Is “Hot, Flat and Crowded” a Business Book?

Thomas L. Friedman’s book ‘The World is Flat’ won the 2005 inaugural Financial Times/Goldman Sachs Business Book of the year award. This award recognizes business books that offer, “the most compelling and enjoyable insight into modern business issues, including management, finance and economics”. You can check out the judges panel, the shortlists and subsequent winners on the FT web site for the awards. I am keeping an eye on this for additions to my Top 10 Business Books (to read before you waste any more shareholders money) feature. My criteria go beyond just being insightful, although I agree this is important. I look for durable, seminal best sellers that a broad range of business people found to be useful and I ensure that consistently great writers and thought-leaders have at least one of their books represented. Having read Friedman’s latest book, ‘Hot, flat and crowded’ I think he deserves to be on my  Top 10 list (which is actually 25, now 26, books)

But is ‘Hot, Flat and Crowded’ actually a business book? ‘The World is Flat’ dealt with the new age of globalization being ushered in by the technological revolution and its implications for more than just business. However, its relevance and value for anyone in business is unquestionable and it deserved its accolades in this respect. In ‘Hot, Flat and Crowded’ Friedman broadens his view to look at the convergence of 3 global trends (crises in the making) of globalization, climate change and the population explosion. He details how we got where we are, just how bad it is and what we need to do about it. By ‘we’ he means very specifically America and that is a criticism that could be leveled at him. Friedman is very explicit that as world leaders only the USA can lead the way by driving the green revolution he advocates (implores) his countrymen to join.

Friedman is a good writer and is very well connected, travelled and read. He rams home every aspect of his message – the history, the status report and the diagnosis – with numerous anecdotes, analogies and bits of evidence gleaned from a dazzling list of experts. It is shocking, alarming and often entertaining but a second criticism is that it is long winded. In my normal style I will encourage you to read the book itself (it is a good read) but will also summarize the main messages.

Our dependence on oil combined with exponential population growth and in particular a burgeoning middle class who all aspire to live ‘like Americans’ means we are doomed unless we (America) changes track and leads a green revolution. Oil is creating dangerous levels of CO2 and putting power and money in the hands of undemocratic extremists. The weather and the politics are fast approaching the stage of being hazardous to our survival. In fact one of the main issues is that whilst we are programmed to think linearly the convergence of ‘hot, flat and crowded’ is creating exponential leaps into dangerous and unchartered waters.
Up until very recently there have only been 2 of what Friedman calls ‘Americums’, that is a block of circa 350 million materialistic, ambitious, wasteful consumers – America obviously and old Europe. In just a couple of decades there will be 8 or 9 and that is totally unsustainable.

He offers many different aspects of the solution but there is one central theme. We have to replace oil as far as possible with widely available sustainable energy sources. The place most motivated and most able to do this is America. Rather flippantly he describes a talk he gave in China where he actively encouraged the Chinese to carry on developing along traditional lines based on dirty fuels and widespread pollution because this will give the USA the head start it needs to develop the green technology it can sell to the world and thus reinforce its position as world leaders.

International readers may not share his mission that America must lead the green revolution but he is convincing about the overall problem and solution. We used to rely on coal/steam and horses. We now rely on oil. This must change and fast. Being optimistic by nature I believe we will. There is no reason to believe that with the science and technology available to us now, let alone what might be just around the corner, we have the tools to wean us off oil. (Check out Amory Lovins on TED.com if you don’t believe me). There is now a sense of urgency, probably heightened by the financial crisis and a growing realization that it can never again be business as usual. Friedman’s book is a huge best seller and one must therefore believe has made a major contribution to the global ‘wake up call’ that is needed. Go to any airport, take any flight and you will find someone with their nose buried in this book.

Is it a business book? Yes it most certainly is for two reasons. Most of the noses buried in this book belong to people in business and fundamentally it will be business, American or otherwise, that will lead this green, sustainable revolution. Why? Because as Friedman points out, there is big money to be made out of the green revolution just as there was in the industrial revolution that caused the problems in the first place. It may be arrogant and myopic to assume that the money will all be made in America, however.

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