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A world in breakdown

The events of a single day in three continents are a lesson in the interlocking crises that will define the decade.

A recurrent theme in this series of columns is that in the second decade of the 21st century the global community faces grave insecurities in three areas: the environment, conflict, and the economy. The interlocking nature of these problems makes them all the more severe; the seductive view propagated by power-holders that they are temporary aberrations makes them all the more difficult to address.

Yet in face of evasion and denial there are occasions - even single days - when elements of all three issues combine in an illuminating way. 12 January 2011, and the events that happened then on three continents, was one such.

Environment The epic flooding across Queensland continues, with the images of Brisbane reminiscent of New Orleans after hurricane Katrina. This inundation may be a particularly strong effect of the El Nino/La Nina Pacific cycle; but in combination with several weather disasters of 2010 - such as the floods in Pakistan, the wildfires in Russia, and the rains in Sri Lanka - it can plausibly be seen as part of an increasingly energetic global climatic system that reflects the absorption of more solar energy. This is very much a signpost for the much greater impacts that will follow from climate change.

Conflict The war in Afghanistan and Pakistan also continues, with another suicide-bomb attack in central Kabul on 12 January. But even more significant is the degree of public support in Pakistan for Malik Mumtaz Qadri, who assassinated the governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, on 4 January.  The fact that this action, motivated by the governor’s backing of reform of the country’s blasphemy laws, can be openly endorsed by young educated professionals (such as lawyers) is an uncompromising indication of social attitudes in the country; in turn these relate to the widespread opposition to western military actions in the region, such as armed-drone attacks in Pakistan itself.

Economy The international financial crisis too continues, with the eurozone at its heart. Portugal's emergency bond-issue (following Ireland’s bailout in November 2010), and the decisions by China and Japan to buy eurobonds in order to support the currency, reflect the desperate crisis-management approach of leading governments and institutions.

But the real focus of the economic crisis is arguably less the financial mess in leading western economies than the rising social unrest elsewhere as a result of economic dislocation, unemployment and social frustration. Here, the events in Tunisia - where on 12 January the government responded to days of popular unrest by imposing a curfew in the capital - are a significant marker.

A case-study

Tunisia has long been regarded as the most stable as well as pro-western of Arab countries, elements that have led to a certain neglect of the authoritarian rule of its president since November 1987, Zine El Abidine Ben-Ali. A single incident, the self-immolation of an unemployed young man on 17 December 2010, sparked escalating protests across the country which have been suppressed by the state’s security forces; twenty-three people have died according to official figures, though Tunisia’s trade unions and international human-rights organisations put the number at over thirty and even more.

The immediate unrest reflects intense frustration among tens of thousands of young people, many of them students, who see their job prospects dissolving;  more broadly it reveals antagonism to an order where the mismatch between the government’s democratic claims and its actual behaviour - not least the corruption in the ruling elite - is stark (see Amel Boubekeur, "Tunisia: beyond illusions of change", 23 October 2009).

The social pattern underlying the Tunisian riots is familiar in many parts of the world. Alongside its unique characteristics, it is a case-study of what is happening across much of the global south (with strong echoes in the north too): of rapid population growth and great economic change creating new divisions between the wealthy and the poor, where a generation of unemployed young people are excluded from opportunities and a privileged elite are protected from the problems of the everyday economy (see "A world on the margin", 20 May 2010).

A new spike

The anger and resentment in Tunisia (and elsewhere in the region, such as Algeria) is also connected to a new surge in food prices of the kind that provoked enormous distress in 2007-08. At that time, a wave of riots and protests swept through thirty countries (see "The world's food insecurity", 24 April 2008). The impact on harvests of the disasters in Pakistan, Russia and Australia (the world's fourth-largest wheat exporter in  a normal year) may trigger food-price inflation that exceeds the previous spike (see Thalif Dean “Latest Food Crisis Brewing for Months”, Terraviva/IPS, 10 January 2011).

The most harmful consequences of the world’s economic and environmental crises are likely to be felt in 2011, and to fall most harshly on millions of marginalised people. The patterns of protests that arise in response can already be seen in (for example) the neo-Maoist Naxalites in India, unrest in China and the riots in Tunisia. Some of the responses may coalesce into radical movements that will yet eclipse anything seen in the world’s financial hubs.

If and when that happens, perhaps it will be the beginning of the end of the stunning complacency that still grips banks, ministries, the financial establishments and their media. Even after the implosions of 2007-10, the elite belief persists that nothing has changed and nothing needs to change. The realities of the world’s combined environmental, economic and security problems say otherwise.

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001, and writes an international-security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His books include Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010)

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