By Chris Lang
Thomas Friedman’s most recent column for the New York Times comes from Tapajós National Forest, Brazil. His trip was organised by Conservation International and the Brazilian government (Friedman doesn’t say who paid). Conservation International could not have chosen a better journalist to back up their pro-carbon market ideology.
Friedman, author of The World is Flat and Hot, Flat and Crowded, firmly believes that markets are the solution, regardless of the question. Even better, Friedman is incapable of putting forward an argument. He doesn’t even try. He simply makes statements and assumes that because he’s made them they must be true. His latest offering “Trucks, Trains and Trees”, reveals his genius for taking a complex issue and rendering it as complete gobbledygook.
Friedman’s story is straightforward enough: Man flies from the USA to the Brazilian rainforest. The rainforest is full of trees. Saving the rainforest will allow man to continue flying.
Matt Taibbi, the journalist who recently described Goldman Sachs as “a great vampire squid”, points out that Friedman doesn’t actually do anything except write books and newspaper columns. “So in my mind it’s highly relevant if his manner of speaking is fucked,” Taibbi writes. Taibbi has taken apart Thomas Friedman’s manner of speaking on several (very entertaining) occasions.
“No matter how many times you hear them, there are some statistics that just bowl you over,” Friedman starts his article. The statistic he’s talking about is the “roughly 17 per cent” of global emissions coming from deforestation. That statistic doesn’t bowl me over. It became a cliché several years ago. Clearly, Friedman hasn’t heard this statistic very often, which perhaps indicates how much research Friedman did before writing this article. Last week, Friedman’s friends at Conservation International signed a statement that states “The best current estimate would be about 15% if peat degradation is included.” Without peat degradation (Friedman does not mention peat in his article) the figure is more like 12%.
It is going to be a long time before we transform the world’s transportation fleet so it is emission-free. But right now — like tomorrow — we could eliminate 17 percent of all global emissions if we could halt the cutting and burning of tropical forests.
To Friedman, then, “right now” is the same as “like tomorrow”. Perhaps he’s never had to negotiate with a five year old child who is threatening to throw his wallet down the toilet. Otherwise he would recognise the difference between “Give me the wallet, right now” and “Give me the wallet, like tomorrow”.
Friedman can see no way to change the world’s transportation fleet overnight, so he suggests we forget that inconvenient source of emissions. But stopping deforestation? Easy. So why don’t we do it “right now – like tomorrow”?
In the next sentence Friedman explains what we have to do to stop all deforestation:
to do that requires putting in place a whole new system of economic development — one that makes it more profitable for the poorer, forest-rich nations to preserve and manage their trees rather than to chop them down to make furniture or plant soybeans.
So all we need is a “whole new system of economic development”. Why didn’t Friedman tell us how to stop deforestation decades ago? Friedman, the great proponent of globalisation and neo-liberalism, has gone anti-capitalist. No really. Here’s what he says next: “Without a new system for economic development in the timber-rich tropics, you can kiss the rainforests goodbye. The old model of economic growth will devour them.”
The genius of Friedman is that just as we’re trying to wrap our heads around whatever it is he’s talking about, he throws a Friedmanism at us. “The only Amazon your grandchildren will ever relate to is the one that ends in dot-com and sells books.”
I suspect that the vast majority of the grandchildren of readers of the New York Times relate to the Amazon rainforest through books, TV programmes and the internet. Most of them will not be invited by Conservation International to fly there. How does anyone “relate to” an ecosystem covering 5.5 million square kilometres in nine countries? What is Friedman talking about?
Taibbi makes fun of Friedman’s ability to screw up, not sometimes, but always: “He has an anti-ear, and it’s absolutely infallible; he is a Joyce or a Flaubert in reverse, incapable of rendering even the smallest details without genius.” Taibbi’s right. Why on earth did Friedman add the words “and sells books” to the end of his sentence about the Amazon? How many readers of the New York Times don’t know that the website Amazon-dot-com sells books?
Friedman tells us he’s gone to Brazil “to better understand this issue”. But Friedman writes by talking to himself. Here he is flying over the Amazon:
Flying in here by prop plane from Manaus, you can understand why the Amazon rainforest is considered one of the lungs of the world. Even from 20,000 feet, all you see in every direction is an unbroken expanse of rainforest treetops that, from the air, looks like a vast and endless carpet of broccoli.
Who considers the Amazon rainforest “one of the lungs of the world”? Friedman isn’t telling. Trust me, Friedman says, if you flew over the Amazon, then you too would know why the Amazon is considered to be one of the lungs of the world.
But if the Amazon is one of the lungs, where is the other one? The Congo, Indonesia, Siberia, Canada? How much forest do you need before it becomes a lung? How many lungs does the world have?
Friedman tells us he flew over “an unbroken expanse of rainforest treetops”. Crikey. What did Friedman expect to see while flying above the biggest area of rainforest in the world other than treetops? Skyscapers? Spaghetti junction? The Star Ship Enterprise?
The combination of “vast and endless” is another Friedmanism. The Amazon is vast, but it is not endless. If Friedman thinks it’s endless, that’s because he’s forgotten that when his plane took off from the USA, he was not in the Amazon rainforest.
Here’s what Friedman learned when his plane landed (he doesn’t tell us how the plane got through the unbroken expanse of treetops, or the endless carpet of broccoli, but apparently it did):
What you learn when you visit with a tiny Brazilian community that actually lives in, and off, the forest is a simple but crucial truth: To save an ecosystem of nature, you need an ecosystem of markets and governance.
Friedman doesn’t tell us what he saw or heard in the community to reach this conclusion, apart from one villager who told him “We were born inside the forest. So we know the importance of it being preserved, but we need better access to global markets for the products we make here. Can you help us with that?” (That, incidentally, is the only quotation in the article from anyone living in the Amazon.)
Friedman does not explain what on earth he’s talking about when he says “an ecosystem of markets and governance.” Perhaps this is the “new system for economic development” that he mentioned earlier on. José María Silva, vice president for South America of Conservation International, tells Friedman that “You need a new model of economic development — one that is based on raising people’s standards of living by maintaining their natural capital, not just by converting that natural capital to ranching or industrial farming or logging.” So now we have Friedman and Conservation International saying the same thing about economic development. On planet Friedman, that makes it true. No need for anything pesky like arguments or evidence.
Friedman tells us that “Brazil has already set aside 43 percent of the Amazon rainforest for conservation and for indigenous peoples. Another 19 percent of the Amazon, though, has already been deforested by farmers and ranchers.” He doesn’t tell us where those numbers come from, he just tells us that 38% of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest is still “up for grabs”.
Then Friedman reveals that he’s not gone anti-capitalist after all. In fact, his “whole new system of economic development” looks a lot like CO2lonialism:
The more we get the Brazilian system to work, the more of that 38 percent will be preserved and the less carbon reductions the whole world would have to make. But it takes money.
This, then, is Friedman’s solution. Brazil has to stop deforestation so that the rest of the world can carry on polluting.
[W]e need to make sure that whatever energy-climate bill comes out of the U.S. Congress, and whatever framework comes out of the Copenhagen conference next month, they include provisions for financing rainforest conservation systems like those in Brazil. The last 38 percent of the Amazon is still up for grabs. It is there for us to save. Your grandchildren will thank you.
Needless to say, Friedman doesn’t explain how “we” are supposed to influence the U.S. energy-climate bill or the UN climate negotiations in Copenhagen. Or what “we” are supposed to do to “save” the 38 per cent of the Brazilian Amazon that is “still up for grabs”.
Trading forest carbon, which seems to be what Friedman is proposing as a solution (although not explicitly), would create a vast loophole allowing business as usual (at least for the countries and corporations that can afford to buy the carbon credits – the same countries and corporations that created the climate problem in the first place).
On planet Friedman, as long as the “vast and endless carpet of broccoli” is still there, there’s no need to “transform the world’s transportation fleet so it is emission-free”. And on planet Friedman there’s no meaningful discussion of the issues involved. Presumably that’s why Conservation International invited Friedman to go to Brazil.