Why jour­nal­ism’s MrBig­back­sObama

Su­per-com­men­ta­tor says that the planet is in se­ri­ous eco­log­i­cal trou­ble, and only the Democratis­green enough to save it

The Jewish Chronicle - - Features -

Thomas Fried­man is the most fa­mous jour­nal­ist i n the world. Bar none. it is not be­cause he has won the Pulitzer Prize three times. nor be­cause he has writ­ten five books, some of them big best­sellers. Fried­man is so in­flu­en­tial be­cause he writes a for­eign af­fairs col­umn which ap­pears twice a week in The New York Times and which is syndicated to 100 other news­pa­pers world­wide. Fried­man is read from Cairo to Cape Town; from La to shang­hai.

There is an­other rea­son, per­haps just as im­por­tant. Fried­man thinks big. he takes on big ideas — Glob­al­i­sa­tion, Ter­ror­ism and now the en­vi­ron­ment. his book, Glob­al­i­sa­tion, The Lexus and the Olive Tree (1999), caught the mo­ment of op­ti­mism af­ter the end of the Cold War. he knew some­thing was chang­ing, all over the world, and wrote about it in clear prose, full of vivid im­ages and catchy sto­ries.

so was there was a mo­ment when he be­gan to re­alise that we needed a green revo­lu­tion? he paused. “The eureka mo­ment,” he said, “was when i be­gin to think about ‘flat meets crowded’.”

This is typ­i­cal Fried­man. some peo­ple have an idea. Fried­man has “eureka mo­ments”. and that usu­ally in­volves grasp­ing a very com­pli­cated new re­al­ity, some­thing which is go­ing on all over the world, right now, and then find­ing a phrase for it. For glob­al­i­sa­tion, it was the Lexus and the olive tree, new tech­nol­ogy and old tra­di­tion. For “the green revo­lu­tion” (an­other Fried­man phrase) it is “hot, flat, and crowded.”

This be­came the ti­tle of his new book and he ex­plains it right at the start. “hot” is global warm­ing. “Flat”? now he is speak­ing at speed, and when Thomas Fried­man talks fast he is re­ally motoring: “a com­bi­na­tion of tech­no­log­i­cal, mar­ket, and geopo­lit­i­cal events at the end of the 20th cen­tury had lev­elled the global eco­nomic play­ing field in a way that was en­abling more peo­ple than ever, from more places than ever, to take part in the global econ­omy.”

Take com­put­ers, he says. or the in­ter­net. or the col­lapse of Com­mu­nism. Put th­ese things to­gether and you have a new global mar­ket­place where ev­ery­body can sell and buy things. Peo­ple all over the world know about the West­ern life­style and know they can as­pire to it. But, of course, if they do, it will be an eco­log­i­cal catas­tro­phe.

and “crowded”? Fried­man has a gift for strik­ing statis­tics. he was born in 1953. on the day he was born there were 2.681 bil­lion peo­ple in the world. “God will­ing, if i keep bik­ing and eat­ing yo­ghurt, i might live to be 100.” he does not look like some­one who bikes and lives on yo­gurt, more like a mid­dleaged Jewish guy who knows a salt beef sand­wich when he sees one. But that is not the point. The point is by 2053 “there will be more than nine bil­lion peo­ple on the planet”. That is crowded.

and when did he get this eureka mo­ment? When did this all come to­gether? “in Qatar, or per­haps China.” This is the other thing about Fried­man. he is al­ways on the move. he is truly a global vil­lager. all his books are full of ref­er­ences to places he’s been. “i’m a tourist with an at­ti­tude. if you don’t go, you don’t know.”

does this not wreak havoc on his fam­ily life? he bats off the ques­tion. “my wife’s a teacher. she has her own ca­reer.” his daugh­ters have left school. it is not just that he’s been to places like doha (the cap­i­tal of Qatar) and dalian (in north­east China). he goes and then he goes back a few years later. and? “i barely recog­nised them. in doha, since i had been there last, a sky­line that looked like a mini-man­hat­tan had sprouted.” That is when he came face to face with “flat meets crowded”.

The book has two main ar­gu­ments. The first is about amer­ica: “We lost our groove as a coun­try. Be­cause of 9/11. Be­cause our gov­ern­ment doesn’t work any more to solve big multi-gen­er­a­tional prob­lems.’”

and the sec­ond? hot, flat and crowded. The world is full of too many peo­ple, want­ing too many things, which is de­stroy­ing the en­vi­ron­ment.

so is he pes­simistic? Fried­man is not one of life’s pes­simists. he was, af­ter all, one of the great cheer­lead­ers for glob­al­i­sa­tion. he saw the 1990s as the tri­umph of democ­racy and the free mar­ket.

he is get­ting im­pa­tient. “i’m a sober op­ti­mist,” he says. That’s how bad things are. if the pol­lut­ing of the planet makes some­one like Fried­man “a sober op­ti­mist”, then we’re in real trou­ble.

“obama is the only green can­di­date in this elec­tion,” he says. “i don’t agree with ev­ery­thing he’s ad­vo­cat­ing...” as for mcCain, well, let’s put it this way, he is not get­ting Fried­man’s vote. Fried­man’s book is a call to arms. he’s call­ing for noth­ing less than a green revo­lu­tion, with amer­ica lead­ing the way. he al­most called the book, “Green is the new red-White-and-Blue”, he says. That’s how Fried­man thinks. amer­ica, plus the world, plus big is­sues.

how­did­hes­tart?hein­ter­viewedariel sharon for his high school news­pa­per but he re­ally got go­ing when he joined the NewYorkTimes in­1981and­spent­most of the ‘80s in Beirut then in Jerusalem. “i was the first Jewish [ New York] Times cor­re­spon­dent in Beirut and then the first Jewish Times cor­re­spon­dent in Jerusalem. Then i went to dC and cov­ered the state depart­ment for four years from 1989-93. i had a front-row seat on the end of the Cold War, on the fall of the Berlin Wall, on the end of Com­mu­nism.”

and the rest is his­tory. Big his­tory and big ideas. it is an in­tox­i­cat­ing com­bi­na­tion and Fried­man has found a very par­tic­u­lar voice for cov­er­ing it. What are the big trends? Who’s think­ing the big ideas? Where are the big changes to our world? There is a 12-page sec­tion on “oil and Free­dom” which is pure essence of Fried­man. here, he works out the cor­re­la­tion be­tween the rise of the price of oil and the de­cline of free­dom in oil-pro­duc­ing coun­tries. For good mea­sure he throws in a few pages on how the fall in the price of oil did for soviet Com­mu­nism.

and now the most in­flu­en­tial jour­nal­ist in the world takes on the most ur­gent sub­ject in the world. how will he per­suade mid­dle amer­ica? Will it take a carrot or a stick? he bats this one away too. he may be a “sober op­ti­mist” but he does not have time for such doubts.

and when he goes back to doha and dalian, what will they look like next time?

and some­where be­tween mid­dle amer­ica, up to its neck in sub-prime mortgages, and dalian — one of 49 cities in China with a pop­u­la­tion of over a mil­lion peo­ple — lies the fate of Fried­man’s green revo­lu­tion. Hot, Flat and Crowded is pub­lished by Allen Lane at £20

Thomas Fried­man is call­ing for an eco­log­i­cal revo­lu­tion. He is giv­ing qual­i­fied sup­port for Barack Obama as “the only green can­di­date”

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