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.
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:
- Egypt and much of the Arab world is in political crisis.
- Worldwide, food prices are skyrocketing.
- Weather patterns appear to be changing dramatically.
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:
- NYTimes’ Paul Krugman: Droughts, floods and food
- Public Radio International: Egyptian protests, climate change and global food prices
- The Guardian: Failure to act on crop shortages fueling political instability
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.