Egypt’s Warning: Are You Listening?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011
By Paul Martin

by Chris Martenson

One day, a fruit and vegetable seller was arrested in Tunisia, sparking social unrest, and a few weeks later the government of Egypt was set to topple.

Such is the nature of complex, chaotic, and unpredictable systems. The stresses build for years and years, and nothing really seems to be happening, but then everything suddenly changes. Egypt is therefore emblematic of what we might expect in any complex system in which pressures are building, such as the US Treasury market.

Can events in complex systems ever be predicted? No…and yes. No, because the precise timing and details can never be predicted. Yes, because we can be certain that anything that is unsustainable will someday cease to continue and things that are horribly imbalanced will someday topple. We can also be certain that the change, when it comes, will be rather sudden and abrupt, rather than gentle and linear.

That is, we can easily predict that a complex system will shift, and that it will probably do so rapidly, but not exactly when or by how much.

How unbalanced was Egypt? Very.

Here are a few quite relevant statistics about Egypt (hat tip to an email from reader Mark O., with credit to Dr. John Coulter) to which I have added a few items:

The relentless math:

Population 1960: 27.8 million
Population 2008: 81.7 million
Current population growth rate: 2% per annum (a 35-year doubling rate)
Population in 2046 after another doubling: 164 million

Rainfall average over whole country: ~ 2 inches per year
Highest rainfall region: Alexandria, 7.9 inches per year
Arable land (almost entirely in the Nile Valley): 3%
Arable land per capita: 0.04 Ha (400 m2)
Arable land per capita in 2043: 0.02 Ha
Food imports: 40% of requirements
Grain imports: 60% of requirements

Net oil exports: Began falling in 1997, went negative in 2007
Oil production peaked in 1996
Cost of oil rising steeply
Cost of oil and food tightly linked

The future of Egypt will be shaped by these few biophysical facts — a relentless form of math that is hardly unique to Egypt, by the way — and it matters very little who is in power. Given the choice, I would not want to live there, nor in any other country that has fostered or permitted such reckless population growth beyond what the country itself can sustain.

The interesting part is that these facts have been in plain view for decades, building into economic and social pressures that were suddenly unleashed in a wave of social and political unrest. How was it that such obvious things escaped notice for so long before they suddenly reared up into plain view? Instead of being a surprising exception to the rule, we should instead brace ourselves against the idea that this is just the way things tend to work.

Back to the main story. Without persistent (and rising) food imports, Egypt cannot feed itself. It has managed to cover up the shortfall by having enough oil to export, but, like every country, their oil reserves are finite and eventually they’ll face a day of reckoning.

The oil situation in Egypt has only very recently become an enormous and unavoidable issue.

The monthly peak occurred in December 1996 (the yearly peak was also 1996), and oil production is now down some 30 percent since then.


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