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