Business: Thomas L. Friedman: Bring in the Green Cat

Today’s column, written while Tom was in Shanghai, is about the environmental crisis facing China. It begins:

I’ve been a regular visitor to China since 1990, and here’s what strikes me most: Each year that I’ve come here, China’s people seem to speak with greater ease and breathe with greater difficulty.

Yes, you can now have amazingly frank talks with officials and journalists here. But when I walked out of my room the morning after I arrived in Shanghai, the air was so smoky — from the burning of farm fields after the harvest — that for a moment I honestly thought my hotel was on fire.

And that’s why, for the first time, it’s starting to feel to me like China is reaching its environmental limits. If it doesn’t radically change to greener, more sustainable modes of design, transport, production and power generation, the Chinese miracle is going to turn into an eco-nightmare.

China has been doing the environmental equivalent of jumping from an airplane and thinking that it’s flying, argued Rob Watson, an expert on China’s environment who heads the green building services firm EcoTech International. “After you jump out of a plane, for about five miles you can actually feel like you’re flying,” he added. But then reality hits. “It’s not the fall that kills you — it’s the sudden stop at the end, and China may be approaching that sudden stop. … When you stress a system to a certain point, it just stops working.”

At first blush I wasn’t very concerned about Tom’s view because of my experience when as an undergraduate in the Los Angeles area in the early 1960’s I first encountered “smog.”

I played on the freshman water polo team. Having grown up in the arid climate of New Mexico, the thought of playing a sport that took place in a pool intrigued me. However, fall in LA was one of the worst seasons for smog, and I can recall the pain of wanting to take a deep breath but knowing that if I did so it would be painful. I especially recall one grim day as our team drove East on the San Bernadino Freeway in a hazy slur that was especially odious. It was so bad in the car that I knew it would be even worse once we had to start the game.

But since LA has survived, perhaps Tom is being too pessimistic. [2]

However, Tom is not the only one to sound an alarm. So has Jared Diamond, author of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, a brilliant survey of the effects of environmental change on societies. [3] At the end of the book, Diamond reports on the current conditions in major countries and goes on to offer a prediction. China faces the grimmest future, and his forecast for China is the least optimistic given.

Tom goes on to say:

China’s top leaders understand the crisis. But their response is complicated by so many Chinese flooding from the countryside to cities. In their view, political stability depends on finding those people jobs, and jobs depend on growth, and growth depends on China continuing to be the low-cost producer of everything — environment be damned.

But China can’t do what the West did: grow now, clean up later. Because the unprecedented pace and scale of its growth are going to make later too late.

However, what is unusual today can — with foresight to develop a strategy and the careful execution of it — become “business as usual.”

For example, one of my friends is a trial attorney who has spent most of his career involved in complex litigation involving asbestos. He works both sides of the street, sometimes for the plaintiff, other times for the defense. (We met him through school. His daughter and my youngest daughter have been close friends for almost 20 years. His daughter just graduated from Williams, where S. Lane Faison taughter for many years, as told in my recent post S. Lane Faison Jr., 98, Dies; Art Historian and Professor.)

I asked him once how corporate America had come to grips with the various versions of the Clean Air Act. He said it had been difficult at first, but that once business realized the Act was here to stay, they had adapted, and as a result dealing with the Act was now “business as usual.”

So I hope China is able to deal with this problem. Perhaps we can even work with China to help them do so.

Making the unusual usual is difficult, but it can be done. For example, followers of open-source are well aware of the number of major announcements that have occurred in just the past few weeks: the Oracle/Red Hat un-alliance, the Microsoft/Novell alliance, and the Sun/FSF alliance. I was at a meeting recently that included a presentation by a senior manager and someone asked how IBM was dealing with all these big announcements. He said that every senior exec at IBM fully appreciates the importance of Linux and open-source to IBM’s business and were well aware of the issues due to our extensive experience in the open-source arena.

IBM has been doing open-source for years — it has become part of our corporate DNA.

But I recall well when this was not the case. For example, soon after Jikes went open-source, I posted a tar-ball [4] on the IBM Research web site. But I was unable to download it. I figured out that the server had not been properly configured for files with types “tar” or “tgz,” which means I was the first to ever attempt to provide a tarball from Research.

I will follow up with some other posts inspired by this column shortly.


1. Anyone could play on any team at Caltech. During my years there, Caltech was ranked 714th out of 715th in the nation (I never learned who was worse than us) in football. As a result attendance at home games was small, so it was quite a sight to see a football game in the Rose Ball with no more than 500 people present. I was recruited to play on the football team, but had to beg off when I learned it would required my coming back to Pasadena two weeks earlier. I couldn’t do that; I needed the money.

I played only a few games. I dropped out after the first game in which we played in a real water polo pool, where it was not possible to stand on the bottom.

2. LA has survived, but without me. I left it as soon as I could. I applied to New York University (NYU) because of the “N” and the “Y”, not the “U”. I felt at home soon after moving to NYC — I was one of those native New Yorkers who by a quirk of fate happen to have been born out-of-town.

3. Diamond’s masterpiece is Guns, Germs and Steel, a work of great originality and insight. As the publisher writes in a blurb,

Why did Eurasians conquer, displace, or decimate Native Americans, Australians, and Africans, instead of the other way around? In this groundbreaking work, an evolutionary biologist dismantles racially-based theories and reveals the environmental factors actually responsible for history’s broadest patterns. A whirlwind tour through 13,000 years of human history, beginning when Stone Age hunter-gatherers constituted the entire population. Here is a truly a world history, brilliantly written and radically new.

4. A “tarball” is the jargon name for a single file produced by the “tar” (Tape Archive) program that contains all the files of a particular release of an open-source package. It is the standard form used to distribute open-source.

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