In Here’s the Math that Predicted the Revolutions Sweeping the Globe Right Now, Brian Merchant cites research linking global unrest to rising food prices, and the graphs appear to accurately predict almost every uprising since at least 1994:
Just over a year ago, complex systems theorists at the New England Complex Systems Institute warned us that if food prices continued to climb, so too would the likelihood that there would be riots across the globe. Sure enough, we’re seeing them now. The paper’s author, Yaneer Bar-Yam, charted the rise in the FAO food price index—a measure the UN uses to map the cost of food over time—and found that whenever it rose above 210, riots broke out worldwide. It happened in 2008 after the economic collapse, and again in 2011, when a Tunisian street vendor who could no longer feed his family set himself on fire in protest.
While I don’t think hunger is the only story (an opinion with which both the author and many commenters agree), it certainly makes sense that the failure to meet one of our basic needs would trigger drastic action; I don’t think people take to the streets unless it’s an act of desperation.
We’ve seen this kind of desperation before, without a doubt, in revolutions both great and small. As Simon Schama writes in Citzens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution:
On July 13, 1788, a hailstorm burst over a great part of central France from Rouen in Normandy as far south as Toulouse. The Scottish gardener Thomas Blaikie, who witnessed it, wrote of stones so monstrous that they killed hares and partridge and ripped branches from elm trees. …In the Ile-de-France south of Paris, where vegetable and fruit crops were wiped out as they were ripening, farmers wrote, ‘A countryside, erstwhile ravishing, has been reduced to an arid desert.’
In much of France a drought followed. That, in turn, was succeeded by a winter of severity the like of which had not been seen since 1709, when the red Bourdeaux was said to have frozen in Louis XIV’s goblet. …In January Mirabeau described Provence as visited by the Exterminating Angel. ‘Every scourge has been unloosed. Everywhere I have found men dead of cold and hunger, and that in the midst of wheat for lack of flour, all the mills being frozen.’
The thaw brought its own miseries. In mid-January, the frozen Loire melted suddenly, sending flood waters over fields and pasture and bursting through rudimentary retaining dikes into the streets of Blois and Tours.
…The cruelties of the weather followed a harvest in 1787 that was no better than mediocre. The four-pound loaf that formed the staple of three quarters of all French men and women and which, in normal times, consumed half their income, rose in price from eight sous in the summer of 1787 to twelve by October 1788 and fifteen by the first week of February. To feed a family of four required two of those loaves each day, while the average wage of a manual laborer was between twenty and thirty sous, of a journeyman man at most forty. The doubling of bread prices—and of firewood—spelled destitution.
Hopefully by now you can guess where I’m going next. As we poison the ground and the ground-water, as we rake the ocean floor, as we exacerbate both monsoon and drought, we’ll be less and less able to feed ourselves. As scarcity spreads, people will take all kinds of drastic measures to secure food stability. Some of those measures could be positive, like ripping up a parking lot to plant food. But we all know most of these measures will be negative, as the human capacity for group collaboration wears thin and neighbor turns on neighbor. As the adage goes, a hungry dog is an angry dog.