Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Go Green! (and defeat Al Qaeda)

That's what Thomas Friedman says we can and must do, as part of an interview with Fareed Zakaria on the Amazon site.

First Friedman talks about the resentment rising countries feel about our holier-than-thou lectures, and how we should grab the window of opportunity this affords us, such as it is:
Every time I come to China, young Chinese say to me, "Mr. Friedman, your country grew dirty for 150 years. Now it's our turn." And I say to them, "Yes, you're absolutely right, it's your turn. Grow as dirty as you want. Take your time. Because I think we probably just need about five years to invent all the new clean power technologies you're going to need as you choke to death, and we're going to come and sell them to you. And we're going to clean your clock in the next great global industry. So please, take your time. If you want to give us a five-year lead in the next great global industry, I will take five. If you want to give us ten, that would be even better."
Friedman worries, however, that we in the U.S. are blowing the head start we've been given, and Zakaria offers up this following reason:
I think it's not about our economic system but our political system. The rhetoric we hear is that the market should produce new energy technologies. But the problem is, the use of current forms of energy has an existing infrastructure with very powerful interests that has ensured that the government tilt the playing field in their favor, with subsidies, tax breaks, infrastructure spending, etc. This is one area where the Europeans have actually been very far-sighted and have pushed their economies toward the future.
Friedman goes on to talk about how this affects our war against Al Qaeda, in a tactical sense:
They began with a marine general in Iraq, who basically cabled back one day and said, I need renewable power here. Things like solar energy. And the reaction of the Pentagon was, "Hey, general, you getting a little green out there? You're not going sissy on us are you? Too much sun?" And he basically said, "No, don't you guys get it? I have to provision outposts along the Syrian border. They are off the grid. They run on generators with diesel fuel. I have to truck diesel fuel from Kuwait to the Syrian border at $20 a gallon delivered cost. And that's if my trucks don't get blown up by insurgents along the way. If I had solar power, I wouldn't have to truck all this fuel. I could—this is my term, not his—‘outgreen' Al-Qaeda."

I argue in the chapter that "outgreening"--the ability to deploy, expand, innovate and grow renewable energy and clean power--is going to become one of the most important, if not the most important, sources of competitive advantage for a company, for a country, for a military. You're going to know the cost of your fuel, it's going to be so much more distributed, you will be so much more flexible, and--this is quite important, Fareed--you will also become so much more respected.
Oh, and Friedman makes this excellent point about the creative destruction that such a big change in energy technology will entail:
In the green revolution, everyone's a winner: BP's green, Exxon's green, GM's green. When everyone's a winner, that's not a revolution--actually, that's a party. We're having a green party. And it's very fun--you and I get invited to all the parties. But it has no connection whatsoever with a real revolution. You'll know it's a revolution when somebody gets hurt. And I don't mean physically hurt. But the IT revolution was a real revolution. In the IT revolution, companies either had to change or die. So you'll know the green revolution is happening when you see some bodies--corporate bodies--along the side of the road: companies that didn't change and therefore died. Right now we don't have that kind of market, that kind of change-or-die situation. Right now companies feel like they can just change their brand, not actually how they do business, and that will be enough to survive. That's why we're really having more of a green party than a green revolution.
On the first point, Friedman is absolutely right that we should make the most of every opportunity the rest of the world affords our country through their own unwillingness to face up to these challenges.

I part company with him when he endorses Obama's big-spending government subsidy approach over McCain's more free market approach. Still, McCain would be wise to emphasize more strongly that as President he won't let current low-cost subsidies for wind, solar and geothermal lapse, as all too many Republicans are currently willing to allow to happen.

It's interesting where Friedman concentrates on the purely tactical applications of green energy to the war against Al Qaeda. He's quite right that solar would be helpful powering our military outposts on the Syrian border, but at least in this interview he doesn't address the larger strategic considerations.

I'd love nothing more than to deprive the Ayatollahs, Putins, and Chavezes of their oil wealth when we transition to a new varied energy source that stems more from technical knowledge and innovation than from the luck of the geological draw. In any such contest, our open society model which puts a premium on talent regardless of country of origin will do very well indeed.

What I don't think anyone is addressing, however, is how such a green revolution might worsen the feeling of resentment against the West if the Muslim world is again left on the sidelines of this latest revolution. Given the widely-reported problems in education in the Arab world, combined with its dependency on oil as its leading export, this is a very-real possibility even in the event that the United States successfully leads such a technological transition.

This is not an argument against the environmental necessity of this transition, but I think it points up the fact that Thomas Barnett's grand strategy of "Shrinking the Gap" by more thoroughly integrating the Middle East into globalization's Core will be more relevant to the defeat of Al Qaeda than the green revolution alone will.

Hat Tip: Instapundit

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