The Resource Crisis and Climate Change
Back in July, 2013 I wrote this post, MENA - A Model of the Future? in which I dug deeper into the then crisis transpiring in Egypt where a revolt against the Morsi government was being spurred by the fact that the dwindling natural resources per capita (especially energy) were fundamentally unsolvable by any government. The people were unhappy because they thought that by voting in a new government democratically they would solve their problems (jobs, food, water, fuel, etc.) But it didn't happen for the simple reason that the resource pie was shrinking faster than any government actions (say attracting some kind of investment in the country) could counter. Things got worse and people once again took to the streets. Today, two years later, things have gotten considerably worse under the military regime that kicked out Morsi and took over. As I claimed then and reiterate, it is a matter of plain and simple physics, not politics. You cannot legislate resources into existence.
People have gotten used to thinking that solutions come from politics - having the right officials in place means that they will solve the problems. People everywhere pretty much assume this is the case, even in the US where the freak show called the presidential campaign is off and running. No doubt many republicans in the US sincerely believe that Donald Trump will solve all the problems and everything will be right as rain once again ("Make America great again").
But politicians are not miracle workers. They cannot feed the multitudes from a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. What they have become, however, right along side their neoclassical economics allies, are fair magicians — prestidigitators. They know how to manipulate smoke and mirrors and conjure economic spells. They are nothing more than snake oil con men (and women). The irony is that they actually believe what they say and are convinced they know how to really make good stuff happen. They are a testament to the capacity of the less-than-sapient mind's ability to double think.
The simple truth is that when you find yourself in deep resource depletion and high population no amount of financial hocus pocus or political posturing or brute force can fix anything. The Morsi government nor the military junta before and after could ever possibly satisfy the needs of the people. No government could. Nor could there be massive aid influx to ease the situation. The other nations of the world are all much poorer than they will admit. They cannot pump enough resources into the region to solve the problems. There is no scenario in which this comes out well.
Our talking heads continue to evaluate the “causes” of the mass exodus from the MENA region as due to the political unrest growing more violent by the day. For example they look at Syria and blame the problems, initially, on Asad and the rebellion/civil war that threatens so many civilians. Then the US government focuses on the ISIS threat as causing so many people to want to leave. These destructive acts are merely proximate causes. The rebels against Asad are basically repeating the story in Egypt. They claim that bad government (Asad) is the cause of the problems experienced by the people. Replace the government and problem solved! Right? Much the same story is being repeated through out the other failed states in the region.
The civil wars and lawlessness (e.g. Boko Haram) are driven by the rapid decline of resources compounded now by climate consequences, drought and severe temperatures. People are fighting for dwindling resources in increasingly unlivable conditions. The citizens of these states are responding most immediately to the violence, and claiming political asylum on that basis. But make no mistake. They are ultimately climate and resource refugees. And there is no policy or plan that will correct the situation. The lucky ones will escape (if they don't die on the journey) to Europe and possibly to the US. But that will simply cause resource strains in those areas where they settle. Nor will the flood taper off until the region is mostly emptied.
MENA is just the first example of what is happening in the world. As the climate situation worsens, and we now know that it is and will further, affecting every continent on the planet, and as resource depletions grow acute in various focused locations, we will see this same scenario played out again and again. Political upheaval based on the belief that the government's ineptitude, or corruption, or whatever, is responsible for the problems that ensue (food shortages, fuel shortages, unemployment, etc.) will give over to violence. Regimes will change, but the problems will just grow worse.
Perhaps the US and some of the remaining western “rich” nations will try to help, intervene to reduce violence, or attempt to aid relocations. But their capacity to afford such actions are growing weaker with every day that passes. At some point the wealthy nations will no longer be truly wealthy and will decline to try to help. They will, in fact, be starting to feel the same effects themselves. Already we see the discord and extreme polarizations taking place in many western polities. In the US we tend to blame the congress for its deadlocked inability to pass laws that will effect economic change (and assumed progress). Neither side gets a thumbs-up on its economic ideas. In any case both sides firmly believe that economic growth is the solution to all problems and neither recognizes that we've used up all of the resources that we need to do so. They are so blind to reality that all they can really do from now on is exacerbate the problems. In the US we are in a situation that only the most blind persons even seek political position. They are so stupid and ignorant that they cannot even conceive that problems have real physical roots. Pity.
All over the world, right now, you can find cases of pockets of affected areas where people are starting to move out seeking somewhere where they can find work and resources. Within nations like Brazil, China, Russia, and even the United States there are instances of people becoming refugees. The Dust Bowl events in the US are another model for what is happening. Right now, in each of these countries the migrations are within the borders (except in Mexico and other Latin American countries) and so don't show up in “official” statistics.
Certainly there have been relocation migrations throughout humankind's history. We've always managed to deplete local resources forcing people to abandon a region, for example areas in the Middle East were once far more productive than in recent history before ungulate grazing changed the region's climate. And there have been many cases of people simply seeking better conditions (e.g. the American West promised great possibilities, especially during the Gold Rush). What is different about the current situation is that we are looking at a global phenomenon. Resources have been depleted just about everywhere. Climate is changing everywhere and at a breath-taking rate. The regions that are experiencing the worst effects are now quite obvious. The MENA region is probably the most dramatic. For example, by contrast, island nations being threatened by sea level rise and Arctic regions being impacted by loss of ice have fewer people affected and so do not rise to the level of global-level stress. Nevertheless the people effected in these regions are beginning to plan their escapes from their situations.
Right now in China there are many local emigrations taking place due to combinations of insufficient resources and climate change consequences. There is also a fair amount of unrest brewing in various areas. These are not as dramatic (yet) as the case in the MENA region. And internal migrations, as I said, are not depicted in the same manner as the refugee flood from the MENA to Europe. In fact it might be even worse in China than we know. The country is so much larger, the populations involved so much larger, and the information flow coming out of the country is subject to so much filtering that we might not get a good idea of what is happening there until significant violence breaks out that can't be hidden. But based on China's geographical conditions, and its potential susceptibility to climate disruptions, and the distributions of its huge population, I expect to soon see a situation similar to the MENA refugees become obvious in China.
India might erupt before China. The Indian subcontinent's orientation (North-South axis), its reliance on the snow falls and ice reservoirs in the Himalayas and its proximity to the equator make it a candidate for significant climate disruptions. It is already suffering changes in its monsoon patterns at the same time the huge population is withdrawing more water from its limited resources. However, in India I would not be surprised to see a somewhat different response from the populace. The vast majority of people in the country do not have mobility resources in the same way many Chinese do. It would not surprise me if a significant portion of the Indian population simply succumbed in place rather than trying to trek out. The distances are too great and the conditions along the way are likely to not provide support. There is no other large body of land nearby for those in the costal regions to escape to.
As the MENA refugee crisis unfolds this fall we will have a good view of what to expect world-wide. Right now a fair amount of European sentiment is in support of the migrants (I know there is a technical difference between a migrant and a refugee, but as I claimed above, these refugees are really climate-escape migrants). As more and more pour into the continent we will see how long this sentiment carries. There are many anti-migrant advocates already making noises and trying to get more political purchase. A lot will depend on the economic strength of the countries taking in the migrants — will the local natives be able to get jobs? — and the behavior of the immigrants. There is a real danger of culture clash based on the religious backgrounds of Muslim immigrants and secular (or Christian) natives. I refuse to predict anything on this count. The situation is too chaotic.
What I will predict is that the phenomenon will grow and worsen over the next decade. This is a one-way street we are on and no U-turns are possible. You can't un-deplete resources, especially fossil fuel energy. Readers of my biophysical economics writings will know how dim a view I have of the prospects of alternative energies replacing fossil fuels even if we were to undertake a huge reduction in net energy use. Alternatives might ease the pain a bit, for a while, but they cannot provide the long term flows of high power energy that it takes to drive our modern technologies. Magical and wishful thinking cannot change that fact. Alternative energy capture and conversion equipment (i.e. wind towers and solar arrays) are still built, installed, and maintained using fossil fuel power. It is quite doubtful that they will ever be self-sustaining to the extent of providing adequate net energy for economic uses.
If you want to consider your own future, imagine yourself in the shoes of one of the MENA refugees right now. Many of the ones who are making the trip had some basic monetary resources to afford the passage. But look at what they were reduced to in doing so. Imagine yourself now in a situation where the local stores are no longer stocked with food and other necessaries. Imagine your electricity being intermittent, maybe only on ten percent of the day. Imagine transportation breakdowns, perhaps gas is no longer delivered to your gas station. Imagine communications breakdowns. No Internet. No telephones (cell or land lines). What will you do?
But more than that, imagine that you decide to escape. Where will you go. The MENA refugees have Europe, ostensibly, to escape to. They expect their problems to be greatly reduced in these new lands. After all, the North is rich. Where will you go? What country will you escape to? Maybe some Americans are thinking they will go to Canada! But do they actually understand what the climate changes are going to mean for all of North America?
I doubt there will be any real escape. The best a sapient being can do is find a location that looks like it will be least impacted by climate, get situated and hunker down. With luck, you might just make it.