What feeds a revolution?

Charles M. Blow, one of my favorite “number crunchers”, and op-ed columnist at the NY Times, has a good article today on what causes a revolution. He turns the lens on Egypt and Tunisia, as well as other countries that might be poised for revolution, and looks at what factors can contribute to people rising up and overthrowing their government.

Though agitating factors like unemployment and age have featured in many articles on the situation in Egypt and Tunisia, Charles M. Blow digs deeper. He prepared the table below, which shows median age, unemployment rate, income inequality, food as a percentage household spending, level of democracy, regime type, and internet penetration.

revolution egypt tunisia food income inequality internet penetration, regimeWorth noting: The real US unemployment rate is about 16%, when considering the more comprehensive U6 Rate. The US has the highest income inequality of all the countries considered in the list above. The US ranks with Rwanda and Uganda.  For more on that, see the recent 8020 Vision article When Does the Wealth of a Nation Hurt its Wellbeing?

I am glad Blow listed food as one of the metrics to consider. There is a proverb that governments ignore at their peril:

“Lo que separa la civilización de la anarquía son solo siete comidas.”
(Civilization and anarchy are only seven meals apart.)

—Spanish proverb

Though Egypt is not unique – corrupt repressive governance and cronyism can be found at the heart of many dysfunctional nations – once corruption interferes with meeting the basic needs of the populace, revolution is imminent.

food price correlation with food riots
Time dependence of FAO Food Price Index from January 2004 to May 2011. Red dashed vertical lines correspond to beginning dates of “food riots” and protests associated with the major recent unrest in North Africa and the Middle East. The overall death toll is reported in parentheses. Blue vertical line indicates the date, December 13, 2010, on which author submitted a report to the U.S. government, warning of the link between food prices, social unrest and political instability. Inset shows FAO Food Price Index from 1990 to 2011. (Source: The Food Crises and Political Instability in North Africa and the Middle East, New England Complex Systems Institute)

The Basics Of Revolution

When I work with clients and this subject comes up, I like to turn to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to put this in perspective. As we can see, two of Charles Blow’s metrics – food and unemployment – are fundamental components of basic human needs.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

The lower down on Maslow’s pyramid a dysfunctional regime effects the populace, the deeper the impact, and the more likely the effected people will rebel. In other words, when a government fails to meet the basic human needs of its people, the people rise up.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs - basic needs

Looking back in history for examples of how food and government are connected at the hip, our eyes come to rest on the Roman empire. Though the causes of the fall of Rome are debated still, one thing is certain: As the Roman empire devolved into the late-stage “Bread and Circuses” phase, once the farm system failed and the bread ran out, the rulers quickly lost the support of the people. The party was over.

the fall of Rome by
The Fall of Rome by Thomas Cole

The party is over in Egypt. President Mubarak now requires plainclothes thugs with clubs to beat back the public, losing what little credibility and dignity he might have had. How will he sleep? I don’t think the prideful Mubarak’s $60 billion family bank account will numb the shame he must feel as he watches the Egyptian army protect the people from his secret police.

As Tunisia and Egypt fail, Charles M. Blow scans his table of cold hard data and asks “Who’s next?”

Seen through that prism (of food, income inequality, and internet penetration), Tunisia and Egypt look a lot alike, and Algeria, Iran, Jordan, Morocco and Yemen look ominously similar.

A Global Perspective on Food

Pulling the lens back for a more global view – as world population expands inexorably – we are approaching a tipping point with regard to food production.

This week, a report that gained little attention in the news, but has major ramifications for every nation – especially those where food is a larger percentage of household income – was published by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The FAO report – The World Food Situation – reports that world food prices surged to a new historic peak in January, for the seventh consecutive month. The FAO Food Price Index (below) is a commodity basket that regularly tracks monthly changes in global food prices.

This is the highest level (both in real and nominal terms) since FAO started measuring food prices in 1990.

FAO Food and Agriculture Organization food price index 2010

FAO food price commodity index 2010As we can see from the chart on the right, the price of individual commodities that comprise the index – meat, dairy, cereals, oil and fats, and sugar – are all on the rise.

Global food prices have exceeded their pre-recession price levels. Some of this is due to the price of petroleum returning to pre-recession levels. About 17% of all petroleum production is consumed for food production. Petroleum is a key ingredient in the manufacture of fertilizer and pesticides, and sources energy for irrigation, food transport, etc. Note how the Food Price Index closely parallels the price of oil.

In addition, climate change is driving an increase in extreme weather, including record heat during growing seasons, record flooding, and extreme rain.

And as nations move up the affluence curve, their consumption of food increases, creating rising demand from a limited supply. As Julian Cribb, author of The Coming Famine: The Global Food Crisis and What We Can Do to Avoid It, astutely points out – as developing nations become more affluent, they consume more protein, in the form of fish, meat, milk, eggs, etc. For an example from China, read the article that appeared in The Financial Times today: Chinese Corn Imports Forecast to Soar. Note the mention of corn for meat production.

Meat Protein Consumption in US and China
(source: US Department of Agriculture)

Protein is usually produced with grain, and it is an inefficient process:

  • It takes 1,ooo tons of water to produce a ton of grain
  • It takes about 15 pounds of grain to produce a pound of beef
  • So, it takes about 5,200 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef

As our population increases, and as each nation seeks affluence, food will become a major factor in the stability of all nations, not just the rotting authoritarian regimes of the world.

egypt revolution

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Why Farmers Need a Pay Rise…

Climate Change May Reduce Protein in Crops

Recommended Reading: The Coming Famine

Chinese corn imports forecast to soar

Which Energy Industries Would You Subsidize?

Subsidies and tax breaks are a tried and true way of helping a developing industry get up on its feet.

One of the strategies to accelerate a transition to cleaner greener renewable energy sources is to subsidize research development, and production of renewable energy sources, such as wind power, solar power, geothermal, etc.

Free market advocates often say that the emerging renewable energy industry should not be subsidized. What is not widely know though, is that subsidies for well established fossil fuels exceed renewables by almost six to one.

Research by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Environmental Law Institute reveals that the lion’s share of energy subsidies supported energy sources that emit high levels of greenhouse gases (GHGs). The study, which reviewed fossil fuel and energy subsidies for Fiscal Years 2002-2008, showed that the federal government spent about $70 billion on the fossil fuel industry, and about $12 billion on renewables. As the report points out:

Moreover, just a handful of tax breaks make up the largest portion of subsidies for fossil fuels, with the most significant of these, the Foreign Tax Credit, supporting the overseas production of oil. More than half of the subsidies for renewables are attributable to corn-based ethanol, the use of which, while decreasing American reliance on foreign oil, has generated concern about climate effects.These figures raise the question of whether scarce government funds might be better allocated to move the United States towards a low-carbon economy.

energy subsidies fossil fuel, oil, coal, wind, solar, ethanol
Source: Internal Revenue Service, U.S. Department of Energy (Energy Information Administration), Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation, Office of Management and Budget, & U.S. Department of Agriculture

N.B. Carbon capture and storage is a developing technology that would allow coal-burning utilities to capture and store their carbon dioxide emissions. Although this technology does not make coal a renewable fuel, if successful it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions compared to coal plants that do not use this technology. The production and use of corn ethanol can generate significant greenhouse gas emissions. Recognizing that the production and use of corn-based ethanol may generate significant greenhouse gas emissions, the data depict renewable subsidies both with and without ethanol subsidies.

Fossil fuel extraction is increasingly toxic (e.g. fracking poisons public water systems) and environmentally destructive (e.g. gulf oil “spill”). And fossil fuel production seems to be hitting a Peak Oil wall. As production lags demand, we should expect oil and gas prices to rise precipitously. Subsidizing oil keeps us addicted to it.

Three of the top 5 biggest companies in the world are oil companies (Exxon, BP, Royal Dutch Shell). Rather than subsidize Big Oil profits and foreign oil nations, we should be taxing fossil fuels to reduce their use.  Tax what we want to reduce, and subsidize what we want to increase. Tax what harms us, and subsidize what helps us. Use the taxes to fund R&D and development of a world class alternative energy industry.

Obviously, that means politicians will need to resist the monied special interests of the Big Oil lobby.

What would you like to see your politicians do?

[polldaddy poll=”4447501″]

Recommended Reading

Top Business Leaders Deliver Clean Energy Plan by Jay Kimball

Examining the Relationship Between Growth and Prosperity

Most cities in the U.S. have operated on the assumption that growth is inherently beneficial and that more and faster growth will benefit local residents economically. Local growth is often cited as the cure for urban ailments, especially the need for local jobs. But does the empirical evidence show that growth is actually providing these benefits?

To test claims about the benefits of local growth, I examined the relationship between growth and prosperity in US metro areas. This study looked at the 100 largest US metro areas (representing 66% of the total US population) using the latest federal data for the 2000-09 period. The average annual population growth rate of each metro area was compared with unemployment rate, per capita income, and poverty rate using graphical and statistical analysis.

Listing of Slowest and Fastest Growing MSAs of 100 Largest

The “conventional wisdom” that growth generates economic and employment benefits was not supported by these data. The study found that those metro areas that have fared the best had the lowest growth rates. Even metro areas with stable or declining populations tended to fare better than fast-growing areas in terms of basic measures of economic well-being.

Some of the remarkable findings:

  • Faster-growing areas did not have lower unemployment rates.
  • Faster-growing areas tended to have lower per capita income than slower-growing areas. Per capita income in 2009 tended to decline almost $2,500 for each 1% increase in growth rate.
  • Residents of faster-growing areas had greater income declines during the recession.
  • Faster-growing areas tended to have higher poverty rates.

The 25 slowest-growing and 25 fastest-growing areas were compared. The 25 slowest-growing metro areas outperformed the 25 fastest-growing in every category and averaged $8,455 more in per capita personal income in 2009. They also had lower unemployment and poverty rates.

Comparison of 25 Fastest and 25 Slowest Growing Metro Areas of 100 Largest for the 2000 - 2009 Period

Another remarkable finding is that stable metro areas (those with little or no growth) did relatively well. Statistically-speaking, residents of an area with no growth over the 9-year period tended to have 43% more income gain than an area growing at 3%/year. Undoubtedly this offers a ray of hope that stable, sustainable communities may be perfectly viable — even prosperous — within our current economic system.

Per Capita Income versus Growth Rate Chart top 100 MSAs

While certain businesses prosper from growth, apparently the balance of the community does not. The statistics showing that fast-growing areas tend to have lower and declining incomes, indicate that any gains by the businesses that directly benefit from growth are more than offset by losses to the rest of the local population. In other words, a small segment of the local population may benefit from faster growth, but the larger population tends to see their prosperity decline.

This study was not an attempt to explain all the complex relationships that exist, but merely to test whether there is a correlation between growth and some of the benefits that are so often attributed to it. More research is clearly needed on this important topic.

Population growth tends to be directly linked to urban growth. There is a close, linear relationship between the two, as more people require more housing units and more commercial buildings for employment and shopping.

Public policies and plans regarding urban growth typically involve tradeoffs between economic, environmental, and social impacts. Local residents may view a policy to encourage land development or growth as negatively impacting their quality of life through increased traffic congestion, environmental quality impacts, loss of farm and forest lands, and loss of amenity values (such as tranquility, sense of community, and open space). They may also be concerned about higher taxes to fund the cost of the new public infrastructure (roads, schools, sewer and water systems, etc.) required to serve growth. However, the prospect that new growth will bring jobs and economic prosperity that may benefit local residents is often viewed as compelling enough to outweigh these costs.

So if growth is actually not providing these benefits, then the decision-making balance shifts towards the fiscal, environmental, and quality-of-life impacts. With greater awareness of the relationship between growth and prosperity, perhaps we will see a shift in our focus toward making our cities better places, not just bigger places.

Most US cities have been actively pursuing growth with all the policy and financial tools at their disposal under the presumption that they are fostering local prosperity. As US cities seek a path out of the recession, this study suggests that new economic development strategies will be needed that do not rely so heavily on growth. ###

To read the full study, see: Relationship between Growth and Prosperity in 100 Largest U.S. Metropolitan Areas by Eben Fodor

Eben Fodor is the Principal of Fodor & Associates, a consulting firm based in Eugene, Oregon specializing in studying the fiscal, economic, and environmental impacts of urban growth and land development. This independent research was funded by Fodor & Associates as a public service.

Recommended Reading

Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz on Sustainability and Growth by Jay Kimball

What’s Causing the Long Lines at Gas Stations in China?

Long lines are forming at gas stations in China. Truck drivers now wait in line for hours to fill up on diesel fuel. What’s going on? The answer is not what you might think.

No, it’s not peak oil (at least not yet). And unlike the oil embargo of the seventies, where the middle east slowed down the flow of oil to industrial nations, China is able to purchase most the oil it needs (for now). No, in this case, the fuel shortages are self-inflicted.

china energy intensityChina is, by some measures, the largest consumer of energy in the world and they are trying to reduce their consumption.

It takes a lot of energy to grow a modernizing society. To meet energy demand, China has been building power plants every week or two, many of them greenhouse gas emitting coal-fired plants. The damage to their environment, public health, and contribution to global pollution, CO2 emissions, and climate change are enormous. Reducing energy consumption will help slow and eventually lessen toxic impact.

Chinese leaders want to reduce their energy intensity, or the energy use per unit of GDP. Their goal is to reduce energy intensity by 20 percent from where it was five years ago.

To achieve this goal, China has implemented Draconian measures, including:

  • planned power outages
  • shutting down more than 2,000 outdated factories in heavy industry
  • turning off traffic lights in some areas
China save energy cartoon
A black-sleeved arm marked "Energy Target" presses down on little official yelling "I have to apply the brakes and save energy!" (source: Xinhua News Agency)

Small and medium business, unable to get special exceptions from party officials, are hardest hit by the power cutbacks. In frustrated response, entrepreneurial business owners are adapting by buying generators to make their own power. An unintended consequence: Generator prices are soaring, and factory owners have been stocking up on diesel fuel to power the generators, increasing demand for diesel fuel.

To make matters worse, according to the Financial Time

Wholesalers, betting on future price hikes, started storing diesel instead of selling it. Meanwhile diesel’s wholesale price, which is less tightly controlled by the state, started to soar and soon exceeded the retail price—so many gas stations could only sell diesel at a loss. There is also a basic shortage of supply: China’s diesel imports have soared and the country has announced a ban on diesel exports next year, according to reports.

China is walking a fine line between trying to restrain growth, and giving freedom the their citizens, who long for western super-consumer lifestyles. As China per capita income has soared, so has per capita energy consumption. The chart below shows income and energy use from 1968 through 2008, for the US, China, and India.

Energy Consumption and Income for US, China, and India
Per Capita Income and Energy Consumption in China, India and the US (source: BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy 2010, IMF)

While the gas lines are largely due to China’s brute force energy policy aimed at efficiency, as the world recovers from the global recession, heavy energy users like the US, China and India will likely return to their pre-recession energy consumption levels, and we should expect to see higher fuel prices.

And as we enter firmly into the peak oil phase of oil production, shifting to renewable forms of energy will be more important than ever.

Recommended Reading

The Real Population Problem by Jay Kimball

China: The Next Superconsumer? by Jay Kimball

Beijing Power Consumption Hits Historic Peak During Extreme Heat Wave by Jay Kimball

German Military Study Warns of Potential Energy Crisis by Jay Kimball

California’s Other Storm of the Century

The extreme rain pummeling Southern California mirrors extreme weather incidents around the globe. Should the heavy rain in California persist, as the soil becomes saturated, mudslides and flooding follow.

The video below shows an example of the results of extreme rain. A mudslide in Maierato, Calabria, Italy results as the soil becomes saturated with rain. Liquefaction of the land occurs – the earth, rock and soil flow like a river, carrying trees, homes, anything on the surface down hill. The video is visually astonishing.

storm related damage from extreme weather, extreme rainAs climate change progresses, weather extremes increase. New records are increasingly set for heat, cold, drought, and rain. Climate models predict an increase in the frequency and severity of extreme rainfall events.

Sh!t Rolls Downhill

Insurance companies were some of the early businesses embracing climate change models and planning for how to mitigate losses. Weather related losses are growing exponentially. Just as with earthquake insurance, as insurance companies limit their exposure to losses due to climate change and extreme weather, property owners will be forced to make choices on whether to pay higher insurance premiums or go uninsured. Faced with extremely expensive premiums, only about 12% of California property owners choose to pay for earthquake insurance. When an extreme event happens, the property owner often ends up with the loss.

In California, Climate Change is especially pernicious. During summer, persistent warming and drought lead to wildfires and denude the land, then, during the winter months, extreme rain sets the stage for disastrous mudslides and flooding.

Coincidentally, the US Geological Survey (USGS) just announced that they are about to release an emergency preparedness plan for extreme storms:

The USGS Multi Hazards Demonstration Project (MHDP) is preparing to release a new emergency-preparedness scenario, called ARkStorm, to address massive U.S. West Coast storms analogous to those that devastated California in 1861–62. Storms of this magnitude are projected to become more frequent and intense as a result of climate change.

The MHDP has assembled experts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), USGS, Scripps Institute of Oceanography, the State of California, California Geological Survey, the University of Colorado, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), California Department of Water Resources, California Emergency Management Agency (CalEMA) and other organizations to design the large, but scientifically plausible, hypothetical storm scenario that would provide emergency responders, resource managers, and the public a realistic assessment of what is historically possible.

California’s Storm of the Century

Beginning on Christmas Eve, 1861, and continuing into early 1862, an extreme series of storms lasting 45 days struck California. The storms caused severe flooding, turning the Sacramento Valley into an inland sea, forcing the State Capital to be moved from Sacramento to San Francisco for a time, and requiring Governor Leland Stanford to take a rowboat to his inauguration.

William Brewer, author of “Up and down California,” wrote on January 19, 1862, “The great central valley of the state is under water—the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys—a region 250 to 300 miles long and an average of at least twenty miles wide, or probably three to three and a half millions of acres!”

In southern California lakes were formed in the Mojave Desert and the Los Angeles Basin. The Santa Ana River tripled its highest-ever estimated discharge, cutting arroyos into the southern California landscape and obliterating the ironically named Agua Mansa (Smooth Water), then the largest community between New Mexico and Los Angeles. The storms wiped out nearly a third of the taxable land in California, leaving the State bankrupt.

Here’s a drawing of Sacramento in 1862, after the storm.

California storm of 1861

For more on Climate Change and weather, see:

Atlantic Hotter Than Before Katrina, Boosting Storm Forecasts

State of the Climate: Hottest Decade on Record

Jeremy Grantham: Everything You Need to Know About Global Warming in 5 Minutes

How Charles David Keeling Woke the World up to Climate Change

charles david keeling
Charles David Keeling

My wife just emailed me this great story. A compelling retrospective of Charles David Keeling, the scientist who measured the steadily increasing level of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, transforming the scientific understanding of humanity’s relationship with the earth.

The article, A Scientist, His Work and a Climate Reckoning, written by Justin Gillis, appeared in The NY Times today. It is an excellent even-handed overview and backstory of climate change.

As Congress dithers with political inaction on climate change and investment in renewable energy, this article provides a window into the quiet work of scientists around the world who say something extraordinary is going on.

I hope you will take 5 minutes and read every word. This is our history and our future.

Keeling died in 2005, but his son Ralph continues in his footsteps. Here’s a picture of the Keeling Curve – the history of atmospheric CO2 – measured by Keeling, starting back in 1958.

keeling curve
The Keeling Curve

As atmospheric CO2 has increased, so has global temperature.
Global Temperature Change Decades

And with rising temperatures, we are seeing increases in extreme weather events.

For more on Climate Change, click on the Climate Change topic in the sidebar to the right.

For more on Charles David Keeling, see his biography at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.