Hot, Flat, and Crowded?

Is Al Gore right that climate change might really bring about the end of the species as we know it? Or is Rush Limbaugh right that climate change is a hoax devised by pony-tailed tree-huggers, seeking to lead our country toward a utopia of yoga mats, Birkenstocks, and tofu wraps? Who can adjudicate the conflicting claims? On climate change issues these days, it seems that the fringe positions are as crowded as the exit doors at a Gore-Limbaugh photo shoot, while the reasonable middle is as vacant as an interview with Bishop Spong.

Hot, Flat, and Crowded is Thomas Friedman’s attempt to claim the reasonable middle. In The World is Flat, he argued that we are living in a hyper-connected world that is also hyper-aware of its connectedness. As a result of this hyper-connectedness, there is now a more level playing field, a burgeoning global middle class, and a massive increase in resource and energy consumption. In Hot, Flat, and Crowded, he adds that the world is also crowded and hot. It is crowded because of a rising global population and is artificially hot because of the combination of being flat and crowded. All of this, he argues, provides the United States the opportunity to once again claim its mantle of leadership.

Here is Friedman: “The core argument is very simple: America has a problem and the world has a problem. America’s problem is that it has lost its way in recent years-partly because of 9/11 and partly because of …bad habits….The world also has a problem: It is getting hot, flat, and crowded. That is, global warming, the stunning rise of middle classes all over the world, and rapid population growth have converged in a way that could make our planet dangerously unstable…. I am convinced that the best way for America to solve its big problem-the best way for America to get its ‘groove’ back-is for us to take the lead in solving the world’s biggest problem.”

The first thing that Americans must understand, according to Friedman, is that oil-dependency is not good for the United States, politically or economically. Oil prices and democracy are inversely proportional. The lower the price of oil, the more democracy flourishes. The higher the price, the more autocracy flourishes. Oil dependence strengthens the hands of autocrats, dictators, and terrorists (think Putin, Hussein, and bin Ladin) while weakening democracies like the United States. It behooves, us therefore, to come up with cleaner and more efficient forms of energy, if for no other reason than to break our dependency upon oil. This will be difficult, he argues, because the Democrats are in bed with the auto companies and their unions while the Republicans are married to the oil companies.

The second thing that Americans must understand is that the global population is on the rise at the same time that globalization is enhancing the consumption capacities of that same population. The result, he argues, is a globe that will get hotter and hotter. This leads Friedman to a worst-case scenario on the climate-change issue: Humans might be “just one more endangered species” b/c of green house damage.

The third thing that Americans must understand is that American innovation is the best hope for a clean-energy future, and that American government must provide the stimulus for such innovation. The government should regulate greenhouse emissions, giving some demanding emissions targets, and let America’s entrepreneurs come up with creative ways to hit those targets. As Friedman sees it, government tilts the playing field already by subsidizing gas, oil, and coal. So why not tilt it the other way instead? This would enable the United States to be “a beacon of hope and the country that can always be counted on to lead the world in response to whatever is the most important issue of the day.

In Hot, Flat, and Crowded, Friedman (recipient of three Pulitzer prizes) gives us what we have come to expect from him: Arguments laced with illustrations and mnemonic devices, researched by interviewing multiple sources across the globe, but without footnotes or documentation. This brings us to our first point, which is: it is difficult to assess the evidence for Friedman’s assertions because he provides no footnotes or endnotes. Instead, we are told that a certain assertion is backed up by “many climatologists” or, in one instance, by a climate analyst for The Weather Channel. Granted, the absence of documentation is part of what makes Friedman’s books less daunting for a popular readership. However, on such a hot issue, one’s argument becomes flat-footed and quickly leaves the reader’s mind crowded with questions if one does not provide documented evidence.

A second point stems from the fact that Friedman’s book aims to arrest the attention of uninformed Americans and push them into action. It is precisely this audience, however, who should withhold judgment and research the matter carefully. We should realize that environmental issues are scientifically and technically complex. They involve long-range forecasting, carry heavy emotional baggage, and for those reasons are easily subject to error. Although there is a broad consensus (even among many former skeptics) that artificial climate change is real, the extent of that change as well as its future projection and implications are largely unknown. For that reason, we probably should beware of extreme positions on this issue, and beware of rushing to judgment.

A third point, however, is that Christians do have reason to care about environmental issues, including climate-change, precisely because of our Christian faith. God created the world good, and placed us in the midst of that creation, allowing us to have stewardship over it. If the world is God’s good gift, why trash it? Some Christians dismiss creation-care issues out of hand because creation-care deals with material things (which are bad, they say, and will one day be destroyed by God) rather than spiritual things (which are good and will exist eternally). But this is modern-day Gnosticism, drawing lines between the material and spiritual, and calling the former bad and the latter good. Against such Gnosticism, let us affirm that material things are not inherently evil. This truth is anchored by the biblical doctrines of creation, redemption, and last things. God created the heavens and earth and called his creation good (doctrine of creation). He gave himself on the cross and was resurrected (doctrine of redemption) in order to secure not only salvation of the nations but also a new heavens and earth on which we will dwell bodily (doctrine of last things). For this reason, we recognize the inherent goodness of God’s creation and significance of our stewardship over it.

A fourth point is that human idolatry is at the heart of all human ills, including environmental wrongs. Idolatry is inordinate love-the wrong ordering of one’s heart. It is the worship of the creation rather than the creator, of created gods rather than the Creator God. This idolatry may manifest itself on either side of the environmental divide. New Agers and Buddhists, for example, might throw themselves into environmental issues precisely because they view the world as god. In so doing, they are worshipping the creation rather than the Creator. Christians, however, are not off the hook. They themselves might also love the created order inordinately, or ignore or scoff at environmental issues because of their inordinate love of material wealth and personal comfort, which leads them to reckless consumption and disposal. Avoiding both extremes, let us worship God by caring for his creation: “A biblical environmentalism,” Al Mohler writes, “begins with the fact that the world is the arena of God’s glory-creation glorifies the Creator. We will answer to the Creator for our use and enjoyment of the created order, and for our stewardship of the earth and all that is within it.”

A fifth point is that, although climate-change is worth our attention, we must ask ourselves how significant it is in relation to other ethical challenges such as world-wide sex trafficking of children, poverty and starvation, and the slaughter of millions of babies by abortion clinics. I can assure you that climate change doesn’t make my “Top 5.” There are probably many reasons that it makes the Top 5 for many people. For the man on Main Street, he may be persuaded by unproven and contested scientific theories. For New Agers and Buddhists, they may ascribe inordinate significance to the environment precisely because they worship creation. As one reviewer noted, for those on the cocktail-party circuit environmental obsessions might be an attempt to make up for guilt: it is alright for them to consume recklessly as long as they are bashing consumerism. One wonders about the size of Al Gore’s carbon footprint, as he jets around the world telling people not to jet around the world.

In conclusion, Hot, Flat, and Crowded falls short of the standard Friedman set for himself in previous books such as The Lexus and the Olive Tree and The World is Flat. Although he is surely correct that Americans should be good stewards of this world, and although he may be right to warn Americans about the pitfalls of oil-dependency, Friedman weakens his argument by relying too heavily on worst-case scenario climate-change predictions. Further, as Christians, we would want the Christian Scriptures to provide the foundation, trajectory, and parameters of our approach to creation care and corresponding issues such as climate-change.

[For further reading: Several Baptist evangelicals have provided brief biblical theologies of the environment, including Norman Geisler, David Dockery, and Millard Errickson. See Norman Geisler, “Ecology,” in Christian Ethics: Options & Issues (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989), 293-310; Millard Errickson, “Biblical Theology of Ecology,” and David Dockery, “The Environment, Ethics, and Exposition” both of which are found in Richard D. Land and Louis A. Moore, The Earth is the Lord’s: Christians and the Environment (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1992), 37-54, 113-25.]

Book: Hot, Flat, and Crowded (2008)

Author: Thomas L. Friedman

Region: Global

Genre: Current Affairs

Length: 438 pp.

Difficulty: Intermediate

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Global Context (International): The World is Flat 3.0

This series of posts deals with the global context in its many dimensions-historical, social, cultural, political, economic, and religious. We will provide book notices, book reviews, and brief essays on these topics. We hope that you will find this series helpful as you live and bear witness in a complex and increasingly hyper-connected world.

Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century was written in the context of his taking over The New York Times’ foreign affairs column in 1995. Most of his exertions in the hallowed columns of that paper dealt with the themes revolving around the Lexus (his symbol for globalization) and the olive tree (his symbol for civil conflict). He was oscillating between these two themes right up until September 11, 2001. On September 12, he dropped the Lexus theme and went off to cover the (olive tree) wars. But the olive tree, according to Friedman, led him right back to the Lexus.

His thesis is that the world is now (almost) flat. Since the turn of the century, a series of political, economic and technological factors have converged to produce a tidal wave of change in global culture, which will only fully begin to be seen in the next few years. In the first chapter, Friedman points out that there have been other times of massive change such as the invention of the printing press or the dawn of the Industrial revolution. But this change is different: “There is something qualitatively different from other such profound changes: the speed and breadth with which it is taking hold….This flattening process is happening at warp speed and directly or indirectly touching a lot more people on the planet at once.

In the second chapter, Friedman lists ten “flatteners”: The Berlin Wall, IPO of Netscape, work flow software, uploading, outsourcing, offshoring, supply-chaining, insourcing, in-forming, and certain new technologies (“steroids”) that amplify and turbocharge all of the other flatteners. According to Friedman, these flatteners will converge to give us a flat world in which America may not fare as well as it has in the past century. As he tells it, there will emerge a system of global cooperation where no country is as dominant as the Americans have been. Further, Americans need to get accustomed to being 3rd or 4th in the world economy, after China and India.

In Chapter Three, “The Triple Convergence,” Friedman gets to the heart of his book. What he calls the Triple Convergence is the pivot point for the flattening of the world. The first convergence was when (at some time around 2000) all ten of these flatteners began to converge and work together in a complementary fashion. This was a tipping point of sorts. The second convergence is that we have now learned to “horizontalize” ourselves, to value connection and collaboration rather than to operate in top-down “command and control” frameworks. The third convergence is that as the world has flattened, an additional three billion people are now able to walk out onto the playing field-people from China, India, and the former Soviet Union. These three billion people, formerly locked out of “the game,” are now able (thanks to the ten flatteners) to plug in, sign on, and dial out as they connect, collaborate, and compete and, ultimately, define the course of the 21st century.

In Chapter Twelve, Friedman deals with “The Unflat World.” He opens by recounting two fascinating stories. The first is of his experience with Chinese government censors. One of his visits coincided with the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. When Friedman arrived, the government was blocking text messages that had any reference to Tiananmen Square. Because the Tiananmen Square Massacre happened on 6-4-89, the government blocked any and all text messages that contained the numbers 6 or 4. His next story is about a friend’s journey to the Sudan. At the time, in Khartoum, a rumor swept through the Muslim areas that if one shook the hand of an infidel (non-Muslim), that man’s penis would melt. The hysteria was spread by cell phone. Friedman writes, “Think about that: You can own a cell phone yet still believe a foreigner’s handshake can melt away your penis. What happens when that kind of technologically advanced primitivism advances beyond text messaging?

Throughout the rest of the chapter, Friedman deals with those who are unable to participate in a Flat World. Some of them are “too sick,” according to Friedman, meaning that either they are too sick or their governments are broken. This would include those who have HIV, malaria, TB, or polio, and those who lack potable water and electricity. Others are “too disempowered,” meaning that they do not have the tools, the skills, or the infrastructure to participate. This would include some Indians, Chinese, and Eastern Europeans.

Still others are “too frustrated,” because they have been put into close contact with more affluent societies and culture and feel envious, threatened, frustrated, and even humiliated by this. This is especially true in the Muslim world, as illustrated by the 9/11 plotters: “Virtually all of them seem to have lived in Europe on their own, grown alienated from the European society around them, gravitated to a local prayer group or mosque to find warmth and solidarity, undergone a ‘born-again’ conversion, gotten radicalized by Islamist elements, gone off for training in Afghanistan, and presto, a terrorist was born.

Finally, there are those who have “too many Toyotas.” In this section, Friedman deals with the billions of people in China, India, and the Muslim world who are beginning to demand the same conveniences that the West has, and as a result our environment is in seriously bad shape. He gives the example of the Wal-Mart in Shenzhen, China, which sold 1,100 air conditioners in one weekend in the summer of 2005. Can we afford for 1.3 billion Chinese to drive Toyotas and buy air conditioners? Can we afford for China to buy up nearly all the oil in the world, and from some of the world’s worst despots? His answer is no: “From a purely American point of view, we need a president and a Congress with the guts not just to invade Iraq, but also to impose a gasoline tax and inspire conservation at home and abroad.

In one of his concluding chapters, Friedman speaks of two types of imagination that we are seeing at the turn of the century. He contrasts the dismantling of the Berlin wall (on 11/9) and the destruction of the twin towers (9/11). The first type of imagination is fueled by hope and the desire for freedom, while the second type is fostered by hatred and fear. The bottom line, Friedman argues, is that we must work to influence the two forces that most shape the human imagination: (1) the narratives on which we are nurtured, and (2) the context in which we grow up. It is for this reason that America must collaborate with the Arab-Muslim world (for example) in order to produce the right contexts for people to succeed and to have “more dreams than memories.”

In reflecting upon Friedman’s book, I will limit myself to offering three points of interest for believers. The first is that Friedman makes it abundantly clear that the world is now hyper-connected in ways that it has never been before and that, furthermore, we are hyper-aware of this hyper-connectedness. Should we not take it as a gift from God, for the furtherance of the gospel, that we are now able to travel to, and communicate with, the global population in ways never before imagined? It will be a shame if evangelicals in the West do not take advantage of their wealth and this unprecedented opportunity to love the world with the love of Christ, both in word and in deed.

Second, we have good news for those who are too sick, too disempowered, too frustrated, and have too many Toyotas. For those who are too sick, we have the Great Physician. For those who are too disempowered, we offer the Savior who understands oppression and persecution. For those who are too frustrated, we offer the Savior who makes all things level for us at the foot of the cross. For those who have “too many Toyotas,” we offer a Savior who allows us to break the bondage of our idolatry and of our enslavement to money and possessions.

Finally, Friedman affirms and fleshes out what we are told in the Scriptures–that the human imagination is indeed affected by the narratives on which we are nurtured and the context in which we grow up. While we are thankful that three billion men and women from India, China, and the Soviet Union have the chance of emerging from poverty and oppression, we also know that affluence can have a numbing effect on the human soul. The narrative of “the ascent of capitalism” holds forth no food for the soul.

Let us give the world the true and better narrative, that of a crucified and risen Lord who will return again and bring with him a new heaven and earth on which there will be no pain and no tears. And let us give them the truer and better context for life by planting churches where they live, so that they may see the God of life and love as they watch a community of worshipers who are full of life and love.

Book: The World is Flat 3.0 (2007)
Author: Thomas Friedman
Region: Global
Length: 672 pp.
Difficulty: Intermediate