Energy Technology in a Post-American World

I’ve been focusing too much on national politics lately I feel like I’m suffering from political diarrhea. This election has gotten too nasty. The crucial issues have now been reduced to lipstick and hockey stick. The presidential election of the most powerful nation in the world had turned into a slapstick. It would be funny if it was a Disney movie. But for those of us who take this election very seriously, we can only shake our heads and hope for serendipity. So instead of wallowing in despair, I’m stepping back a bit to shift my attention to geopolitics, economics, and the future of alternative energy.

A couple days ago I watched Thomas L. Friedman having a passionate conversation with Charlie Rose while promoting his latest book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded. It was a very insightful discussion. Forget for a moment that Friedman supported the Iraq war. People change. Friedman’s change is for the better. I think his new direction is spot on. I’m very much in agreement with what he has to say on Energy Technology (ET). See for yourself. Watch the video.

Friedman’s thesis sounds like a fleshed out continuation of the books Hot Topic and The Post-American World. As a technophile, I could relate to Friedman’s enthusiasm for technology. I also groove with his attitude on Climate Change. Here’s what Friedman said on his keynote address at BookExpo 2008:

People say to me: How can we afford to transform our whole economy in order to prevent climate change when climate change could turn out to be a hoax?

To which I say: If climate change is a hoax it is the most wonderful hoax ever perpetrated on the United States of America because transforming our economy to clean power and energy efficiency to mitigate global warming is the equivalent in training for the Olympic triathlon. If you make it to the Olympics you have a much better chance of winning because you have developed every muscle. If you don’t make it to the Olympics you’re still healthy or stronger, fitter and more likely to live longer and win any other race in life. And like the triathlon you don’t just improve one muscle or one skill but many which become mutually reinforcing and improve the health of the whole system.

Exactly. Environmentalists are instrumental for pushing legislation and raising consciousness. But ultimately, it’s the innovators and engineers who will solve our energy problems (with the right balance of government regulation and free market). At least, that’s the ideal scenario.

To appeciate Friedman’s thesis even more, it would be ideal to elevate our perspective to a post-American worldview, as written about by Fareed Zakaria. Serendipitously, Friedman and Zakaria had a dialogue over at Omnivoracious. Here’s a key quote.

Zakaria: I’m struck by the point you make about energy technology. In my book I’m pretty optimistic about the United States. But the one area where I’m worried is actually ET. We do fantastically in biotech, we’re doing fantastically in nanotechnology. But none of these new technologies have the kind of system-wide effect that information technology did. Energy does. If you want to find the next technological revolution you need to find an industry that transforms everything you do. Biotechnology affects one critical aspect of your day-to-day life, health, but not all of it. But energy–the consumption of energy–affects every human activity in the modern world. Now, my fear is that, of all the industries in the future, that’s the one where we’re not ahead of the pack. Are we going to run second in this race?

Friedman: Well, I want to ask you that, Fareed. Why do you think we haven’t led this industry, which itself has huge technological implications? We have all the secret sauce, all the technological prowess, to lead this industry. Why do you think this is the one area–and it’s enormous, it’s actually going to dwarf all the others–where we haven’t been at the real cutting edge?

Zakaria: 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.

Exactly. It’s the brain-dead partisan politics that holds America back from being a leader in alternative energy development. One only has to look at the sorry state of the on-going election campaigns.

Where there is no vision, the people perish. Will America eventually perish or continue to flourish? The answer lies in our collective hearts and minds as we go to the polls this November.

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