Revolution’s Kindling

I wrote this yesterday for the NY Times’ Room for Debate series, before today’s momentous news. Watch this space for more on Egypt…

The last time we heard of a record prices was 2008, and food inflation is back for many of the same reasons: the demand for meat has returned with the recovery of middle-income economies; the price of oil is up, which both raises the cost of food production and transport, and stokes the diversion of food crops into biofuel production; speculators are taking pounds of flesh in the commodity exchanges. And, of course, there have been freak weather events disrupting production in key export zones.

But what makes the weather matter? This is hardly the first La Niña weather cycle, after all, and every human civilization has understood the need to plan for climate’s vicissitudes. Over centuries, societies developed the tools of grain stores, crop diversification and ‘moral economies’ to guarantee the poor access to food in times of crisis. International economic liberalisation discarded these buffers in favour of lean lines of trade. Safety nets and storage became inefficient and redundant – if crops failed in one part of the world, the market would always provide from another.

Climate change turns this thinking on its head. A shock in one corner of the world now ripples to every other. The economic architecture that promised efficiency has instead made us all more vulnerable. Little has changed in this crucial respect since the last food crisis. But this isn’t simply a re-run of 2008.

While the recession has turned a corner for some, unemployment remains stubbornly high for many, and hunger has trailed it. There are 75 million more people food insecure now than in 2008. At the same time, governments are cutting back on entitlement programs for the poor as part of austerity drives to fight inflation. Urban families are unable to afford food and fuel, and governments are unresponsive to their plight. Under such circumstances, as Egyptians know too well, food prices and climate change are revolution’s kindling.