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Revolution and hunger

Written By: - Date published: 9:51 am, August 28th, 2011 - 44 comments
Categories: climate change, disaster, food, International - Tags: ,

What provokes a populace to take to the streets in violent uprising? Is it the inexorable power of a demand for justice and democracy? Or is it something much simpler than that…

Take the case of the recent “Arab uprising”, often claimed (here in the West) to be a popular democratic movement.  That’s a “feel good” kind of message, but it probably isn’t true.  A recent analysis (not yet peer reviewed) by the New England Complex Systems Institute suggests a much simpler explanation.  The Guardian reports:

Are food prices approaching a violent tipping point?

A provocative new study suggests the timing of the Arab uprisings is linked to global food price spikes, and that prices will soon permanently be above the level which sparks conflicts

Seeking simple explanations for the Arab spring uprisings that have swept through Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya, is clearly foolish amidst entangled issues of social injustice, poverty, unemployment and water stress. But asking “why precisely now?” is less daft, and a provocative new study proposes an answer: soaring food prices. …

The first part of the research is straightforward enough: plotting riots identified as over food against the food price index. The correlation is striking, but is it evidence of causation?

The UN FAO food price index correlates with “food riots” around 2008 and the “Arab spring” conflicts. Death tolls are reported in parentheses. Graph: New England Complex Systems Institute

Bar-Yam says this conundrum can be tackled by asking the question in clear ways. Could the riots be causing high food prices, rather than the reverse? No, the former is local, the latter global. Could the correlation simply be a coincidence? Yes, there’s only a tiny chance of that, Bar-Yam’s team argues in the paper. … The next part of the study identifies that the serious unrest in North Africa and the Middle East also correlates very closely with a food price spike. …

This particular example fits with the trend observed over a longer time period:

Climate cycles linked to civil war, analysis shows

Changes in the global climate that cut food production triggered one-fifth of civil conflicts between 1950 and 2004

Cyclical climatic changes double the risk of civil wars, with analysis showing that 50 of 250 conflicts between 1950 and 2004 were triggered by the El Niño cycle, according to scientists.

Researchers connected the climate phenomenon known as El Niño, which brings hot and dry conditions to tropical nations and cuts food production, to outbreaks of violence in countries from southern Sudan to Indonesia and Peru. …

Read on in that piece for many more examples. And see here for the World Bank warning on soaring food prices world wide.  As long term climate change begins to seriously disrupt food production in many parts of the world, we are in for a very bumpy ride.

44 comments on “Revolution and hunger”

  1. Colonial Viper 1

    Good post. We are in for a rough time. There is almost no way around it now, but NZ still has time to position itself for this global instability if it works hard.

    Here Dmitry Orlov speaks of collapse and the relationship to peak oil (and the relationship to industrial farming).

    • Draco T Bastard 1.1

      There is almost no way around it now, but NZ still has time to position itself for this global instability if it works hard.

      And set ourselves up so that we can’t be invaded.

    • CV,

      How did you embed the video?

      [lprent: Accidently by a bug in the updated wordpress. I will be closing off the method later today. ]

  2. alex 2

    I have never seen a more clear reason to vote Green. They are the only party talking about this sort of thing, and lets face it, its fairly bloody serious stuff. Labour if elected won’t bother doing anything, they will tinker with GST on food, which in a perfect world would be a perfect policy. The thing is though, we need a parliament willing to tackle climate issues, water quality and food prices head on.

    • Colonial Viper 2.1

      Greens are still a mainstream party who believes in mainstream economic growth (albeit a slightly greener/green collar version) and the power of the markets, albeit more regulated balanced ones.

      More directly, re: food prices, what would the Greens do to make sure that New Zealanders have access to the cheapest milk prices in the OECD?

      A solid example like this serves to show how similar all the parties are to each other, any differences can be measured in centimetres.

      • Shane Gallagher 2.1.1

        Hi CV – the Greens don’t believe in “growth” like the other parties do – we all know we need to transition to a steady state economy, or a “weightless growth” economy – and what that would look like is a huge conversation to be had. But to try to talk about that in an election cycle is not something we think is useful. We need to move to economy to a point where it is able to transition – and we are nowhere near that at the moment.

        With regard to milk prices – well we don’t have a position on what to do there because we don’t know where the prices are being inflated – is it at the farm or the supermarket, or is it both? You cannot make sensible policy statements until you have a good idea about what is happening, which is why we have been calling for an investigation.

        We want to change the culture here believes to mark human well-being. Away from things like flash cars and flat screen tvs to community, health, equality – that kind of thing. These things we cannot run out of – they are qualitative and not quantitive. It is what really makes our lives better and more fulfilling.

    • Dr Terry Creagh 2.2

      Well said Alex, you have my agreement and, I am sure, that of many others.

  3. Afewknowthetruth 3

    alex.

    As CV notes, the Greens are not the answer because they are a mainstream party that superficially makes all the right noises but when it comes to the crunch their policies have little substance, and deep down the Greens want to preserve most of the present dysfunctional system (or are scared to tell the truth)..

    I have put it this way several times:

    Off the cliff with National at 100 kph

    Off the cliff with Labour at 90 kph

    Off the cliff with the Greens at 80 kph….

    … and I have seen NOTHING to make me change my mind. Every day that passes the energetic and environmental predicaments get worse.

    Right now around 40% of the land area of the US is in drought which will impact severely on food production.

    http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/

    Meanwhile an unprecedented hurricane is in the process of devastating much of the northeast coast.

    The fall in oil prices that is accompanying worldwide economic collapse will provide some respite to rising food prices but longer term the industrial agricultural system has no future. Mass starvation is inevitable.

    Most people will continue to refuse to accept reality and will learn the hard way.

    • Draco T Bastard 3.1

      Right now around 40% of the land area of the US is in drought which will impact severely on food production.

      IIRC, Climate Change turns the entire centre of the US, from Texas through to Canada, into desert.

    • alex 3.2

      “I have put it this way several times:

      Off the cliff with National at 100 kph

      Off the cliff with Labour at 90 kph

      Off the cliff with the Greens at 80 kph….”

      Sorry, but this is stupidly simplistic, the interlinked nature of food prices and climate means it isn’t just a matter of a ‘car going over a cliff.’ We need real progress on this now, and no amount of defeatist twaddle is going to help. Food prices and climate instability are linked, as well as the global nature of food price speculation. Green politics always advocate that we buy as locally as possible, drastically reducing the incentive to speculate on global food price. Furthermore, better resource management, more sustainable agriculture and a climate which is less affected by our actions will help prevent a global food crisis.

      To go back to your pointless analogy, maybe we don’t need to drive off the cliff at all.

    • prism 3.3

      @AFKTT – Would you say you have an anarchist view? Or a deeply cynical one that concentrates on pointing out how bad things will be with no reference to defensive positions.

      The fall in oil prices that is accompanying worldwide economic collapse will provide some respite to rising food prices but longer term the industrial agricultural system has no future. Mass starvation is inevitable.

      Most people will continue to refuse to accept reality and will learn the hard way.

  4. Tiger Mountain 4

    These events need to be related to concrete circumstances, why mid East popular militation now rather than five or ten years ago? The same anti democratic conditions largely prevailed then. Yes rising food prices push people to the limit in the most primal way, but communications and the internet are a factor too, allowing a massive information flow. It is way harder for torturers and the corrupt to hide in these days of Wiki and Youtube.

    Wide political participation has arrived in the countries mentioned above, the outcome to be determined. Unfortunately in New Zealand political freedoms are frittered away by “don’t know, don’t care, not about to find out” kiwis. NZ like the UK and US is becoming a surveillance state. CCT on every street corner.

    In a small way though food prices via the NZ milk price enquiry may come to bite the Nats and expose elements of industrial agriculture, commodified food and the ticket clipping retail supply chain.

    • neoleftie 4.1

      as long as our society i.e nation put food on the table and creates this situation where most peoples ‘boats are floating’ then the apathy of the masses is prevelant…doesnt matter if most people ‘boat’ is not quite the same size as some i.e elites cause they are still getting the base materialism needs satisfied, just wait until most people start to miss out directly then the condition are ripe for the transtion revolution from neo lib chaos to an orderly society.

      • prism 4.1.1

        @neoleftie –

        just wait until most people start to miss out directly then the condition are ripe for the transtion revolution from neo lib chaos to an orderly society.

        An orderly society. You must be kidding. An authoritarian society keeping ‘law and order’ with overt violence.

  5. Campbell Larsen 5

    As other countries work to ensure that have access to food supplies by buying up farmland in places like NZ what steps is our government taking to ensure that we will continue to have access to the raw materials and manufactured goods that our domestic economy cannot produce?

    Is our plan simply to trade our food for those goods? That relies on globel trade still being viable and equitable to some degree and there are no guarantees of that.
    Why are we doing nothing to stockpile materials and retain domestic manufacturing capability?
    Global super powers certainly seem to think that it is necessary, and yet the NZ government does not – why?

    Because NZ is not working at all towards independence. Our governments plan for weathering any crisis is to rely on the kindness and goodwill of our trading partners and we have no plan at all to ensure that at some point we won’t be held to ransom. Of course NZ does not have a military that could defend our shores so from this perspective treaties and alliances certainly have their place. However ensuring access to energy/ raw materials and a plan to build/retain domestic manufacturing capability is the best way to ensure that we can negotiate from a position of strength with our trading partners.

    If we do not take steps to retain/ work towards some measure of independence from global trade then inevitably we will be subsumed within a larger emerging power block and lose what remains of our sovereignty as a Nation.

    • Draco T Bastard 5.1

      Why are we doing nothing to stockpile materials and retain domestic manufacturing capability?

      Because the magical market will provide. It’s why selling all of our resources, as the government and Labour want, is such a good idea.

      /sarcasm

  6. Most nights like many people I watch the news onTV.Every night we see poverty , hunger , refugee camps.Every night we see civil wars , revolutions and government brutality. We see that the people involved have the latest weapons of destruction , cluster bombs . rockets ,tanks , and the most modern of diabolic weapons. Millions of people are starving ,children just dying of starvation yet there are millions spent on these weapons .Where the hell does the money to pay for these weapons come from.? What perhaps is more important is who supplies the weapons. Is there no way to stop the production and sale of these killer toys?

    • Afewknowthetruth 6.1

      tpp

      ‘Where the hell does the money to pay for these weapons come from.?’

      Governments create the money out of thin air by issuing bonds on the international bond market and promsing to pay the bond purchaser interest (also created out of thin air).

      When international buyers fail to turn up at bond auctions governments buy their own bonds to make it look as though the system is still functioning.

      Everyone pays for it all long term via ‘inflation’ which is really just continuous devaluation of money aready in the system.

    • locus 6.2

      The big six nations manufacturing and exporting arms are USA, Russia, Germany, UK, France and China. The manufacturers provide weapons for ‘defence’ forces of their own countries. National governments commit hundreds of millions a year to these companies and enable their ‘defence industry’ to export arms to ‘friendly’ nations as this helps recoup their investment and gives them political influence. This alliance between governments and arms manufacturers is in Eisenhower’s words, a “military-industrial-congressional complex.”

      Rich nations get their money to buy arms from their taxpayers. Poor nations get their money to buy arms from rich nations or extremely rich individuals who want to have political influence. Rebels and terrorists likewise.

      As long as there are wars, revolutions, dictators and aggressor states there’s no way to stop this business. Currently the best way to limit it, is to support international arms limitation agreements – at least these try to prevent insanities like nuclear, biological, chemical and cluster munitions.

  7. Afewknowthetruth 7

    Back to the original question: ‘What provokes a populace to take to the streets in violent uprising?’

    Answer: Having little or nothing to lose and a lot to gain.

    • locus 7.1

      it takes a lot to risk your life, but hunger, combined with no hope of jobs, no freedom of speech and massive wealth in hands of the few will probably do it for most people. A sense of outrage helps … the constant drip drip drip of societal prejudice and unfairness

  8. Bored 8

    Just come to this post after a week end off blogging…spent it gardening. We here in NZ have had a strange winter, long warm dry periods interspersed with extreme cold weather, gale winds, snow. It indicates to me some basic weather change which I have to adapt to in the garden.

    On the above posts there seems to me that we stand on the edge of a precipice, economic dire times, uncertain and diminishing energy for agricultural use, global warming and therefore famine. Yet we the people refuse to see it en masse. Our “leadership” is a vacuum that invites extreme response, the collective political space is ripe for invasion by extremes as legitimacy dissappears. Its a bit scary. Our only realistic answer is to participate, lead ourselves, get rid of the old.

    • Bill 8.1

      “Our only realistic answer is to participate, lead ourselves, get rid of the old.”

      Count me in! 🙂

    • AAMC 8.2

      Or collectively buy a big chunk of land and start a country/community within the country which is founded on permaculture and true participatory democracy. Like the Zapotista in Mexico.

      • Bill 8.2.1

        You might be interested to know that such a proposal is in the pipeline AAMC.

        • AAMC 8.2.1.1

          I am increasingly interested in an option like this. A lot of us seem to agree that even if we get a marginally more favourable government into power, no real issues will be resolved. Perhaps best then to do the best we can to prepare for the future and move forward in spite of ineffectual governance

          • AAMC 8.2.1.1.1

            So where do get information about this proposal in the pipeline Bill?

            • Bill 8.2.1.1.1.1

              I’m not being evasive, but as ‘a proposal in the pipeline’ indicates, the proposal is being developed. Which makes it kind of hard to say anything.

              What I can say at the moment is that the fundamentals of the constitution are drawn up and that it ties in with existing legislation (Industrial and Provident Societies Act). It’s expansive rather than restrictive. Central themes are that it seeks to enhance the agency of the collective and those who comprise it and locks out market dynamics.

              It achieves the latter objective (locking out the market) by positing the collective entity, rather than individuals who comprise it, as the economic agent engaged with the market. Land and structures on the land are wholly owned by the collective. Income is generated by the collective and individuals access that income they have collectively generated through income sharing arrangements.

              Membership does not require a financial outlay beyond the purchase of a nominal share (say $1) that can not be traded or accrue in value; the ownership of which reverts back to the collective if a person leaves the collective.

              There was such a collective in the north of England that was established around 1974. (It continues to this day, but under different auspices) Some of the central features it developed was a strong focus on participatory democracy with the concomitant levelling of hierarchies. ‘Spin offs’ included a strong commitment to skill sharing (whether work (income) based skills or other wise) and developing internal structures across a whole range of fronts to meet any undesirable eventuality that might be developing head on (various social conflict mechanisms etc).

              There are two ex-members of that community wanting to form a community (or communities) here. There is also a fairly substantial pool of ex-members, whose collective experience spans decades who, it is hoped, will lend their built up institutional knowledge/memory to any developments that get under way here.

              A proposal should be ready this year or very early in the new year and will definately be the subject of a post here at ‘the standard’.

              • AAMC

                Very interesting, I totally understand your inability to elaborate and will look forward to hearing more.

                Have you watched Adam Curtis’s recent documentary where he looks at the Communes of the 60’s and 70’s, very interesting, and suggests there are lessons to be learned from those previous experiments.

                • Bill

                  heh

                  Don’t know who I detest more. Hippies or authoritarian leftists. Both go nowhere beyond up their own arse imo.

                  Sub cultures (such as the hippy one) come and go. And when they try to develop some alternative based on their ideas or beliefs, then the alternative will fade along with their sub culture.

                  Or they will persist as disconnected, irrelevant cults.

                  See how in that link, it was claimed that politics was a ‘no no’ and that things would be just fine if things were left to their own devices? Well, that meant (just to pick one example) that attitudes of patriarchy weren’t explored or challenged. So sexism flowered under the auspices of ‘free love’… a pathetic, selfish bastardisation of the original meaning of the term that signalled the right of people to enter relationships without requiring the sanction of the church or the state; not ‘free to fuck anything that moves’

                  Today, communities that form (or formed) on the back of some ‘nice idea’ and a ‘promise’ to be nice towards one another and ‘get along’ invariably re-create a parody of the very thing they seek or sought to be an alternative to. I’ve seen it time and again. Strip it all down and what they have done is merely recreated the dominant market culture (or capitalist culture) and dressed it up with various rags of self obsessed hedonistic clap trap.

                  edit it’s one thing to have a person or a few people who want to dance and chant before the sun or whatever (Who cares? Each to their own.) and having an entire community predicated on acceptance of dancing and chanting as some religious rite or whatever

                  • AAMC

                    Yes, in an interview with Adam Curtis, he joked that a strong factor in/ component of the Feminist movement in the 70’s was a result of or was populated with, the byproduct of these communes.

                    • prism

                      @AAMC That’s not surprising. Communes were a response to the wish for a new way of living, sometimes more idealistic than practical but some found a workable system. Feminists also wanted to find a new way of being and how they were being regarded by a male-dominated society. They were idealistic too, but considered practical improvements as well resulting in different ways of living that allowed more opportunities. The sixties were a time of new ideas and social change and hope for a good future. Now we are hoping for a future.

              • just saying

                Keep us posted Bill.

                I’ve been looking into something similar, but on a smaller scale, with a few friends in my community. I’m only too aware of how difficult it is to organise, and then maintain something truly democaratic in the day-to-day running, having been involved in a ‘planned community’ in the past.
                It’s good to hear of a few people around here coming to similar conclusions about the future and I would be only to glad to share ideas and other resources.

  9. Bill 9

    Yes, local weather conditions can affect crop yields. And yes, global climate changes increase the incidence of adverse local weather patterns or events.

    But when the price of wheat spiked and the failed Russian harvest was pointed to as being the cause, the total global wheat harvest was the highest ever recorded.

    What study after study seems determined to ignore ( and Bar-Yam is no different) is the effect of Wallstreet and the impact speculative trading on commodities has.

    The speculators on Wall Street are having a far bigger impact on food prices than any of the climate induced crop failures. (The prices of staples that are not traded on Wall Street didn’t spike, yet they are subject to the same growing environment and the same crop failures.)

    That fact appears to be too political for most to tackle. So we get the ineffective hand wringing over the conveniently ‘too big to tackle’ problem of global climate instead.

    As for the question of the study, why didn’t he simply ask the people on the street in Egypt why they were on the street? They’d have told him straight that the unaffordability of bread, cooking oil etc was their principle motivation.

    • JonL 9.1

      “As for the question of the study, why didn’t he simply ask the people on the street in Egypt why they were on the street? They’d have told him straight that the unaffordability of bread, cooking oil etc was their principle motivation.”

      I thought everybody knew this…….it was often mentioned at the beginning of the uprising in Egypt – on ABC TV, anyway……

  10. aerobubble 10

    We knew peak food, energy prices were on the way, Key government failure
    to even understand the problem has left many behind.
    http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/5521345/Children-silent-victims-of-the-recession

    Its not good enough. We know wht happens when the politicians work for
    themselves not for the people. Police start criminalizing the disabled.
    Human rights commentators start stress how its okay to discriminate
    if its not protected by the law. Youth get angry when one of their own
    has their phoned tapped and police misdirected when searching for their
    raped murdered corpse, and then in their anger they target the goods that
    society now revives, and also emulates the community destructive
    policies of Austerity.

    So should we just all hanker down for peak oil to pass over us, or
    can we start acting like intelligent apes and have a discussion in parliament
    about peak oil. Or is Key, Goff, etc all too scared, yellow I believe it was
    referred too in times past. When will politicians grow a backbone and
    crawl out of the saline seas.

    • Afewknowthetruth 10.1

      Don’t forget that around 5 years ago, when the Maori Party still had a spine and hadn’t become putty in the hands of National, they requested an inter-party commission to discuss peak oil.

      It all died a quick death, of course, because the Labour government of the time wasn’t the least bit interested in discussing reality. And when National took over, neither were they.

      • neoleftie 10.1.1

        To my knowledge Labour is aware of this major issue but social cohesion is paramount – cant have our great leaders wetting themselves in public and upsetting the dull masses…give the headcount bread and cross our fingers is their mantra.
        oh maybe thats why JK has taken to the drink – pressure of knowing the real global situation.

      • aerobubble 10.1.2

        Two points. Under Maori party more Maori have left for OZ, would like to know how many
        but sure its up.
        Labour are a right of centre party, Labour politicians needed to get elected in a Murdoch
        driven media market, money was being bet on all sorts of cheap oil crap outcomes.
        Labour cannot be blamed solely for the Zombie madness, National were doing absolutely
        nothing in opposition, the far right reigned the airwaves, and stupid rule the US.
        Peak Oil has yet to hurt us, this morning, as is my habit i count the number of
        people in cars. Still one per car medium.
        Humans won’t change until its very late in the day.

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