By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues
This is a transcript of my interview with Pulitzer Prize winning columnist and author Thomas Friedman. I caught up with Tom at Foothill College’s Celebrity Forum in Silicon Valley on September 10, 2009. To listen to interview highlights, click here
Alison van Diggelen: Tom, thank you very much for joining me today on Fresh Dialogues. I’d like to focus today on your book, ‘Hot, Flat, and Crowded.‘ Your premise is that energy technology (ET) is the next big thing and by focusing on it, American can get its groove back. Can you expand on what you mean by that?
Tom Friedman: I think that in a world that is becoming ‘hot’ – captured by climate change; ‘flat’ – rising middle classes all over the world from Russia to India, from Brazil to China; and ‘crowded’ – we’re going from 6.7 billion to 9.2 billion by 2050. In that kind of a world, demand for clean energy, clean fuel, energy efficiency is clearly going to explode. It’s clearly going to be the next great global industry. I know that as sure as I know that I’m sitting here at De Anza College, talking to you.
What I don’t know is who is going to lead that industry. Is it going to be America or China, India or Europe, Russia or Japan? What my book is really a call for is that America should lead that industry, because if it’s the next big thing, we need to be at the head of the line on the next big thing. And I think we get our groove back as a country by being big on the next big thing. Not only will it improve our standing economically but we’ll be seen by the rest of the world as working on the most important problem in the world.
Alison: Great. So Tom, you have two daughters, and you’ve written extensively about energy, political and economic security; and about the beauty of the planet, most recently from Botwsana. But what was your biggest motivation for writing this book?
Tom: My biggest motivation really was the concern about America. That…imagine if today Microsoft were a French company, Google was a Chinese company, IBM was a British Company, and Intel was a German company? What would our standard of living be like? What would our standard of living be like if we didn’t dominate the IT industry? What do you suppose our standard of living will be like if we don’t dominate the ET industry? If the next great solar company is Chinese? If the next great wind companies are Danish? If the next great battery companies are all Japanese?
Alison: And you’re advocating for government involvement. Why is it necessary to have government involvement to jumpstart this green economy? Why couldn’t it just happen?
Tom: Because first of all you need more research. We haven’t really found the breakthrough scale technology; and research needs to be funded and that’s government’s role, to fund basic research…to push out the boundaries of physics, biology, chemistry and material science so we can have these really scale answers to clean energy and climate change.
Alison: But you’re talking about more than just research?
Tom: Yes, and government’s other role is to set prices, to create the regulations, incentives, the stimulus and the price signals that will drive innovation. That will stimulate both innovators to want to invest in these clean technologies and consumers to want to buy them.
Alison: And you’ve said one of your mottos is: ‘change your leaders not your light bulbs.’ Can you expand on that and talk about Obama? We now – after eight years – have an environmentally conscious president. Do you feel…
Tom: I mean leaders at all levels. Change your mayor, your governor, your senator and certainly your president… in ways that will put in those positions people who can write the rules, can set the taxes, can put in place the incentives. People who are commited to launching a kind of ecosystem of green innovation.
Alison: And do you feel that Obama has enough passion to do that and is putting in place the right legislation to do that?
Tom: I’m not sure yet. I think the book is still out on that. Although he did say he was reading my book (Hot, Flat, and Crowded) over his recent vacation at Martha’s Vineyard…
Alison: Any feedback from that yet?
Tom: I haven’t yet…no. Our sales went up though, so that was good.
Alison: Excellent. Well that’s a good endorsement. Great…
Now, you have a chapter in the book entitled China for a Day and you write in a recent column ‘China’s leaders understand that in a world of exploding population, demand for clean power and energy efficiency is going to soar. Beijing wants to make sure it owns that industry and is ordering the policies to do that.’ Do I detect a bit of China Envy there Tom?
Tom: Um… Well. ..I…What you detect is the envy of someone who wants his own government to act democratically with the same effectiveness that China can do autocratically. And I think we could if we all pulled together and really focused on this project because this is a huge scale project. The government has to get it right; it has a huge role. And if government is not working; if it’s divided against itself – red states/ blue states – then we’re not going to get where we need to be.
Alison: If Obama were to call you up tonight after your lecture and say, ‘I’ve read your book cover to cover, I want you as my Green Czar. ‘ What would you say to that?
Tom: I’d say, ‘I get my aggravation playing golf…’ (laughter)
But you know, I’m now 56 years old, if I wanted to go into government, I would have done so a long time ago. I’m a journalist, that’s what I do. I think it’s a noble craft. I love being a journalist; I love being a columnist at the New York Times. I have the best job in the world. There are plenty of people who can do those government jobs a lot better than we do. We have a terrific energy secretary, Steven Chu, Nobel Prize Winner, former head of Lawrence Berkeley Labs. I couldn’t hold a candle to him. I think Obama has the right people. the question is: can he pull his party and Congress together to really drive it forward.
Click here for the transcript of Fresh Dialogues with Tom Friedman Part Two on dealing with critics, Silicon Valley innovators and daiquiris with Maureen Dowd.