Starvation and the Middle East
A lot of the folktales we were told as children involved starving peasant children begging for scraps of bread. That is what happened in Europe during the creation of our folk memory. People spent a lot of their lives on an involuntary calorie-restricted diet. The stories from those times do not involve twelve year old girls getting ponies for their birthday or the horror of an older teenager getting the wrong-colored car for her birthday. Starvation is what stopped the human population blowing out to 10 billion thousands of years ago.
As a civilisation, we have largely forgotten about starvation because of two technical advances: 1) the Haber process enables coal or natural gas to power the conversion of atmospheric nitrogen to fertilizer (the source of half the protein on our plates) and; 2) the green revolution pioneered by Norman Borlaug. That is all by way of background, and is history.
Meanwhile, population growth in some places is still galloping along. For example the population of the West African country of Gambia is doubling every 26 years. Gambia is importing food now, so all the growth in population, while it continues, will have to be fed with imported grain. It is a game of musical chairs that will end in tears when the music stops. But nobody cares much what happens in West Africa. Perhaps the supply of cocoa beans for making chocolate will be interrupted. At the time of West Africa’s inevitable starvation and population collapse, everyone else on the planet will be more focussed on their own survival and getting bread into their own children’s mouths.
There is another region on the planet that has a date with destiny on the musical chairs dance card. It is a region that is troubling the world needlessly when you consider the big picture. The Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region has 500 million Arabs, Persians, North Africans and others living in an area with an agricultural system that can support half that number. The region as a whole has a population doubling time of 34 years. While they are being fed, they breed. All that does is increase the number of people who ultimately will be dying of starvation. In the meantime some might be beheaded by an ISIS jihadi. But most of those who escape that fate won’t live their allotted span of three score years and ten and then die peacefully in their sleep. Nothing can be done to avoid this outcome. Nothing. And neither should any time or treasure be wasted in worrying about it either.
The only thing uncertain about the MENA game of musical chairs is when the music stops. It might stop due to an external factor such as a hard, late-spring frost in the Corn Belt causing a grain shortage. It might be due to the collapse of civil administration in Yemen stopping the distribution of subsidised food. The spectacle of mass starvation will cause the governments of countries that import food, which is most of them, to scramble for whatever grain stocks they can get their hands on. Thus a localised outbreak of starvation will turn into a contagion.
Some parties on the planet are well aware that this is going to happen and want everyone to starve together rather than have nations being responsible for the consequences of their own actions. Thus the perfidious French concocted a scheme at the 2011 G20 meeting of agriculture ministers to require grain trading companies to report all their contracts to a central authority. Auditing is the basis of control. As with most of these sorts of schemes, it is a conspiracy of the profligate against the provident. In other words the French and their fellow travellers tried to gang up on the US, as they did with the carbon tax.
Europe is in a precarious position. In worshipping the false god of climate change, they have managed to destroy a lot of their power industry to the extent that the International Energy Agency is warning that the lights are likely to go out. They import most of their oil and a lot of their gas comes from Russia. But while they are cold and in the dark, they might also be starving. This graph showing wheat stocks as a proportion of annual consumption plotted against per capita consumption for a number of wheat producing and consuming countries and regions:
Most countries with a culture of eating wheat have a per capita consumption in the range of 200 to 250 kg per annum. While the EU is currently a net exporter of wheat, that could easily reverse with a bad season. There are no stocks in the EU system to cushion a bad outcome. Though not a part of the EU, Norway is an example of Europe’s forgetfulness of its heritage of starvation. Norway had a bad time in WW2 and so undertook to keep two years’ worth of wheat consumption in storage ever after. Those stocks for a rainy day were sold off in 1996 and the grain silos converted to student accommodation. It took two generations to forget the bitter lessons of WW2 and thus the next generation will have to relearn them.
We have digressed -- back to the MENA region. The fate of the region is a collapse event with the deaths of several hundred million people when the grain ships stop arriving. Democracies or any other type of regime can’t be installed with any hope that they will endure. The Syrian cities that are now rubble are just another layer (funded by fossil fuels) of civilisation on top of the ruins that preceded them. The whole region will end up like that. Don’t get involved. Don’t get fond of anyone in the region or choose one over the other.
If you try to fix one of their problems you get to own all of their problems, and all of their problems are intractable. Don’t bother to even learn their names. The reasons some of them might be upset with the rest of the world count for nothing. Don’t parlay with them because their undertakings mean nothing in the long term. And when they stop paying for their grain, don’t send them grain. Don’t let them into this country, and don’t pretend that their civilisations, with all their repellent customs, are worth visiting. That is a list of seven don’ts. That is all that is need be known.
The Romans had similar problems in the region two thousand years ago. Their response to being attacked was to wipe out the entire population of the country or tribe that attacked them. We don’t have to go that far these days. All we have to do is remove the errant leadership of the offending entity. Sometimes that will have to be pre-emptive as when a nuclear state has undertaken to destroy the US.
What of the oil, you might ask? With respect to disruption of oil supply, any suffering on our part is of our own choosing. We have it in our gift to make all of our transport fuels with our own resources with those sources being economically viable at the current oil price. The economics of those sources will only improve as events unfold in the Middle East. We will get to energy independence but it would be better to get there from our own efforts first rather than have it forced upon us.
David Archibald, a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C., is the author of Twilight of Abundance: Why Life in the 21st Century Will Be Nasty, Brutish, and Short (Regnery, 2014).