Monday, January 31, 2011

Let Them Eat Cake

I guess it's in our nature to want to treat the unrest sweeping the Arab world as an expression of an unquenchable thirst for democracy.   Unfortunately that's not true.   Fortunately what is going on is much greater than a mere demand for democratic reform and, because of that, regime change in the Arab world is far more likely to happen.

One reason the upheaval, that began in Tunisia and currently is spreading through Egypt and soon may topple the ruling government in Yemen, is so unfocused is that the dissent is much more broadly based than we often perceive it.   Some are, in fact, seeking democratic reform.   Others, however, are much more concerned with stunted economic opportunity and social mobility.   For others yet it's all about hunger and the inability of their government to keep food staples affordable.

In a few days, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) will be releasing its latest Food Price Index.   December, 2010 was the record index score but the January figures are expected to be very close to the all-time record.

Punishing food prices can sometimes trigger food riots as seen in many countries in 2008 but rarely lead to the sort of upheaval that triggers regime change.  They do, however, created broad based discontent.  What's confronting autocratic Arab rulers today is the perfect storm of political and economic upheaval reinforced by unrest over food prices.  

Autocrats throughout the Middle East are cottoning on to the need to marginalize the political and economic dissent by disarming general discontent over food prices.   In hopelessly undemocratic Kuwait, the national assembly has passed a $5-billion food aid package.   Get this, each Kuwaiti citizen will receive an allotment of $3,850.   That is accompanied by distribution of certain food staples free of charge.  Kuwaiti authorities put it down to celebrating the golden jubilee of independence next month, the twentieth anniversary of liberation from Iraqi occupation and to honor the five years of the emir’s ascendance to power.   Yeah, right, sure.

But it's not just democratic reform, economic stagnation and food prices that will be plaguing the region this year and for a good time to come, possibly decades.   Add to that regional water crises.   The Telegraph reports that, in this region, water riots are next:

"Water remains a more problematic commodity than food and fuel: though cheap in its natural state, it is expensive to process and expensive to transport, especially in the quantities necessary for agriculture," according to a report released last month from the Washington-based, Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"Past water shortages have been temporary or small-scaled; future groundwater depletion will be massive and effectively permanent."

As I've argued at length, we are witnessing the emergence of destabilizing forces unlike any we have known for centuries, perhaps even in the history of mankind.   Add'em up - climate change, the freshwater crisis, floods and droughts in increasing frequency and severity, desertification, deforestation, air/soil/water contamination, overpopulation, resource depletion and exhaustion, disease migration, species extinction, sea level rise and associated issues of inundation and surge flooding - those are already setting in.  Add to those global security threats including terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and wars of sustenance.   Soon to come will be climate-driven mass migration.

So the best Mubarak and other ME autocrats can hope for is to buy a little time because the problems they're struggling to overcome today are changing from periodic to permanent and they're only going to continue to worsen.   The Century of Revolution is upon us.

4 comments:

Mentarch said...

"The century of revolution is upon us"

Aye - unfortunately, it will result in chaos and death.

Perhaps (most likely) even in the loss of "modern" civilization, including our current advances in medicine, sciences, engineering and technology (look at the dire state of science education in the so-called "free world", eh?) - in turn accentuating/exacerbating said chaos and death.

And let's not delude ourselves: we Canadians, our American neighbours as well, will not be exempted from this calamity.

Unless, of course, we all wake the f*ck up and start doing something - anything - to stem the raging tides that are inevitably, unavoidably, heading towards us.

At least, then, we might manage to lessen that much the chaos and death.

On the other hand, we may be way too late already to accomplish even such a small feat.

Indeed, when considering the prevalent selfish, narcissistic, hedonistic culture of ours, I'm afraid we'll all be in for a catastrophic ride.

In short: no one will be unaffected, no one will be left untouched, no one will be spared - sadly enough.

"Mea culpa, mea culpa", indeed ...

Mark Francis said...

Add the unpredictable changes we will see all over the world due to climate change in the decades to come, and it's not hard to see why Canada's military considers climate change to be a severe threat to security. Change, negative, positive and likely mostly unclear, will sweep large areas of the Earth.

Anonymous said...

Can you imagine what it will be like in 2050 when the popultion is 9 billion? My poor grand children!!

The Mound of Sound said...

@ Pierre. How many do you think realize that the 21st century may indeed pose existential challenges to our "modern" civilization? If we were to acknowledge that as a real possibility would our leaders be able to continue pursuing the fantastic notion of "sustainable growth?"

Water may well be the pin in the grenade. A warmer atmosphere holds more water vapour, itself a greenhouse gas. That atmospheric water is eventually transformed into deluge, flooding, mudslides, the loss of lives, livestock and crops. In the interval it gives rise to drought.

@ Mark. I wasn't aware that Canadian Forces had adopted a position on climate change. The British MoD did a few years back and the Pentagon followed suit in the most recent Quadrennial Defense Review.

Gwynne Dyer points out that, in terms of external threats from climate change, each nation's greatest danger lies in that country positioned immediately between it and the equator. Now, where do you think that leaves us?

@ Anon. Yes, we have dealt our grandchildren a truly shitty hand. Not that it will matter too much but I remain unconvinced that mankind will ever reach 9-billion. Every analysis that comes to that conclusion that I have read, without exception, is either based on questionable assumptions or omits relevant factors.

The good news is that overall global carbon emissions fell by .01% last year. The bad news is that this resulted from the global recession, not climate change initiatives.