Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Revolutionary Conditions

Alex Jeffries
Travel advisory: Starting in 2013, in many parts of planet Earth there will be too little food and too much political unrest to make them pleasant destinations.

Food is about to get very expensive everywhere: farming states in the US are living through the worst drought since the Dust Bowl; in Russia and Ukraine, heat waves and drought have produced similar results, with estimates for grain production down 30-50% from last year; in India, the critical monsoon rains are already down 22%.

Exacerbating the poor harvests around the world is the brain-dead scheme in the US which mandates that a lion's share of its corn harvest be diverted to ethanol production, raising the price of corn and squeezing out cattle and poultry producers. (This is yet another symptom of a broken political system in the US: with an extremely low EROEI, corn ethanol barely qualifies as a source of energy.)

The problem is further exacerbated by the financialization of agricultural commodities; instead of being used to hedge risk to consumers, the agricultural futures markets have become the playthings of traders who gamble with large blocks of money trying to reap a windfall from disaster. The effect is to make food price spikes much worse; this has already happened in 2008 and is happening again now.

When food gets too expensive, people riot. A study by Marco Lagi et al. (cited in Trade Off by Korowicz) includes the following chart, which shows the timing of outbreaks of social unrest relative to price spikes:

The countries most at risk are those where food makes up a large portion of overall spending: 40% in China, 43% in the Philippines, 45% in Indonesia, 48% in Pakistan, 50% in India and Vietnam, 70% in Congo. If food prices double, much of their population will become malnourished (if it isn't already). Go here to explore these data on your own. (It would be helpful to include data on the percentage of calories each country imports; poorer countries that import basic carbohydrates are most at risk.)

The United States, with just 14% of its spending going toward food, may seem relatively immune to this effect, but it really isn't. There are 50 million people in the US on food stamps, and if food prices double then, unless there is a similar increase in funding for food stamps, this will halve the amount of food available to them. With the federal government's finances in disarray, the Congress deadlocked, and the federal budget headed for sequestration which will result in automatic, draconian budget cuts starting in 2013, such an increase seems unlikely. Millions more people in the US will be forced to choose between buying food and paying their mortgage, resulting in another round of mortgage defaults and the next wave of the endless financial crisis. With the widespread availability of cheap, low-quality processed food in the US, food price increases will mean that such unhealthy food will come to make up even more of the average diet, with negative effects on nutrition and health. The US is not Congo, but it isn't Switzerland either.

Food price spikes and food shortages are very effective in driving people to revolt. Since everyone has to eat, food is not a divisive issue. Whereas political régimes are quite adept at exploiting differences of opinion to divide and neutralize the populace (in the US, issues such as gay rights and abortion rights are their favorite tools) a shortage of food divides the population into the hungry and the well-fed. The well-fed inevitably turn out to be in the minority, defended, for a time, by the slightly less well-fed. They also tend to be associated closely with the régime or the moneyed interests that prop it up, and once they are dislodged, so is the régime.

Political régimes tend to be quite adept at putting down rebellions, but social unrest produced by a food shortage can only be addressed by alleviating the food shortage. If there simply isn't enough food left to distribute, their choices of action become rather limited. In some cases the government can exercise direct political control over food production and feed those who serve and protect it, allowing everyone else to starve. But the last few decades of neoliberal policies around the world have left few countries where this is still possible. Thus, the brunt of the revolt is likely to be focused directly on the transnational companies, and their presence in many countries will either come to an abrupt and messy end, or, where their vital interests are involved, come to resemble a military occupation. Given the recent advances in guerilla warfare, such occupations are likely to come to a messy end as well.

The failure of weak, neoliberal political régimes around the world will expose the men who have really been pulling the strings. Most countries remain nation-states in name only; their sovereignty has been eroded to the point where they are now mere servants to transnational business and finance. Vestigial nation-states continue to serve one function: controlling their borders. They are, in fact, prisons—keeping some people in, others out. But for transnational business and finance they are now porous entities, allowing them to practice labor arbitrage (finding cheapest labor), and jurisdictional arbitrage (finding least regulation). The US government is now little more than a proxy, with its presidential candidates (1, 2) vetted, appointed and financed by the global investment firm Goldman Sachs. A recent vote in the UN General Assembly accusing Bashar Assad of Syria produced a list of the remaining nation-states. These are the only countries whose governments still possess sufficient independence of will to oppose the US-led drive for régime change in Syria. They are: Syria (naturally), Russia, China, Iran, Belorussia, Myanmar, Zimbabwe, North Korea, Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Bolivia. It remains to be seen how helpful their independence will prove when it comes to them feeding their own people.

The three main indicators of collapse seem to be oil use decline, debt deflation and population decline, with oil the leading indicator and population the lagging indicator. But given the food crisis that is now upon us, it is starting to look like it won't be lagging by very much.


Odin's Raven said...

Thia is bad news for ordinary people, but need not disturb the elite. Popular unrest may be of little concern, since the populace will merely kill each other.

Black said...

These methods of suppression and starvation are all acts of control by assholes, empowered by sheepish cowards called citizens.

Every asshole dreams of being Magneto from the X-Men movies.

These assholes think they can mentally control everyone’s personal biological functions, a magic trick that is not possible, so they pretend to be Magneto while they point guns at other humans and lock them in guarded rooms, forcing them to eat shitty food and sleep in shitty beds.

It’s time for a new breed of assholes: Anti-Assholes. Any time you encounter a person who even marginally thinks any drug or crop should be illegal, immediately call them an asshole loudly. Continue doing this until they go away, or submit to your anti-asshole position.

Then release them from your control by mocking them for changing their position so spinelessly. These assholes need to be publicly mind fucked for being such enormous assholes.

And do this as politely as possible.

Andy Brown said...

I'm curious about your opinion on population decline. In the mid-nineties the former USSR began (but didn't complete) a pretty remarkable population decline. Young people without rooms of their own stopped having babies, old people dropped dead with their next bronchial infection, and men killed themselves off with alcohol and other forms of recklessness. It wasn't pleasant to be a part of, but it wasn't bodies-in-the-street famine either. I'm wondering what you think our chances of muddling through that kind of decades long die-off -- a kind of deflation of a population bubble - as opposed to something more catastrophic.

Wiglaf said...

farming states in the US are living through the worst drought since the Dust Bowl

I had no idea. Yeah I know -- evil news media, society disconnected from nature and all that -- anyway, source-citation is appreciated.

Reuters says "worst drought in 56 years."

dex3703 said...

When I first heard the USDA claim that food prices will rise 4%, my jaw dropped so hard my toes still hurt. A large majority of the country's grain crop is simply gone and that's all their fancy book-learnin' expects?

This suggests to me a couple things. One, they think people are really stupid. Two, the 4% is a trial balloon they know is wrong but hints to people in the know that it's known things will be bad. Or, three, they really believe agricultural collapse is a minor inconvenience and the magical market will make food appear.

It will be ironic indeed that the mighty US falls from its height due to famine caused by its profligate GHG pollution. People are starving now and have been for a while. The key to the future, as Dimitry points out, is that they aren't the people who count.

justjohn said...

Unknown, perhaps the USDA isn't as crazy as you think... wheat has gone up some, currently about $9 per bushel (~60 pounds). That means a loaf of bread with one pound of wheat in it only has 15 cents worth of wheat. If wheat doubles to $18/bu, that would go to 30 cents.

I don't know what the average person pays for bread, isn't it like $2 to $3? (I don't buy that crap, I go for the local bakeries at $4 - $6 /loaf) But 4% on top of $3 is 12 cents, maybe the USDA is thinking wheat will top out at $14.

A similar exercise with the Quaker Oats instant oatmeal that I do buy works out to less than 10 cents/pound.

Sure, there are all the middlemen that will also add their cut, so maybe 4% is optimistic. But it is still early to see what the actual yield will be.

flipjack said...

Congress should never have gotten involved with ethanol production subsidies to begin with. Perhaps this crisis will finally bring this ridiculous policy to an end. Im not holding my breath though. The subsidies would have never been proposed to begin with if Iowa wasn't a politically-significant corn field.

We'll probably see a reduction of meat consumption in places like China and India, which has been a factor in rising food prices as well. Perhaps more unrest as well. Food is a non-negotiable requirement for a happy society.

Jerry McManus said...

The other remarkable thing that happened in 2008 is that a handful of countries which still enjoyed a small measure of food surpluses decided it was in their best interests to stop exporting to other countries for a while.

I expect we will see more of that in the years to come, and not just for food. Once enough countries start hoarding precious resources, especially oil and coal, then I think we will probably see the "globalized" economy unravel very quickly indeed.

Ventriloquist said...

All the more reason for people who have access to land to start and/or expand their gardening and/or production of small livestock.

If you are not producing a significant portion of your daily calories, you are at the mercy of the mega-corporate agricultural oligarchy.

Living in a country where all supermarkets have only 72 hours worth of inventory (under normal conditions) on-hand at any time, if there is a major interruption to the global economy, you will find out very quickly how valuable food independence is.

Start NOW to grow, preserve, and store your own food supply. This is not something you can learn over a couple weekends, and the rewards are many.

Unknown said...

Just to make things exciting, Ebola has reared it's bloody head in Uganda. They may be able to contain it (though you're not hearing a lot right now from the media about it), but I'm guessing that strained finances, government cutbacks and comparatively high mobility will make it much more difficult to keep it from spreading.

People seldom die directly from starvation - we're actually able to go quite some time without eating anything at all, so long as people periodically get water. However, people do die from opportunistic infections that the body can't fight off when it lacks the minimal daily fuel. Ebola, tuberculosis, the bubonic plague, dysentery, even bronchial infections will become far more commonplace, especially as various disease strains that were only just barely held in check by antibiotics evolve resistances there.

The irony of ObamaCare is that it will likely come too late to make much difference - a lack of doctors, strained finances, and insurance companies getting out of the health insurance field because they can't make 50% profits will make it a de facto single payer system within a decade, but that payer may be hard pressed to actually afford the bill.

johnnyboy said...

Hunger do drive things. Don't it? It could be just the jolt a shaky financial system don't need. There are a lot of people to feed. This could get ugly. Better have systems in place to feed people. I don't think it can be done. This won't be matter of logistics, this will be a matter of resources. Ah! there's that word again, resources". What does not help is the lack of variety in the American diet. Wheat, corn, soybeans and corn syrup, make up a lot of staples, and these are going to be in shot supply.

Keep those factories humming turning out that bread.
Better make it hasty keep those masses feed.

Rationing, now there's your answer. Price regulating. Keep supply low, keep prices low. Take out the speculators. Now there's your real problem. That's a tough one. Perhaps they're open to persuasion.

Ivan Lukic said...

Anthropologists and ethnologists in Serbia described an ancient ritual of killing oldest family members during the times of great hunger, ritual known as lapot. During worst droughts, when there was acute awareness that there is not enough food for all family members, it was considered more humane to kill elders that just to leave them to die of starvation. In such a horrid situation it was considered that younger family members deserve a chance, that they have priority. This was a ritual in society that is Christian and patriarchal, that cultivates respect and love for elders. The Nature stands above all human concepts.

Sam Holloway said...

I must concur with Odin's Raven and Black here. One of the elephants squatting in the room is the insane gun and violence culture of the U.S. When the crap hits the fan (i.e. when enough middle-class white men begin to feel the pain), then you'll see violence begin to erupt. The mass shootings that we stupidly treat as 'isolated incidents' will be multiple, daily occurrences. First the armed white men will turn on all the available social and political bugbears-- brown people, women, gays, liberals, etc.-- upon which right-wing media have kept them focused. Then they'll turn on each other. By no means, however, will the vast majority of them seriously consider targeting the wealthy parasites who've led us to collapse; those elites will be fleeing the country, and the ones still here will be well-guarded. The armed order-keepers (cops and military) will do what they can to keep the violence away from the elites, of course. Also, don't be surprised to see thousands of the mercenaries and soldiers we currently have deployed around the globe brought home to do their thing domestically, for at least as long as there's money or resources to pay them. (I envision Latin America-style death squads roaming our cities and towns, mainly to keep the violence contained and to forestall any serious attempts at setting up governance schemes that threaten what remains of the preferred order.) This is going to be ugly.


Stanislav Datskovskiy said...

Serbian "lapot" appears to be mythical (or at least, its authenticity is heavily disputed.) But the Eskimos are known to have done something quite like it. Their "retirement plan" consisted of being pushed through a hole in the ice. (Most female children, as well, were treated likewise. Such is the seriously-resource-constrained life.)

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Lance M. Foster said...

To help educate my rightwing friends and relatives who think there is such a thing as welfare, people are just lazy, etc., read on. No, I'm not on welfare. I resisted it for 6 years now, scraping by, doing what I could. But getting seriously sick last month and the recommendations of others told me I should.

I had large kidney stones obstructing both kidneys initiating kidney damage in July. If it hadn't been for emergency room having to admit people even if you can't pay, I would have failed kidneys and perhaps be dead right now.

I've made $8000 so far this year teaching school and I have no health insurance, can't afford it. So much for well-paid teachers, benefits, etc. (This is after five years of applying for fulltime jobs, and getting only two interviews. Anthro degree. Crappy job market. And I am over 50. Take note, all you students taking loans for supposed jobs.)

With thousands of dollars in bills coming in from doctors, radiology, anaesthesiologists, I cannot pay. Luckily I saved enough to pay rent this month, foreseeing trouble, but bacon, beans and rice is the menu. So much for the kidney diet. So much for utilities, etc.

I will not be paid in August and I will not be paid in September, even though I begin to teach in August. That's the pay cycles for adjuncts. No teach, no pay, plus month or so delays every time there is a term break. Yeah, even making $8000 a year, I pay taxes. So much for that myth of poor people not paying taxes.

I was told to apply for Medicaid. I did. Got the refusal in the mail today. Reason? "You are not age 65 or older, blind, disabled, pregnant; nor do you have a dependent child under the age of 19 in your home." So much for welfare people living off the efforts of those hardworking billionaires.

Anonymous said...


I learned how to forage this weekend. We ate flowers, weeds, berries, and unripe nuts (hazelnuts). We did this for 3 days, and when I left the retreat I felt so healthy, so clear-minded!

Maybe we don't need 2000 - 4000 calories of processed junk food every day to survive? And you know what ... there is not yet GMO wild red clover, or GMO vetch, hazelnuts, dandelions, etc.

I suppose if people knew they could eat free food that is loaded with vitamins and had anti-allergenic properties they would ... well, they would still probably buy the processed cookies, beer, and bacon double cheeseburgers. heh heh


Stanislav Datskovskiy said...

To Robert: how many hazelnuts, etc. do you suppose you would have been able to find, if even 10% of the country's population were out looking for them? Think China's "Great Leap Forward."

Anonymous said...

More good news:




Steve From Virginia said...

The reason there isn't a corn crisis in the US is the acreage has increased over the past five years. Many producers (not farmers) simply grow corn (eschew rotations). Consequently, a loss of some of the crop is made up for by gains in non-drought areas.

Another reason is irrigation: drought problems are in states where irrigation water is unavailable or too costly. In the 1930s the only irrigation available was in surface water diversion areas. Many streams simply dried up, today's water sources are aquifers.

Look for the US ethanol mandate to end. Distillers are margin constrained, without stills there is no ethanol, corn or no corn, mandate or no mandate.

Not so much a food crisis overseas as the rice crop is unaffected unlike in 2008.

The Dust Bowl lasted 8 years starting in 1931. If the current drought is similar all of the above up for grabs.

Ien in the Kootenays said...

I am 69, somewhat plump and largely organically grown. In case of serious collapse, I have instructed my offspring to kill me humanely and eat me while there is some meat left. Only half kidding.

Cynthia Q said...

Ien, noble of you!

Though I'd prefer to be eaten by wild animals than to contribute to human population growth.

Cynthia Q said...

The reason that people are buried "six feet under", I heard, is to prevent their bodies from being dug up by wild animals. This seems unnecessarily stingy to me.

Unknown said...

Dimitri, thankyou for being the sane, scientifically-educated voice of the "collapse aware" world. Having learned of peak oil and being engineering-educated and having very few backup options, I am no longer exactly sane.... BTW, would you care to comment on this? It's just set a few bells ringing for me. Peak per-capita industrialisation and the great depression.


steven taylor said...

I think you were spot on with these statements about widespread availability of low quality food, and about the US is not the Congo but not Switzerland either I got a good laugh from that.

I think we are more of in a serious decline, and hopefully predictions of collapse are 30-50 years off.

"With the widespread availability of cheap, low-quality processed food in the US, food price increases will mean that such unhealthy food will come to make up even more of the average diet, with negative effects on nutrition and health. The US is not Congo, but it isn't Switzerland either"

Tom Christoffel said...

Hi Dmitry -

This may not fit here. Use as you see fit. Tom

The "2012 State of the Future" has just been published by the Millennium Project - http://millennium-project.org/millennium/2012SOF.html

It seeks to be comprehensive, but doesn't identify the problems of financial fraud and faulty economic theory as global problems, and consequently its recommendations fall short.

It does focus on international organized crime and ethics, but banking, finance and predatory policies are not mentioned. In the past I've provided feedback about this omission, but that's not led to its incorporation.

The data may be of value to ClubOrlov readers. They are very open to feedback. The 15 Global Challenges and update methodology are listed here:

I'd like ClubOrlov folks to consider providing input. As futurists they are all optimists and therefore gullible. A condition we may share. Like boy and girl scourts, raised to be honest and tell the truth, we're ill equipped to deal with professional liars for whom deceit is simply a business strategy.

Here's a bit of their history from the website:

The Millennium Project was founded in 1996 after a three-year feasibility study with the United Nations University, Smithsonian Institution, Futures Group International, and the American Council for the UNU. It is now an independent non-profit global participatory futures research think tank of futurists, scholars, business planners, and policy makers who work for international organizations, governments, corporations, NGOs, and universities. The Millennium Project manages a coherent and cumulative process that collects and assesses judgments from over 2,500 people since the beginning of the project selected by its 40 Nodes around the world. The work is distilled in its annual "State of the Future", "Futures Research Methodology" series, and special studies.

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