Thomas L. Friedman is known to most as a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter-turned-columnist and author of several best-selling books. But he’s also got a side gig hosting occasional documentaries for the Discovery Channel that explore topics ranging from the Israeli West Bank barrier, the roots of 9/11 and outsourcing. His latest, “Addicted to Oil,” will premier at the Silverdocs Film Festival in Silver Spring, Md., next week before airing on the cable channel later this summer.
“This is not your parents’ energy crisis,” Friedman says at the outset of the hourlong film. It differs from what the country experienced in the 1970s, he argues, for four reasons: America is engaged in a war on terror with an enemy it’s actually funding through its reliance on oil ; because of the rise of India, China, Brazil and postcommunist Russia, 3 billion new consumers are entering the global economic playing field; green technology may as a result become the largest growth industry of the new century, and as the price of oil goes up, the pace of freedom in oil-rich authoritarian countries slows drastically. Friedman recently spoke with NEWSWEEK's Brian Braiker. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: What do you hope to accomplish with this movie?
Thomas L. Friedman: Traditionally, what has happened around the issue of green is that very subtly its opponents named it—“liberal, tree-hugging, sissy, girlyman, unpatriotic, vaguely French.” Really what we’re trying to do in this film, and really with everything that I’ve been writing in my column, is to rename green as “geostrategic, geopolitical, capitalistic, patriotic.” Green is the new red, white and blue.
Which gets us to your “First Law of Petropolitics." Can you explain what that is?
The First Law of Petropolitics, in short, argues that the price of oil and the pace of freedom operate in an inverse correlation. As the price of oil goes up in what I call petroauthoritarian states—like Iran, Sudan, Venezuela—the pace of freedom goes down. These regimes can afford to be less responsive to their people and outside pressure. And as the price of oil goes down, the pace of freedom goes up because these regimes have to open up to the world if they want to deliver for their people, and they have to empower their people more. When oil was $30 a barrel, Iran was calling for a dialogue of civilizations. At $70 a barrel, Iran is calling for the destruction of Israel.
Bringing it back home, though, how can being green save jobs in America?
First of all, being green is going to be a source of so much industry in the 21st century, whether it’s green appliances, green design, green manufacturing, green consulting. The example we try to give is with the Texas Instruments factory. By thinking green and green design—taking massive energy out of a building before you even build it—you’re able to potentially save so much money that you can keep a factory here rather than move it to China or Taiwan or Singapore.
Speaking of China, you point out that they are doing quite a bit in terms of sustainable development.
My point on that is that China is going to have to go green. Not because they’ve been listening to Rachel Carson—it’s because they can’t breathe. What happened in China with telephones is that China went from no phones to cell phones. They skipped the whole landline phase in a lot of areas. I was just interviewing today Jeff Immelt, the head of GE. The point Jeff was making is that he thinks they’ll do the same on energy. The good news is that if China leaps ahead, they may provide the breakthrough for really cheap solar power, really cheap coal-gasification. The bad news is if we don’t keep up innovating, they’re going to dominate that industry in the 21st century.
And as a huge consumer of oil, they represent a multipronged threat?
They are such a big part of this story. They’re both driving this price and driving innovation. Unless we impose that pure, raw necessity on ourselves, we’re not going to be innovating at the speed and breadth that we need to in order to keep up.
But the will is not there.
Yeah, unfortunately it’s not.
How do you get it there?
We did this poll in the Times three or four months ago with three questions. “Do you favor a gasoline tax?” Eighty-five percent against, 12 percent in favor. Second question: “Would you favor a gasoline tax if it made us energy independent?” Fifty-five percent in favor, 37 percent against. “Do you favor a gasoline tax if it’ll cut back climate change?” Fifty-nine percent in favor, 34 percent against. If you just frame the issue for people the right way, suddenly they look at it totally differently. Those numbers are really quite amazing. It means two thirds of the people in America are ready to support a tax that not a single member of Congress has actually come out in favor of. Imagine if the president of the United States made this his issue!
In a recent column you compared General Motors to “a crack dealer looking to keep his addicts on a tight leash” for offering discounts on gas to SUV drivers in certain states. GM responded on its blog that you are “woefully misinformed” and that “A gas card is not going to get someone considering a $15,000 economy car to buy a $35,000 Chevy Tahoe.” Were you exaggerating to make a point?
Not really. GM also says in that blog that they sell more cars that get 30 miles a gallon than anybody. That’s true. They also sell more Hummers that get 11 miles a gallon than anybody. GM says they’re really working on fuel efficiency. But look at the cars they offered under the $1.99-a-gallon giveaway program: not one of their most fuel-efficient cars is included. If you’re really about encouraging people to buy your most fuel-efficient cars, why wouldn’t you include at least one of them in the offer?
Why do they keep making Hummers?
[General Motors CEO] Rick Wagoner has a very good answer for this. They make them because people want to buy them. I want to have a gasoline tax so people won’t want to buy them.
With the death of Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi we saw oil go down below $70 a barrel. Why is that, and how long do you think that can last?
There is an element in the oil price right now of sheer geopolitical insecurity. Is it a dollar a barrel, is it $5, is it maybe $10? Nobody really knows. One day it might be a kidnapping of Nigerian oil workers in Nigeria that sends it spiking, or one day it can be turmoil in Iraq. So the market is telling you that there is an element of the price that is about geopolitical security.
How do you see Zarqawi’s death affecting Bush politically? Some people have pointed out that every time his White House is in trouble, some miracle happens.
[ Laughs .] Right. We’ve had so many false dawns in Iraq, going back to the killing of Saddam’s sons, the capture of Saddam, the elections. Let me tell you why I think it’s significant and what the limits of its significance are. First of all, it was clear it was an inside job. Someone either within his network or within the Sunni community at large turned on him and turned him in. That’s a really good thing because he only could thrive by swimming in a sympathetic sea. That sea is getting less sympathetic. Sunnis are really going to start throwing their lot in with the government, and the more that thugs like him are not around, the easier it becomes. Secondly, there are terrorists and there are world-class terrorists. And Zarqawi was a world-class, first-team all-star terrorist. Guys like him don’t come around very often. For Bush, it may be a good day, it may be a good week. But it’s only going to be a good year, let alone a good legacy, if Iraqis come together.
It was a good week for Bush—your paper had a big front-page story about the House seat in California that the GOP won.
That was an interesting straw in the wind. The Democrats have leapt ahead in the polls on health care, they're running again on all these domestic issues. Now they’ve pulled even on national security and the column’s all about: don’t get carried away on this. You still have to pass the gut check with the American people on this issue, and I don’t think you’re there yet. Bush’s failures in Iraq do not necessarily translate into Democratic gains.
Is it fair that your columns are hidden behind a pay wall on the New York Times Web site?
I do not like being behind a pay wall. But I love the fact that I have the freedom to go to JFK, get on an airplane and fly to China without asking anyone’s permission. The only way I can have that freedom is if the New York Times has the income to do that. So I’m really torn. On the one hand, I feel really cut off from my audience. On the other hand, my newspaper has got to find a way to grow its profits.
Has it been a money-maker?
I just don’t know. It’s cash-flow positive. We’re caught between dead trees and bits and bytes. We’re in this transition. I just don’t know—whether it’s NEWSWEEK, The Washington Post, The New York Times—how the pay model and the advertising model are going to come together to produce the kind of revenue to do the go-wherever-you-want, whenever you want journalism that you and I have grown up with. I don’t know if it’s going to happen. A healthy press is really essential to a healthy democracy. I just really wonder how healthy, financially, the traditional mainstream news organizations are going to be.
Your column runs twice a week. Are there ever days when you wake up and just have nothing to say?
There really aren’t. I can’t afford to. The truth is the biggest problem that I usually have is that there seem to be too many tempting things to write about. If it were the other, you’d go nuts. The real truth is that I can’t afford to ever put myself in that position. I’m always thinking ahead. The biggest thing I do by way of agonizing is reading my column the next morning in print and saying “Did I get it right?” Because now it’s there. It’s in Lexis-Nexis, it’s in Google forever. Really, the agonizing I do is much more ex post facto.