Friedman in The Pulpit
Does he practice what he preaches?


Henry Payne

The most talked-about commentator in newspapers today is New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer has a best-selling book, The World is Flat, which compellingly documents how technology, education, and cheap labor are driving the global economy.

Friedman also fancies himself a preacher, a member of the Green church who sees the world at a moral crossroads, where the wrong choices will plunge the world into climate chaos. A successful observer of international trends, he now seeks to use his fame to proselytize on how to lead a greener, more earth-friendly life.

On a recent visit to Williams College in Massachusetts, the columnist was impressed by the university’s Lent-like efforts before Earth Day to encourage its flock to cut back on energy use, even to the point of studying in the dark. Last Friday, Friedman climbed his op-ed page pulpit and delivered a stem-winding sermon on how students can re-order their lives to avoid the coming climate apocalypse.

Taking a page from Revelations, he warned that “today’s students will be profoundly affected by climate change, the coming energy wars and the rising danger of petro-authoritarian states.” To counter these three horsemen of the apocalypse and reduce “net CO2 emissions to zero,” Friedman outlined a multi-step system:

make schools carbon-neutral
ban gas-guzzling SUVs from campus
drive hybrid vehicles
convert buildings to Greener heating systems

This is, for Friedman, the battle of a generation, and it is in the ideas of Green High Priest Al Gore that Friedman finds his inspiration. “Al Gore eloquently argues that our parents’ generation, the Greatest Generation, turned back the black tide of fascism.” Friedman continues: “Today’s young people…need to become what the writer Dan Pink calls ‘the Greenest Generation,’ and build the institutions that will turn back the black tide of climate change and petro-authoritarianism. This is your challenge. Who will rise to it?”

Oddly, Friedman gives a free pass to his and Gore’s class, the “Me” generation. Indeed, while Vice President Gore and President Clinton were in office, greenhouse gas emissions increased a whopping 12 percent. At the same time, their administration reaped the fruits of a booming economy. Carbon dioxide emissions have historically tracked economic growth (CO2 has only fallen in times of U.S. recession), and to have “reduced net CO2 emissions to zero” (much less to 7 percent below 1990 levels as ordered by the Gore-endorsed Kyoto Protocol) would have been a political sacrifice too heavy to bear for an administration that lived by the mantra “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Still, Mr. Friedman says the time to sacrifice is now. As a leader of this movement, will he rise to the challenge? Does he practice what he preaches?

When 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry made similar demands of Americans to drive eco-friendly cars, I asked the well-to-do senator whether he had heeded his own words. In short, what cars did his family drive?

Before The Detroit New editorial board, Kerry’s answer was stunning in its hypocrisy: “We have some SUVs. We have a Jeep. We have a couple of Chrysler minivans. We have a PT Cruiser up in Boston. I have an old Dodge 600 that I keep in the Senate. … We also have a Chevy, a big Suburban.”

Friedman’s moral charge goes much further still, asking students to alter every aspect of their lives, from living quarters to high-tech devices to driving habits. So I prepared six questions:

1. How many cars does your family have? What models are they?
2. How many homes do you own? What is their square footage?
3. How many computers do you own?
4. How did you arrive at Williams College? By rental car? By private plane? Other?
5. Does your home use utility power? Or is it independently powered via solar panels, fuel cells?
6. Are you a nuclear-power advocate?

I already knew that Friedman lives in the affluent Washington, D.C., suburb of Bethesda, a typical “urban sprawl” community decried by Greens as environmentally inefficient. The questions of home heating and transportation aside, I asked the computer question because California’s 2001 blackouts were in part a result of huge new energy demand from computer “server farms” (used by folks like college kids and journalists to access the Internet). And I asked the nuclear question since that is the ultimate, zero-emission fuel source.

I e-mailed the questions to Friedman by way of his Washington, D.C., assistant. She told me that, unfortunately, he was probably too busy to answer them (he didn’t), and he was currently “on a plane to California.” A plane to California, of course, is hardly CO2 neutral. A round-trip flight on the most fuel-efficient airliner will burn 12,000 gallons of fossil fuel.

If Mr. Friedman is too busy to answer questions about his personal consumption, I suspect the students of Williams College (most of them paying $40,000 annually in tuition to graduate to American consumer affluence, not the ascetic life of a monk) will be too busy to listen to his moral critique of their lifestyles.

Henry Payne is a writer and editorial cartoonist for The Detroit News.


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