Tom Friedman’s Unexpected Paean to the Commons

Who would have thought that New York Times’ columnist Thomas Friedman would give a glowing endorsement of the commons?  Writing about the severe political and economic gridlock plaguing Egypt, Friedman lavishes great praise on the country’s “impressive but small group of environmental activists, many of whom were also involved in the 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak.” 

This leads Friedman to ponder the virtues of the commons as a solution to some of Egypt’s most intractable problems.  He writes:

…the truth is that any faction here – the youth, the army, the Muslim Brotherhood – that thinks it can rule Egypt alone and make the others disappear is fooling itself.  (Ditto in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Libya.)  Because Egypt is in such a deep hole, and the reforms needed so painful, they can be accomplished only if everyone shares in the responsibility and ownership of the transition through a national unity coalition.  In that sense Egyptians today desperately need a ‘peace process’ – not with Israel, but with one another.

Everyone has to take responsibility for the commons, rather than just grabbing their own.  That is the real cultural revolution that has to happen for Egypt to revive.  And that’s where the environmentalists here have such an advantage over the politicians, because all they think about is the commons – resources that have to be shared.  Egypt’s commons – its bridges, roads, parks, coral reefs – are crumbling. 

Friedman then cites how over-development and overfishing have led to the decline of the marine ecosystem in the Red Sea, especially its spectacular coral reefs.  He praises a local conservation group, the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association, or Hepca, for persuading the local government, tourism industry, fishing industry and environmentalists to work together.  The new plan requires fishers to stop killing so many sharks, local government to pass new laws to reserve fishing for certain zones, and a delegation of power to Hepca to use its own speedboats to enforce the new rules. 

Friedman quotes a Hepca campaigner:  “’We made everyone aware of how their interests intersected if they worked together.  It was all about revolting against an old paradigm and creating a new one.’ 

"So far the results seem promising.  I have no illusions…about how hard it would be bring this kind of ‘shared commons’ thinking to the national level here, but the absence of it is what ails almost every one of these Arab Awakenings today….”

It’s too bad that Friedman conflates “environmentalism” with “the commons” by using the two terms interchangeably.  (Does he really get the commons?)  And Friedman in other columns remains a big booster of green capitalism, which is not exactly friendly to the commons and certainly not an antidote to the pathologies of relentless growth. 

Still, it is a pleasant surprise to see the commons meme surface in such unexpected quarters, and with such approval.  Now we have to work on improving the rigor of Friedman’s understanding of the commons – and to make sure that he doesn’t try to dilute or co-opt its meaning.  But it’s significant in itself that the term is starting to get some more visible play.  


Gazing at the Other

What is always fascinating, when reading Friedman, an apologist for the upper class if ever there was one, is that he can always see the Problem in other places.  He never seems to see the Problem here, in the United States.  Every statement that he writes about in the Middle East applies 100% to this country, too.

Yes, it is critically important that we watch Friedman and make sure that he doesn't co-opt the word "commons".  Capitalists have a wonderful record in the cooptation department! Green capitalism is an oxymoron if ever I read one.