Is Friedman No Longer in Love with His Lexus?

By Keith Kloor | June 10, 2011 8:03 am

Is Thomas Friedman, the influential, globe-trotting NYT columnist, undergoing a metamorphosis? Because I think the guy who was a champion of economic globalization a decade ago is not the same guy who wrote this column earlier in the week, which is mostly a platform for Paul Gilding, author of a new book called, “The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World.”

In his column, Friedman writes:

We will realize, he [Gilding] predicts, that the consumer-driven growth model is broken and we have to move to a more happiness-driven growth model, based on people working less and owning less.

Has anybody informed developing countries of this yet? Because last I checked, lots and lots of people in China and elsewhere were becoming happy consumers of cars, air conditioners, and techno-gadgets, just like us.

Oh, whatever. Once they see Americans living like Freegans and not trading up for new smart phones and laptops every two years, I’m sure the Chinese will follow suit.

But back to Friedman, who strikes a Malthusian note in his column, warning that

we are currently growing at a rate that is using up the Earth’s resources far faster than they can be sustainably replenished, so we are eating into the future…This is not science fiction. This is what happens when our system of growth and the system of nature hit the wall at once.

Our system of growth. That doesn’t sound like the Friedman of yesteryear. Let’s rewind to 1999:  In “The Lexus and the Olive Tree,” (page 42, paperback version) Friedman intones:

Any society that wants to thrive economically today must constantly be trying to build a better Lexus and driving it out into the world.

As this review of Friedman’s book noted at the time:

The Lexus, the author’s favorite car, symbolizes the drive for prosperity and modernization and the growth of technology and finance.

Well, given his increasing concerns for the earth’s sustainability, I’m sure that Friedman has since bought the hybrid model.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: sustainability
  • Barry Woods

    wishful thinking over reality..

    ie how may more iPad’s will get sold vs the iPad

    and as metioned, how many Chinese want/will get or aspire to one…plus car manufacturiing for the home market (china)

  • Barry Woods

    oops Ipad2 vs Ipad

  • kdk33

    No, Barry, you cannot have an Ipad2.  It will not make you happy.  You need to work less, want less, meditate,

    I’m from the government; I’m here to help.

  • Barry Woods

    Actually I don’t want an ipad 2/iphone, etc…  I care about the environment and the working conditions in China..

    but as a ‘denier’ too a very small, but very vocal minority, that would not compute, because I don’t mean CO2

  • Sashka

    Any notion that consumerism would just go away is just a wishful thinking. I might go away indeed but possibly together with the civilization. Or in a catastrophic fashion anyway.

    A lot of people use the word “Malthusian” to allude to something that is proven stupid once and for all. Not so. Malthus got the right idea but his timing was off, as we know. Eventually he could be proven right. By then those who are still alive will

  • Matt B

    “Malthus got the right idea but his timing was off”……yeah, he was barking about this in 1800, so his timing was off by a couple centuries…..

    “The battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines. Hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. Population control is the only answer.” – Ehrlich in his book, The Population Bomb (1968)…..yeah, Erlich had the right idea too…….just a few decades off…..

    But the right idea is here today! Thanks Tom Friedman for letting us know! But one favor Tom, please read “Future Babble”……you are a smart guy, I know it, but this is really poor journalism & you can do better.

  • Nullius in Verba

    Henry George on Malthus: “Both the jayhawk and the man eat chickens; but the more jayhawks, the fewer chickens, while the more men, the more chickens.”

  • RickA

    I saw recently that a Chinese student sold his kidney so he could afford to buy an iPad.  This shows how much at least one Chinese person wanted to own this gadget, and is not indicative of a culture which wishes to own less in order to be happy.  It is going to be a hard sell to convince the United States of the desire to own less to be happy.

  • harrywr2

    Sashka Says:

    <i>Any notion that consumerism would just go away is just a wishful thinking.</i>
    I think there is a question as to ‘what level’ of consumerism. My better half has been out of work for 2 years and I took a 40% cut a year ago.
    We’ve never been happier.
    We have absolutely no plans on returning to the his and hers 60 hour a week career lifestyle.
    So for at least one couple, Friedman is right.


  • Howard

    I don’t believe there is any evidence of sustained physical limits to consumer culture.  Human beings are much too clever.  Social and moral factors will play a much bigger role in scaling back consumerism.  The mistake that dimwitted trendophilles like Friedman make is that they bitterly cling to their pot-head pipe-dreams that physical limits will bring about their social and moral utopia.

    Having been a CAGW denier since 1985, I am also disgusted by and do not participate in consumer crap credit card culture.  However, it has never been a desire to force others to live my lifestyle.  That’s right, I take great pride in my humility.

    As Harrywr2 points out, people are finding definite psychological and physical benefits in a scaled-down economy.  However, once things get back to normal, people will resume their disgusting habits of collecting the latest style of security blanket in their quest to quiet the phantom wild demons at their heels.


  • lucia

    People will always hanker for a) refrigerator and b) washing machines. Sure, they could eat all their meals in restaurants, but that only means they will want the restaurant to own the refrigerators. They could send their clothes to the laundry, but people who make a living washing other people’s clothes will hanker for a washing machine.
    While it’s not obvious that the existence of tv’s or iPads increase happiness, because maybe people would be just as happy entertaining themselves playing the piano, I would suggest the existence of washing machines and refrigerators increase happiness.  No one likes hand washing blue jeans, dirty diapers or queen size bed sheets.  No one prefers diets of foods that require no refrigeration (lutefisk!)  Refrigerators and washing machines probably do increase happiness.

  • Sashka

    @ Matt

    Hundreds of millions of people are starving already. Would have beein dying on a large scale too had it not been for outside help.

    @ Nullius

    more men ->more chicken -> even more men -> even more chicken ->…

    until we run of space of resources.

    @ harry

    Duly acknowledged. Nobody said it never happens. Indeed the notion of switching to the slow lane isn’t particularly new but never became mainstream, not surprisingly. Most families simply won’t be able to make ends meet if they lost 2/3 of their income. Most people live from check to check.

  • kdk33


    I find it very interesting that the suicide rate among Chinese factory workers is 1/4 that of american college students.

    I never realized college was so awful.

  • Matt B

    @ Sashka,

    Starving people are nothing new. Population growth & exhaustion of resources are rarely cited as the cause of the Irish Potato Famine.

  • Barry Woods

    I used to do the crazy hours thing, dual income no kids, etc

    now part time, three kids, my wife the main earner, her own business locally, so we live a lot slower. I haven’t been on a plane for a long time. used to jet of (work) at very little notice..

    But my point is.. my family has downsized finacially,  our lifestyle is still orders of magnitude ahead of billions of people, who would aspire to it around the world.

    That is not going to stop, even if the Avergae America halved their ‘lifestyle’ it would still be a target for the world poor, ie the washing machine, fridge, electric oven, etc mobile phone  ( a life enhancer in Africa/India) vs a luxury here in the west (I’m in the UK)

  • Nullius in Verba

    “more men ->more chicken -> even more men -> even more chicken ->”¦ until we run of space of resources.”
    Here, chickens represent the resources. So you’re effectively saying “…until we run out of chickens”. There are only finitely many chickens…

  • willard
  • EdG

    I’m confused. Why does what Friedman says even matter? He is a first class hypocrite and a third class prognosticator, who hasn’t had an original idea yet.

    As for the ‘end of shopping,’ it is the modern equivalent of gathering  and what is happening in the BRIICK countries shows how absurd that idea is.  Many Western consumers will be forced to consume less by reduced wealth and increasing poverty. But since material things are still the usual status symbols for most people so the buying will go on.

    In the meantime whole industries, notably fashion and computers, are based on planned obsolescence and therefore planned waste. But NOBODY says peep about sacred Apple.


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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.


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