Author Thomas Friedman, keynote speaker at the 2011 Greenbuild Conference and Expo.
Oscar Einzig Author Thomas Friedman, keynote speaker at the 2011 Greenbuild Conference and Expo.

In a world that is becoming, like the title of his bestselling book, “hot, flat, and crowded,” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman challenged Greenbuild attendees to continue innovating despite the world’s “grim” political and economic environment. In his opening keynote speech, held Wednesday, Oct. 5, in the center of Toronto’s hockey arena, Friedman jolted attendees by speaking about the challenges before them, but also inspired them to take action.

“We need to sit back and realize that the political and economic environment is not going to change overnight,” he said. “So how do we bring more imagination to everything we do to work within these constraints?”

Those constraints include a political environment that makes more stringent efficiency standards and a price signal for energy that generates carbon emissions seem increasingly unlikely. Friedman predicted the U.S. government will not pass clean energy legislation until at least 2013.

“Those of us hoping for a green revolution in this administration are going to be disappointed,” he said.

Rather than a green revolution, the country has been experiencing a “green party,” where corporations like BP congratulate themselves for being “beyond petroleum.” The revolution will be here, he said, when three things happen. First, as in the IT revolution that changed technology and computing, companies will have to change or perish. Second, the name of the movement will change: Attendees’ goal should be to get rid of the word “green,” he said, so that it’s not called green building, but simply building.

Finally, he said, a price signal matters even more to the green revolution than it did to the IT revolution. One weakness of the green revolution, he explained, is that consumers get the same heating and cooling and the same light from more efficient technologies. Cell phones, by comparison, were life-altering—consumers would pay more for the opportunity to stay connected outside the home. Solar-powered lighting doesn’t have that power. We already have light, he said, and we don’t care where it comes from.

“Without a price signal, we do not get long-term, fixed demand,” Friedman said. “We only get government push.”

While he didn’t believe that price signal was coming anytime soon, Friedman said the geopolitical climate in the Middle East could soon make efficient technologies grow in importance. The Arab Spring series of revolutions began soon after world food prices hit an all-time high in December 2010. Political instability leads to higher oil prices, which boosts fertilizer and food prices in a self-reinforcing loop, he said.

Meanwhile, the population in countries such as Egypt is growing massively, Friedman said. And those populations increasingly want to live like Americans, with large cars and rich tastes. “Flat and crowded”—the growing and increasingly globalized world population—drive the “hot” of global warming, he said.
The challenge for attendees, Friedman said, was to become a generation of regeneration, boosting the efficiency of technology to meet these global demands.

The good news, he said, is that North America “is alive from the ground up.” As he travels North America, he sees an amazing amount of innovation. In part, he joked, people keep innovating because they simply haven’t gotten the word that the challenges are so great.

“The word is kind of grim right now,” he said. Inspired by a soldier in Afghanistan who said the U.S. military surge there succeeded because they were “too dumb to quit,” Friedman congratulated attendees who continued to innovate in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges: “Thank you all for being too dumb to quit.”

Jeffrey Lee is Managing Editor of EcoHome.