Mother Nature vs. Father Profit

Published November 30, 2022

By Tom Campbell

I love being in the presence of smart, articulate and visionary folks, even on a rainy, unseasonably cool mid-November evening. A large crowd gathered at Wait Chapel on the campus of Wake Forest University for their acclaimed Face-to-Face lecture series. The featured speaker was noted author and NY Times foreign affairs columnist Tom Friedman.

Friedman said little about the midterm elections, instead focusing mainly on foreign affairs. The interviewer started by asking Friedman if the world is still hot, flat and crowded, the title of one of Friedman’s best-selling books. He responded it was more so than ever, explaining we are operating in a technology planet, with more people competing on more platforms than ever. Two-thirds of this planet now has a smart phone and individuals can now act globally.

The war in Ukraine was fresh on everyone’s minds. Friedman said that it was hard to get everything wrong when launching a war, but Russian President Vladimir Putin had done so with the war in Ukraine. Putin thought he was invading Ukraine, but in reality he was invading Europe and the reason so many are involved is because the outcome has global implications. Putin knows he underestimated his foe and also that he must end this war soon. Our takeaway should be that the enemies of freedom are dangerous, and some people are willing to go all the way to prevail.

The Iranian protest movement by women was discussed. Having been a foreign journalist, Friedman reminded the audience that in 1979 Iran’s revolution began as an uprising by rural communities, reminding the audience that countries don’t break up from the bottom up but from the top down. Today the Mullahs decide what happens. His closing thought on the subject was that the opposite of democracy is not autocracy, but instead is disorder.

In discussing the increasingly threatening world climate change problem, Friedman posited that we have gone about this as a hobby. It requires more serious effort than that. We are in a race to see who can innovate enough, soon enough in order for humans to stay on this planet.

80 percent of the world’s energy production still involves fossil fuels, Friedman reminded his audience. To survive, we must transition from them, but it can’t happen overnight. As things now stand Father profit is prevailing by people making large sums selling energy that pollutes our air and destroys our climate. But Mother Nature isn’t fooled, the author states. She is dealing in chemistry, biology and physics and if we are to continue to live here, we must also.

The two largest emitters of pollution are China and America. The two have been engaged in negotiations seeking to reduce emissions, but Tom Friedman suggested that even if China agreed to reductions nobody can trust them to live up to agreements.

Friedman proposes we should tell Xi Jinping that his country can get “as dirty as it wants,” while America develops complex adaptive coalitions that innovate and implement clean, green technologies. Then we can sell them to China and the rest of the world when they can no longer breathe. Both Mother Nature and Father Profit win.

Perhaps the most compelling part of the Face-to-Face evening involved mangroves - shrubs or trees that grow in coastal saline or brackish water. They act as filters to clean toxic air, prevent storm surges and create nutrients for young fish; Friedman says he has been studying them since 1999.

The human race is systematically cutting down the mangroves to build new homes, resorts and businesses. He reminded the audience of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami that killed almost 225,000 people in a dozen countries. The death toll was so great Friedman said, because so many of these mangroves, these filters, were gone.

Today we are in a post-mangrove world, both figuratively and metaphorically. Local newspapers are mangroves we have lost. When people search for information without these local outlets, they turn to Fox news, other cable outlets and social networks that have caused great damage to our society.  

Another example is the way we select candidates to run for political office. Time was the political bosses in smoked-filled rooms interviewed, discussed and filtered out candidates they knew were outside the realm of election by the electorate. Now these bosses were white men, and their ways were seldom inclusive and had flaws and prejudices, but history demonstrates this system functioned pretty well. Metaphorically we cut down those mangroves (bosses) and what we have now is a primary selection process that has few filters or barriers. It is an out-of-control circus that seldom concludes by selecting the best candidates.

US elections are important. If we go dark, the whole world goes dark. The solutions to our problems, Friedman said, is forming complex adaptive coalitions to address and find solutions to them. Our job is to seek them out and employ them.

We applaud Tom Friedman and Wake Forest University for offering us an evening worth attending, and for giving us many things to ponder.