This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
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He was a poor 26-year-old trying to eke out a living and help pay for his sisters' schooling. He met the deep corruption of the Tunisian regime face to face in the most everyday and humiliating way -- in the form of bribes he couldn't afford just to keep his little stand open and the power of a bureaucracy to shut him down on a whim. In frustration, in protest, he doused himself with paint thinner and burned himself to death (though it took days for that death to come).
His name was Mohammed Bouazizi; he came from the town of Sidi Bouzid, which you've never heard of; and his is a terrible story. Now, he's known across the Middle East as the man who started the Tunisian revolution and will undoubtedly go down in history -- along with Thich Quang Duc, the Buddhist monk who calmly seated himself in a Saigon street in June 1963 and started a political firestorm by immolating himself to protest a repressive American-backed South Vietnamese government; and Jan Palach, the Czech student who did the same in Prague's Wenceslas Square in January 1969 as a response to the Soviet invasion of his country. In all three cases, others followed their painful example. In all three cases, sooner or later it ended badly for the powers-that-be.
Across the Middle East today, immolations are on the rise and nervous American-backed autocrats are listening to the rumbling from below, like the Egyptian demonstrators already reportedly chanting, "We are next, we are next, [Tunisian dictator] Ben Ali, tell [Egyptian autocrat Hosni] Mubarak he is next."
In his act, however happenstantially, Bouazizi combined two crucial things that ensure the upheavals he began won't be restricted to Tunisia. At his little stand, he sold fruit, and to die, he used a petroleum-based product. Basic foods and fuel are experiencing startling price rises globally. Behind the Tunisian events, like recent riots in Algeria, Jordan, and elsewhere, lie the rising cost of things that people can't do without. In Algeria, young rioters torching buildings were also chanting, "Bring us sugar!" As Michael Klare, TomDispatch regular and author most recently of Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet, points out, we've entered the age of resource revolts and there's no turning back. (To catch Timothy MacBain's latest TomCast audio interview in which Klare discusses what rising food prices mean globally, click here or, to download it to your iPod, here.) Tom
The Year of Living Dangerously
Rising Commodity Prices and Extreme Weather Events Threaten Global Stability
By Michael T. Klare
Get ready for a rocky year. From now on, rising prices, powerful storms, severe droughts and floods, and other unexpected events are likely to play havoc with the fabric of global society, producing chaos and political unrest. Start with a simple fact: the prices of basic food staples are already approaching or exceeding their 2008 peaks, that year when deadly riots erupted in dozens of countries around the world.
It's not surprising then that food and energy experts are beginning to warn that 2011 could be the year of living dangerously -- and so could 2012, 2013, and on into the future. Add to the soaring cost of the grains that keep so many impoverished people alive a comparable rise in oil prices -- again nearing levels not seen since the peak months of 2008 -- and you can already hear the first rumblings about the tenuous economic recovery being in danger of imminent collapse. Think of those rising energy prices as adding further fuel to global discontent.
Already, combined with staggering levels of youth unemployment and a deep mistrust of autocratic, repressive governments, food prices have sparked riots in Algeria and mass protests in Tunisia that, to the surprise of the world, ousted long-time dictator President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his corrupt extended family. And many of the social stresses evident in those two countries are present across the Middle East and elsewhere. No one can predict where the next explosion will occur, but with food prices still climbing and other economic pressures mounting, more upheavals appear inevitable. These may be the first resource revolts to catch our attention, but they won't be the last.
Put simply, global consumption patterns are now beginning to challenge the planet's natural resource limits. Populations are still on the rise, and from Brazil to India, Turkey to China, new powers are rising as well. With them goes an urge for a more American-style life. Not surprisingly, the demand for basic commodities is significantly on the rise, even as supplies in many instances are shrinking. At the same time, climate change, itself a product of unbridled energy use, is adding to the pressure on supplies, and speculators are betting on a situation trending progressively worse. Add these together and the road ahead appears increasingly rocky.
Breadbaskets without Bread
Let's begin with food, the most important and volatile of these commodities. Food prices declined in October 2008 after the onset of the global financial crisis, but that seems to have been an anomaly. The December 2010 index of global food prices compiled by the U.N.'s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) hit a record 215, one point higher than in the spring of 2008. (In that index, based on a "bundle" of food staples, a baseline of 100 represents average prices in 2002-2004.) In fact, some food products, including sugar, cooking oils, and fats, are now trading substantially above their 2008 levels; others, including dairy products, grains, and meat, are inching perilously close to record levels.
As 2011 begins, food experts fear that, within months, prices for key staples will climb above the 2008 threshold and stay there, causing extreme hardship for poor people around the world. "We are at a very high level," said a worried Abdolreza Abbassian, an economist at the FAO. "These levels in the previous episode led to problems and riots across the world."
Of particular concern to Abbassian and his colleagues is the rising cost of corn, rice, and wheat, the staple crops of billions in many of the poorest countries. According to the FAO, by the end of 2010 international corn and wheat prices were already approaching their 2008 peak levels (about $260 and $340 per metric ton, respectively).
Analysts attribute the rise in grain prices to growing demand in both developed and developing nations, along with a number of cataclysmic weather-related events and speculation by investors. An extreme drought and fierce fires last summer destroyed a large percentage of the wheat crop in Russia and Ukraine, while heavy flooding in India and the inundation of 20% of Pakistan damaged significant parts of the grain output of those countries. At the same time, unusually hot and dry weather suppressed production in a number of other key farming areas.