Lessons from the revolution frontier 

How do you put food on the table when your choices run out?

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  • Changing choices What will the effects of climate change and population growth mean for food availability?

It was a shocking death that triggered a revolution.

In 2011, a young man who sold fresh fruit from his small cart in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid set himself ablaze in protest after an altercation with local officials. Some 5,000 people attended his funeral.

Mohamed Bouazizi, 26, had come to the local governor's office demanding to be heard after police had confiscated his weigh-scale, supposedly because he didn't have a permit. The day before the altercation, he had gone into debt to buy the produce he needed to sell. It's questionable whether small-scale vendors in Tunisia even need a permit, but in this case what was really at stake was Mohamed's refusal or inability to bribe local officials to get his goods back.

This was a desperate man who earned about $US150 a month, all of it going to help support his five siblings. His step-dad only worked occasionally because of poor health.

After years of official abuse, it was the last straw. Within an hour of the altercation, Mohamed went to a nearby gas station, got a can of gas, and set himself on fire in the street outside the governor's office. His death triggered massive, violent protests weeks later across Tunisia that forced the president to flee the country, and quickly ignited similar protests in Egypt, North Africa and the Middle East. Welcome to the Arab Spring — with all its ensuing turmoil.

Many people in these nations hold up Mohamed Bouazizi as a hero, although he would never have seen himself that way. (A longtime friend said online what was important to him was putting food on the table and football.) He was posthumously given an international award for human rights. A public square in Paris is named for him. Tunisia erected a monument and issued a stamp in his memory. A story in The New Yorker was inspired by him.

But I bet few people outside of Arabic communities even know his name, let alone his story today, if they ever did.

I say this because throughout the past few weeks as the fallout swirls in scientific, academic and political circles with Trump's pullout of America from the Paris Accord, one of the constant themes is what happens in a world destabilized by...

Take your pick. Don't be shy! Mix and match: Drought. Too much rainfall. Too much rainfall at the wrong time. Soaring temperatures (in India, the winter of 2016-17 was 2.95° C higher than the 1901 to 1930 baseline — the warmest in recorded history). Raging forest fires (see headlines from Portugal; celebrate the anniversary of the Fort McMurray fire while reading them). Melting glaciers. Melting ice caps. Melting permafrost. Acidic oceans. Rising oceans. Plants leafing out sooner than normal, throwing off lifecycles of insects and birds. Soil microbes changing as temperatures and moisture levels change. You name it. It's climate change.

The irony is that about the same time Trump was making his little pronouncement, there were so many high-level, international efforts on climate being planned, winding up, or underway that it felt... well, almost heartening. The Bonn Climate Change Conference. The World Symposium on Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation Strategies for Coastal Communities. The UN Ocean Conference with its 1,300 commitments. The FAO Seminar on Drought and Agriculture. And more.

Throughout, two threads run in tandem. Food/water. Water/food. What happens when they're not predictable? Not adequate?

"The world population increased nearly four-fold in the 20th century and is expected to grow by another 50 per cent to around 11 billion people by the year 2100. Against this background, the current economic model of ever-increasing production and consumption and acute patterns of unequal distribution are already presenting substantial challenges." I'm quoting here from an IISD summary on the World Circular Economic Forum held in Helsinki within days of Trump's announcement.

So there's a third theme — conflict. What happens with a growing number of people when food and water supplies are no longer secure due to climate change?

This is where Mohamed's story came up again, six years after it happened. Actually, not his whole story — more a one-liner in an article about climate change and agriculture. The writer said the Arab Spring started over food when a street vendor in Tunisia immolated himself.

Wait, I initially protested, that wasn't about food per se. It was about power. Corruption. Mohamed could have been selling shoes. Then I remembered: In Algeria, the protests started over food prices (and unemployment). In Egypt, "bread prices" were cited. (Local food prices there rose 38 per cent between 2008 and 2010, reported The Economist.) And all of it was about "unequal distribution."

So wasn't Mohamed's story about food after all? How do you put it on the table when you have no choices? And what do you do when the only choice you have runs out? It's a story billions of us are totally removed from due to pure, blind luck. Like where we happen to live, especially if it's places like Whistler or Vancouver, where most of us are so far removed from food supplies — certainly far from places like Sidi Bouzid where farmers make, maybe US$130 a year — that food and water issues barely register.

Or don't they?

Have you heard about the drought in Somalia where 6 million people are at risk after two years without rain? What do you think the fallout from that will be? Or the farmers in the valleys near our happy mountain kingdom wrestling with a crazy cool, wet start to summer? How about California's "Drought Lessons for Food Security"?

Any of it got you thinking?

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who tries to picture how other people live.


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