For many of us, the walls of the Stanford bubble are thick and opaque; we can afford only a little time to think deeply about the Middle East’s state of unrest. But we should take that time, because the current state of affairs is more than a lesson on the perils of a 30-year-old autocracy. Indeed, many of the issues faced by Egypt — and by its oil-rich neighbors — are fundamentally ecological, the consequences of a human population decoupled from its environmental base. Could the simmering chain reaction in the Middle East today foreshadow a global tomorrow?
On the surface, Egypt’s story reads like a case study on the intersection of economics and demography. On the economics side: a 30-percent jump in food prices coupled with a 9.4 percent unemployment rate and 30 million people living on less than $2 per day. On the demographic side: the perils of the expanding population pyramid. Sixty percent of Egyptians swell its youthful base; 30 percent are between the ages of 15 and 29.
These young Egyptians — our peers — face an uncertain future. The unemployment rate in the 15-29 age bracket is a staggering 25 percent. Job prospects outside the country are not good: most have completed many years of schooling, but the caliber of the educational system places their diplomas low on the international scale. Meanwhile, because of their age, they are less likely to feel the stabilizing influence of supporting a family. And so, with nothing to lose and everything to gain, they turn against a president who has been in power longer than they have been alive, hoping that a change in government will heal Egypt’s ills.
Perhaps in part. But the unemployment rates and skyrocketing food prices are symptoms of a scarier disease: an overpopulated region (on an overpopulated planet) precariously propped up by subsidies from nonrenewable resources. In Egypt, one of the trembling buttresses is the Nile River, which subsidized the fertile delta that birthed Ancient Egyptian civilization.
A free-flowing Nile was both a blessing and a curse. It provided a seemingly endless supply of water and nutrient-rich silt, but its roaring floods and devastating droughts made farming on the delta a perilous business. Today, dams harness the power of the world’s longest river, providing electricity and a steady flow of water that has effectively doubled the growing season.
With an abundance of food and modern medicine, infant mortality dropped, and the population pyramid’s base swelled. But it was not to last: without annual floods to flush its back canals and lay down a new layer of sediment, the Nile Delta becomes more polluted and sinks further toward the Mediterranean each year. Increased demand for water has created yet another thirst that cannot be slaked. Today, the fresh waters of the Nile no longer reach the sea.
With natural resources stretched to their maximum, Egypt must look elsewhere to feed its people. The Arab world as a whole imports 50 percent of its food, rendering populations vulnerable to price fluctuations driven by flooding in Australia or ethanol demand in the United States.
And oil, the greatest nonrenewable resource of all, compounds the problem in producing states. The resource curse has paralyzed their economies and stratified their societies. Oil wealth, flowing through the hands of a powerful few, supports populations that far exceed the desert region’s ability to provide. Most citizens are supported by heavy subsidies and a disproportionately large public sector. Educational systems leave the youth with little opportunity in the outside world, creating a population wholly dependent on an unsustainable edifice.
As I wrote last week, international trade allows us to economize production by growing crops where water is abundant, manufacturing goods where labor is cheap and designing software where education is good. But when your economy is supported by a dwindling resource and your population is not trained for a transition, you are vulnerable to collapse.
What does this say to the rest of the world? We all rely heavily on oil — to grow our crops, to run our machines, to transport our exports worldwide. If oil supplies were cut off tomorrow, and we had to look within ourselves and our own borders for support, how many stones would fly across the National Mall?
This column was originally printed in the Stanford Daily on February 9, 2011.