced European countries improved about 40 percent between 1975 and 2000. Likewise, there has been an ongoing search, often desultory but sometimes frantic, for ways to reduce energy use, and that has lowered global energy intensity by about one-third over the last 40 years. Neither trend signals especially rapid progress, however, and anyway the picture is mixed; in many places and for many materials (e.g., cement, primary metals), the trends are running the other way. And the global use (and impacts) of materials and energy, which are all the biosphere cares about, are still going up.

But suppose we really put our minds to it? The 1997 book Factor Four argued that we could cost-effectively halve...

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