Change in no way necessitates a diminished quality of life for a subset of any population. And yet, that is precisely what most people fear, when it comes to major change: being left behind in the shuffle, and suddenly less relevant. The United States faces a decision: change, or succumb to a global momentum. Fortunately, it’s not all bad news.
This morning, Tom Friedman — the triple-Pulitzer-prize winning author/journalist/globe-trotting/expansively-minded meta-thinker, whose book The Earth is Flat is among the best treatises of what the 21st century holds for us all — showed up on CNN to share a few thoughts about the fossil fuel industry in the United States, and elsewhere.
It was illuminating.
He shared the following:
- The four leading wind generation states in America are Texas, Iowa, Oklahoma and Kansas — all “red” states
- Exxon Mobil was “thrown out of the Dow” last year, replaced by Salesforce
- There are ten times the number of people working in the “clean, green” energy industries in America today than in oil, coal and natural gas
- 72% of the new electricity generation worldwide in 2019 came from renewable sources
He added, sardonically, “The Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones. It ended because we invented metal tools, and the ‘Oil Age’ isn’t going to run out because we run out of oil. It’s going to end because we invented renewables; and the countries that are going to win that race are the ones who are already in transition.”
He shared that what’s driving all four bulleted facts listed above is that these states, companies, nations and people are all in transition. He added that the fear that so-called “thick-fingered workers whose hands aren’t suited to a keyboard,” as interviewer Chris Cuomo put it, is unfounded.
“I’m not talking about computer jobs, Chris,” Friedman said. “I’m talking about making every federal building energy efficient. Those are thick-fingered jobs. Building electric vehicles. Those are thick-fingered jobs. Installing solar panels. Those are thick-fingered jobs. There are ten times the number of people with thick-fingers working in renewable energy today, Chris, than in fossil fuels.”
He went on, “The argument is over. The industry is in transition, and the companies that are not, are going to go the way of the Stone Age. We as a country should want to own this. I don’t want to go from a country that imports oil from the Middle East to importing clean energy efficiency tools from China, and miss the whole thing because we are not in transition, because we have a president who is so wedded to the Stone Age that he wants to go down with oil.
I don’t care to go with him.”
It was one of those clear-eyed, informed appraisals by a rare human who understands the economic, historical and socio-political dimensions of an issue without being distracted by the ‘noise’ — the politics and the baseless fearmongering — that helped me to understand that we — humankind — are in better shape than the oil-and-gas-loving pols would have us believe.
Once again, Friedman helped me to see that the trajectory is clear: humans are transitioning yet again, to the next wave of civilizational fuel, in spite of those who would rather double down on the things that will ultimately relegate them to a historical footnote, and who are trying to do everything in their power to stop the freight train of progress.
This is excellent news, for the United States. Unless we screw it up.
Ultimately, advantages — economic, existential and even environmental — win the day. The book Good to Great outlined this truth with a deep assessment of longitudinally successful — aka ‘great’ — commercial enterprises. Though I read it a decade ago, one example, that of Nucor (the Nuclear Corporation of America), was memorable for the fact that a middling, profit-hemorrhaging, near-bankrupt company saw the writing on the wall early on, and shifted its entire production — its very business — from nuclear energy to something that until then had comprised 1% of its people and dollars: steel production. In the process of jettisoning its other businesses and going all in with steel, it, too, became an enterprise in transition. Over a thirty-year process, under the leadership of Ken Iverson, it became the most successful steelmaker in the United States, and the world’s fourth largest producer.
So-called ‘great’ companies, like great nations, don’t bury their heads in the sand to resist change. They accept it, and then pivot — transition — in an attempt to not only remain alive and relevant, but to own the change.
Resisting change is the fastest route to obsolescence.
What happens now?
I wrote a somber appraisal of the United States’ future prospects in The Death of America. In it, I evoked the specter of the nation’s encroaching global irrelevance, due to the general dumbing down the population and its growing xenophobia. These are the qualities that allow new would-be empires that don’t suffer from these progress-killers to emerge, while simultaneously allowing home-grown, would-be usurpers in sunsetting empires — like the United States — to swoop in and fan the fears of an increasingly blind population, in an attempt to galvanize and manipulate a citizenry for what is ultimately personal gain. These leaders typically care nothing for the people or the nation. Rather, they see an opportunity to loot their home as it slides into oblivion — like Nero fiddling, while Rome burned. Not to stir long-settled muck, but people like Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and former leverage buyout king whose years leading Bain Capital resulted in the predatory destruction of countless companies, jobs and families — and whose history only came into clear view during his bid to lead the nation — reflect the dark side of “business-minded” and “entrepreneurial” presidential candidates.
He’s not the only one. And sadly, this paradigm increasingly reflects the nature and actions of many career politicians, as well.
But not everyone wants the US to sunset. In fact, most of us don’t. We’ve just lost the sense-making apparatus that allows us to understand what actions will worsen things, vs. those that will renew our lease on national potency. And with all the wealth and might and intellectual horsepower that still proliferates in the nation — in spite of its current trajectory — its headstone has yet to be carved. Friedman — an unabashed bell-ringer who voraciously studies other nations and paradigms in the service of building up regular Americans’ understanding through his writings — loves his nation. He not only continually attempts to use his big brain to help us understand ourselves and our choices, through his weekly New York Times Op-Ed column; he writes books to do deep dives into several of the nation’s most pressing subjects, among them its long-term survival.
To survive, he believes, the US needs not only to embrace its own transition — like the exemplar companies in Good to Great did, and the industries Friedman cited on CNN are already doing — but to build a new national narrative, as well, as though we were an enormous company. Because that’s not so far from the truth. We have a national currency that competes against other national currencies for relative value on the global market. We have a Declaration of Independence, a Constitution and a national set of laws that describe allowable behaviors, akin to a corporation’s Articles of Incorporation and bylaws. And we have a long-established hierarchy of individuals who have been entrusted — partly through election, in our case — with leading the nation to success, so that all of its members can enjoy a piece of the spoils.
Just like a company.
And so nations are not unlike corporations, insofar as they are groups of humans who seek strength in numbers to conduct its chosen business, while competing against others for a limited prize.
The new national narrative we need is one that retires “Drill, baby; drill!” and other Earth-raping practices that sicken and threaten us in the process (polluted waterways; fire-charred earth; shrinking forests; a warming atmosphere; runaway weather systems), and replaces it with one of environmental stewardship — of sustainable systems that work with nature to power the next wave of human development.
Not only is it now easy, given we have myriad technologies at our fingertips; it will in fact pay tremendous dividends to whomever owns the most advantageous model of each, in the form of both capital and jobs.
If we take the lens of history to provide us with cautionary tales and object lessons, it is easy to see the United States as just the latest pseudo-empire to struggle with the same challenges as every other empire before it did. Those that fell all — without exception — failed to pivot as the world changed around them. This is true of rising external threats (the Germanic Vandals sacking Rome, for example), of rising internal rifts (like the Austro-Hungarian empire, ripped in two at the end of World War I), and of self-destruction at the hand of a ruling elite suddenly fighting one another for control (e.g.: the Mongol Empire).
The United States must embrace that the world is changing yet again, and needs to meet it head on. There are global powers fed largely by growing populations that are unburdened by many of the ills plaguing Americans (an undereducated populace; rampant confusion; fevered in-fighting; xenophobia; power-mongering), right now. China is under centralized autocratic rule. Theirs is a government that is investing heavily in itself. In fact, it leads the world with self-investment in infrastructure, piling 8.3% of its GDP into its own nation-building mega-projects, against the US’s 2.3%. It’s the gift that keeps giving, because infrastructure is the foundation for prosperity; and in the process of building it, countless jobs are created. In fact, according to McKinsey, the US ranks twelfth of forty-eight countries studied for infrastructure spending, just behind Mexico, and tied with Brazil. What’s even more troubling, from the same study, is that unlike China, Japan, Germany and even its neighbor, Canada, the US has shrunk its infrastructure spending, thereby increasing its shortfall, in recent years.
By contrast, the US leads the world in military spending, with 3.4% of its GDP — 50% more than it spends on its own infrastructure. Viewed through a different lens, the US spends more on protecting its past (because that’s what militaries do, when they are not invading to expand, as Russia’s, Rwanda’s and Serbia’s recently have) than on building its future (that which will guarantee its continued relevance, or even dominance, like Nucor and China.) China is not only investing in itself, but in other countries, recognizing that leverage comes in many forms. It owns 17.5% of US Foreign Debt, more than any other country. Fully one third of US debt — 34.2% — is held by foreign entities.
Change in no way necessitates the failure or diminished quality of life for a subset of the population. And yet, that is precisely most people’s fear, when it comes to major change: being left behind in the shuffle, and suddenly less valued, thus unable to continue providing for oneself, one’s family and one’s community.
When Friedman refers to “thick-fingered” jobs, he is trying to help us understand that the thing that risks being made irrelevant isn’t the person, it’s the acts that any person undertakes to earn a living. So unless a rig technician on an oil platform can’t learn how to operate a turbine on a wind farm, their job is safe. Ditto a mudlogger, a geologist, a drilling engineer or a surveyor, not to mention meter readers and furnace installers, on the consumer side. All of these jobs have corollaries in the clean energy sector. It’s just that instead of pulling muck from the ground, they’re pulling wind or sun from the sky. Wherever power originates, it must still be found, measured, analyzed, captured, optimized, moved from Point A to Point B, installed, metered, troubleshot, billed, and managed at every step of the way. Oil-powered vehicles and electric vehicles are even less distinct. There are wheels and bodies and seats and gauges and engines and sensors axles and lights on all of them.
Our fear is largely unfounded.
I’ve long held that jobs are really 90% the same in any sector, and that only 10% of them — the ‘specific expertise’ related to each — changes. There are technicians, project managers, salespeople, accountants, operators, support staff and executives in every going concern. Money is money. People skills are people skills. Competition is competition. Morale is morale. Effort is effort. Ditto resource management. Ditto teamwork and collaboration. That’s because people are people, no matter what it is they decide to do. The only thing that changes are the specific skill sets. But luckily, there, skills are the one thing that I’d argue are easily taught, and learned! By contrast, how to think can’t be taught; nor can creativity, or entrepreneurship. But skills? There are videos, books, classes, training and co-workers for all of it. And the unteachables: thinking, creativity and entrepreneurship? Those are portable skills that can be applied to anything.
Transition is the de facto truth about life. We change as individuals, from infancy to old age: our brains, our bodies, our understanding, our tastes, our views, our friends, our homes and our toolsets. As societies, our governments, our priorities, our fortunes, our cultures and our demographics are also in a constant form of evolution, or change.
We do not hunt with spears any longer. Yet we eat. We don’t bang rocks together to make fire. Yet we stay warm. We don’t conduct bloodlettings to treat mysterious diseases. Yet we heal. We don’t travel by plying waters on rat- and scurvy-infested boats. Yet we move. We don’t attack one another with bayonets. Yet we kill. We don’t carry water on our shoulders for a half-day’s walk to fill a tub for our weekly bath. Yet we are clean. And we don’t dig open pits outdoors to capture our waste. Yet we still sh*t; and our lives are the better for all of it.
So the attempt to resist our latest transition, from global usurper of self-endangering fuel sources to global steward of an Earth in balance, is not only futile, it is idiocy. Why wouldn’t we want to embrace change, because it’s going to happen whether or not we want it to, and we stand to gain incredible dividends in the process? Friedman became very animated on CNN when he said, emphatically, “The argument is over. We are in transition.”
He’s right. So why are we even talking about it?
Friedman has helped me to see that in spite of ourselves — that is, our leaders and our policies — there are still many great, domestic companies that are following history’s precedents, like Nucor and China, alike, and investing in renewables — our new power source. A nation (or world) fed by limitless energy is one that can harness it for things small and large, to power new ideas and buy time for the Earth to begin the work of repairing its ecosystems, while simultaneously allowing us to incubate additional ways of not only damaging it less, but aiding in its renewal.
The story of Yellowstone National Park’s wolves — 70 years after we hunted them to extinction, there — comes to mind. Within just 25 years of its reintroduction in the 1990’s, at our hand, the aspens and willows grew again, and the rivers started flowing. To reiterate: adding wolves back to the park grew trees and renewed rivers. That’s because nature never worked in a vacuum, and when we tug at any convenient thread (the blind and selective culling of any single species of animal or flora), we unbalance what the Earth painstakingly wrought in the process. We can only screw it up; and until we have a replacement planet, we should treat this one in a way that it continues furnishing us with air to breathe, food to eat and weather that doesn’t conspire to threaten our communities the way it is beginning to, in the Anthropocene Epoch (fire, flood, drought, extreme weather…)
The path to continued prosperity in America is in the skillful redirection of its prized (dying) industries, and the recognition that it is still in a position to command a leading role in the Brave New World of renewables, technology, non-zero-sum economics and science. It is well-equipped to invest in the education of a population and the implementation of new businesses. It is still the most entrepreneurial country in the world. CEOWORLD Magazine has recognized it as the world’s leading nation, with only the UK coming close, and Israel a good distance behind it, taking third place.
So what’s to fear?!
I’ll answer that. The thing to fear — the only thing to fear — is a population that resists the change that is inevitable.
That, my friends, would the proverbial nail in the coffin of an otherwise exceptional human experiment.