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Author calls for bold action to turn energy crisis around

Related story:
URC fuels new industries >

The U.S. government needs to set tough energy policy standards to spark innovation and an energy revolution, three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman told several thousand area business leaders Wednesday at an event co-sponsored by the URC.
President Mary Sue Coleman gestures as she talks at lunch with author Thomas Friedman, clockwise left, and University Research Corridor partners Jay Noren, Wayne State University president, and Lou Anna Simon, president of Michigan State University. (Photo by Martin Vloet, U-M Photo Services)

"My deep concern and worry is that we have lost our groove as a country," Friedman said. But he noted America rose to a comparable challenge in the 1960s sparked by the Soviet launch of Sputnik — by responding with a space program and moon landing. He said the country similarly could rise to the challenge posed by the energy crisis.

Friedman, whose appearance at the Eastern Michigan University Convocation Center was organized by the Washtenaw Economic Club, the Michigan Business Review and the URC, is on tour to promote his book "Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution — and How it Can Renew America." During the talk, he said innovation is surging at the grass-roots level, but a divisive and unfocused federal government has failed to implement tough standards to spark innovation and, therefore, is failing to meet its responsibility to push new energy technologies to succeed.

Friedman's most direct challenge was sparked by a question from President Mary Sue Coleman, just after she took the stage to address the crowd following Friedman's address.

"If you were the leader of the state of Michigan, what would you do to rise to the challenge?" Coleman asked.
Three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman told audience members Sept. 17 that an energy revolution is looming. (Photo by Martin Vloet,
U-M Photo Services)

"My message sure as heck wouldn't be 'Drill baby drill,'" Friedman said, echoing the pro oil-drilling chant from delegates during the recent Republican National Convention. "It would be 'Invent baby, invent.'"

Freidman continued to deride the call for more oil drilling.

"It's like demanding more IBM Selectric typewriters or more carbon paper on the eve of the IT revolution."

Coleman told the crowd, "Our state and our nation have to rise to this challenge. There is genuine enthusiasm and concern among young people to build a sustainable future and to make changes now."

Coleman said the University would continue to collaborate with Michigan State University and Wayne State University in the URC, and all the state's universities, to exploit research expertise to advance the state's economy. "We all want to be part of the solution," she said.

The Friedman talk came a day after Coleman, MSU President Lou Anna Simon and WSU President Jay Noren gave the second URC annual report, highlighting the economic impact of the three universities on the state's economy, including some $79.5 million in energy research.

Friedman's new book contends America has been overwhelmed with articles about "easy ways to go green" and notes "green" was the single-most trademarked word in 2007. But, he complained, the emphasis on quick fixes shows the makings of "a party — not a revolution." The real changes, he contends, will be hard, not easy, and most are yet to come.

Friedman said he was angered by a billboard he spotted in South Africa, which stated, "German engineering, Swiss innovation, American nothing." He said the message reflects a view held by some around the world.

"9-11 knocked us off our game," Friedman said, adding the federal government is mired in partisan fighting. "Our innovative capacity is enormous," he said, but added that the federal government is not maximizing that resource.

"Energy technology will be the next great industrial revolution," he said, adding that all revolutions cause pain. Friedman suggested Detroit automakers would feel pain if government upped federal fuel efficiency requirements, but said such requirements also would serve as encouragement to innovate.

To be green today, Friedman said, is less about saving the whales and more about being capitalistic and patriotic. "Green is the new Red, White and Blue," he said.

In addition to Friedman and Coleman, the audience heard brief remarks by the presidents of the other two URC schools, Michigan State University and Wayne State University, and by Susan Martin, new president of Eastern Michigan University and former U-M-Dearborn provost.

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