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The world is round after all

Business, China, Economics, Environment, Europe, India, Sustainability, Technology, US
By John Richardson on 16-Sep-2008

Back in the heady days of 2006, I asked a group of five like-minded nerds what their favourite business book was.

They unanimously voted for The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century by Thomas Friedman.

I rushed out and bought a copy. It has sold by the truck load and was quoted by Mohamed Al-Mady of SABIC during his speech at the Asia Petrochemical Industry Conference in Thailand in 2006.

Back then everybody was talking about a new paradigm of growth, driven by the relentless rise of emerging market consumption. Nobody mentioned that other book, The Limits To Growth, published in 1972 by the Club of Rome, during those heady days of the economic boom.

I ploughed my way through most of The World Is Flat (it is overwritten – all the points worth making could have been made in considerably less than 488 pages) and was profoundly irritated by Friedman’s relentless enthusiasm for globalisation.

At that time I must confess I hadn’t heard of the Club of Rome book, nor did I give any consideration to the idea that Friedman might be dead wrong for any reason other than a gut reaction to his seemingly boundless optimism.

Now he has woken up to the fact, 36 years after The Limits To Growth was published, that indeed this might be the case with his new book Hot, Flat And Crowded.

In a review in the Financial Times, Rahul Jacob makes the point that we should have all seen the weaknesses behind Friedman’s flat earth theory.

Friedman was entranced in his earlier tome by the rise of India, particularly the booming IT hub of Bangalore.

“I have lost count of the times friends or relatives in India have forwarded by email Mr Friedman’s comment that, while his parents told him to finish his dinner because there were people starving in India and China, he told his daughters to finish their homework because there were people there eager and willing to take their jobs,” writes Jacob in his review.

As Jacob points out, the very roads that Friedman travelled along to get to the headquarters of the IT giants point to the limits to India’s particular form of middle class, elitist growth; they are pockmarked and hugely congested with ancient patched-up vehicles pumping all sorts of foul fumes into the air.

India suffers from a self-inflicted limit to how far it can grow without creating unsustainable social and environment pressures – because of a political system that has created virtual development paralysis.

How can a country with terrible infrastructure, poor irrigation and very low literacy rates ever hope to create sustainable economic growth?

According to the CIA Factbook, India’s female literacy rate was only 47.8% in 2001. This compares with 86.5% in China, based on the country’s 2000 census, adds the Factbook.

The speed limit on Indian and, of course, also global growth is resources – so presciently highlighted by the Club of Rome back in the 1970s.

I’ve only just woken up to this reality. Back in the dim and distant 2006, all I cared about was riding the global property and share boom while consuming immense amounts of carbon in pursuit of my career. This involved writing my own much-shorter tomes that encouraged others to do likewise.

Many of us became so enamoured by globalisation that we ignored the fact that there are simply not enough resources available to allow all of us to consume as much as the typical Texan, or more latterly a middle class Indian in Mumbai.

Friedman gets excited in his new book, according to Jacob, about China’s potential to lead the way in solving the environment crisis.

I agree that China has potential, but some huge challenges lie ahead.

Idealistic enthusiasm (the ungenerous might use the phrase “gormless enthusiasm”, which has applied to many of us over the last few years) might have its place in generating the individual energy to make a difference: Each of us need to find new ways of individual and corporate behaviour if we are to prosper in a world threatened by Peak Oil and catastrophic climate change.

This type of enthusiasm needs to result in more than just further consumption of trees through higher book sales (and when do we have the time to read books like The World is Flat? When we’re flying, that well-known environmentally friendly form of travel).

We need to radically change the way we lead our lives.