The idea of riots exploding when food becomes scarce or unaffordable is not new. This is something that has been discussed before in the context of what used to be called the “IMF riots”, that is riots caused by the implementation of structural adjustment programs in developing countries (“structural adjustment” is roughly equivalent to austerity + privatization). Often, it is when these measures impacted food and water that riots would explode.
So, it is not that far-fetched to suggest a correlation between food prices and revolts in the Middle East:
Maybe we are witnessing the internal version of resource wars combined with decades of bad governance where the “panem and circenses” rule of dictators does not work anymore. There is more entertainment to be had via satellite TV and the Internet and if food prices go up, then things explode.
As the article notes:
“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.
Furthermore, it suggests there is a specific food price level above which riots and unrest become far more likely. That figure is 210 on the UN FAO’s price index: the index is currently at 234, due to the most recent spike in prices which started in the middle of 2010.
Lastly, the researchers argue that current underlying food price trends – excluding the spikes – mean the index will be permanently over the 210 threshold within a year or two. The paper concludes: “The current [food price] problem transcends the specific national political crises to represent a global concern about vulnerable populations and social order.” Big trouble, in other words.
Now, those are some pretty big statements and I should state right now that this research, by a team at the New England Complex Systems Institute, has not yet been peer reviewed. It has been published because, Yaneer Bar-Yam, NECSI president, told me, the work is relevant now but peer review is slow.
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?
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.
Lastly, could other factors be causing both the violence and the high food prices? “No-one has suggested any other factor that can do both,” says Bar-Yam. For example, oil and tin both show similar price patterns to that of food, but seem unlikely to prompt the violence. The similarity, says Bar-Yam, is because all the commodity price peaks are being driven by speculation in global markets.
Why the comparison to the original Thirty Years War?
“From 1618 to 1648, Europe was engulfed in a series of intensely brutal conflicts known collectively as the Thirty Years’ War. It was, in part, a struggle between an imperial system of governance and the emerging nation-state. Indeed, many historians believe that the modern international system of nation-states was crystallized in the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, which finally ended the fighting.
Think of us today as embarking on a new Thirty Years’ War. It may not result in as much bloodshed as that of the 1600s, though bloodshed there will be, but it will prove no less momentous for the future of the planet. Over the coming decades, we will be embroiled at a global level in a succeed-or-perish contest among the major forms of energy, the corporations which supply them, and the countries that run on them. The question will be: Which will dominate the world’s energy supply in the second half of the twenty-first century? The winners will determine how — and how badly — we live, work, and play in those not-so-distant decades, and will profit enormously as a result. The losers will be cast aside and dismembered.
Why 30 years? Because that’s how long it will take for experimental energy systems like hydrogen power, cellulosic ethanol, wave power, algae fuel, and advanced nuclear reactors to make it from the laboratory to full-scale industrial development. Some of these systems (as well, undoubtedly, as others not yet on our radar screens) will survive the winnowing process. Some will not. And there is little way to predict how it will go at this stage in the game. At the same time, the use of existing fuels like oil and coal, which spew carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, is likely to plummet, thanks both to diminished supplies and rising concerns over the growing dangers of carbon emissions.
This will be a war because the future profitability, or even survival, of many of the world’s most powerful and wealthy corporations will be at risk, and because every nation has a potentially life-or-death stake in the contest.”
Is there no other path?
“When these three decades are over, as with the Treaty of Westphalia, the planet is likely to have in place the foundations of a new system for organizing itself — this time around energy needs. In the meantime, the struggle for energy resources is guaranteed to grow ever more intense for a simple reason: there is no way the existing energy system can satisfy the world’s future requirements. It must be replaced or supplemented in a major way by a renewable alternative system or, forget Westphalia, the planet will be subject to environmental disaster of a sort hard to imagine today.
To appreciate the nature of our predicament, begin with a quick look at the world’s existing energy portfolio. According to BP, the world consumed 13.2 billion tons of oil-equivalent from all sources in 2010: 33.6% from oil, 29.6% from coal, 23.8% from natural gas, 6.5% from hydroelectricity, 5.2% from nuclear energy, and a mere 1.3% percent from all renewable forms of energy. Together, fossil fuels — oil, coal, and gas — supplied 10.4 billion tons, or 87% of the total.
Even attempting to preserve this level of energy output in 30 years’ time, using the same proportion of fuels, would be a near-hopeless feat. Achieving a 40% increase in energy output, as most analysts believe will be needed to satisfy the existing requirements of older industrial powers and rising demand in China and other rapidly developing nations, is simply impossible.”
And two facts are unavoidable: we are running out of oil (and certainly the era of “cheap” and easily accessible oil is over) and global climate change.
And this also means that we will see an over-militarization of the states in order to access these diminishing resources, if it bankrupts them in the process (as with the US, for instance).
And yes, there are already existing alternatives and research done to find more, but nothing will be really usable on a larger scale within the next thirty years.
How will it end?
“Thirty years from now, for better or worse, the world will be a far different place: hotter, stormier, and with less land (given the loss of shoreline and low-lying areas to rising sea levels). Strict limitations on carbon emissions will certainly be universally enforced and the consumption of fossil fuels, except under controlled circumstances, actively discouraged. Oil will still be available to those who can afford it, but will no longer be the world’s paramount fuel. New powers, corporate and otherwise, in new combinations will have risen with a new energy universe. No one can know, of course, what our version of the Treaty of Westphalia will look like or who will be the winners and losers on this planet. In the intervening 30 years, however, that much violence and suffering will have ensued goes without question. Nor can anyone say today which of the contending forms of energy will prove dominant in 2041 and beyond.
Whichever countries move most swiftly to embrace these or similar energy possibilities will be the likeliest to emerge in 2041 with vibrant economies — and given the state of the planet, if luck holds, just in the nick of time.”
My guess is it won’t be the US as it is still in denial about peak oil and global climate change.
Keep in mind the petro-state as rentier state in the oil complex as state-owned companies make Exxon and others, as Watts say, look like little start-ups. And who says rent-based means corruption, bloated and inefficient operations dedicated to managing surplus.
We started hearing about water wars in 2002 with the notorious case of the conflict in Cochabamba, Bolivia where a scheme to privatize water distribution backfired dramatically and perfectly illustrated everything that seems wrong with globalization: a semi-peripheral government in debt, the World Bank steps in and demands privatization of everything, only one very large transnational corporation steps up and gets a sweet deal (low price, 16% guaranteed profit, ownership of private wells), reduces service and enormously raises prices on water. Activists and indigenous people fight back. The government represses.
So, while I was in Italy last week, I could not help notice these signs all over the place (my photo):
Well, it appears that Italy is having a referendum today on the possible privatization of water (on top of voting to getting back to nuclear power and giving Berlusconi more immunity).
Italy is not the only place where water is at issue. The Patagonia region of Chile is also facing unrest and government repression over the possible construction of hydro-electric power plants.
Ironically, it is an Italian corporation that is slated for the construction, but the whole thing looks a lot like the Cochabamba case.
And in all cases, it is truly the people versus the alliance of corporations and government. At least, the Italians get to have a say.
“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.
What makes the picture look so worrisome today are indications that the severity and frequency of extreme weather events appear to be on the rise. In the past few weeks alone, several such events point the way to serious supply problems ahead. Most significant has been the unprecedented rainfall and flooding in Australia that put an area more than twice the size of California largely underwater, significantly disrupting wheat cultivation there. Australia is one of the world’s leading wheat producers. Unusually dry conditions in the American Midwest and Argentina have also hinted at future problems in grain and corn output. It’s still too early to predict the size of this year’s grain and corn harvests, but many analysts are warning of a shortfall in supplies, along with sky-high prices.
According to some calculations, oil prices added another $72 billion to America’s mammoth balance-of-payments deficit last year. Europe had to cough up an additional $70 billion for imported oil and Japan $27 billion. “It is a very telling story,” says the IEA’s Fatih Birol of recent oil-price data. “2010 rang the first alarm bells and 2011 price levels could bring us to the same financial crisis times that we saw in 2008.”
Rising food prices leading to riots, protests, and revolts, mounting oil prices, mammoth worldwide unemployment, and a collapsed recovery — it looks like the perfect set of preconditions for a global tsunami of instability and turmoil. Events in Algeria and Tunisia give us just an inkling of what this maelstrom might look like, but where and how it will next erupt, and in what form, is anyone’s guess. A single guarantee: we haven’t seen the last of resource revolts which, in the coming years, could reach an intensity we scarcely imagine today.”
Bad pun, considering current events.
And in this more recent column, Klare adopts the longue durée perspective to deliver a grim assessment: the end of the oil age:
“In other words, if one traces a reasonable trajectory from current developments in the Middle East, the handwriting is already on the wall. Since no other area is capable of replacing the Middle East as the world’s premier oil exporter, the oil economy will shrivel — and with it, the global economy as a whole.
Consider the recent rise in the price of oil just a faint and early tremor heralding the oilquake to come. Oil won’t disappear from international markets, but in the coming decades it will never reach the volumes needed to satisfy projected world demand, which means that, sooner rather than later, scarcity will become the dominant market condition. Only the rapid development of alternative sources of energy and a dramatic reduction in oil consumption might spare the world the most severe economic repercussions.”
We are already seeing resource wars. They will only get more intense. Which is why this is happening:
“Sales by the world’s biggest arms companies increased significantly at a time of global economic recession, figures released today show.
The top 100 arms-producing companies increased their sales by $14.8bn (£9.1bn) to total more than $400bn in 2009, a rise of 8% in real terms, according to the latest report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri).
Arms sales by the companies have increased by nearly 60% in real terms since 2002, it said.
Military spending by the US government was described by Sipri arms industry expert Susan Jackson as a “key factor in arms sales increases for US arms-producing and military services companies and for western European companies with a foothold in the US arms and military services market”.
The report lists Lockheed Martin as the world’s leading company in terms of arms sales, valued at $33.43bn in 2009. The US company was followed closely by Britain’s BAE Systems, with sales valued at $33.25bn. BAE came ahead of four US companies – Boeing, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics and Raytheon.”
As mentioned all over the place, this is Dances with Wolves meets The Last Samurai where noble savages who, unlike modern white folks, have not lost their connection to nature and are happy in their spiritual bliss and gentle nature stewardship (see how the Na’vi connect – literally – with animals and other natural elements, including souls). Cameron’s noble savages are very new-agey and, in a very 2009-fashion, they are connected to each other and the entire ecosystem through a global network (as Grace the biologist – Sigourney Weaver – tells us).
Against them are lined the superior forces of global corporations and military contractors who do their bidding and get well paid for it. And the battle is over resources that Pandora has and that Earth needs. The corporation wants it and it will take it one way or another. The message on environmentalism and the rights of indigenous peoples is not exactly subtle.
And so, the movie culminates in the final battle between mean Goliath against the gentle David. But the Na’vi have a joker card which answers the question asked in the post cited above:
I have a different view. It’s not about having a character to relate to. It’s about white supremacy. Let’s look at the evidence: Jake Scully gets initially introduced into the tribe because of some religious sign that designates him as special and he will be the only one to be able to connect with the big-ass red bird that will come so handy in battle and reinforces his spiritual status as “Super Na’vi”. And that is on top of the skill set he brings to the tribe: his marine and military training, which will ultimately save the Na’vi. The noble savages, with their bows and arrows, need a white military man to save them and become their leader. Where have we seen that before? Oh, yeah, in tons of movies. The white man in the avatar becomes a better Na’vi than the true Na’vi (and gets the girl, of course).
So, even though we are presented with a story that is designed to convey a message of environmentalism, multiculturalism and peace, we end up with the maintenance of white supremacy… oh and apparently, violence works, especially when based on military training, it’s what allows the Na’vi to win, once all the tribes are united under the leadership of Jake Scully. Without him, they’d be toast.
And, by being a super Na’vi, Scully can erase his being a defective / inferior white man due to his disability who initially agrees to spy on the Na’vi to regain his legs and therefore become a full man again, as promised by the über-patriarchal man delightfully played by Stephen Lang.
Oh, and let’s not forget who tells the story: Jake Scully. He is the narrator all through the movie. White man’s voice and perspective.
As I watched the movie, I could not help thinking whether all these people in the movie theater would think twice about drone bombing in AfPak? I don’t think so. It seems that the sociologists over at Sociological Images are skeptical as well:
In other words, because it relies so much on common colonizer history revised through multicultural lenses that more befit the enlightened 21st century, the story is entirely predictable, almost plot point by plot point.
Another interesting aspect of the story is detailed by Antonio Casilli (and links to a full peer-reviewed article in French for those of you who read it). Casilli’s argument is that cultural analysis shows that there is nothing really new about the avatar trope, including its blue color.
Do read the whole thing or the paper itself if you can.
All that being said, the movie is certainly enjoyable and not boring (even though the final battle scene was getting a bit long for me). I saw it in 3D and the visuals were indeed stunning (the images of the forest at night were beautiful) but again, it has to be viewed with a critical eye beyond the technical prowess.
I have blogged about this before: we know that armed conflicts wreak havoc on the environment and wildlife. However, which wildlife we choose to pay attention to (in a fashion similar to that through which we select chosen conflicts and ignore stealth conflicts) depends on whether we can anthropomorphize them or how “cute” we have defined them to be. Cases in point:
Gorillas, which have been humanized through movies and documentaries:
The whole article is worth reading as it weaves together the multiple layers of this armed conflict and the industries that fuel it along with the issue of governance in a failed state where corruption rules, along with the regional connections that go back to the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
And then, there are the cute ones being slaughtered by groups taking advantage of the power vacuum following a coup in Madagascar:
As the article indicates, we already know that Israelis consume four times more water than Palestinians. The table above show the allocated pumping in aquifers as written in the 1995 Oslo Accord. The Accord basically institutionalizes this inequality.
The deteriorating situation in the occupied territories has made it more difficult for the Palestinians to maintain the existing wells in the context of a growing population. What this amounts to is a great potential for water war (more) as an integral part of the conflict.