There were many root causes of the Arab Spring – but one of them might not be what you’d expect.
In Egyptian Arabic, the word for bread is ‘aish’. It also means ‘life’. And life in Egypt has been tumultuous these past few years.
When millions of Egyptians took to the streets in 2011, freedom and justice were cited as the main objectives. So where does bread fit into all of this?
Bread was the first word in one of the most popular chants at the beginning of the revolution. For Akmad Maher, one of the most significant youth leaders in the revolution, “Bread and politics is one issue. Not two issues. Bread is our life in Egypt. “
Three years before the revolution, in 2008, when bread shortages helped to spark some of the first demonstrations against Hosney Mubarak, Maher was one of the organisers. “Back then, we saw lines with hundreds of people, fighting over bread. There was no bread inside, there was no flour, and five to seven died fighting over bread. When the people have no bread, they will make a revolution.”
Why wasn’t there any bread?
Egypt depends on other countries for about half of its wheat supply. One of the places that exports wheat to Egypt is Kansas, and recent years have seen Kansas wheat crops effected heavily by drought.
For Egypt, this drought in Kansas was one part of a much larger trend. In 2010, a series of disasters all over the world caused wheat prices to double in the months before the revolution. In Canada, it was an issue of too much water. Record rainfall destroyed one quarter of their wheat crops. At the same time, China’s breadbasket was experiencing its worst drought in 60 years. In Russia and Ukraine, it was drought and the worst heatwave in centuries. For Egypt, this was the strongest blow – because Russia is Egypt’s number one supplier of wheat. The extreme weather events forced Putin to ban grain exports.
Simply put, in 2010, a string of disasters halted global wheat supplies, and fanned the flames of political chaos in Egypt.
It seems like a very convoluted and unlucky chain of events. A heat wave in Russia whiping out a whole wheat crop, which diminished the global wheat production, which raised bread prices, which ended up in a bakery in Cario with some poor person having to pay much more for their bread, or not getting any at all.
So far, climate change has caused global temperatures to rise by 0.9 degrees Celsius since the industrial revolution. This might seem small, but according to research from the climatology department at Oxford University, that raise in temperature made the Russian heat wave three times more likely.
For Jeremy Grantham, an investor famous for predicting the .com bubble of the 90s and the housing bubble that lead to the great recession and expert on global commodities like wheat, the last three years has seen a persistent pattern of bad graining weather. It’s a statistical fluke unless you believe that climate change is changing the odds.
“My job in investing is to think on what are the more important ideas. Climate change/global warming is probably the biggest issue that faces our next generation, so how can you avoid it? It is the very foothill of a major problem.”
We tend to think of the Arab Spring as an entirely political event. People rising up against dictatorship. But around it was a huge climate story. The question is why is that so impactful on Egypt?
Bread accounts for about 30% of Egyptian’s calorific intake. Even if the Egyptian government subsides prices, they are only capable of feeding half of the 84 million they have. “The government simply doesn’t have the money to feed its 84 going 100 going on 120 million people” says Grantham. This was the backdrop of the Arab Spring, the same backdrop to climate change. “If you’re spending 30% of your family income on food and energy, and in a matter of 3-5 years that doubles and triples and quadruples on you, you’re likely to be fairly desperate, and desperate people take to the streets.”
And that’s exactly what has happened in Egypt. The most immediate problem in the 20 year horizon is food. The biggest risk is that this will destabilise a series of smaller countries, which in turn will destabilise global politics.
The reality is that we’re only a severe drought or two away from a complete collapse of Egypt. And this should scare us.
Source: Years Of Living Dangerously, Showtime