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Peak Everything

Peak oil is so last year. Now we can worry about peak everything: peak food, peak soil, peak fertiliser, even peak bees.

Let’s start small. We depend on bees to pollinate plants that account for about one-third of the world’s food supply, but since 2006 bee colonies in the United States have been dying off at an unprecedented rate. More recently the same “colony collapse disorder” has appeared in China, Egypt and Japan.

Many suspect that the main cause is a widely used type of pesticides called neonicotinoids, but the evidence is not yet conclusive. The fact remains that one-third of the American bee population has disappeared in the past decade. If the losses spread and deepen, we may face serious food shortages.

Then there’s peak fertiliser, or more precisely peak phosphate rock. Phosphorus is a critical ingredient of fertiliser, and it is the eightfold increase in the use of fertilisers that has enabled us to triple food production worldwide from about the same area of land in the past sixty years.

At the moment we are mining about 200 million tonnes of phosphate rock a year, and the global reserve that could be mined at a reasonable cost with current technology is estimated at about 16 billion tonnes. At the current level of production it won’t run out entirely for eighty years, but the increasing demand for fertilisers to feed the growing population means that phosphate production is rising fast.

As with peak oil, the really important date is not when there are no economically viable phosphate rock reserves left, but when production starts to fall. Peak phosphate is currently no more than forty years away – or much less, if fertiliser use continues to grow. After that, it’s back to organic fertilisers, which mainly means the urine and faeces of ten or twelve billion human beings and their domesticated animals. Good luck with that.

Peak soil is a trickier notion, but it derives from the more concrete concept that we are “mining” the soil: degrading and exhausting it by growing single-crop “monocultures”, using too much fertiliser and irrigating too enthusiastically, all in the name of higher crop yields.

“We know far more about the amount of oil there is globally and how long those stocks will last than we know about how much soil there is,” said John Crawford, Director of the Sustainable Systems Program in Rothamsted Research in England. “Under business as usual, the current soils that are in agricultural production will yield about 30 percent less…by around 2050.”

The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that 25 percent of the world’s soils that are currently under cultivation are severely degraded, and another 8 percent moderately degraded. (Even “moderately degraded” soil has lost half its capacity to store water.) And the only way to access new, undamaged soil is to deforest the rest of the planet.

All of which brings us to the issue of peak food. And here the concept of “peak” undergoes a subtle modification, because it no longer means “maximum production, after which yields start to fall.” It just means “the point at which the growth in production stops accelerating”: it’s the peak rate of growth, not actual peak production. But even that is quite ominous, if you think about it.

During the latter part of the 20th century, food production grew at around 3.5 percent per year, comfortably ahead of population growth, but the dramatic rise in crop yields was due to new inputs of fertilisers and pesticides, much more irrigation, and new “green revolution” crop varieties. Now those one-time improvements have largely run their course, and global food production is rising at only 1.5 percent a year.

Population growth has slowed too, so we’re still more or less keeping up with demand, but there are signs that food production in many areas is running up against what researchers at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln in a report last year called “a biophysical yield ceiling for the crop in question.” Production of the food in question stops rising, then may even fall – and extra investment often doesn’t help.

The “peak” in this context is an early warning that there will eventually be a complete cessation of growth, possibly followed by an absolute decline. Peak maize happened in 1985, peak rice and wild fish in 1988, peak dairy in 1989, peak eggs in 1993, and peak meat in 1996. (The numbers come from a recent report by scientists at Yale, Michigan State University and the Helmholtz Centre in Germany in the journal “Ecology and Society”)

More recent peaks were vegetables in 2000, milk and wheat in 2004, poultry in 2006, and soya bean in 2009. Indeed, sixteen of the 21 foods examined in the “Ecology and Society” report have already peaked, and production levels have actually flattened out for key regions amounting to 33 percent of global rice and 27 percent of global wheat production.

So we are already in trouble, and it will get worse even before climate change gets bad. There are still some quick fixes available, notably by cutting down on waste: more than a third of the food that is grown for human consumption never gets eaten. But unless we come up with some new “magic bullets”, things will be getting fairly grim on the food front by the 2030s.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5, 7 and 12. (“At the…fast”; “We know…2050″; and “Population…help”)

Three Elections

Last Sunday was a busy day: three elections, in three different continents, all of them offering at least the hope of better times.

First, Brazil, where President Dilma Rousseff eked out a second-round victory with 51.6 percent of the votes versus 48.4 percent for the challenger, Aecio Neves. But Neves was quick to acknowledge her victory, and she was equally prompt in admitting that things had to change. “Sometimes in history, close outcomes trigger results more quickly than ample victories,” she said.

Most people took that as an admission that she will have to give more attention to growing the economy and a little less to redistributing the proceeds. This will not come easily to her, for the great project of the Workers’ Party (PT) under both Rousseff and her iconic predecessor Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva has been to raise the living standards of poor Brazilians. They have done very well at it, but there was a cost.

In only twelve years the PT governments have moved around 40 million Brazilians, one-fifth of the population, out of poverty. Brazil’s Gini coefficient (a measure of income inequality) has improved from 0.56 at the start of PT rule to 0.49 now. Such rapid change in Gini is practically unheard of – Brazil is now closer to the United States (0.47) than to China (0.61) – and it has transformed a great many people’s lives.

The overall economy grew fast when “Lula” was in office, but it has slowed almost to a stall under Rousseff. That is not surprising, for it is hard to persuade business to invest when you are busy redistributing income. Now Dilma will have to change her priorities and encourage business – without surrendering the improvements in the lives of the poor.

She seems to understand that, and if she can succeed in entrenching those changes while reviving the economy then she really will have changed Brazil for good. The voters have given her another four years to work on it, and that may be enough.

Secondly, Ukraine. The killing in the south-east has tailed off – only 300 dead in sporadic clashes around Donetsk in almost two months since the ceasefire, compared to 3,400 in the previous four and a half months – and the new frontier with the pro-Russian breakaway areas has solidified. That, plus the Russian annexation of Crimea, excluded some three million people from the vote, but for 36 million other registered voters the election went off quite peacefully.

The result was a landslide. “More than three-quarters of voters who took part in the polls gave strong and irreversible backing to Ukraine’s path to Europe,” President Petro Poroshenko told a news conference in Kiev. With half the ballots counted, his own Solidarity Party and the People’s Front led by his ally, former prime minister Arseny Yatseniuk, each had 21.5 percent of the vote, with another pro-European party, Self Help, winning 11 percent.

With the support of several smaller pro-European, pro-reform parties, a coalition government may even enjoy a two-thirds “super-majority” in parliament and allow Poroshenko to pass his long-promised reform programme with little opposition. Pro-Russian parties that were allied with deposed president Viktor Yanukovich (who fled into exile with Russian help), running as the Opposition Bloc, got only 10 percent of the vote.

Ukraine is not out of the woods. Russia can turn up the fighting again, or just keep its gas exports turned off and condemn the country to a grim winter. The economy is still shrinking and jobs are disappearing fast. But at least Ukraine will now have a government that is both legitimate and more or less united.

Last but not least, Tunisia, the country where the Arab Spring began – and just about the only one where it did not fail. The surprise there was that the secular Nidaa Tounes Party (Tunisia’s Call), formed only last year, out-polled the Ennahda Party, a moderate Islamist party that led the first post-revolutionary coalition government.

Some kind of coalition will still be necessary, as neither party won half the seats in parliament, and it may be a broad coalition that includes them both. But there is a lesson here for Egypt, although it comes a bit late. As a member of Ennahda’s political bureau told the BBC, “This result is fine. I am not really surprised. Governments that are leading during a political transition are often punished at the polls.”

Egypt threw away its democracy last year, only one year after the Muslim Brotherhood, a moderate Islamist party, won the first free election after the Egyptian revolution. President Mohamed Morsi was less tactful and more eager to impose his Islamic project on the country than Ennahda’s leaders, but he was not doing anything that would be irreversible after another election.

In Egypt, as in Tunisia, a second election would probably have seen the Islamist party evicted from power; all the disappointed secular leaders of the revolution had to do was wait. Instead, they made an alliance with the army to overthrow Morsi – and now the army rules the country again. Elections are messy, divisive affairs, but they are far better than any of the alternatives.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 9. (“In only…lives”; and “With…vote”)

Egypt’s Man of Destiny – For a While

To the vast surprise of absolutely nobody, Field Marshal Abdel Fatah al-Sisi won the Egyptian presidential election last week. Moreover, he won it with a majority that would pass for a resounding triumph in most countries. But it is a disarmingly modest majority for an Arab Man of Destiny.

Not for Sisi the implausible margins of victory claimed by Men of Destiny in other Arab countries, like the 96.3 percent that Egypt’s last dictator, Hosni Mubarak, claimed in his first election 21 years ago, or the spectacular 100 percent that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein allegedly got in his last election in 2002. No, Sisi just claimed 93.3 percent of the votes, a number low enough that it might actually be true.

Sisi’s real problem is that even with the media cowed and the full resources of the state behind him, only 46 percent of eligible Egyptians turned out to vote. He had confidently predicted an 80 percent turnout.

As an aspiring dictator who overthrew the country’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, only one year ago, Sisi needed a big turnout. At least 1,500 protesters have been shot dead in the streets, and a minimum of 16,000 political dissidents are in jail. Sisi has shut down a popular revolution and he needed to demonstrate massive public support for what he did.

He didn’t get it. Towards the end of the scheduled two days of the election, the people around him panicked. The interim prime minister, Ibrahim Mahlab, let slip that barely 30 percent had voted so far – and the regime abruptly announced that there would be a third day of voting. An unscheduled public holiday was declared, and non-voters were threatened with a large fine.

In the end, Sisi’s officials claimed a 46 percent turnout, although journalists reported that many polling booths were almost empty on the third day. But let’s be generous and assume that 40 percent of eligible Egyptians did vote.

If 93.3 percent of those people truly did vote for Sisi, then he has the support of just over one-third of Egyptians. Other Arab dictators have ruled their countries for decades with no more popular support than that, but it will probably not sustain Sisi through the hard times that are coming. Too many Egyptians are struggling just to feed their families.

Egypt’s economy is running on fumes, and there would not even be enough bread for people to eat – Egypt is the world’s largest importer of wheat – if Sisi were not getting massive infusions of aid from Saudi Arabia and most of the smaller Gulf states, which are very happy that he is killing off the Egyptian revolution.

But even the great wealth of the Gulf kingdoms cannot win Sisi more than a breathing space: all of them together have only about a third of Egypt’s population. And there is no good reason to believe that the Egyptian army, which is now effectively in charge, has the skill to resolve the country’s grave economic problems. Indeed, its highest priority will be to protect its own massive business empire.

Sisi talks about how Egyptians “must work, day and night, without rest” to restore the economy after three years of revolutionary chaos, and his budget plan calls for slashing energy subsidies by 22 percent in one year. Austerity is not going to win him any thanks from Egypt’s poor, however, and his political honeymoon will not last long.

What will happen after that can be predicted from the results of Egypt’s only fully free election two years ago. Mohamed Morsi and another Islamist candidate got a total of 42 percent of the votes in the first round of that election, while the leftist candidate, Hamdeen Sabahi, got 21 percent. (Morsi won in the second round, when Sabahi and two other candidates had dropped out.)

We can safely presume that few Islamist supporters voted at all in last week’s election. It’s clear that most of Sabahi’s former supporters also abstained: he was the only candidate who dared to run against Sisi, but he only got 3 percent this time. Islamists and leftists therefore make up the majority of the 55-60 percent who did not vote for Sisi this time – and that is good news for him, because the two groups have very little in common.

Those who did vote for Sisi were mostly people with no strong ideological convictions who were simply exhausted by the turmoil of the past three years. They voted for “stability”, and believed Sisi’s promise that he could deliver it. So long as they go on believing that, a deeply divided opposition poses little threat to him.

But most of the people who voted for Sisi thought that when he said “stability”, he really meant an improvement in their living standards, and it’s most unlikely that he can deliver that. When they lose faith in Sisi, the opposition will achieve critical mass, and it probably won’t take more than two years. The Egyptian revolution is not over yet.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Egypt’s…empire”)

The Arab Spring Three Years On

27 January 2014

The Arab Spring Three Years On

By Gwynne Dyer

It has taken a little longer than it did after the 1848 revolutions in Europe, but on the third anniversary of the Egyptian revolution we can definitely say that the “Arab Spring” is finished. The popular, mostly non-violent revolutions that tried to overthrow the single-party dictatorships and absolute monarchies of the Arab world had their moments of glory, but the party is over and the bosses are back.

People in the Middle East hate having their triumphs and tragedies treated as a second-hand version of European history, but the parallels with Europe in 1848 are hard to resist. The Arab tyrants had been in power for just as long, the revolutions were fuelled by the same mixture of democratic idealism and frustrated nationalism, and once again the trigger for the revolutions (if you had to highlight just one factor) was soaring food prices.

In many places the Arab revolutionaries had startlingly quick successes at first – Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen – just like the French, German, and Italian revolutionaries did in Europe’s “Springtime of the Peoples”. For a time it looked like everything would change. Then came the counter-revolutions and it all fell apart, leaving only a few countries permanently changed for the better – like Denmark then, or Tunisia in today’s Arab world.

The disheartening parallels are particularly strong between Egypt, by far the biggest country in the Arab world, and France, which was Europe’s most important and populous country in 1848. In both cases, the revolutions at first brought free media, civil rights and free elections, but also a great deal of social turmoil and disorientation.

In both France and Egypt the newly enfranchised masses then elected presidents whose background alarmed much of the population: a nephew of Napoleon in one case, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in the other. And here the stories diverge for a time – but the ending, alas, does not.

In France, President Louis Napoleon launched a coup against his own presidency, and re-emerged in 1852 as Emperor Napoleon III. It had been a turbulent few years, and by then a large majority of the French were willing to vote for him because he represented authority, stability and tradition. They threw away their own democracy.

In Egypt last year, the army allied itself with former revolutionaries to overthrow the elected president, Mohamed Morsi – and within a few months, after an election which will genuinely represent the wish of most Egyptians to trade their new democracy for authority, stability and tradition, Field Marshal Abdel Fatah al-Sisi will duly assume the presidency. The counter-revolution is as popular in Egypt now as it was in France then.

And if you fear that this analogy is really relevant, then here’s the worst of it. After the defeat of the 1848 revolutions, there were no further democratic revolutions in Europe for twenty years. If that timetable were also to apply to the Arab world, then the next round of democratic revolutions would only be due around 2035. But it probably doesn’t apply.

There is one key difference between the European revolutions of 1848 and the Arab revolutions of 2011. The 1848 revolutions were violent explosions of popular anger that succeeded in hours or days, while those of 2010-11 were largely non-violent, more calculated struggles that took much longer to win. Non-violent revolutions give millions of people time to think about why they are taking these risks and what they hope to get out of it.

They may still lose focus, take wrong turns, even throw all their gains away. Mistakes are human, and so is failure. But once people have participated in a non-violent revolution they are permanently politicised, and in the long run they are quite likely to remember what they came for.

The most promising candidate to succeed Gene Sharp as the world authority on non-violent revolutions is Erica Chernoweth, a young American academic who co-wrote the study “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Non-Violent Conflict” with diplomat Maria Stephan. A lot of their book is about why non-violent revolution succeeds or fails, but most interesting of all are their statistics about HOW OFTEN it succeeds.

Their headline statistic is that violent revolutionary struggles succeed in overthrowing an oppressive regime only 30 percent of the time, whereas non-violent campaigns succeed almost 60 percent of the time. By that standard, the Arab world is certainly under-performing.

There have been only two relative successes among the Arab countries, Tunisia and Morocco (where the change came so quickly that hardly anybody noticed). There were two no-score draws: Yemen and Jordan. And there were three abject failures: Bahrain, Egypt and Syria, the latter ending up in a full-scale civil war. (Libya doesn’t count, as it was a violent revolution with large foreign participation right from the start.) So far, not so good.

But the most relevant statistic from Chernoweth and Stephan’s work for the future of the Arab world is this: “Holding all other variables constant, the average country with a failed non-violent campaign has over a 35 percent chance of becoming a democracy five years after a conflict’s end.” Failure may be only temporary. The game isn’t over yet.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 13. (“People…prices”; and “There have…good”)

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.