|HOME||January-February 2011 Featured Stories||Background Information||News On The Web|
Today's surging youth-led revolution in the Arab world has common points with the 1968 student's revolt that rocked developed countries including the USA, France and several other European countries, with some, mostly weak, lasting sequels of student and youth unrest in Latin America, the then-USSR, Japan, developed countries in East and SE Asia, and even Africa during the 1960s and 1970s. But the shared themes and common goals tend to stop there: today's youth revolt has a planetary dimension, already moving out from the Arab world, and changing as it goes. The uprising, today, may be mostly of young persons but the goals and themes of this more massive, probably world scale revolt are not only political, but also economic. In turn this likely makes them even more "impossible" than the euphoric hippy-oriented peace and love, anti-war, drug influenced alternate society dreams of the 1968 revolt in the rich world, that ignored boring old style things like the economy.
A key slogan of the French 1968 student revolt summed this up: Be reasonable Demand the impossible.
By an interesting timewarp, Mouammar Gaddafi's rise to power was under way in 1968 and was completed in 1969. This part-educated self-declared tribal ruler, himself drug influenced, at first claimed to be reproducing the power grab of his supposed mentor, Nasser's mid-rank army revolt in Egypt, and both of these models served elsewhere in Africa, for example in the bloody coup that gave sergeant Mobutu Sese Soko decades of corrupt power in the Congo. This he promptly renamed Zaire, like Gaddafi renamed Libya as the Arab Jamahiriya, but for any average citizen of these 3 countries little or nothing changed for the better and almost everything changed for the worse.
The antiquated other-worldliness of these flashback regimes returns us to the postwar world of two competing superpowers in an abundant oil and other fossil-fuelled era of constant economic growth. The difference with today's real world is massive and striking. With the fall of the dictator and mass killer Gaddafi, following hard on the heels of Tunisia's and Egypt's creaking leaderships being overthrown, a page of history is being rapidly turned, after decades of being frozen into deathlike inertia. But today's world is vastly different from that of 1968, and the differences do not only include mass cellphone and Internet-based communications. Through 1968-2008 world population almost exactly doubled, adding 3 400 million people. If by some miracle of 1950s and 1960s style economic growth as in China and India today the world's 3.4 billion population increment could consume oil at today's OECD average of about 12 barrels per person each year, world oil demand would be about 90 million barrels a day more than present. In other words demand would be more than double today's demand, needing roughly 50 or 60 "New Libyas" to make up the difference.
This immediately sets one parameter for the post-revolutionary world of the next 10 years or so and generates one basic need: learning what is possible to change, and eschewing economic growth dreams of the 1950s and 1960s variety, even if China and India are soldiering along that path. For delirious and malevolent dreamers like Gaddafi, and like the 1968 crop of student and alternate society leaders of the rich world, all and every economic detail was as uninteresting as it was unimportant. In both cases there was however sufficient fat to trim, or existing wealth slopping around the system to permit these almost 18th century mindsets, more influenced by J-J Rousseau than by Nietsche or Sartre or effectively and in reality by Hitler and Mussolini in the case of Gaddafi. Both the type and kind of Flash Mob cellphone and Internet-based revolutions that are possible, today, will be heavily influenced by existing wealth, and the lack of it in affected countries and as noted the current wave of revolutionary change is potentially global, exactly like the economy.
Another interesting flashback to the late 1960s and early 1970s is that period was marked by serious and recurring famine outbreaks which were solved by the one-time, once-only science and technology quick fix called the Green Revolution. Today's GM crop hybrid "revolution" is far behind in its scope and potential for raising world food output, despite loud claims to the contrary, and for a battery of simple and basic reasons. These start with the fact, using FAO and other data, the world had an average of nearly 1 hectare of arable land per person in 1968, but today has less than 0.25 hectares per person.
Food shortage, even famine therefore has a short fuze today. As the initially joyful Flash Mob youth rebellion in some countries, Tunisia is in fact the only one, are followed by increasingly bloody and lengthening struggles we can easily fear these will degenerate into, and generate, long civil wars. Prolonged breakdown of civil society is a sure and certain threat. During civil wars, all through history, famine is the common fellow rider able to further intensify the loss of life and trigger further, more bloody struggles and massive flows of refugees.
It is likely but not certain this parameter is understood by leaders of the developed world, somewhat rocked and shocked by the rapidity and intensity of events in the Arab world since start of 2011. The non-ideological dimension is also troubling so troubling that conspiracy theories are flocking to fill the void. Obviously Iran is behind the Bahraini uprising, to inflict collateral damage on Saudi Arabia and deprive the west (and China, India and more than 100 other importer countries) of Saudi oil. Egypt's uprising, when it is not the fruit of CIA and US Joint Chiefs of Staff plotting, is surely the result of Hamas infiltrating Egyptian youths' minds using Facebook. Tunisia's revolution was almost certainly remote controlled by neighboring ex-Algerian islamic terrorists, when it was not the product of French socialist intellectuals and trade unionists. Gaddafi's very welcome downfall poses problems for cobbling rosy conspiracy theories, but with time these will flourish. We might suggest his downfall could or might be linked to Wikileaks, like any other unexplained geopolitical event, inch'allah.
But in all cases of revolt in the Arab world no conspiracy theory can claim the objective is to deprive the world of food supply. Taking simply Egypt, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Morocco, these 4 countries import more than 45 percent of world total wheat export supply. As traders in their exuberant excesses of panic and euphoria reasoned, in their own way through February 21-23, any prolonged civil strife in the Arab food importer countries could crater demand, and therefore a rigorous sell-off was needed. To be sure, the long-only bets will be back in a few days. Much more important and more grave, the world is in a long-term process of depriving itself with food. Rebellion, revolt and revolution inside countries totally dependent on food imports is a dangerous signal not only for their citizens but for the world. The list of urgent measures in these countries and in the huge number of countries outside the Arab world but like them heavily dependent on food imports starts with the development of farming and food production. To date, this basic need is almost inaudible, along with other economic realities.
One sure cause or intensifier and accelerator of today's Arab revolt is the twin in fact interrelated crises of not enough food and not enough jobs. To be sure, citizens listening to the high flown delirium of a megalomaniac like Gaddafi, or a despot like Mubarak or Ahmedinejad of Iran will be less than thrilled by the ranting rhetoric, when they do not have enough to eat and their job outlook is close to zero. We can suggest that rising strains, and coming fractures in the world food production and supply system will initially be good for democracy but the best-before date on the packaging will be short. The massive rate of urban growth in the Arab world, both due to and causing rural and agricultural under-development, low productivity and poor paid jobs outside cities, is only an extreme version of the same general process in all developing and emerging countries. Inside the fast-growing cities of the entire world outside the OECD countries, which count for 15 percent of world population, the growing capital intensity of low paid manufacturing jobs, to play a humble export platform role in the global economy, also chokes off job growth.
Solving both these crises is the challenge for the world that arises from the ashes of the fossil regimes of the Arab world, in Africa and elsewhere, set in a moment of time that disappeared decades ago.
Returning again to their time, in the 1960s and 1970s, we can take a swift look at Mao's failed but deadly rural development and regeneration revolution, and the extreme war crimes of the Khmer Rouge forced return to village living in Cambodia. Both these acts of criminal folly were failures. Their total body count was perhaps as high as 40 million the same as the total death toll from World War 2. What is important and usually missed out in analyzing these sombre events is that both were either directly, or in major part driven by an attempt to solve chronic or acute food shortage and create jobs.
We are currently offered a bizarre, even eccentric mix-and-match of supposed Green Growth, and intensified consumer society growth economy, by institutions and agencies such as World Bank, IMF, the UN development and economic agencies and some major private corporations. We might ironically think that the dreamers producing these concepts for the economic way ahead are working on a basis that if one fails the other could work, if God wills. The gravest problem is that neither can or will work due to these models being totally antinomic or exclusive. At this moment in time, when the post-uprising civil societies of countries experiencing the Flash Mob youth revolt need support, advice, help and direction, the policy void in the OECD developed countries is a grave threat to recovery and sustained change in the world.
The rate of change since the start of January 2011 is high and may be growing, not weakening. The Arab revolt now means what it says: anti-regime movements now span almost the whole Arab world, from Morocco to Yemen, and can likely soon spill over and spread to African countries, Iran, Armenia, the Central Asian republics, and perhaps China. All the autocratic and unelected governments unable or unwilling to solve the basic issues of food and jobs will now suffer rising popular opposition and the risk of overthrow by mass uprising. By contagion, this movement could spread to the elected governments in many countries which are unwilling or unable to solve exactly the same challenges and can lose what remains of their own popular credibility and support.
Unlike the student revolts of 40 years ago, and totally unlike the rock-solid economic growth of the time, during les Trente Glorieuse, today's weakened and fragile global economy is exposed to a host of challenges always bringing the economic issues closer to the surface. These as we said, start with the basic issues of failure to feed large chunks of humanity, or employ the youth of nearly all countries, whether rich or poor. Given the resource pinch, climate change, rising threats of major ecosystem collapse and heightened awareness of these economic constraints the way forward is both complex and difficult. This however does not mean we can avoid grasping the nettle: on the geopolitical front, endlessly avoiding the basic humanitarian need to eliminate toy-size Hitlers like Gaddafi is returning home to roost. The coming storm of refugee, economic, security and energy problems for the whole Europe-North Africa region, and beyond, is a clear proof.
Exactly the same applies to meeting the nested challenges of feeding
humanity and creating sustained employment within resource and
ecological limits, that is within a set of sometimes clear and often
growing constraints and limits. Time is short, and the heavy weight of
avoided and ignored problems over several decades, the ultimate in
laisser faire, shows that finally action is the only choice
Andrew McKillop is a writer and consultant on oil and energy
economics. Since 1975 he has worked in energy, economic and scientific
organizations in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and North America. He
is Project Director, GSO Consulting Associates.
This article appeared February 24, 2011 and is archived at
|HOME||January-February 2011 Featured Stories||Background Information||News On The Web|