Sunday, December 2, 2007

Thomas Friedman and the Energy Club on the Opportunities of "Green"

Friedman asks the Energy Club: What's it all About?
While meeting with a small group of MIT Energy Club representatives last week, Thomas Friedman, NY Times "Foreign Affairs" Columnist and author of "The World is Flat", was interested in what is truly at the core of the growing interest in energy, and asked: Green – “Is it all about energy?” And energy – “Is there anything deeper?”

Anup Bandivadekar, long-time Energy Club leader and Ph.D. candidate working on a hydrogen alternative to petroleum for transportation, quickly responded, articulating the underlying issues that motivate the activities carried out by the MIT Energy Club. Anup sited climate, economic growth, and development as issues that are deeply intertwined with energy, and stated that one can not separate any one of these issues from energy.

These sentiments resonated with Friedman, who sees “green” as a way to address all of these issues, and who also sees “green” and America as great opportunities for one another.

“Green: the new Red, White and Blue”
Friedman alluded to his upcoming book, and suggested that “Green” is taking on a new hue (or three). It is casting off debilitating labels that he described as “greenie-weenie”, is surpassing its most recent transformation as “the new black”, and is taking on the empowering and unifying shades of “red, white and blue.”

Surveying the new landscape of general acceptance of challenges including global warming, energy security, sustained economic growth, and global development; and equally surveying the strengths of the American economy including entrepreneurialism, innovation, and market mechanisms, Friedman sees the birth of an opportunity both for “green” and for “red, white, and blue”.

Who better to tackle the challenges that face our generation? What more worthy of causes than those that are encapsulated in the concept of “green”?

Leaders and Light Bulbs
“We are the people we have been waiting for,” proclaims MIT’s Vehicle Design Summit team. Friedman also met with the MIT students who launched the Vehicle Design Summit, and celebrated this empowered attitude in the recent edition of his column, "The People We Have Been Waiting For".

Before the end of our session with Friedman, however, he also made sure to impress upon us the importance of forward-thinking leadership. He suggested that the issue is so complex that strong leadership will be required to effectively tackle it, remarking that people can truly make an impact by changing their leaders, not their light bulbs.

I would argue that both are important. While innovative energy technologies will eventually emerge as the economic champions, the time scale on which they are deployed to a disruptive level may be too long relative to the time scale required to address the other issues at hand. Strong leadership and well-crafted policy will be required to reconcile the differences in time scales. On the other hand, proactive participation of individuals, communities, companies, and organizations will make and already are making a collective impact that can not be ignored, and should not be neglected.

At the Inaugural Energy Initiative Salon Reception this Tuesday, Dan Reicher, head of Google's Renewable Energy for less than Coal initiative will discuss the potential for businesses to provide leadership and make a big impact, while Ann Berwick, Undersecretary for Energy in Massachusetts will discuss the government role in supporting local production and providing energy infrastructure.

I concur that we are the people we have been waiting for, but can we do it alone? And, while "red, white, and blue" has the tools necessary to take on "green", does it have the vision and the leaders to recognize and shape its full opportunities and act on them?

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