Since the Ukraine crisis bloomed into violence three months ago, reporters and analysts have floundered to tuck the bloody, explosive events into a nice narrative we can all be comfortable with. It’s a tug-of-war, we’ve been told, between East and West, between Russia and Europe, between Putin and Obama. (How in the world did this turn out to be Obama’s fault, as well?) Or it’s a resumption of the Cold War, no, it’s a Hot Cold War, no, it’s Soviet Union II.
While they have been thus laboring, the members of the chattering class have been overwhelmed by similar, new rebellions in Venezuela, Thailand, Turkey, Bosnia and Iceland (Yes! Iceland, for crying out loud!) added to the still-simmering uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Iraq and Syria, and the barely-under-control semi-rebellions bubbling in Iran, China, Pakistan, India and Argentina. Not hard to understand why beads of sweat are popping through the makeup of the pundits and politicians who are trying to maintain the not-to-worry, we’ve-seen-all-this-before attitude that will keep us from getting interested. Fact is, we’ve never seen anything like this before.
If you have ever dropped in on a rebellion, you find certain things immediately apparent. (Why yes, I have, thank you for asking. It was small, unsuccessful, in Bermuda some years ago. Now stop that, Bermuda riots are certainly no more ridiculous than Icelandic ones. I have stood directly behind the lines of police in riot gear — and had them turn on me and nearly beat me into the ground with their batons when they heard that I had described them as “nervous” on the air. I have circulated through the ranks of rioters, freely until they decided I was seeing too much, whereupon they picked me up by the elbows and transported me unceremoniously to neutral territory. And I have joshed a friend for appearing to take a nap across the hood of his vehicle in the midst of the action, only to have him raise his head and show me the blood cascading from where he had taken a brick full in the face.)
The first self-evident truth about rebellions is that they are not conducted by people who have options. People risk death at the hands of security forces only when they face death at home, and see no other path to a better life than the one that skirts death in battle. Consider these realities, of which you have heard nothing in the twittersphere:
1. In Ukraine, food prices have been skyrocketing for years while raging inflation has been eating away the purchasing power of people who spend more than half their income on food. That inflation is being driven by energy costs. Ukrainian oil production peaked in 1976 and has declined 60 per cent in 20 years. Now, 80 per cent of its natural gas and oil must be purchased from Russia. Neither the government just replaced, nor the revolution that replaced it, has a solution. Nor, for that matter, does Russia, and if it takes over the country it will own the problem.
2. In Venezuela, oil production peaked in 1999, gas production in 2001. Declining petroleum output in the face of rising domestic demand means less revenue for the government just when much more revenue is needed to maintain the subsidies that have kept the people quiet by giving them cheap food and fuel.
3. In all the other countries that are aflame, food and energy prices are high and rising. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization has said for years that when its global food price index hits 210, countries destabilize. The number for 2013: 209.8. It has been hovering there for 18 months. Food prices are one consequence of, and move in lock-step with, oil prices.
So let it be said once again: When you are trying to understand why the world is increasingly aflame, forget ideology and religion and ethnicity and all the blah blah blah of the media echo chambers. It’s about food, and fuel, and the iron reality that the world is running short of both.