Less Oil, More Unrest: Are Declining Resources Driving the Arab Revolutions? Less Oil, More Unrest: Are Declining Resources Driving the Arab Revolutions?
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Less Oil, More Unrest: Are Declining Resources Driving the Arab Revolutions?

by Ben Jervey

April 3, 2011

Back in early February, we wondered about the role that oil played in Mubarak's downfall. Of course, the citizens themselves who took to the streets deserve all the credit they've been given. But what of the underlying economic conditions that set the stage for revolution? The fingerprints of peak oil are all over the Arab Spring.

Here's the simple math: Egypt and many other growing, arid Arab states depend on persistent and significant food imports. Historically, these countries have covered for those imports by producing and exporting a surplus of oil. When oil production peaks, and eventually sinks below domestic consumption, suddenly these countries become an oil importers. And that's a bad place for a nation to be, particularly if it also needs to import food.

As Chris Mortenson of the Post Carbon Institute wrote of Egypt:

Any country that has to import both oil and food is living on borrowed time. It was only a matter of time before something gave way, and apparently that time is now.

There are widespread anti-government rallies in Yemen right now.

The Arab world has relied particularly heavily on oil exports in recent years and that has made it particularly vulnerable to economic problems that go along with declining oil supplies. But other countries are facing the same basic situation. Indonesia was forced to start importing oil in 2004. China has been importing oil since 1993. Here in the United States, production peaked in 1970, and our country has always been a net oil importer.

And globally speaking, we're all running out of oil. The International Energy Agency's 2010 World Energy Outlook pegged 2006 as the year that total oil production peaked. Many of the world's nations can afford to import it for a while by exporting food or other goods. But none can escape the fact that supplies are declining from here on out. As we've seen over the past few months, failing to plan for that reality can help set the stage for revolution.

All charts are courtesy of Crude Oil Peak with data from the EIA.

Photo (cc) by Flickr user -Ahmad.Hammoud

Ben Jervey More Info

Ben is a writer and editor covering climate change, energy, and environment, and is currently the Climate and Energy Media Fellow at Vermont Law School. He was the original Environment Editor at GOOD Magazine and his work has appeared regularly in National Geographic News, Grist, DeSmogBlog, and OnEarth. He recently worked with the non-profit Focus the Nation to publish an Energy 101 primer. When living in New York City, he wrote a book, The Big Green Apple, on how to live a lower impact life in the city. A bicycle enthusiast, Ben has ridden across the United States and through much of Europe.
Some recent articles by Ben Jervey:
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Less Oil, More Unrest: Are Declining Resources Driving the Arab Revolutions?