Sunday, February 06, 2011

Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed: Tunisia, Egypt, and the Big Picture

Tunisia, Egypt, and the Big Picture: Egypt lies on the fault lines of the convergence of global ecological, energy, and economic crises—and thus, on the frontlines of deepening global system failure.
by Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed
Yes Magazine

The toppling of Ben Ali in Tunisia in the wake of mass protests and bloody street clashes is likely to signify a major transformation in the future of politics and geopolitics for the major countries of the Middle East and North Africa. The Tunisian experience triggered the escalation of unprecedented protests in Egypt against the Mubarak regime. The question is: ‘Will events in Tunisia and Egypt have a domino effect throughout the Arab world?’

The potential fall of Hosni Mubarak is serious stuff. Egypt is “the most populous country in the Arab world,” viewed by the United States, Britain and the West as “a strategic pivot” and a “a vital ally” in the ‘War on Terror’. No wonder then that activists across the world are holding their breath in anticipation that one of the world’s most notorious dictators, and one of the West’s most favored client-regimes, might be overthrown.

The eruption of political unrest in Egypt and elsewhere cannot be fully understood without acknowledging the context of accelerating ecological, energy, and economic crises.What is happening in Tunisia and Egypt is only a manifestation of a deeper convergence of fundamental structural crises, which are truly global in scale. The eruption of social and political unrest has followed the impact of deepening economic turbulence across the region, due to the inflationary impact of rocketing fuel and food prices. As of mid-January, even before Ben Ali had fled Tunis, riots were breaking out in Algeria, Morocco, Yemen, and Jordan. The key grievances? Rampant unemployment, unaffordable food and consumer goods, endemic poverty, lack of basic services, and political repression.

Global food crisis

In many of these countries, certainly in both Tunisia and Egypt, tensions have simmered for years. The trigger, it seems, came in the form of food shortages caused by the record high global prices reported by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in December 2010. The return of high food prices two to three years after the 2008 global food crisis should not be a surprise. For most of the preceding decade, world grain consumption exceeded production—correlating with agricultural land productivity declining almost by half from 1990–2007, compared with 1950–1990.

This year, global food supply chains were again “stretched to the limit” following poor harvests in Canada, Russia and Ukraine; hotter, drier weather in South America cutting soybean production; flooding in Australia, wiping out its wheat crops; not to mention the colder, stormier, snowier winters experienced in the northern hemisphere, damaging harvests.

So much of the current supply shortages have been inflicted by increasingly erratic weather events and natural disasters, which climate scientists have long warned are symptomatic of anthropogenic global warming. Droughts exacerbated by global warming in key food-basket regions have already led to a 10–20 percent drop in rice yields over the last decade. By mid-century, world crop yields could fall as much as 20–40 percent due to climate change alone.

But climate change is likely to do more than generate droughts in some regions. It is also linked to the prospect of colder weather in the eastern United States, east Asia, and northern Europe—as the rate of Arctic summer sea ice is accelerating, leading to intensifying warming, the change in atmospheric pressure pushes cold Arctic air to the south. Similarly, even the floods in Australia could be linked to climate change. Scientists agree they were caused by a particularly strong El Niño/La Niña oscillation in the Tropical Pacific ocean-atmospheric system. But Michael McPhaden, co-author of a recent scientific study on the issue, suggests that recently stronger El Niño events are “plausibly the result of global warming.”

The global food situation has been compounded by the over-dependence of industrial agriculture on fossil fuels, consuming ten calories of fossil fuel energy for every one calorie of food energy produced. The problem is that global conventional oil production has most likely already peaked, having been on an undulating plateau since 2005—and forecast to steadily and inexorably decline, leading to higher prices. Although oil prices dropped after the 2008 crash due to recession, the resuscitation of economic activity has pushed up demand, leading fuel prices to creep back up to $95 a barrel.

The fuel price hikes, combining with the predatory activities of financial speculators trying to rake in profits by investing in the commodity markets, have underpinned worldwide inflation. Just as in 2008, the worst effected have been the poorer populations of the South. Thus, the eruption of political unrest in Egypt and elsewhere cannot be fully understood without acknowledging the context of accelerating ecological, energy and economic crises—inherently interconnected problems which are symptomatic of an Empire in overstretch, a global political economy in breach of the natural limits of its environment.

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