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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Tom Friedman on the Age of Acceleration

Air Date: Week of December 9, 2016

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Tom Friedman describes the current era as an “Age of Accelerations,” specifically of technology, globalization and the climate. (Photo: dconvertini, Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman’s latest book, Thank You For Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving In The Age Of Accelerations, is a manifesto for how to cope with our changing planet. Host Steve Curwood spoke with Mr. Friedman about how to make sense of technology, globalization and climate change as these three forces simultaneously accelerate at unprecedented rates.

Transcript

CURWOOD: Global market forces, big leaps forward in technology, and unprecedented climatic shifts are defining the early 21st century, says author and New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. And in this world that is at once more interconnected and more divided than it's ever been, he asks us to stop, and reflect. From the eye in the storm, Tom Friedman says, we may learn how to ride out the hurricane of unprecedented change, sweeping up all of us. His newest book is called, "Thank You For Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide in The Age of Accelerations.” Welcome to Living on Earth, Tom.

FRIEDMAN: Great to be with you, Steve. Thank you for having me.

CURWOOD: So, what inspired you to write this book, "Thank You for Being Late"?

FRIEDMAN: I was inspired to write this book by a technical insight and an emotional reaction. The technical insight was, I read a book, it came out a couple years ago called, "The Second Machine Age" by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee from MIT, and it was about the acceleration and technology, the exponential acceleration and technology based on Moore's Law that the speed and power of microchips will double roughly every 24 months, which has been going on now for over 50 years. One of the hardest things for the human mind to grasp is the power of an exponential. In fact, they use the famous story from Silicon Valley, of the man who invented the game of chess and give it to the king, and the king said, “How can I reward you, good sir?”
And the man said, “I just want to feed my family.”
And the king said, “It shall be done. What would you like?”
And he said, “Your highness, I'd just like you to take one grain of rice and put it on the first square of this chessboard, then two on the second, four on the next, eight on the next, then 16 on the next, 32...and just keep doubling it, and my family will be fine.”
And then the king said, “Of course. It shall be done,” not realizing when you double something 63 times, the number you get is like 18 quintillion, more rice than existed in the world.


Friedman’s Thank You for Being Late is his seventh published book. (Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Zavakos)

So, what Andy and Eric argue is that in terms of Moore's law, we just entered the second half of the chessboard where the doubling starts to get very big, and the result is you get some very funky stuff. You now get cars that can drive themselves. You get computers that can beat any human in Jeopardy, chess, go, or now any other game. You get IBM Watson that's now ingested every article ever written basically on cancer.

So, the more I thought about their theory, the more I liked it. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized there are actually two other exponentials going on at the same time, and they are related. The second is the exponential in globalization, driven by Moore's law, not your grandfather's globalization. Not containers on ships. That's actually going down. But your millennials' globalization, that is the globalization of flows of ideas, whether on Twitter or Facebook or PayPal, etcetera. That's also accelerating. And, of course, the more I thought about that, the more I reflected on the fact because I had written a big book on environment and climate change, "Hot, Flat and Crowded" -- which I think is the last time we talked, Steve -- that Mother Nature was also in an exponential. The way in which CO2 is piling up in the atmosphere. The way in which it's impacts on the environment. The way in which biodiversity is being lost and population growth. So, when I really thought about it altogether, it struck me that wow, the Market, Mother Nature and Moore's law are only in simultaneous, nonlinear acceleration, and that's actually what's not just shaping the world today, but reshaping the world.

CURWOOD: So, you're observing all this and then, so what's your emotional response? What drives your then to put pen to paper -- I guess that's an anachronism isn't it? -- To put finger to keyboard to try to wrap all this together?

FRIEDMAN: Well, there's another thing going on with me, Steve. Really, I've spent so much of my journalism career, when I haven't been writing about environmental or foreign affairs generally, covering the Middle East. One of the things I've observed covering the Middle East that was increasingly depressing was the rise of tribal politics there and inability to route it out. What is the essence of tribal politics? Basically goes like this: I'm strong, why should I compromise? I'm weak how can I compromise? So, that's what you see between Israelis and Palestinians, Shiites and Sunnis today. Well, when you cover that, as I did for 30 years, you know, after a while it gets really depressing and you want to get away from it. So, I actually came home to America and really wanted to think about our country, and then I started to have a really dark feeling, Steve. It struck me that our own politics, Democrats and Republicans, were starting to behave like Shiites and Sunnis. You actually heard people saying, "I don't want my kid to marry one of them,” and one of them was someone from a different political party. Well, that was so depressing to me, to think that I had left America to discover the Middle East and now I had come back to America and the Middle East was chasing me here, that I began to think about where I grew up in Minnesota, a small suburb outside Minneapolis called St. Louis Park where this tribal behavior didn't exist, and when I grew up there, and it made me want to actually run away from both the Middle East and Washington, DC back to my roots. First of all to discern whether I just made it up, whether it was this really inclusive environment, community that I remembered it as, and, if it was, what were the lessons from it that I could share both with America and the world.

CURWOOD: Now, you may or may not agree, but my reading of your book shows this huge emphasis on polycultures, diversity. Describe the polycultures that you think are really important and what societies can do to nurture them?

FRIEDMAN: Well, Steve, let me answer by telling what I learned from Wes Jackson, the founder of the Land Institute out in Kansas where I’d gone to really learn about the wheat crisis a few years ago which was driven by global drought, wildfires and floods. And Wes explained to me that the prairie was a natural polyculture that naturally fertilized and pesticided itself, and when the settlers came basically they plowed up a lot of the prairie in places like Kansas, and they replaced this natural polyculture with monocultures. monoculture crops are wheat, corn and sorghum, and these monocultures to survive had to be artificially injected with high density fossil fuels in the form of fertilizer, pesticides, and tractors, basically.


Friedman points to climate change as one of three major forces experiencing exponential change at the beginning of the 21st century. (Photo: Matt Lemmon, Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

And what Wes explained was, when the dust bowl happened, all the monocultures died, but the few bits of polyculture, natural prairie that were left, they all survived because they were more resilient. Well, as he explained that to me, Steve, I said to him, “Wes, when you when you think about the Arab world, the Arab world at its height was the world's greatest polyculture in Moorish Spain. It was a polyculture of ideas of people, of Christians, Muslims and Jews. The Arab world was never more prosperous than them, and what's happening today in the Arab world is that Al Qaeda and these Islamist groups are trying to wipe out that polyculture and replace it with a monoculture which is enormously susceptible to diseased ideas.”

Then, I really got a roll and I said, "Actually, think about the Tea Party. What the Tea Party tried to do was to take the polyculture of the Republican Party -- The Republican Party has been historically been a great polyculture. Teddy Roosevelt gave us National Parks. Ronald Reagan gave us radical arms control. Richard Nixon gave us the Clean Air and Clean Water Act. George HW Bush gave us cap and trade -- So, this is a party that had a polyculture of ideas, and the Tea Party was trying to wipe that out and replace it with a monoculture funded by high-density fossil fuel companies.

So wherever you see polycultures in nature you see Mother Nature's most resilient environments. Think of a rain forest, think of the places were two ecological zones meet. They can be very diverse and very resilient, and societies in my life that have been real polycultures, they're not only I think the richest, but they're actually the most fun to live in. So, I love Istanbul. I love Beirut. I love Hong Kong. I love Alexandria when Alexandria was Alexandria ... It was actually mostly before I was born ... And then think of the ones that are not polycultures. Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. How many great ideas have come out of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia? So, I'm a big believer in the power of polycultures, and I think it is part of the greatness of our country.

CURWOOD: What lessons then from how our natural systems achieve stability through endless acts of dynamism, specifically taking Mother Nature as an exemplary system of that?

FRIEDMAN: So, basically, the story I tell in my book is that we're in the middle of three nonlinear accelerations all at the same time, with the three largest forces on the planet. As I thought about that, Steve, I realize what we're not just in the middle of one climate change. We're in the middle of three climate changes at once. We're in the middle of a change in the climate of the climate, we're in the middle of the change of the climate of globalization, and we're in the middle of a change in the climate in technology. And then, it struck me that what do you want when the climate changes? Well, what you want are two things. You want resilience. You need to be able to take a blow cause you don't know when the disruption is going to come, but there will be disruptions, and the same time you want propulsion. You want to be able to move ahead. You don't want to be just curled up in a ball.

So, the more I thought about that, I said to myself, "Well, who can I talk to about how you build resilience and propulsion when the climate changes," and then it struck me that I knew this woman she's 3.8 billion years old and her name is Mother Nature and she has dealt with more climate changes than anybody. So I called her up, and I sat her down and I said, "Mother Nature, what are your killer apps for building resilience and propulsion when the climate changes?”

And she said, "Tom, well, everything I do I do unconsciously. First of all, I'm incredibly adaptive through natural selection in a very brutal way.

“Second," she said, "I love pluralism. I love diversity. My most diverse ecosystems are my most resilient and I love trying 20 different species and see who survives.


Tom Friedman is a New York Times columnist and bestselling author. (Photo: Ralph Alswang)

“Third," she said, "I'm incredibly sustainable in a very circular way. Everything is food. Eat, food, poop, seed, eat, food, poop, seed. Nothing is wasted in my world.

“Fourth," she said, "I'm incredibly entrepreneurial. Wherever I see you opening in nature, a blank space, I fill it with a plant or animal or both perfectly adapted to that niche.

“Fifth," she said, "I'm very patient I understand you can't speed up the gestation of an elephant or the growth of a thousand year old Baobab tree. That strength comes from patience.

“Sixth," she said, and this is very important, she said, "I'm very hybrid in my thinking. I'm very heterodox. I believe things should co-evolve, the right plants with the right soils, the right bees with the right flowers."

And lastly, she said, Steve, "I do believe in the laws of bankruptcy. I kill all my failures, return them to the great manufacturer in the sky, and take their energy to nourish my successes."

So the argument I make in the book is that the countries, communities and companies that most closely consciously mirror Mother Nature's killer apps are the ones that are going to thrive in what I called The Age of Accelerations". I'm a big believer in biomimicry.

 

Links

Our interview with Tom Friedman for his earlier work, Hot, Flat and Crowded

Read Tom’s latest columns for the New York Times here

Tom Friedman’s newest book, Thank You For Being Late

 

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