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Posted: February 18, 2009

Thomas Friedman: ‘Energy technology is the next industrial revolution’

Three-time Pulitzer winner outlines his argument for green tech

Dan Ray

More than 2,000 people crowded into the historic Macky Auditorium on the University of Colorado campus in Boulder on Monday to hear Thomas Friedman, one of the nation's most respected and admired Middle East and international economics experts, trumpet his latest message:

Global catastrophe is coming, but we have the answer. 

"I call it E.T.," the three-time Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times columnist said. "Energy technology is going to be the next industrial revolution."

Friedman, who is perhaps best known for his books "The World is Flat," and "The Lexus and the Olive Tree," was in Boulder to promote his new book, "Hot, Flat, and Crowded," which was released last fall. In "Hot, Flat, and Crowded," Friedman addresses a new age in human history; but, according to him, humankind is not merely sailing into an age of globalization, but also into an age of five disastrously large problems, which are also, “a set of incredible opportunities.”

They are: 
1)    Energy and natural resource supply and demand
2)    Petropolitics
3)    Climate change
4)    Energy poverty
5)    Biodiversity loss

As the rest of the world accelerates into the type of energy-rich lifestyle Americans enjoy, these problems are growing larger, more daunting and, in the eyes of some, hopelessly unmanageable, according to Friedman. "We could say, 'We're completely fried, let's party!'" he said. "Fortunately, all five problems have the same solution: abundant, cheap, clean and reliable electrons and molecules."

That's right, one of the nation's leading champions of globalization and free market economies is now offering green energy as the only solution to possible worldwide economic, political, environmental and social meltdown. "The country that owns E.T., with the most E.T. resources, is going to have the best national security, economic security, happy citizens and competitive companies," he said. "That country has to be the United States."

A revolution is underway, he said. The message appears to be about a new green economy, but it's really about a new America. It's about recognizing that abandoning the old ways of doing business for the new energy economy is actually good business sense, political sense and humanitarian sense, he said. "If we don't solve E.T., the chances of our children enjoying the same living standard as ourselves is zero," Friedman said. But he emphasized that this transition would not be painless. "Did you ever have a revolution where no one got hurt?" he said. "You'll know it's a revolution when someone gets hurt . . . . You'll know it's a revolution when the word 'green' disappears."

The people getting hurt will be today's major energy companies, he said. And a big sign that they are on the way out will be when wind, solar and biofuels energy technologies are simply known as "energy technologies," and not "green technologies."

But how do we get there? How do we make sure that the U.S. manages to cultivate its sustainable energy resources more effectively than anyone else?

Friedman's answer: leadership.

Markets need to remain the mechanism by which renewable energy takes over, Friedman said. But if consumers don't drive the market, then there will be no revolution. Incentives for consumers to switch to renewable energy are essential, he said. This is the role that government leadership needs to play. According to Friedman, government mandates designating certain proportions of our energy production come from clean energy seem positive, but if consumers aren't strongly demanding clean energy, then progress will be painfully slow – and the consequences of the five overarching problems will be painfully more severe.

"I think a lot of people who voted for Barack Obama did it because he's exactly the type of person who can make that type of argument," Friedman said. In Boulder, a city at the forefront of the renewable energy industry and a city that is home to one of the nation's leading universities in renewable energy research, Friedman's message was met with cheers.

"My father is 85 and saw FDR's inauguration," said Steve Scheffey, 57, a stock market expert in portfolio management and Colorado resident who attended Friedman's presentation. "He met Civil War veterans at Gettysburg. It seems unfair that we should get to use all of this oil and energy now, in this generation," he said.

In just one generation humans have soared into an existence of abundant energy, which just isn't sustainable, he said. "We need to land the plane safely, and with everyone on it alive," Sheffley said.

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Dan Ray is a graduate student at the University of Colorado School of Journalism and Mass Communication. 

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