Egypt and Tunisia usher in the new era of global food revolutions  

Posted by Big Gav in , , , ,

I take everything Ambrose Evans-Pritchard writes with a large grain of salt, so with that in mind, here is a new column at the UK Daily Telegraph looking at the Tunisian and Egyptian crises and declaring "the first food revolutions of our Malthusian era have exposed the weak grip of authoritarian regimes in poor countries that import grain, whether in North Africa today or parts of Asia tomorrow" - Egypt and Tunisia usher in the new era of global food revolutions.

Events have moved briskly since a Tunisian fruit vendor with a handcart set fire to himself six weeks ago, and in doing so lit the fuse that has detonated Egypt and threatens to topple the political order of the Maghreb, Yemen, and beyond.

As we sit glued to Al-Jazeera watching authority crumble in the cultural and political capital of the Arab world, exhilaration can turn quickly to foreboding.

This is nothing like the fall of the Berlin Wall. The triumph of secular democracy was hardly in doubt in central Europe. Whatever the mix of aspirations of those on the streets of Cairo, such uprisings are easy prey for tight-knit organizations – known in the revolutionary lexicon as Leninist vanguard parties.

In Egypt this means the Muslim Brotherhood, whether or not Nobel laureate Mohammed El Baradei ever served as figleaf. The Brotherhood is of course a different kettle of fish from Iran’s Ayatollahs; and Turkey shows that an ‘Islamic leaning’ government can be part of the liberal world – though Turkish premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan once let slip that democracy was a tram “you ride until you arrive at your destination, then you step off." ...

The surge in global food prices since the summer – since Ben Bernanke signalled a fresh dollar blitz, as it happens – is not the underlying cause of Arab revolt, any more than bad harvests in 1788 were the cause of the French Revolution.

Yet they are the trigger, and have set off a vicious circle. Vulnerable governments are scrambling to lock up world supplies of grain while they can. Algeria bought 800,000 tonnes of wheat last week, and Indonesia has ordered 800,000 tonnes of rice, both greatly exceeding their normal pace of purchases. Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Bangladesh, are trying to secure extra grain supplies.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said its global food index has surpassed the all-time high of 2008, both in nominal and real terms. The cereals index has risen 39pc in the last year, the oil and fats index 55pc.

The FAO implored goverments to avoid panic responses that “aggravate the situation”. If you are Hosni Mubarak hanging on in Cairo’s presidential palace, do care about such niceties?

France’s Nicolas Sarkozy blames the commodity spike on hedge funds, speculators, and the derivatives market (largely in London). He vowed to use his G20 presidency to smash the racket, but then Mr Sarkozy has a penchant for witchhunts against easy targets.

Energy Bulletin has an article linking the Tunisian and Egyptian unrest to oil depletion, global warming and food prices - The great unravelling: Tunisia, Egypt and the protracted collapse of the American empire.
In many of these countries, certainly in both Tunisia and Egypt, tensions have simmered for years. The trigger, it seems, came in the form of food shortages caused by the record high global prices reported by the FAO in December 2010. The return of high food prices two to three years after the 2008 global food crisis should not be a surprise. For most of the preceding decade, world grain consumption exceeded production – correlating with agricultural land productivity declining almost by half from 1990-2007, compared to 1950-1990.

This year, global food supply chains were again “stretched to the limit” following poor harvests in Canada, Russia and Ukraine; hotter, drier weather in South America cutting soybean production; flooding in Australia, wiping out its wheat crops; not to mention the colder, stormier, snowier winters experienced in the northern hemisphere, damaging harvests.

Climate Change

So much of the current supply shortages have been inflicted by increasingly erratic weather events and natural disasters, which climate scientists have long warned are symptomatic of anthropogenic global warming. Droughts exacerbated by global warming in key food-basket regions have already led to a 10-20 per cent drop in rice yields over the last decade. By mid-century, world crop yields could fall as much as 20-40 per cent due to climate change alone.

But climate change is likely to do more than generate droughts in some regions. It is also linked to the prospect of colder weather in the eastern US, east Asia and northern Europe — as the rate of Arctic summer sea-ice is accelerating, leading to intensifying warming, the change in atmospheric pressure pushes cold Arctic air to the south. Similarly, even the floods in Australia could be linked to climate change. Scientists agree they were caused by a particularly strong El-Nino/La-Nina oscillation in the Tropical Pacific ocean-atmospheric system. But Michael McPhaden, co-author of a recent scientific study on the issue, suggests that recently stronger El-Ninos are “plausibly the result of global warming.”

Energy Depletion

The global food situation has been compounded by the over-dependence of industrial agriculture on fossil fuels, consuming ten calories of fossil fuel energy for every one calorie of food energy produced. The problem is that global conventional oil production has most likely already peaked, having been on an undulating plateau since 2005 — and forecast to steadily and inexorably decline, leading to higher prices. Although oil prices dropped after the 2008 crash due to recession, the resuscitation of economic activity has pushed up demand, leading fuel prices to creep back up to $95 a barrel.

The fuel price hikes, combining with the predatory activities of financial speculators trying to rake-in profits by investing in the commodity markets, have underpinned worldwide inflation. Just as in 2008, the worst effected have been the poorer populations of the South. Thus, the eruption of political unrest in Egypt and elsewhere cannot be fully understood without acknowledging the context of accelerating ecological, energy and economic crises — inherently interconnected problems which are symptomatic of an Empire in overstretch, a global political economy in breach of the natural limits of its environment.

Post-Peak Egypt

Indeed, Egypt is particularly vulnerable. Its oil production peaked in 1996, and since then has declined by around 26 per cent. Since the 1960s, Egypt has moved from complete food self-sufficiency to excessive dependence on imports, subsidized by oil revenues. But as Egypt’s oil revenues have steadily declined due to increasing domestic consumption of steadily declining oil, so have food subsidies, leading to surging food prices. Simultaneously, Egypt’s debt levels are horrendous — about 80.5 per cent of its GDP, far higher than most other countries in the region. Inequality is also high, intensifying over the last decade in the wake of neoliberal “structural adjustment’ reforms — widely implemented throughout the region since the 1980s with debilitating effects, including contraction of social welfare, reduction of wages, and lack of infrastructure investment. Consequently, today forty per cent of Egyptians live below the UN poverty line of less than 2 dollars a day.

Due to such vulnerabilities, Egypt, as with many of the MENA countries, now lies on the fault-lines of the convergence of global ecological, energy and economic crises — and thus, on the frontlines of deepening global system failure. The Empire is uncrumbling. The guarded official statements put out by the Obama administration only illustrate the disingenuous impotence of the U.S. position.

TomDispatch has a new article by Michael Klare dubbing the unrest "Resource Revolts" (as opposed to "Resource Wars") - Resource Revolts.
Get ready for a rocky year. From now on, rising prices, powerful storms, severe droughts and floods, and other unexpected events are likely to play havoc with the fabric of global society, producing chaos and political unrest. Start with a simple fact: the prices of basic food staples are already approaching or exceeding their 2008 peaks, that year when deadly riots erupted in dozens of countries around the world.

It’s not surprising then that food and energy experts are beginning to warn that 2011 could be the year of living dangerously -- and so could 2012, 2013, and on into the future. Add to the soaring cost of the grains that keep so many impoverished people alive a comparable rise in oil prices -- again nearing levels not seen since the peak months of 2008 -- and you can already hear the first rumblings about the tenuous economic recovery being in danger of imminent collapse. Think of those rising energy prices as adding further fuel to global discontent.

Already, combined with staggering levels of youth unemployment and a deep mistrust of autocratic, repressive governments, food prices have sparked riots in Algeria and mass protests in Tunisia that, to the surprise of the world, ousted long-time dictator President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his corrupt extended family. And many of the social stresses evident in those two countries are present across the Middle East and elsewhere. No one can predict where the next explosion will occur, but with food prices still climbing and other economic pressures mounting, more upheavals appear inevitable. These may be the first resource revolts to catch our attention, but they won’t be the last.

Put simply, global consumption patterns are now beginning to challenge the planet’s natural resource limits. Populations are still on the rise, and from Brazil to India, Turkey to China, new powers are rising as well. With them goes an urge for a more American-style life. Not surprisingly, the demand for basic commodities is significantly on the rise, even as supplies in many instances are shrinking. At the same time, climate change, itself a product of unbridled energy use, is adding to the pressure on supplies, and speculators are betting on a situation trending progressively worse. Add these together and the road ahead appears increasingly rocky.

Joe Rom at Climate Progress says "Food prices were driven up by extreme weather and high oil prices" - Egyptian and Tunisian riots were driven in part by the spike in global food prices.
Political unrest has broken out in Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt and other Arab countries. Social media and governmental policies are getting most of the credit for spurring the turmoil, but there’s another factor at play.

Many of the people protesting are also angry about dramatic price hikes for basic foodstuffs, such as rice, cereals, cooking oil and sugar.

Food priceThat’s from the NPR story today, “Rising Food Prices Can Topple Governments, Too.”

This summer’s extreme global weather raised fears of a “Coming Food Crisis,” as CAP’s John D. Podesta and Jake Caldwell warned in Foreign Policy: “Global food security is stretched to the breaking point, and Russia’s fires and Pakistan’s floods are making a bad situation worse.” Earlier this month I discussed how, in fact, “Extreme weather events helped drive food prices to record highs.” Back then, experts were worried about food riots. Now they are happening.

The anti-science, pro-pollution crowd are going flat-earth over this post because I point out that leading political experts say the Middle East rioting is driven in part by the dramatic rise in food prices, which the agricultural experts say is driven in large part by oil prices and the extreme weather we’ve seen in the last few months. Of course, the climate science experts have been saying for a while now that the extreme weather is driven in large part by human emissions — see Terrific ABC News story: “Raging Waters In Australia and Brazil Product of Global Warming” and Munich Re: “The only plausible explanation for the rise in weather-related catastrophes is climate change.” See also Russian President Medvedev: “What is happening now in our central regions is evidence of this global climate change, because we have never in our history faced such weather conditions in the past.” — NYT: “Russia Bans Grain Exports After Drought Shrivels Crop” I have some more comments on this at the end, but the analysis as written here stands.

The Washington Post reported on the connection between food prices and Tunisian violence in mid-January, in a piece headlined, “Spike in global food prices contributes to Tunisian violence” ...

The question is why specifically now have the Egyptians and Tunisians rioted after decades of anti-democratic rule? Certainly one can ignore the experts and say that it is a complete coincidence that the rioting occurred as food prices hit record levels — in spite of the fact that the last time there was this kind of rioting globally food prices were at record levels, which is precisely why experts were predicting that record hide food prices would lead to riots. Now the question is, why are food prices are at record levels? Again, reality pretty much speaks for itself here. Extreme weather is a major contributing factor — and our top climate scientists say global warming has contributed.

Robert Fisk has a jaundiced look in The Independent at the Tunisian uprising and figures we'll have another dictator in place before too long - The brutal truth about Tunisia.
For I fear this is going to be the same old story. Yes, we would like a democracy in Tunisia – but not too much democracy. Remember how we wanted Algeria to have a democracy back in the early Nineties?

Then when it looked like the Islamists might win the second round of voting, we supported its military-backed government in suspending elections and crushing the Islamists and initiating a civil war in which 150,000 died.

No, in the Arab world, we want law and order and stability. Even in Hosni Mubarak's corrupt and corrupted Egypt, that's what we want. And we will get it.

The truth, of course, is that the Arab world is so dysfunctional, sclerotic, corrupt, humiliated and ruthless – and remember that Mr Ben Ali was calling Tunisian protesters "terrorists" only last week – and so totally incapable of any social or political progress, that the chances of a series of working democracies emerging from the chaos of the Middle East stand at around zero per cent.

The job of the Arab potentates will be what it has always been – to "manage" their people, to control them, to keep the lid on, to love the West and to hate Iran.

Indeed, what was Hillary Clinton doing last week as Tunisia burned? She was telling the corrupted princes of the Gulf that their job was to support sanctions against Iran, to confront the Islamic republic, to prepare for another strike against a Muslim state after the two catastrophes the United States and the UK have already inflicted in the region.

The Muslim world – at least, that bit of it between India and the Mediterranean – is a more than sorry mess. Iraq has a sort-of-government that is now a satrap of Iran, Hamid Karzai is no more than the mayor of Kabul, Pakistan stands on the edge of endless disaster, Egypt has just emerged from another fake election.

And Lebanon... Well, poor old Lebanon hasn't even got a government. Southern Sudan – if the elections are fair – might be a tiny candle, but don't bet on it.

It's the same old problem for us in the West. We mouth the word "democracy" and we are all for fair elections – providing the Arabs vote for whom we want them to vote for.

In Algeria 20 years ago, they didn't. In "Palestine" they didn't. And in Lebanon, because of the so-called Doha accord, they didn't. So we sanction them, threaten them and warn them about Iran and expect them to keep their mouths shut when Israel steals more Palestinian land for its colonies on the West Bank.

There was a fearful irony that the police theft of an ex-student's fruit produce – and his suicide in Tunis – should have started all this off, not least because Mr Ben Ali made a failed attempt to gather public support by visiting the dying youth in hospital.

For years, this wretched man had been talking about a "slow liberalising" of his country. But all dictators know they are in greatest danger when they start freeing their entrapped countrymen from their chains.

And the Arabs behaved accordingly. No sooner had Ben Ali flown off into exile than Arab newspapers which have been stroking his fur and polishing his shoes and receiving his money for so many years were vilifying the man. "Misrule", "corruption", "authoritarian reign", "a total lack of human rights", their journalists are saying now. Rarely have the words of the Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran sounded so painfully accurate: "Pity the nation that welcomes its new ruler with trumpetings, and farewells him with hootings, only to welcome another with trumpetings again." Mohamed Ghannouchi, perhaps?

Of course, everyone is lowering their prices now – or promising to. Cooking oil and bread are the staple of the masses. So prices will come down in Tunisia and Algeria and Egypt. But why should they be so high in the first place?

Algeria should be as rich as Saudi Arabia – it has the oil and gas – but it has one of the worst unemployment rates in the Middle East, no social security, no pensions, nothing for its people because its generals have salted their country's wealth away in Switzerland.

And police brutality. The torture chambers will keep going. We will maintain our good relations with the dictators. We will continue to arm their armies and tell them to seek peace with Israel.

And they will do what we want. Ben Ali has fled. The search is now on for a more pliable dictator in Tunisia – a "benevolent strongman" as the news agencies like to call these ghastly men.

And the shooting will go on – as it did yesterday in Tunisia – until "stability" has been restored.

No, on balance, I don't think the age of the Arab dictators is over. We will see to that.

Kevin at Cryptogon seems to be thinking along the same lines, quoting some Zbigniew Brzezinski for a the big picture - Tunisians Drive Leader from Power in Mass Uprising.
I’m not particularly sure of what actually happened in Tunisia. I’d like to think that the Tunisian people won’t go on to “freely elect” some U.S. puppet in the future, after throwing out the dictator who ran the place for over the last 23 years.

Come on, Kevin, why piss on the parade?

At times like this, it’s generally a good idea to keep a copy of The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy And Its Geostrategic Imperatives by Zbigniew Brzezinski handy:
As the imitation of American ways gradually pervades the world, it creates a more congenial setting for the exercise of the indirect and seemingly consensual American hegemony. And as in the case of the domestic American system, that hegemony involves a complex structure of interlocking institutions and procedures, designed to generate consensus and obscure asymmetries in power and influence. American global supremacy is thus buttressed by an elaborate system of alliances and coalitions that literally span the globe.



American supremacy has thus produced a new international order that not only replicates but institutionalizes abroad many of the features of the American system itself.

He writes that two steps are required for the, “Formulation of American geostrategy for the long-term management of America’s Eurasian geopolitical interests.”
First, to identify the geostrategically dynamic Eurasian states that have the power to cause a potentially important shift in the international distribution of power and to decipher the central external goals of their respective political elites and the likely consequences of their seeking to attain them; and to pinpoint the geopolitically critical Eurasian states whose location and/or existence have catalytic effects either on the more active geostrategic players or on regional conditions;

Second, to formulate specific U.S. policies to offset, co-opt, and/or control the above, so as to preserve and promote vital U.S. interests, and to conceptualize a more comprehensive geostrategy that establishes on a global scale the interconnection between the more specific U.S. policies.

In brief, for the United States, Eurasian geostrategy involves the purposeful management of geostrategically dynamic states and the careful handling of geopolitically catalytic states, in keeping with the twin interests of America in the short-term preservation of its unique global power and in the long-run transformation of it into increasingly institutionalized global cooperation. To put it in a terminology that hearkens back to the more brutal age of ancient empires, the three grand imperatives of imperial geostrategy are to prevent collusion and maintain security dependence among the vassals, to keep tributaries pliant and protected, and to keep the barbarians from coming together.

In this context, “democracy” needs to be an insidious sham that serves U.S. national interests. It makes for better public relations than ugly dictatorships.

1 comments

Turkish premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan once let slip that democracy was a tram “you ride until you arrive at your destination, then you step off."

And dear old Winston said a similar thing - though we don't quote it with quite so much foreboding.

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