Look at the international media these days and what do we see?
Oil prices rising – petrol is the most expensive it has ever been at this time of year suggesting it may break all-time records again when it rises to its normal yearly high-point during the northern summer. This is peak oil.
Extreme weather events – storms happen but massive storms do not usually occur in simultaneously or rapid succession all around the world. In the past few weeks we’ve seen once-in-a-century type snow storms in Europe, the US, South Korea at the same time as supposedly once-in-a-century flooding has hit Sri Lanka and Queensland, and an extremely active Pacific cyclone season driven by an intense La Nina. Our warmer atmosphere can now hold more water and contains more energy, making these storm events more frequent. There are other extreme climatic events – Russia is experiencing a bitterly cold winter after its record breaking summer while the lungs of the world, the Amazon rainforest, is actually adding to the world’s carbon emissions this year because shifting weather patterns have caused a record drought. This is climate change.
Food prices rising – those extreme weather events are often destroying food crops. Queensland and Russia are major wheat producers and the loss of their crops has driven up prices. The worse may be yet to come with severe drought expected for the world’s largest wheat producer – China. Once the world, if it chose, could call on surplus capacity to make up for crop failures. Now, there’s no spare capacity and more extreme events meaning savage price spikes. This is peak food.
Governments failing and falling – the weakest links breaking first.
Let’s look at the countries experiencing revolution and large-scale civil unrest – Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, and Algeria. What do these countries have in common apart from the fact they’re all Arab?
In Tunisia and Egypt, declining tourism and receipts from hydrocarbon exports meant the governments were unable to afford to increase subsidies to shield their populations from the price shocks. It was hunger and unemployment that drove the people to revolution. The people didn’t suddenly decide to overthrow leaders who had ruled them for 30 years for no reason. A man with a starving family quickly losses his fear of the state police.
Obviously, the new governments won’t be magically overcome these fundamental issues. They will be able, if they choose, to redistribute the wealth more fairly to placate the masses but there’s not going to be a solution to the underlying issues. While these revolts are, so far, limited to the Arab world that’s mainly a result of cultural links, the fundamental issues are universal and will be felt evermore severely in poor countries. So, I don’t think you’ll see a rich Arab country like Saudi Arabia having a revolt before other poor countries in Africa and Asia.
That’s to say, I think we’re seeing the first, already wobbly, dominoes falling but it’s not just an Arab world phenomena, all States are at risk to varying degrees. And new governments aren’t going to be able to fix climate change and peak oil any more than their predecessors, giving them immediate legitimacy problems which leads to the potential for countries to become failed states.
One other point to note, the UN has complained that its call for international aid donations in the wake of the Sri Lankan floods that displaced 1.2 million people went largely unanswered. $51 million was needed, just $8.4 million has been pledged. It seems the West already has its hands full with its own economic problems and the expense of trying (unsuccessfully) to deal by varied means with the failed states in Haiti, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan.
This is what a future of peak oil and peak food looks like. The weakest states falling over first. The rich countries increasingly overburdened by their own problems and the magnitude of problems abroad not being able to intervene effectively, and the edges of the global nation-state system crumbling.
What do we do, as a country that can feed itself ten times over, as these man-made disasters wreak havoc – how do we both protect ourselves and carry out our duty to aid our fellow humans in need?
As a starting point, I would suggest that we would have much more freedom of action to help ourselves and others if a tiny elite didn’t control nearly all our country’s capital and extravagantly consume the lion’s share of our economic product.