Interview: Thomas Friedman

Super-commentator Thomas Friedman says that the planet is in serious ecological trouble, and only the Democrat is green enough to save it.

By David Herman, October 23, 2008
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Thomas Friedman is calling for an ecological revolution. He is giving qualified support for Barack Obama as “the only green candidate”

Thomas Friedman is calling for an ecological revolution. He is giving qualified support for Barack Obama as “the only green candidate”

Thomas Friedman is the most famous journalist in the world. Bar none. It is not because he has won the Pulitzer Prize three times. Nor because he has written five books, some of them big bestsellers. Friedman is so influential because he writes a foreign affairs column which appears twice a week in The New York Times and which is syndicated to 100 other newspapers worldwide. Friedman is read from Cairo to Cape Town; from LA to Shanghai.

There is another reason, perhaps just as important. Friedman thinks big. He takes on big ideas - Globalisation, Terrorism and now the Environment. His book, Globalisation, The Lexus and the Olive Tree (1999), caught the moment of optimism after the end of the Cold War. He knew something was changing, all over the world, and wrote about it in clear prose, full of vivid images and catchy stories.

So was there was a moment when he began to realise that we needed a green revolution? He paused. "The eureka moment," he said, "was when I begin to think about ‘flat meets crowded'."

This is typical Friedman. Some people have an idea. Friedman has "eureka moments". And that usually involves grasping a very complicated new reality, something which is going on all over the world, right now, and then finding a phrase for it. For globalisation, it was the Lexus and the olive tree, new technology and old tradition. For "the green revolution" (another Friedman phrase) it is "hot, flat, and crowded."

This became the title of his new book and he explains it right at the start. "Hot" is global warming. "Flat"? Now he is speaking at speed, and when Thomas Friedman talks fast he is really motoring: "A combination of technological, market, and geopolitical events at the end of the 20th century had levelled the global economic playing field in a way that was enabling more people than ever, from more places than ever, to take part in the global economy."

Take computers, he says. Or the internet. Or the collapse of Communism. Put these things together and you have a new global marketplace where everybody can sell and buy things. People all over the world know about the Western lifestyle and know they can aspire to it. But, of course, if they do, it will be an ecological catastrophe.

And "crowded"? Friedman has a gift for striking statistics. He was born in 1953. On the day he was born there were 2.681 billion people in the world. "God willing, if I keep biking and eating yoghurt, I might live to be 100." He does not look like someone who bikes and lives on yogurt, more like a middle-aged Jewish guy who knows a salt beef sandwich when he sees one. But that is not the point. The point is by 2053 "there will be more than nine billion people on the planet". That is crowded.

And when did he get this eureka moment? When did this all come together? "In Qatar, or perhaps China." This is the other thing about Friedman. He is always on the move. He is truly a global villager. All his books are full of references to places he's been. "I'm a tourist with an attitude. If you don't go, you don't know."

Does this not wreak havoc on his family life? He bats off the question. "My wife's a teacher. She has her own career." His daughters have left school. It is not just that he's been to places like Doha (the capital of Qatar) and Dalian (in northeast China). He goes and then he goes back a few years later. And? "I barely recognised them. In Doha, since I had been there last, a skyline that looked like a mini-Manhattan had sprouted." That is when he came face to face with "flat meets crowded".

The book has two main arguments. The first is about America: "We lost our groove as a country. Because of 9/11. Because our government doesn't work any more to solve big multi-generational problems.'"
And the second? Hot, flat and crowded. The world is full of too many people, wanting too many things, which is destroying the environment.
So is he pessimistic? Friedman is not one of life's pessimists. He was, after all, one of the great cheerleaders for globalisation. He saw the 1990s as the triumph of democracy and the free market.
He is getting impatient. "I'm a sober optimist," he says. That's how bad things are. If the polluting of the planet makes someone like Friedman "a sober optimist", then we're in real trouble.

"Obama is the only green candidate in this election," he says. "I don't agree with everything he's advocating..." As for McCain, well, let's put it this way, he is not getting Friedman's vote. Friedman's book is a call to arms. He's calling for nothing less than a green revolution, with America leading the way. He almost called the book, "Green is the New Red-White-and-Blue", he says. That's how Friedman thinks. America, plus the world, plus big issues.

How did he start? He interviewed Ariel Sharon for his high school newspaper but he really got going when he joined the New York Times in 1981 and spent most of the ‘80s in Beirut then in Jerusalem. "I was the first Jewish [New York] Times correspondent in Beirut and then the first Jewish Times correspondent in Jerusalem. Then I went to DC and covered the State Department for four years from 1989-93. I had a front-row seat on the end of the Cold War, on the fall of the Berlin Wall, on the end of Communism."

And the rest is history. Big history and big ideas. It is an intoxicating combination and Friedman has found a very particular voice for covering it. What are the big trends? Who's thinking the big ideas? Where are the big changes to our world? There is a 12-page section on "Oil and Freedom" which is pure essence of Friedman. Here, he works out the correlation between the rise of the price of oil and the decline of freedom in oil-producing countries. For good measure he throws in a few pages on how the fall in the price of oil did for Soviet Communism.

And now the most influential journalist in the world takes on the most urgent subject in the world. How will he persuade Middle America? Will it take a carrot or a stick? He bats this one away too. He may be a "sober optimist" but he does not have time for such doubts.

And when he goes back to Doha and Dalian, what will they look like next time?

And somewhere between Middle America, up to its neck in sub-prime mortgages, and Dalian - one of 49 cities in China with a population of over a million people - lies the fate of Friedman's green revolution.

Hot, Flat and Crowded is published by Allen Lane at £20


Born: 1953 in St Louis Park, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis

Education: Studied at Brandeis University and St Antony's College, Oxford

Career: Has written for The New York Times since 1981, for which he has reported on the Middle East conflict, the end of the Cold War, US domestic politics and foreign policy, international economics and the worldwide impact of terrorism. He has won three Pulitzer prizes

Publications: Friedman has written five books: From Beirut to Jerusalem (1989), The Lexus and the Olive Tree (1999), Longitudes and Attitudes: Exploring the World After September 11 (2002), The World is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century (2005) and Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why the World Needs a Green Revolution (2008)

On America: "We've become a sub-prime nation that thinks it can just borrow its way to prosperity"

    Last updated: 1:07pm, October 23 2008