From the January/February 2009 issue of National Geographic Traveler
An eminent columnist and author speaks to the future of green technology and travel.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is arguably one of the most influential voices in current American journalism. The Brandeis- and Oxford-schooled Friedman writes engagingly on such heavy-duty subjects as immigration law, oil addiction, and outsourcing. His examination of globalism, The World is Flat, has sold two million copies, and he is a solid favorite to win his fourth Pulitzer Prize for his latest best-seller, Hot, Flat, and Crowded. No ivory-tower thinker, he's connecting with people in real life about the power of retooling the world's economy by preserving the planet. "I'm getting big, big audiences. It tells me that people are really hungry to talk about this agenda."
How would you summarize your new book? The core of this book is that clean energy technology, clean water, all the clean sources of growth and sustenance are going to be the next great global industry. I know that for sure. What I don't know is who's going to lead that industry. Is it going to be America? Is it going to be Russia, China, Japan, India? All I know is ET, energy technology, is going to be the next great global industry, and if we want to maintain our standard of living we have to lead that industry. I want to make America the example of a country that grows rich, innovative, entrepreneurial, competitive, healthy, secure, and respected by taking the lead in inventing "clean and green" power, because I think many more people will follow us voluntarily than will ever reduce their emissions by compulsion of a treaty. If we build it, they will come.
Can America really out-green the rest of the world? Absolutely, with the right leadership. Imagine what it would be like to have a president who, after taking the oath of office, might get on his bicycle and his wife might get on her bicycle and they bike their way down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. I can tell you exactly what will happen the next morning. Thousands of Americans will go out and buy bicycles.
An op-ed in the Washington Post titled "Don't Go There" argued that tourism is "nothing short of a planet-threatening plague." What's your take? In a world of increasingly rising, dangerous levels of CO2, and in a world of rising middle classes of India, China, Russia, Brazil—where more and more people will be able to do package tours like Americans or Europeans have done for years—there is no question that tourism has to put stress on ecosystems, on beaches, coral reefs, forests, ski slopes, and on ancient and cherished sites. But I just have a hard time saying, "Don't go there." Those charged with protecting those ecosystems have to be that much more vigilant. The real point is pay attention wherever you are. Pay attention to your environment, your ecosystem, your carbon footprint, whether you're at home or abroad. And if we all do that, then there's no reason that travel will hurt things. If none of us do that or we only do that episodically, then even the smallest amount of travel will cause damage. A hundred tourists can spoil a great site or a lush valley as easily as 100,000 if you don't have the right regulations.
In today's world, what can a traveler do to protect the places we love the most? I have to go back to "pay attention." I think of people crawling all over treasures such as the Pyramids in Egypt, and my reaction is that we have to tread lightly. We have to be more assertive about protection. Maybe we have come to the day where you shouldn't be allowed to walk inside the Pyramids, for instance. This is an incredible patrimony that we have to pass on to future generations, and it may mean restraining our ability to touch these places as much as we'd like. Is there any substitute for travel and one-on-one engagement with people of other cultures? Glenn Prickett, of Conservation International, says, "If you don't go, you don't know." He also says, "You have to see it to save it." And I really believe that. I think of how many intangible things I have learned from my travels, and from living in a place like Beirut. I'm not fluent in Hebrew or Arabic, but I know enough that things don't go by me, they go through me. All those intangible things that open up a culture to you are hugely important.
As parents, how can we inculcate in our children the idea of seeing and embracing the world? When our girls were very young, my wife taught a class called World Class. She would pick a country or a city or a culture and do a little lesson about it for kids once a week. Other parents used to drop their kids off at our house to take the class. And so from a very young age, our girls were taught to be interested in and love different cultures, to go to museums, things of that nature. And that's the most important thing you can do. You have to start them young. And another way to do that is to subscribe to magazines and newspapers. I got interested in news because my parents subscribed to Time magazine. Take your kids out to different dining experiences. Expose them to foreign movies. Make sure they study a foreign language in school. There are just myriad ways to get your kids to appreciate different cultures. Our girls are 23 and 20 now. They were both born in Jerusalem, so their very first trip was coming to America.
What was the first trip you ever took that really changed you? I grew up in Minnesota, and the very first trip that I ever took was a winter Christmas vacation in 1968-'69. My parents took me to Israel. I was 15 years old and had never been out of the state of Minnesota except to go to camp for three weeks every summer in Wisconsin. I had never been on an airplane. And Israel just blew me away. I haven't stopped traveling since.
Given all the travel you do, what's your favorite walking city? I love to walk wherever I am for exercise. I find this a great way to get the feel of the city. Istanbul is great if you're staying near Topkapi because there are some wonderful areas to walk up there overlooking the Bosphorus. Moscow is great if you're staying near Red Square because you can just do loops around Red Square and it's wide open. Doha, Qatar, is a fantastic walking city. It has the longest corniche, beautifully laid out, a paved beachfront walkway that goes for miles and miles. It's probably the best pure walking city on the Persian Gulf. And I love walking around Sydney's waterfront and harbor area.
When you travel, can you turn off being a journalist? I'd be lying to you if I said yes. When you write a column twice a week, that takes such discipline. A lot of people come up to me and say, "Oh, I'd love to be a columnist." I say, "Really? What column would you write this week?" And they'd say, "Oh, I'd write this." And I'd say, "That's great. What would you write on Sunday?" "Oh, I'd write that." "Okay, what would you write next Wednesday?" Silence. So when you have to write two columns a week that are going to be read by a lot of people around the world, you can't just mail it in. You're thinking all the time. I just finished my Wednesday column in today's paper, but it's now Wednesday and I'm thinking about "What will I do Friday?"
Keith Bellows is the editor of Traveler.