Friedman Urges Audience: ‘Change Your Leaders, Not Your Light Bulbs’

Thomas FriedmanThomas Friedman’s newest book, Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution-And How It Can Renew America, sounds like a book about the environment. But as Friedman told a sold-out crowd at Page Auditorium Monday, it’s “really a book about America.”

Friedman, a three-time Pulitzer Prize-winner and columnist for The New York Times, appeared at Duke as the 2008 Terry Sanford Distinguished Lecturer. He said a radical transformation of energy policy is necessary if the United States hopes to maintain its position as the world’s political and economic leader. Friedman asserted that “America has lost its groove,” and proposed that the United States pursue innovations in energy efficiency on a scale equivalent to the space race of the 1960s.

“Green is obviously the new red white and blue,” he said. “It has to be.”

Friedman diagnosed five related global ills: the rise of dictatorships based on oil profits, biodiversity loss, climate change, energy poverty in developing countries, and the supply and demand for energy. He also said that the world has become hot due to global warming, flat because of the leveling of the playing field as developing countries’ economies grow exponentially, and crowded because of extreme population growth.

The solution to all these problems lies in massive global investment in the development of clean, cheap energy technologies, Friedman said. The U.S. government, at the both legislative and executive levels, has hindered rather than helped this sector of the U.S. economy by advocating and maintaining policies that support outmoded, dirty energy sources such as gas and oil, he said, adding that voters should hold their leaders accountable for these short-sighted decisions.

Friedman concluded his lecture on an optimistic note, reading a line from the closing chapter of Hot, Flat, and Crowded, saying, “We have exactly as much time as we need, starting now.”

Students said they found Friedman’s speech interesting and appreciated the severity of the author’s points about energy sustainability and the environment.

“I thought the speech was really insightful, although it did sound a little rehearsed at times,” said Joel Ribnick, a senior from Friedman’s hometown of St. Louis Park, Minn. “His ideas might not be exactly revolutionary, but they definitely give you something to think about.”

Following his speech, which lasted about an hour, Friedman answered questions in a modified Q&A session. Students who had met with Friedman earlier in the day had written questions, which were asked by Sanford Institute Director Bruce Kuniholm.

Friedman was asked which of the two candidates for President, Barack Obama or John McCain, he believed had a more sustainable energy policy.

“We’re not allowed to endorse candidates as columnists of The New York Times, although you’d never know that from reading the editorial pages of The New York Times.” he responded. “I usually say that my wife loves Obama, and I love my wife.”

Also Monday, Friedman answered student questions during a small lunch meeting at the Sanford Institute, and participated in a panel discussion at the Pratt School of Engineering attended by students and faculty from the schools of engineering, public policy, business and environment.

The Terry Sanford Distinguished Lecture was endowed by a gift to the university from the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust in honor of the late Terry Sanford, who served as North Carolina governor, U.S. Senator and Duke president. Sanford also founded the Sanford Institute of Public Policy. Past lecturers include U.S. Gen. Anthony Zinni (Ret.), Israeli President Shimon Peres, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias and former United States Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. 

Student blogs about Friedman’s talk