Unrest in Egypt is also about food, which is about climate change

With Egypt and much of the Arab world in turmoil, it’s important to consider all of the dynamics and driving forces at work here.

The uprising is not (never is) just about freedom and democracy. It’s not (despite those who keep saying it is) an Islamist revolution akin to what happened in Iran. It’s both more basic and complex than that.

Taking a break, Cairo

Back in my long-hair days, one of the phrases I used to hear a lot was something like “Everything is connected.”

The idea, simply enough, was that you needed to look at things “holistically” rather than in isolation.

It’s a nice idea except that it’s usually really hard to consider everything at once. Part of the reason for our reductionist approach to life is that our minds are quite limited. And solving one problem at a time works pretty well much of the time. But the risk here is that we can, as they say, also miss the forest for the trees.

Brain scientists say most of us can really only deal effectively with about three ideas in our head at time.

So consider these three ideas together:

Why put them together?

Well, because it’s not really that much of a stretch to say that the unrest in Egypt and throughout much of the Arab world was prompted initially by rising food prices and that the rise in food prices is due to climate change.

Here are a few good stories and columns that make the case:

Of course, some will disagree with this as the primary triumvirate for explaining what’s going on in the Middle East. Some don’t think climate change is that big a deal. Some prefer to view everything in the Middle East through a religio-political lens. And some say just blaming climate leaves off another key actor causing food instability — the beloved financial industry.

So says oil trader Daniel Dicker on the Huffington Post, saying Krugman misses the point:

Krugman is right in how these soaring prices have contributed to Middle East troubles and also correctly warns about the continuing problems that food inflation poses particularly in these Emerging and Third world nations. But the major point of the piece — the fundamental causes of massive price increases — unfortunately concentrates on weather events as the cause. On this point, Mr. Krugman is being entirely too easy on the financial forces wreaking their havoc on these very delicate, and until just five years ago, very insular commodity markets.

Charles Kadlec, writing in Forbes, agrees that it was the financial markets that helped spark the food price spike and public loss of confidence in Arab governments across the Middle East. But he blames regulators rather than the private speculators.

In any case, the role of the commodities markets in all this is a fourth idea so I’m not going to think about it.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.

  • Terry

    Great piece Tom. Heard the term “cognitive threshold”? the idea that we, as businesses, agencies, communities and as a civilization, are at gridlock. Too much coming at us from too many directions, too complex. We can no longer merely think our way out of the problem. And not to mention thinking runs into the irrational forces that are so powerful that you mention…We can “mitigate” but mitigation is dangerous; it can be perceived as a solution. It is not, the problem keeps getting worse, but maybe coming at us slower….but not solved. So, desperately and avoiding the pain of dealing with change, we reduce the scope of the job to fit our abilities….even if they are actually inadequate. Keeps coming at us, or gridlock stays locked…. then, also, people oppose good ideas. Opposition is an efficient way to reduce complexity. Making complexity manageable…there are solutions in books– The Watchman’s Rattle : Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction by Rebecca D. Costa, Vanguard Press, 2010, and others– but implementation is almost beyond possible, thanks to the irrational forces (irrational but oh so human: greed, fear, power mongering, etc…) with guns… Brain research is fascinating but of course abstract and doesn’t begin to solve anything in the conflicted world. Change amplifies stress and discomfort because the frontal cortex is an area of the brain directly connected to the fear circuitry, the amygdala. Clear thinking is decreased. We freak out…there are the elegant solutions coming out of brain research but, uh, I don’t think the solutions are working out there on the front lines facing guns, money and climate change… “The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.”— Linus Pauling. Who has a lot of ideas and isn’t gridlocked? We discuss three-legged stools to stabilize our actions but unless they elongate to infinity and wrap themselves tight and work as DNA, somehow……Keep up the great work, Tom, thanks….

    • http://humanosphere.kplu.org Tom Paulson

      Thanks Terry,
      I would be happy if the average American news consumer holds at least two contradictory ideas in his/her head at one time. We can go for three later.