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THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Mother Nature and the middle class

on September 23, 2013 10:30 AM

If you fell asleep 30 years ago, woke up last week and quickly scanned the headlines in Iran and Egypt, you could be excused for saying, “I didn’t miss a thing.” The military and the Muslim Brotherhood are still slugging it out along the Nile, and Iranian pragmatists and ideologues are still locked in a duel for control of their Islamic Revolution.

So go back to sleep? Not so fast. I can guarantee that the next 30 years will not be the same old, same old. Two huge new forces have muscled their way into the center of both Egyptian and Iranian politics, and they will bust open their old tired duopolies.

The first newcomer is Mother Nature. Do not mess with Mother Nature. Iran’s population in 1979 when the Islamic Revolution occurred was 37 million; today it’s 75 million. Egypt’s was 40 million; today it’s 85 million. The stresses from more people, climate change and decades of environmental abuse in both countries can no longer be ignored or bought off.

On July 9, Iran’s former agriculture minister, Issa Kalantari, an adviser to Iran’s new president, Hasan Rouhani, spoke to this reality in the Ghanoon newspaper: “Our main problem that threatens us, that is more dangerous than Israel, America or political fighting, is the issue of living in Iran,” said Kalantari. “It is that the Iranian plateau is becoming uninhabitable. ... Groundwater has decreased and a negative water balance is widespread, and no one is thinking about this.”

He continued: “I am deeply worried about the future generations. ... If this situation is not reformed, in 30 years Iran will be a ghost town. Even if there is precipitation in the desert, there will be no yield, because the area for groundwater will be dried and water will remain at ground level and evaporate.” Kalantari added: “All the bodies of natural water in Iran are drying up: Lake Urumieh, Bakhtegan, Tashak, Parishan and others.” Kalantari concluded that the “deserts in Iran are spreading, and I am warning you that South Alborz and East Zagros will be uninhabitable and people will have to migrate. But where? Easily I can say that of the 75 million people in Iran, 45 million will have uncertain circumstances. ... If we start this very day to address this, it will take 12 to 15 years to balance.”

In Egypt, soil compaction and rising sea levels have already led to saltwater intrusion in the Nile Delta; overfishing and overdevelopment are threatening the Red Sea ecosystem, and unregulated and unsustainable agricultural practices in poorer districts, plus more extreme temperatures, are contributing to erosion and desertification. The World Bank estimates that environmental degradation is costing Egypt 5 percent of gross domestic product annually.

But just as Mother Nature is demanding better governance from above in both countries, an emergent and empowered middle class, which first reared its head with the 2009 Green revolution in Iran and the 2011 Tahrir revolution in Egypt, is doing so from below. A government that just provides “order” alone in either country simply won’t cut it anymore. Order, drift and decay were tolerable when populations were smaller, the environment not so degraded, the climate less volatile, and citizens less technologically empowered and connected.

Both countries today need “order-plus” — an order that enables dynamism and resilience, and that can be built only on the rule of law, innovation, political and religious pluralism, and greater freedoms.

It requires political and economic institutions that are inclusive and “sustainable,” in both senses of that word. Neither country can afford the old line that Hosni Mubarak used for so many years when addressing American leaders: “After me comes the flood, so you’d better put up with my stale, plodding but stable leadership, otherwise you’ll get the Muslim Brotherhood.”

That is so 1970s. As Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment, puts it: In the Middle East today “it’s no longer ‘After me, the flood’ — Apr│s moi, le d←luge — but ‘After me, the drought.’” Syria’s revolution came on the heels of the worst drought in its modern history, to which the government failed to respond.

Iran’s Islamic leadership seems to realize that it cannot keep asking its people to put up with crushing economic sanctions to preserve a nuclear weapons option. Mother Nature and Iran’s emergent middle classes require much better governance, integrated with the world. That’s why Iran is seeking a nuclear deal now with Washington.

And that’s why two of the most interesting leaders to watch today are Rouhani of Iran and Egypt’s new military strongman, Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sissi.

Both men rose up in the old order, but both men were brought into the top leadership by the will of their emergent middle classes and newly empowered citizens, and neither will be able to maintain order without reforming the systems that produced them — making them more sustainable and inclusive. They have no choice: too many people, too little oil, too little soil.

And pay attention: What Mother Nature and these newly empowered citizens have in common is that they can both set off a wave — a tsunami — that can overwhelm their systems at any moment, and you’ll never see it coming.

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