Opinion Columns & Blogs

Thomas L. Friedman: The world is fast but our response is slow


We’ve just had a nonsense midterm election. Never has more money been spent to think so little about a future so in flux.

What would we have discussed if we’d had a serious election? How about the biggest challenge we’re facing today? The resilience of our workers, environment and institutions.

Why is that the biggest challenge? Because: The world is fast.

The three biggest forces on the planet – the market, Mother Nature and Moore’s law – are all surging, really fast, at the same time. The market, i.e., globalization, is tying economies more tightly together than ever before, making our workers, investors and markets more interdependent and exposed to global trends.

Moore’s law, the theory that the speed and power of microchips will double every two years, is, as Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson posit in their book “The Second Machine Age,” so relentlessly increasing the power of software, computers and robots that they’re now replacing many more traditional white- and blue-collar jobs, while spinning off new ones – all of which require more skills.

And the rapid growth of carbon in our atmosphere and environmental degradation and deforestation because of population growth are destabilizing Mother Nature’s ecosystems faster.

In sum, we’re in the middle of three “climate changes” at once: one digital, one ecological, one geo-economical. That’s why strong states are being stressed, weak ones are blowing up, and Americans are feeling anxious that no one has a quick fix to ease their anxiety.

And they’re right. The only fix involves big, hard things that can only be built together over time: resilient infrastructure, affordable health care, more startups and lifelong learning opportunities for new jobs, immigration policies that attract talent, sustainable environments, manageable debt and governing institutions adapted to the new speed.

That’s just theory, you say? Really? Look at one aspect in one country: Mother Nature in Brazil. Sao Paulo, South America’s biggest and wealthiest city, may run out of water by mid-November if it doesn’t rain soon. Key reservoirs that supply the city have dried up.

When changes in the market, Mother Nature and Moore’s law all get this fast, opportunities and stresses abound. One day we’ll have an election about how we cushion, exploit and adapt to them – an election to make America and Americans more resilient. One day.

Thomas L. Friedman writes for the New York Times News Service.