I finally got around to reading Thomas L. Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded. Friedman is one of the few columnists that I read on a regular basis and the book is on an interesting subject, so I was expecting to enjoy reading it. I didn’t. While I don’t agree with all his ideas, the main problem is prolix writing. The book is about four-hundred pages long, and parts read like they weren’t edited. I got the feeling that Friedman has a big enough name that no one was willing to edit the book down. It could have been an okay three-hundred pages, or a good two-hundred pages, while still clearly explaining all the content.

My disagreements with Friedman are his technological over-optimism, solutions that increase complexity, and philosophy. I’ll ignore the philosophical differences in this review.

One example of Friedman’s overly complex, overly optimistic solutions is the smart electrical grid. I agree that we need a smart grid. The details are a problem I would like to work on. I disagree with Friedman’s vision of a smart grid. He basically says we should make the grid as smart as possible. This ignores the energy and reliability problems caused by unnecessary complexity. It is an example of a way of thinking common in engineering and politics: add a fix to what we have, even when fixing an underlying problem is easier and solves additional problems. This way of thinking creates unnecessary complexity and contributes to many of our problems. Unfortunately, it is easier to find support to add a law or feature than to change one. There are too many entrenched interests for a real solution to be likely without first moving through suboptimal answers, like the ones that Friedman proposes. Even though they can be better, these are the best likely solutions, so we should move forward as quickly as possible.

The section ‘Make the Word “Green” Go Away’ almost makes up for the rest of the book. Friedman says that green should be normal, so we should stop saying ‘green.’ This is an excellent point. The the word green has been abused recently, especially in greenwashing products. Adding an extra word makes it sound like being green is special. It isn’t. Sustainable practices must become the norm. There isn’t a good answer for this linguistic difficulty, but an improvement would be to drop the word ‘green’ and start calling other things ‘dirty,’ or some better term. It’s too bad stores won’t (or can’t) put soot symbols, or something, on boxes of anything that isn’t green. This would help make unsustainable products appear as different, and environmentally friendly solutions appear normal.

The solutions in this book aren’t always the best, but, Friedman’s proposals are pragmatic and more likely to be implemented than better solutions. While Hot, Flat, and Crowded makes some good points—and has some good quotes—I’d recommend reading a different book on Why We Need a Green Revolution. If you are interested in energy, I recommend Winning Our Energy Independence by S. David Freeman. For more on the business side, the best I have seen is Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution by Hawken, Lovins and Lovins.

BibTeX reference:

	Author = {Thomas L. Friedman},
	Publisher = {Farrar, Strauss and Giroux},
	Title = {Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a
		Green Revolution--And How it can Renew America},
	Year = {2008}