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The Great Drought of 2012 and the Social Unrest to Come

Just one year ago, London was burning. The result of ballooning social inequality and deep austerity measures, the London riots of 2011 were something of a shock to the West’s self-image. Stability and social order, if nothing else, could be counted on. One year of police repression and harsh crackdowns later, London looked a bit more like itself as the summer Olympics games came to an end yesterday. It took a veritable mini-police state, but by god, it was the image of prosperity we expect from our Western empires past and present.

But that may be fleeting. Commentators of all political stripes are warning of coming unrest throughout the world as a result of the Great American Drought of 2012, and it’s not just fringe groups or conspiracy theorists sounding alarms anymore (Though of course they’re doing it too.). The social unrest most recently associated with Middle Eastern states has long been linked to rising food prices in mainstream media.

But a recent segment on NPR’s Talk of the Nation marks a startling shift in mainstream coverage: Suddenly, the media narrative of descent into feudalism – and accompanying social unrest – is not relegated to poor postcolonial countries anymore. Now it’s on the table in the United States and larger Western world – a development long in the works, but most immediately precipitated by the Great American Drought of 2012.

Even extremist sites like WorldNetDaily have recently sounded similar alarms. But mutual alarm about food prices has nothing to do with a potential shift in the right’s thinking about global warming. Whether or not everyone concedes that global warming has long been with us, no one can deny that this is a serious drought. Nor does it signal any new alliance between left and right about what constitutes the public good, or how best to alleviate human suffering.

It has more to do with the premium that conservatives place on social order, as the late Cold War warrior Samuel P. Huntington noticed in his 1968 tome, Political Order in Changing Societies. He argued then that stability – not democracy – was the hallmark of a successful state. Food shortages, he said, were problematic because they reduce government legitimacy and create political instability.

In a way, one might say that human devastation looks to be coming full circle: Global warming caused in large part by the fleeting hegemon’s unwillingness to deal seriously with its most destructive industries has brought a very severe draught. Over half of all counties in the United States have by now become drought disaster areas. Not only will farmers suffer from food scarcity, but so will both low-income and middle class Americans, for whom the distinction between security and poverty grows more and more tenuous each day. It no longer seems alarmist to conclude that London burning was a precursor of what is to come elsewhere in the industrialized world, including the United States.

Of course, the United States is too big – and has its hands in too many global markets – to keep the problem within our own borders. Just as the American banking crisis of 2008 had disastrous consequences for global economic stability, the US drought and escalating worldwide food prices may very well push an already-struggling global population into more and more political unrest. “The empire on which the sun never sets” – the phrase was first used to describe the Portuguese and then Spanish empires before it became a common reference to the British Empire in the late nineteenth century. At this moment in history, though, the United States may fit the description more than any other past empire has. Nowhere on the globe is it really possible to escape American irresponsibility – not when it comes to financial markets and certainly not on the matter of global warming. The way of our farmland and the way of our financial markets do not happen in an isolationist bubble – they steamroll the whole world. In pushing for more and more international markets with less and less regulation, we’ve made certain of that.

At Tom Dispatch, Michael Klare explains, “[A]nalysts are already warning of instability in Africa, where corn is a major staple, and of increased popular unrest in China, where food prices are expected to rise at a time of growing hardship for that country’s vast pool of low-income, migratory workers and poor peasants. Higher food prices in the U.S. and China could also lead to reduced consumer spending on other goods, further contributing to the slowdown in the global economy and producing yet more worldwide misery, with unpredictable social consequences.”

Everyone, from NPR to Socialist Worker to WND, knows that perilous times are ahead. And all have very, very different opinions on what is to be done about it, so let’s not assume that it’s going to be productive to start pushing for unity in problem-solving and politics. There is no political will to make change on behalf of lofty concepts like “our common humanity” at this point in time.

Apocalypse may be coming sooner than we’d thought. The best we can probably manage is to keep advocating for better protections and a better social safety net, if we want to ride it out or stave off human extinction a little bit longer. Political transformation is unrealistic, and overwhelming difficulties await us. The far-right will descend even further into extremism, with end-times “prophets” taking on a new legitimacy and significance in political discourse. The only thing to do is, well, fight until we can’t.

Front page photo by Tomas Castelazo, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.