Why did Conservation International invite Thomas Friedman to go to Brazil?

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Why did Conservation International invite Thomas Friedman to go to Brazil?

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%.

Friedman continues:

“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.

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6 Comments

  1. Figuring out how to make REDD work in Amazonia, the Congo Basin, or Indonesia – whether one applauds the objectives and rationale of REDD or decries it – is more complex than say saying, “just do it”, and then it will happen.

    Should negotiators in Copenhagen lead the world to a pathway where tropical forested developing countries will be rewarded for avoiding deforestation and degradation, so that billions of dollars are eventually not wasted away in that exercise, I agree with Friedman on one point, that there will in fact be the need for a new system (or model) of economic development.

    But what Friedman does not articulate in his article, nor is it raised in this blog, it simply is not an issue of creating market incentives and new governance arrangements (were that at all easy) for the new economic system to function. There are tremendous constraints to REDD involving corruption in tropical forested countries at administrative and traditional leadership levels, weak community level social capital that disables the potential “avoiders of deforestation” (aka the local people, indigenous or otherwise, along with external agents who provide incentives to the local people to operate unsustainably in “their” forests for lack of any viable options to meet subsistence and minimal household needs like edcucation and health etc.) There also are lack of proven methods used by big NGOs and donors supporting them to address all facets of the REDD issue to justify major capital outlays for REDD implementation in the short -term.

    Absent some entity covering transaction costs for what I would label “strategic preparatory work”, where compelling models for addressing REDD are tested, monitored, and adaptively managed in a a more serious that the development and conservation community has ever operated previously in regard to methodology development, it remains up to optimistic visionaries to see how REDD will comprehensively contribute to both climate change objectives while providing poverty alleviation for local peoples.

    This means that the PILOT TESTING OF METHODOLOGIES will be required that substantively differ in strategy and procedures from the methods used over the past 20-30 years to promote development and conservation programs. While we have spent billions of $US on conservation and development programs over those years, where are the validated methods and tools to enable us to believe that REDD can be tackled at the scales envisioned given the problems outlined above? Here I agree, Friedman’s article is wanting, just the slightest.

    It is not simply an issue of taking lessons learned off the shelf. For one lesson we may have learned (if we are honest) is that methods do not currently exist to address governance issues, address ownership issues equitably, and address market incentives (not to mention MRV) in any kind of an integrated way that will enable the world to be optmistic about REDD, based at least on the current state of dialogue. And note, the word scale has not been mentioned.

    One question that I believe is worth asking Friedman or CI or anyone else who is otimistic about the short-term feasibility of REDD, is the follwing:

    What exactly are the proven methods/tools that you are proposing to justify the world embarking on this major endeavor? More mundanely, what methods and tools will be employed to facilitate the upscaling of REDD from a local community level say where a principle may be demonstrated, to a “conservation landscape” (like a buffer zone around a national park which may be a key piece in the landscape say, or a multiuse protected area itself including various areas under different protection regimes?

    Without serious efforts at this level, the world will delude itself into believing that what appears necessary to do, is in fact inherently, feasible to do. I would wager that at present, we are more often than not confusing optimism with feasability in the REDD conversation.

    On a technical level, to address the governance and ownership issues, along with the incentive, benefit sharing and MRV issues, there is a lot of piloting out there that remains doing (for those who contend that REDD is or can be a good thing for people and the planet.)

  2. Would it be that Tom is turning over a new leaf? Surely he is game for sequestering a little carbon. Taibii’s perspicacity is on display nicely…and mostly rightly. After all Tom( and his colleague at the Times, Judy Miller) did kind of cheerleed us into a fools war. But!!!
    I write to applaud young Tom, not to berate him ,this is his best article to date.
    Explaining REDD or carbon credits or payments for ecosystem services and how and why they can work…get my point? Tres tres difficile…eyes glaze over with fear of thinking and with sudden tiredness and the sudden realization that you need to be somewhere else. Disclosure. I am a nascent REDD projectier myself, and explaining it is one of the toughest things about it. Truth be told, however…It WILL work…and I feel comfortable NOT explaining how…now.
    Its a REDD letter day that theNYT has clearly and concisely made the case for what might happen,should happen, and, can happen. Tom’s opening paragraph summarizing the percentages re ghg emissions is hardly cliche Chris, two wrongs dont make a right. Almost nobody outside this space knows that deforestation is a bigger climate bad than ALL of transport. Send in the billions…best money we’ll ever spend. Methodology will develop, and, forests ( incl. peat) will be proven to be the only safe and effective presrcription for a balanced climate complete with all those trees and their concommitant +++’s
    Three cheers for Tom…A REDD letter day!

  3. Michael Brown makes some very valid points that should serve to ground REDD-enthusiasts in the reality of what it will really take to stop tropical deforestation.

    Far from having provided a clear explanation of how REDD carbon trading will work – as Richard Wineberg believes – Freidman has done nothing except provide an exemplar of US-centric arrogance and ignorance.

    Why on earth would we think that it is going to be politically easier to get, say, 15 or 20 largely mis-governed tropical countries to stop the activities of hundreds of millions of subsistence farmers, stop the logging companies that they have been taking bribes from for the last 30 years, stop the cattle ranchers that pay for political campaigns, or stop the agro-industries that run entire provinces or states, employ millions of people and fill the national treasury with hard currency – than it is to, say, ban 5 litre engined cars in the US?

    Curiously, Freidman misses the obvious conclusion to his ‘analysis': that the government of the world’s most powerful nation would appear to be less capable of tackling the causes of climate change than, say, that of Brazil, the Congo or Papua New Guinea. Maybe he should reflect on where exactly the “whole new system of economic development” might most be needed.

  4. Yup. that’s why I pied him a year or two ago at Brown University!

  5. Joshua Kahn Russell

    Thanks for this Chris!

    I cross posted this to the Its Getting Hot In Here blog so it would get out there more: http://itsgettinghotinhere.org/2009/11/17/why-did-conservation-international-invite-thomas-friedman-to-go-to-brazil/

  6. Thomas Friedman’s wife is on the board of Conservation International. He’s good friends with Glenn Prickett of Conservation International. He speaks regularly at CI dinners. None of this is illegal, of course, but it shows a very chummy relationship between Friedman and CI.

    Here’s a CI promotional video featuring Friedman:

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