Sunday, March 02, 2014

We Stand on the Brink of Global Instability and There's No Running from It

Maybe we should rethink our rush to extract and export as much of Canada's fossil fuel reserves as possible.  Maybe we should give some thought to the domestic needs of our future generations.

A fascinating article from The Guardian today by Dr. Nafeez Ahmed, executive director of the Institute for Policy Research and Development, explores the connection between the end of cheap energy and unrest spreading across the globe.  His warning is stark.  We either hasten our transition to a post-carbon world  and adapt to it quickly or we face a global epidemic of rioting and instability.

If anyone had hoped that the Arab Spring and Occupy protests a few years back were one-off episodes that would soon give way to more stability, they have another thing coming. The hope was that ongoing economic recovery would return to pre-crash levels of growth, alleviating the grievances fueling the fires of civil unrest, stoked by years of recession.

But this hasn't happened. And it won't.

Instead the post-2008 crash era, including 2013 and early 2014, has seen a persistence and proliferation of civil unrest on a scale that has never been seen before in human history. This month alone has seen riots kick-off in Venezuela, Bosnia, Ukraine, Iceland, and Thailand.

This is not a coincidence. The riots are of course rooted in common, regressive economic forces playing out across every continent of the planet - but those forces themselves are symptomatic of a deeper, protracted process of global system failure as we transition from the old industrial era of dirty fossil fuels, towards something else.

Food insecurity, a major factor in the Arab Spring uprisings, and the demise of cheap energy point to a looming epidemic of rioting and instability.

In Ukraine, previous food price shocks have impacted negatively on the country's grain exports, contributing to intensifying urban poverty in particular. Accelerating levels of domestic inflation are underestimated in official statistics - Ukrainians spend on average as much as 75% on household bills, and more than half their incomes on necessities such as food and non-alcoholic drinks, and as75% on household bills. Similarly, for most of last year, Venezuela suffered from ongoing food shortages driven by policy mismanagement along with 17 year record-high inflation due mostly to rising food prices.

While dependence on increasingly expensive food imports plays a role here, at the heart of both countries is a deepening energy crisis. Ukraine is a net energy importer, having peaked in oil and gas production way back in 1976. Despite excitement about domestic shale potential, Ukraine's oil production has declined by over 60% over the last twenty years driven by both geological challenges and dearth of investment.
Currently, about 80% of Ukraine's oil, and 80% of its gas, is imported from Russia. But over half of Ukraine's energy consumption is sustained by gas. Russian natural gas prices have nearly quadrupled since 2004. The rocketing energy prices underpin the inflation that is driving excruciating poverty rates for average Ukranians, exacerbating social, ethnic, political and class divisions.
These local conditions are being exacerbated by global structural realities. Record high global food prices impinge on these local conditions and push them over the edge. But the food price hikes, in turn, are symptomatic of a range of overlapping problems. Global agriculture's excessive dependence on fossil fuel inputs means food prices are invariably linked to oil price spikes.
Naturally, biofuels and food commodity speculation pushes prices up even further - elite financiers alone benefit from this while working people from middle to lower classes bear the brunt.

Of course, the elephant in the room is climate change. According to Japanese media, a leaked draft of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) second major report warned that while demand for food will rise by 14%, global crop production will drop by 2% per decade due to current levels of global warming, and wreak $1.45 trillion of economic damage by the end of the century. The scenario is based on a projected rise of 2.5 degrees Celsius.


The epidemic of global riots is symptomatic of global system failure - a civilisational form that has outlasted its usefulness. We need a new paradigm.

Unfortunately, simply taking to the streets isn't the answer. What is needed is a meaningful vision for civilisational transition - backed up with people power and ethical consistence.

It's time that governments, corporations and the public alike woke up to the fact that we are fast entering a new post-carbon era, and that the quicker we adapt to it, the far better our chances of successfully redefining a new form of civilisation - a new form of prosperity - that is capable of living in harmony with the Earth system.

But if we continue to make like ostriches, we'll only have ourselves to blame when the epidemic becomes a pandemic at our doorsteps.



Troy Thomas said...

I tell people, in the past, the global temperature of the Earth had risen around or above six degrees. The Earth survived then, as it will survive our reckless industrialization. Granted, that era was an extinction event (Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum), but the Earth itself will be fine.
As for our own fates? Who the fluff knows? I think the last extinction event, humans barely survived, numbering in the thousands.
But I tell those younger than me, prepare your hearts and minds for the coming days. I can't see into the future, but I can make a decent guess. We may need to become a transient people. Learn to adapt to hardship. This life of luxury cannot continue. Steel your soul. Look to the past, and rely on the blood in your veins, to get through to the future.
If we cannot convince the elite and the powerful of the need for revolution, then we must be prepared ourselves as individuals for the coming changes.

Troy Thomas said...

Oops, minor correction to my above comment: "I think the last extinction event (not the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum, but a different one)..."

The Mound of Sound said...

" system failure - a civilizational form that has outlived its usefulness."

I don't know if you read my earlier essay, Troy, "The Cult of Living Large" but I was surprised to find, when I read this article a few hours later, the same theme expressed just slightly differently.

As, over the past few years, I have explored all these apparently existential threats from climate change to over-population, I came to understand that they were merely symptoms of an underlying and far more dangerous malady of our 'global system failure - a civilizational form that has outlived its usefulness.'

Even if we could gather an international resolve to tackle climate change, we'll be swatting at flies. We're mortally handicapped in that we're organized wrong - socially, economically and politically - lashed slavishly to 18th century economics, 19th century industrialism and 20th century geopolitics. We've achieved this trifecta of self-destructive addictions. Now, as we stare on unbelievingly, the walls are closing in on us.

Christ, Troy, I really thought this was all going to unfold long after I was gone.

Hugh said...

BC Govt has plans to export incredible amounts of LNG. It's amazingly stupid.

The royalty rate plan while the LNG plants are being paid off is basically $0.00. And that is supposed to pay down BC's debt. Sure thing.