Stuart Staniford has a terrific piece that offers a little visual clarity about food, energy, unemployment and the Riots in the Middle East and North Africa:
Tunisia is a minnow in the global oil market, Egypt slightly more important. Algeria, however, matters a lot as its oil production is probably close to total demonstrated OPEC spare capacity. Thus serious social instability in Algeria would have major effects on global oil prices. If instability spread to bigger oil producers than that (eg Kuwait or UAE), the effects could be very dramatic.
Presumably, the regimes in those countries are in a much better position to buy their populations off, being much wealthier. I must admit to feeling slightly dirty writing that sentence. Staring at this list of countries makes clear what we already know: about a third of global oil production comes from this array of nasty autocratic regimes, and thus the global economy is utterly dependent on their continued stability.
What Staniford always does best is lend clarity to discussions by simply pulling up the relevant information and putting it into useful visual form. This is well worth a read.
If you’d like my own thoughts, which in some ways aren’t that different from Staniford’s, you can see my latest Peak Oil Review Commentary piece here. I find myself wondering whether the protests in the Middle East might inspire anger and a move to protest here, even at the same time as potential oil and food price shocks may change our circumstances for the worse:
Indeed, it is worth asking whether the protests in the Middle East might not bring about protests even in the US, spreading outwards from Cairo to Khartoum to Chicago and Los Angeles and Boston. Many commentators have wondered at most Americans’ calm acceptance of high unemployment, foreclosure, and poverty rates, and been surprised that we have accepted this, rather than taking to the streets. A major oil and market shock, however, along with the daily sight of people abroad risking more than we are fighting to transform their nations might finally awaken American anger. After all, Americans are suffering in many ways from the same ills that the people of Tunisia and Egypt and the other nations are enduring: a failure to share in what few gains have been made; a sense of frustration with their own impoverishment; a betrayal by those who were supposed to have tried to make things better; no jobs; no sense of the future. It seems unlikely that the fragile economic stability that has convinced people that things are maybe, possibly, finally getting a little better could endure rapidly rising energy prices.
This, of course, is speculation, as is almost everything at this point. Overnight the world changed, and no one has fully grasped this. That is perhaps the most critical point of all: that overnight the underlying assumptions of our world can turn on a dime; that our expectations that the world will work a particular way can be overturned by ordinary people who say “no more, it must change”; and that the underlying illusion of control that we have used as a nation to justify every sort of moral compromise and on which we have built an entire oil-consuming society was, in the end, nothing more than a lie we told ourselves.