As I sat in my idling SUV waiting in traffic to exit Eastern Michigan University’s Convocation Center Wednesday, I took note of the types of cars around me. At least half the cars I counted in this traffic jam were fellow SUVs. When I finally got out of traffic and a mile down the road, I drove by a gas station with its looming neon green sign displaying $4.19 gasoline. Sitting in traffic reminded me: Thomas Friedman is so right.
The New York Times columnist and author of the new book, “Hot, Flat, and Crowded” addressed the Washtenaw Economic Club Wednesday, making the case — a plea really — for the United States to finally do something about its failure to commit to the search for alternative energy.
In short, Friedman’s claim is that the world is hotter, flatter and more crowded. All three of those conditions will make alternative energy more important. The planet’s temperature has risen 0.8 degrees above the normal levels recorded before the Industrial Revolution because of carbon dioxide emissions and will become dangerously hot in the next 100 years. Combine that with the following two facts: The United Nations estimates that by 2053 the world’s population will reach 9 billion, and all of those people will have access to the global economy, requiring a lot of energy for everyone’s iPods, cars and higher standards of living.
After Friedman laid out his vision of the emerging world, he asked one simple question: Why shouldn’t the United States take the lead on solving these problems? Why shouldn’t the United States take ownership of these concerns and led the green energy technology revolution, the successor to the information technology revolution earlier this decade?
As Friedman said, “If you name an issue, you own it.”
The United States used to enjoy being the best at everything. But around 2001, it only wanted to be the best at fighting terrorism. The underlying government-sponsored innovation that propelled the United States ahead of the Soviet Union during the Cold War is gone. But what our government forgets is that that we’re competing with China, Russia, India, Japan and Latin America in this new fight to lead the green revolution.
Luckily, with the challenge identified, the answers aren’t far behind. In this case, there are two parties that need to step up: our government and our universities.
Although people began filing out of the lecture when Freidman started explaining the economics behind his argument, he offered a simple explanation: America can’t expect to own the rights to the energy technology revolution if it can’t even scale its prices. And the Bush administration is responsible for this gap. Bush claims to believe in the market, as he says every time the stock market dips. But where on our markets is there affordable commodities like solar cells, wind turbines and electric car batteries?
Government is the enabler of competition when it re-formats the market to handle a new industry, just as it did when it re-formatted regulations on e-commerce before the dot com boom. This is no different: Encouraging research and development of technology that’s green doesn’t start with an end-product. It doesn’t start with Republicans shouting, “Drill, baby, drill!” at their convention. It starts with a market that can handle 20 different producers of a battery as opposed to one foreign producer.
Our universities are essential to making this happen. University President Mary Sue Coleman said at the close of Friedman’s speech that if the state invested in education, students would come up with the next great green technology, using their creativity to “Invent, baby, invent!” The two-year old University Research Corridor — made up of the University of Michigan, Wayne State University and Michigan State University — could be working so much more intensely on this issue, if it only had the necessary funding to do so. More students would be getting engineering degrees if Gov. Jennifer Granholm would simply say, “OK, if you want to get a science degree, the state will pay for it.”
Our university can make this our issue, and with some help can do what so many have not wanted to do: lead. I hope every person leaving the arena was thinking about how to do that as they hopped into their SUVs and sat in that same traffic jam that made me remember just how right Tom Friedman is, and how wrong our government has been.
Kevin Bunkley is a University alum.