Times are bleak, and what better way to shake off the bailout blues than to look ahead to better, or at least different, times. There may be little use in predicting the future, and even less in reading book-length predictions, aside from sci-fi-style entertainment. Nevertheless, we recently read, by sheer coincidence, back-to-back forecasts of our near and far-off future world — George Friedman's The Next 100 Years and Thomas Friedman's Hot, Flat and Crowded. Neither are works of fiction, yet both are greatly entertaining and provocative. And though vastly different in their views of tomorrow, both books are useful in presenting distinct and unique perspectives of the present.
We were anxious to read The Next 100 Years, after enjoying George Friedman's last book in 2004, America's Secret War, a fascinating look at U.S. foreign policy and the War on Terror. G. Friedman revealed the secret histories and motivations of America and its Middle Eastern allies and adversaries, describing a conflict with much more subtle implications than the chaotic mess that we were watching unfold day by day on the nightly news.
G. Friedman is the founder and head of Statfor, a private intelligence-gathering firm that is highly regarded for their clear-eyed analyses and forecasts of global events. He has unique access to the maneuvers of nations around the world and a gift for explaining these events and their wider significance with brilliant clarity. In The Next 100 Years, G. Friedman employs his deft understanding of modern geopolitics and his careful study of the patterns of history to imagine what fates await the world's most powerful nations over the next century.
Americans will be relieved to know that the U.S. will remain the world's leading superpower throughout much of the next hundred years, though not without our challenges. Our geographical advantages, massive economy (don't worry about this little dip we're experiencing at the moment), and military might (especially our dominance of the seas), will keep the U.S. supreme for a long time.
We're in the final phases of the U.S.-jihadist war, G. Friedman asserts, and have accomplished, albeit sloppily, our goal of disrupting Al Qaeda and preventing an Islamic power to rise in the Middle East. By creating chaos in the region, we've effectively kept our enemies fighting each other rather than planning our demise. The next great challenge, according to G. Friedman, will be Russia, whose reassertion on the world stage will initiate a second Cold War in the late 2010s and 2020s. The U.S. will again persevere, even more efficiently this go-round, but will contend with the fallout around 2050 when a new global war erupts between a U.S./British/Polish alliance versus a coalition between the Turks and the Japanese. We will again emerge victorious, enjoying a period of peace and great technological innovation before neighboring Mexico rises to challenge our dominance.
It sounds far-fetched, G. Friedman admits, but how would it have sounded to someone in 1909 if you described the world we live in today? Of course, most readers will take these forecasts with a grain of salt. The details — among the most audacious, a scenario in which Japan launches a moon-based assault on America's highly sophisticated satellite command in orbit during the century's world war — aren't really the point, but instead G. Friedman wants us to see the consequences of how policies and events today, or even decades ago, reverberate over time. What's most interesting about the book is not necessarily the future, but how we get there. It's a testament to G. Friedman's grasp of geopolitics that his explanation of why Turkey, Poland, Japan and Mexico will be long-term major players, and why we needn't worry about China, Iran, North Korea or Pakistan is so convincing.
The most glaring omission in The Next 100 Years is the effect of global warming on the future, something G. Friedman mentions only in the final paragraphs of the book. This is a problem that will solve itself, he says, due to a decline in world population and advances in space-based solar power collection, an advantageous byproduct of nations auguring for dominance in space.
Here we find the great intersection of these two books. In Hot, Flat, and Crowded, Thomas Friedman bases his entire premise on the problems of climate change and rapid population growth. Interestingly, both writers cite United Nation reports to assert their belief that populations will either explode, in the case of T. Friedman, or G. Friedman's reliance on population decline. (Interestingly, G. Friedman believes this will become an issue for America later in the century, ultimately leading to our aggressive recruitment of immigrants.) Who's right? Neither offers footnotes, so we may never know ... until the future.
While G.'s book presupposes American dominance — based on our "tremendous imbalance of economic, military, and political power" — T.'s book recognizes the slump we've been experiencing as a nation since 9/11. The way out of our national funk, he asserts, is to band together, use our ingenuity and can-do spirit, and create a clean and renewable energy economy that will not only allow us to confront the largest looming and most terrifying problem in our world today, but to achieve a technological and economic dominance that will insure a stature similar to G. Friedman's vision of America in the 21st century.
For many readers, T. Friedman's Hot, Flat, and Crowded is one of the most palatable books about global warming. Couched in a conversational tone (which can become hokey, repetitive and pep-talky at times), T. Friedman condenses a lot of the gloomy statistics that can be overwhelming in most books on global warming and creates a largely upbeat picture of what a true green revolution in America would look like. It's not the "10 Easy Ways to Save the Planet" magazine-rack and Earth Day concert green "party" that we're currently experiencing, but a complete upheaval of old ways and a new lifestyle that will require sacrifice and awareness. This change in American thinking is necessary, T. Friedman argues convincingly, as the planet's third-world rises to match the consumption levels that America has enjoyed for decades. It's imperative to show them that we got it wrong on unchecked consumption, and that we show them a better, more efficient way to generate power, manage ecosystems and eliminate wastes.
One of the most fascinating sections of the book paints a picture of an ideal near-future, in which Americans get on board and revise the old energy platform (which, unlike nearly every other technological system in this country, has not been updates in generations) into a sophisticated smart and clean energy grid. In this world we use technology to manage and streamline energy consumption in our home, balancing the need for electricity only when and where we need it and selling back when its being conserved. You won't have to worry about cutting off lights when you leave a room or putting a brick in your toilet to stay green because your appliances will communicate with each other and balance the flow of energy for you.
Of course, the human energy required to create such a shift in our lifestyles will be monumental. It requires a considerable level of optimism to read T. Friedman's book and think that it could be achieved, especially when much of what he suggests will require government intervention — to either relax standards in certain areas and tighten up in others to create an environment for the private sector to invest and march forward. Some of the most infuriating material in the book is not the gloom-and-doom of climate change but anecdotal evidence of how government policy has stood in the way of meaningful green progress for decades and continues to do so.
For cynics, Friedman shows signs of a gathering green revolution throughout the world. It's happening in places like Europe and even China, and if America hopes to be on top, as G. Friedman contends, it must take the lead in this revolution. The world depends on America to lead, T. Friedman insists.
A hearty (as opposed to jingoistic) patriotism and keen understanding of how the world looks today lies at the heart of both of these books by Friedmans, along with an optimism about America's role in the future. Their patriotism is contagious, their theses cogently argued, and their books filled with fascinating ideas. Both are highly recommended to promote serious discussion about the direction we're headed, and to provide a useful view up and over the rim of this hole we seem to have dug ourselves into at this decisive moment in American history.