Tiny particles the answer to world's biggest problems, says 'World is Flat' author

Topic: Speakers

February 25, 2009

It's all about electrons these days for Thomas Friedman.

Whether the question is climate change, worldwide poverty, biodiversity loss or future energy and resource supply and demand, the answer is finding the means to provide "abundant, cheap, clean and reliable electrons," said Friedman, foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times and the next guest in Ball State's Bracken Environmental Speaker Series.

The author of the best-selling "The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century" will address an expected full house in Emens Auditorium on Wednesday, March 4, beginning at 7 p.m. He will examine the concurrent crises of global warming and increasing competition for energy as set out in his latest book, "Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution — and How It Can Renew America." The event is free and open to the public.

Occasionally referred to as "America's Global Voice" (by CNN) and "The Great Explainer" (The Washingtonian), Friedman proposes that an ambitious national strategy — which he calls "Geo-Greenism" — is not only what we need to save the planet from overheating; it also is what we need to make America healthier, richer, more innovative, more productive and more secure. And it all comes down to electrons.

"The green revolution is about how we produce … electrons," Friedman told Foreign Policy magazine in a recent interview, discussing the world's need to generate ever greater amounts of electricity without burning carbon-based fossil fuels. "The search for and the discovery of [an environmentally friendly] source of those electrons is going to be the next great global industry. And I think the country that mounts a revolution to be the leader of that industry is going to be a country whose standard of living is going to improve, whose respect in the world is going to improve, whose air is going to improve, whose innovation is going to improve, and whose national security is going to improve."


According to Friedman, the last big innovation in energy production was the commercialization of nuclear power half a century ago. Since then, he argues, the field has mostly stagnated.

"Do you know any industry in this country whose last major breakthrough was in 1955?" he asked, further condemning U.S. business leaders and government regulators alike by noting that American pet food companies spent more on research and development in 2007 than the nation's utilities did.

"The Stone Age didn't end because we ran out of stone," Friedman said, adding that, likewise, the climate-destroying fossil fuel age will end only if we invent our way out of it.

However, unlike the top secret, federally bankrolled Manhattan Project that ushered in the nuclear era, Friedman does not advocate a few dozen "guys and gals going off to Los Alamos" to solve the world's present energy problem.

What current circumstances require instead, he argues, is something akin to the more recent information technology (IT) revolution, when "everyone [became] a programmer."

"I want so many people throwing crazy dollars at every idea, in every garage, that we have 100,000 people trying 100,000 things, five of which might work, and two of which might be the next green Google," said the three-time Pulitzer Prize winner. "What IT was to the '80s and '90s, ET — energy technology — will be to the early 21st century."

Since joining the Times' editorial staff in 1981, Friedman has traveled hundreds of thousands of miles reporting on persistent conflicts in the Middle East, international economics, U.S. domestic politics and foreign policy as well as the worldwide impact of the terrorist threat. He was named the newspaper's foreign affairs columnist in 1995.

A graduate of Brandeis University with a degree in Mediterranean studies, Friedman earned his master's degree in modern Middle East studies from Oxford University in England, where in 2004 he also received the honorary title Order of the British Empire (OBE) from Queen Elizabeth II.

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