"World one Poor Harvest Away from Chaos" Lester Brown's piece draws upon UN data to paint a sombre picture of the world. Sure we can still produce enough food to feed the world but we are living on the razor's edge. The cost of food has been and is a factor in the unrest in the Middle East; what were once secure absolute dictatorships are looking increasingly insecure. Yet we have been there before. If we want to learn the lessons from the past they are there for all to read.
Remember Marie Antoinette of "let them eat cake" fame? The reason the comment, (despite its doubtful authenticity), resonates through the ages is because it is a reminder that the cost of bread was such a critical ingredient in kicking off the French Revolution.
But the food crisis alone was not sufficient to create the French Revolution. Another key factor was the printing press. Or perhaps more accurately the growth in literacy and the ability of thinkers like Rousseau, Voltaire and co to hold out visions of an alternative future that gave people the confidence to challenge the established order.
With the benefit of hindsight we can see that the revolution of 1789 and even possibly the American War of Independence ushered in a new age. The revolutions of 1848, The Paris Commune, The Russian Revolutions and the final death knell of the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires in 1918 can all be traced back to two central issues: the blatantly unfair distribution of wealth and the exclusion of the majority of the people from the political decision making process.
Fast forward to 2011 and what do we find? The Middle East uprisings are fuelled by the vast disparity in wealth between the ruling elite and the masses. Furthermore the infiltration of social media is giving people access to a radical notion – it does not need to be this way – another world is possible.
However, it would be a mistake to sit smugly in our armchairs and suppose that those same factors that are causing unrest in the Middle East are not at play in our own comfortable world.
In the Middle East the reality of unaffordable food is a powerful trigger but other triggers are possible. For years we have been selling the youth of Australia the dream that educational success is the pathway to a comfortable, indeed affluent lifestyle. Increasingly we find Australian graduates working in occupational areas for which no degree was/is necessary. We are creating a cohort of well educated misfits (WEMS). These WEMS have time on their hands and, above all, they know how to use the social networking tools. The same WEMS can see through the shallow promises made by our politicians, can see that increasingly politics is not about implementing a vision for a better future but simply about gaining power and then holding on.
Just listen to the sound grabs from the Middle East. Have you noticed how many speak fluent English? Just have a look at the refugees who come here – these are not illiterate peasants (they could not afford to pay the people smugglers). No they are the elite. They are no different to our own WEMS and if our WEMS find that we continue to import overseas graduates, and if we continue with policies that do not ensure that we can meet their expectations, then they too may ultimately take to the streets.
When they find that, thanks to our leaders' failure to act decisively on peak oil, most of their income goes on paying to get to and from work, and that food prices continue to rise because we have not looked after our own food security, and that they are living in overcrowded cities because politicians have promoted high immigration rates despite repeated reports showing that this disadvantages existing residents, then they will ask why they should remain peaceful law abiding citizens when clearly there is nothing in it for them. And so we too may see our own revolutionary protests.
Off course we can take the view that it could not possibly happen here. But any careful reading of the history of 19th century Europe will show that complacency is misplaced. Right now we need politicians that can articulate how they are going to meet the global challenges facing us and encourage us to buy into their vision – unfortunately we have politicians that are in a state of denial about those challenges and, even if they recognize the challenges, lack the vision to address them.
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