A new Magna Carta?, Prime Minister’s Questions, 11 Feb 2015

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Mr Graham Allen (Nottingham North) (Lab): If he will commission a new Magna Carta to renew democracy in the UK as part of the celebrations of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta; and if he will make a statement.

The Prime Minister: We should be proud that in Magna Carta our country established rules of justice and freedom that, 800 years later, still inform our constitution and resonate around the world. While there is a long-standing debate over the issue, there are no plans at present for a written constitution.

Mr Allen: I note that the Prime Minister says “at present”. Does he agree, though, that there are unacceptably high levels of voter disengagement, with more people staying at home than voted Labour and Conservative at the last election? Would he commit his Government, now, to preparing an all-party constitutional convention, in order to give every UK citizen a copy of our society’s rulebook—either a statute of the Union or a written constitution—as a part of electors feeling once again that they own our democracy?

The Prime Minister: Obviously, I always look at the hon. Gentleman’s suggestions very carefully, because he has made a number of sensible cross-party interventions over recent years, but I have my doubts whether another talking convention is the answer. I think we need to look at some of the constitutional issues that leave people feeling left behind, not least English votes for English laws, and make sure that we put those things in place. The disappointment I have with the Labour party is that it is prepared to talk about all-party talks on Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland, but when it comes to empowering English people and making sure that they have rights in this House, it is completely absent from the debate.

Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): Article 39 of Magna Carta contains the origins of our right to trial by jury. In a recent report, Sir Brian Leveson, not satisfied with undermining the right to a free press, wants to restrict the right to trial by jury. Will my right hon. Friend, as long as he is Prime Minister, defend our historic rights?

The Prime Minister: I am a great supporter of jury trial. I think it is one of the very important things we have in this country that safeguard people’s rights and freedoms, and I do not want to see it reduced.

Drones against Democracy

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Since 2002, hundreds of drone strikes have been carried out by the USA in foreign countries.

Drones are arguably a way to strike potential terrorists without risking American lives.  In a war, normal rights such the right to life or the right to a fair trial are not applicable in the midst of fight between combatants.

However, these attacks have been carried out in countries that the USA is not even at war with such as Yemen or Pakistan. The drone strikes are based on intelligence that could be faulty. Their targets are not necessarily armed militants taking part in a conflict, but ‘targets’ that may be unarmed and in their own home.

More worrying still is the high level of collateral damage. Mistakes are made, the wrong targets are hit, innocent bystanders are killed.  To put this in context, imagine if the USA targeted its own towns or those of Canada? It is inconceivable!  In the west the way that the police act to detain suspects is heavily scrutinised.  Was excessive force used?  Was that person’s fundamental human rights respected?

Life is worth a lot less abroad.  No such scrutiny is applied to the drone attacks carried out in friendly countries.  It is estimated that almost 1,000 civilians were victims of drone attack in Pakistan alone.  Of these, over 200 were children.

The use of drone strikes in this way goes against the very principles of a free, fair and democratic country. It could even be considered an act of terror. That is exactly how  it is perceived by the people in the communities and countries being targeted.

Worse still, they are largely secretive and covert, which limited accountability for those that kill.  Quite simply, they make us the bad guys and galvanize support for our enemies.  For every person executed in this way, how many more become opposed to our way of life?

Reform? Abolish the House of Lords

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This week the leader of the UK’s opposition party declared war on the House of Lords. The Labour party leader Ed Miliband stated that if his party got into power at the next elections, they would replace the House of Lords with a senate filled with elected representatives.

That this is being proposed, is not radical. What is outrageous is that the House of Lords even operates in this day and age at all. Populated by political party cronies, aristocrats and members of the official state religion, it is designed to be a counterweight to elected House of Commons.  In other words, it is yet another establishment control mechanism over the power of the voting public.

Not that the House of Lords needs to undertake this role. After all, the voting masses already have such a small influence over the decision making of the elected House of Commons.

I believe the entire political system needs be overhauled and that the tight grip of powerful interest groups should be removed from the throat of our government.  Reform of the House of Lords is, I suppose, a step in the right direction.  However why not just go one better and scrap it entirely?

This is not without precedent. In 1649 the House of Lords was for a while abolished through an Act of Parliament: “The Commons of England [find] by too long experience that the House of Lords is useless and dangerous to the people of England.

In my opinion, that verdict is just as valid today.

Fundamentalism versus Liberalism

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Who are you? What are you doing here? Does your life have a purpose? Is there a God? Like most people you have probably asked these questions at some point in your life, but unlike the religious fundamentalists, you are probably less sure of the answers. From the moment that the human race was capable of conscious thought, we have naturally been seeking to understand and comprehend our existence and purpose. Some of the greatest minds throughout history have pondered these questions and through their ideas and philosophies our understanding of who we are has altered through time. No small matters are these questions and no small attention should be due them, because the answers to these questions have profound implications for our lives and for society as a whole.

These answers drive us, inspire us and make us behave the way we do. They can bring us together with other people from all over the world, but as often as not, they divide us and produce conflicts within families, relationships and between neighbours and nations. All throughout our collective history, people have decided that they know for certain the correct answers and have tried to impose their reality upon others; leading to all manner of hatred, suppression and atrocities. Today we can still see this being played out all over the globe on every single continent. There are still countries that restrict or ban freedom of religion and therefore freedom of thought.

In China, the world’s most populous nation, atheism is still almost a state religion and the practice of another religion can risk imprisonment, torture and oppression. In many Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia, people are forced to abide by strict Islamic principles and are not free to reject this religion let alone freely practice another religion. These are but two examples of many where true freedom of choice does not exist.

The United States Government produces an annual report on International Religious Freedom.[i]  The report lists countries of particular concern in which the Government of that particular country has ‘engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom’. This report lists eight states that are ‘countries of particular concern’ (CPCs) and recommends that a further three countries are added to this list. Further it has a watch-list of another eight countries that are bordering on being classed as CPCs.  This may not sound like much but between them, these countries comprise 2.3 billion people or 34% of the world’s population as of 2007. In the 21st century just over a third of all people have a Government that actively discourages freedom of religion and interestingly these countries are either communist atheist or Islamic. The US report is limited to problems with overt Government sponsored religious intolerance and does not highlight more subtle measures to oppress or enforce different beliefs. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights produces annual reports to the Human Rights Council concerning freedom of religion and belief. Included in these reports is an examination of case studies involving religious intolerance all over the world. In 2007 the UN approached a total of thirty six countries to raise concerns over restrictions to freedom of religion or belief.[ii]

The battle for ideas, religions and beliefs run not just within countries but between countries. Ongoing conflicts between Islamic fundamentalists and a whole range of other cultures and religions that have been going on for decades was finally thrown onto centre stage in the west on the 9th November 2001. At the time the tragic event was simply the latest key milestone in the underlying conflict between ideas and realities and specifically the different ideas of the monotheistic religions of Islam, Christianity and Judaism. From the Philippines to Thailand and Sudan there are bitter inter-denominational conflicts. Actual and attempted Islamic suicide bombings and terrorist attacks have been especially prevalent in the last few decades in the Middle East, Africa and throughout Asia. There have of course been numerous attempted and successful Islamic terrorist attacks through Europe and North America. It is however, no longer a conflict just between religious fundamentalists but also a conflict against liberalism and the ideology of freedom and equality. Today we are in a crucial turning point for the world as the ideas of resurgent fundamentalism and liberalism wrestle for domination of the world’s psyche.

Therefore then, those seemingly innocent questions of who we are, whether there is God or not and what our purpose is can be seen to be immensely important to our collective future. If you believe you have an answer to these questions then you will also realise that this belief has influenced your life in a massively significant way. Perhaps you follow a religion or pursue a path of atheism. No matter what you believe the answer to be, this answer will affect you fundamentally.

[i] Annual Report of the United States commission on international religious freedom, May 2007. www.uscif.gov

[ii] Annual reports to the human rights council, commission on human rights and general assembly, office of the united nations high commissioner for human rights, www.ohchr.org

New Book Launch – The End of Democracy?

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First the eBook launch, but soon available in paperback.

Get the book here

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In the UK’s 2001 national election only 51% of those eligible to vote actually did so. This was the lowest ever voter turnout in British history. It seemed that British citizens were apathetic about politics. However, just two years later, two million disaffected and angry people took to the streets of London to protest against war with Iraq. This wasn’t a population that didn’t care; this was a people that felt that their vote was worthless. In an ICM 2004 poll taken in the UK, a staggering 81% of respondents thought there was no difference between the political parties.

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This snapshot of the UK, is representative of democracy all over the world. Voter turnout is rock bottom globally, but mass demonstrations have sky-rocketed in frequency and scale in almost all democratic countries from the USA and France to Brazil and Turkey.

Democracy can be translated from Greek as ‘people power’.  However, the current system is far from that.  The democratic system of today is not working. It is skewed toward large political parties, big business and powerful lobby groups. It is the product of the last century.

Winston Churchill said that ‘democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried’. In the 21st century we can and should do better. We need a new democratic system that engages with the public more than just once every five years. We need a system that is run by the people, for the people.

I believe that our democratic system is outdated and unrepresentative. How is it that in democratic countries, the vast majority feel that they have no real choice and that their government has its own independent agenda? Surely government should have no agenda but to implement the wishes of its citizens? I know that there must be a better way of doing democracy.

This book shows that there is another way, we can and should re-balance our democracy away from the few and back toward – The People!

Follow me here or on Twitter (@utopianpath) and keep updated about this and my future book launches.

Get the book here

It’s down to you and me to change the system

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It is in times of catastrophe and scarce resources that wars are fought.  We should not forget the horrendous impact of the last Great Depression which spawned both the rise of our worst tyrants and the most devastating global war in the history of our planet.  The terrible and destructive nature of that war was aided by the availability of new and more lethal weapons.  One can only imagine the horrendous consequence of such widespread conflict with the weapons now at our disposal.  One thing we should have learned by now is not to take anything, least of all peace, for granted.  Before the First World War of 1914, the very idea of a pan-European war was unimaginable and again; ahead of the Second World War the European population was so unprepared for war that in the years and months before war broke out, the British Government was actually pressuring France to demilitarise.[i]

 

It is against this bleak backdrop that we step collectively as a people into the dawn of this new century; a brave new world of enormous challenges and risks.  If history has taught us anything at all, it is that economies, societies and indeed whole civilisations are just as prone to decline and collapse as they are to grow and thrive.  Just like the Great Depression and the World Wars of the last century, the great catastrophes that we face at the beginning of the 21st century are all of our own making and were all completely avoidable.  There are many strategic reasons provided for why such human-made catastrophes occur, but when it really comes down to it, the real cause for these disasters has its origins within each and every one of us.  If individuals had collectively thought and acted in a different way, how could the world wars have ever taken place?  We cannot completely blame world leaders; their power rests only the fact that we ultimately support them or chose to do their bidding. 

 

Individually we can’t change the world, but we can change ourselves and collectively this is what counts.  When Germany was in crisis in the 1930’s it was individuals who voted for and supported Hitler’s regime.  Similarly it is individuals in the west who accumulate debts, over-consume and allow our Governments to pursue unethical and unsustainable policies.  The impact of individuals all over the globe not doing the right thing has the collective impact of creating the perfect storm that is now heading our way.  This storm has not been sent to us from the heavens as punishment, but is completely of our own making.  The world we live in today is of our own image and likeness, are you comfortable with what you see in the mirror?

 

The society which has become the global norm is largely at odds with people doing the right thing.  Unfettered capitalism actively encourages and facilitates the individual accumulation of property, wealth and debt at the expense of others.  It fosters a sense of the individual importance over the wider community.  At its core it is founded on the principles of economic growth.  Yet growth is obviously unsustainable in a finite world.  In nature, there is no ‘infinite growth’, it is ‘equilibrium’ that is the norm.  Growth must occur within the means of the surrounding environment to support it.  If the growth of a species gets out of control, then the population of that species will exhaust all their food supplies and suddenly collapse, the same is true for bacteria as it is for rabbits or humans.

 

Humans may have ‘cheated’ the system through our technological innovations, but even we have our limits.  If the whole of Earth’s human population consumed as much as the average American, we would need five Earths to sustain us.  However, we have just one Earth and so it is simply impossible for developing countries to aspire to the American lifestyle.  For the Americans, French or Japanese to enjoy their level of consumption, developing countries must consume a lot less.  Instead of attempting to ration the Earth’s finite resources and to consume a lot less (particularly developed countries), the opposite and suicidal approach is being taken to keep consuming as much as possible. 


[i] Jonathan Schell, The Unconquerable world.  London 2005

Opium of the People

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Karl Marx, the father of the communism, famously referred to religion as ‘the opium of the people’. During his time, the age of capitalism and the industrial revolution was in its infancy. Life for the masses in industrialising western economies was desperately harsh. In his view, religion was ‘the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions’. For Marx, capitalism was a terrible thing, leaving the crushed populations reliant on the solace and escapism provided by religion to get through the hard drudgery of everyday life.

I wonder what Karl Marx would say if he saw the creature that modern consumer capitalism has become today in the developed world? Perhaps he would see our western world and cry ‘consumerism is the opiate of the masses!’ Unlike religion, this new system does not require you to meditate on or examine who you really are. It does not require you to have purpose or to even think about the wider world you live in. Like a morphine addict, a person gains temporary relief and pleasure through consumption no matter what the cost to themselves and the world around them. Why shouldn’t you buy this or that? Why shouldn’t you have fun? You are a good person right? You give some money to the person with the bucket now and again right? It’s your life and it is your hard earned money, right?

Superficially our behaviours do not seem harmful or wrong, indeed it can be argued that we are keeping our economy growing and people in jobs here and abroad. Delve deeper into our practices and it’s obvious that our normal consumerist behaviours are fundamentally disastrous for all of humanity, let alone the wider environment and the dwindling species that inhabit the planet with us.

Life in developed countries is increasingly alien to what it means to be a human. We have lost our ancient connection to the real world around us, to our roots and to our communities. We are often so self absorbed, that our eyes are closed to the reality of our life. Not only are we almost defenceless against the unfettered capitalist economic system, we are also active and willing participants. Individualism of the kind fostered by capitalism creates the wonderful illusion that we are masters of our own destiny, free and happy to do as we wish. The truth is, for most of us, we don’t even have control over our own minds.

However, it is not enough to lay the blame at the door of those who are responsible for engineering and promoting the consumer capitalist system. Those politicians, bankers and super-rich are a symptom of an underlying problem. It is not the banks, it is not the politicians, it is not even the capitalist system. The problem is much bigger than all of them and runs much deeper in our societies. If this problem is not dealt with, then all the debt restructuring, financial regulations or stimulus packages are going to be futile.

President Obama famously and predictably blamed ‘Wall Street’ for the troubles on ‘Main Street’. At the United Nations General Assembly in September 2010, he said: ‘a financial crisis on Wall Street devastated American families on Main Street. The global economy suffered an enormous blow during the financial crisis, crippling markets and deferring the dreams of millions on every continent’. It is the bankers to blame and the masses are just a victim of a greedy few! His sentiments were echoed by politicians, leaders and the media all over the world. We all agreed and were happy to direct our anger at this reckless minority. However, just like politicians all over the world, President Obama was wrong. He could not point the finger at the real cause of this global humanitarian disaster. To do so would be political suicide.

That is because in reality, the problem, the single greatest threat to our continued survival is all around us. It pervades our entire society. It is in our schools, in our parks and walking our streets. It is sitting at the desk next to you in your office and you brush past it in the street. It joins you in the pub after work and its shopping trolleys compete with yours in the supermarket every Sunday. The problem could even be you.

It is a failure of ordinary individuals like you and me, scaled up to nations that are the cause of these problems. It is the actions and inactions of the average Joe and Jane that has caused this crisis and is at this very moment striving to give the global economy the final heave into the abyss.

Chasing the Money Changers out of the Temple

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In the process of rebuilding the USA after the Great Depression of the 1920’s and 1930’s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt exclaimed that: ‘The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.’

Just like the politicians of today, Roosevelt identified the evil role being played by the bankers and the clear imbalance of the economy in favour of chasing profits over improving society for all. Fine words, yet less than a century later and the gulf between rich and poor is even larger and the bankers wield more power than ever before. Politicians today threaten to curb the excesses of the financial sector, but this is mere hubris. The reality is that the financial sector is essential for maintaining the free-market capitalist model. Far from punishing banks, Governments have taken tax-payers hard earned money and taken their countries toward bankruptcy in order to support the banks. While banks are helped back to profitability, tax-payers are made to pay more tax and get paid less. Meanwhile welfare programmes, universities and pension funds are being raided to support the bank bailouts. During the period between 2008 and 2011 governments all over the world orchestrated a staggering transfer of wealth from their citizens to the banking sector. Like FDR before them, politicians will say whatever it takes to get elected while doing another when they are in office.

Our economic system is failing and for good reason. Free market capitalism is founded on the premise of perpetual growth, which is not a possible concept on a planet with finite resources. Above all, capitalism puts profit making first and foremost, ahead of society and the real needs of humanity. Capitalism is a great tool for extracting resources quickly and efficiently, but it has no palatable answers when those resources are depleted. At the heart of capitalism is a banking system that relies on the perpetual growth model, as banks lend money that they don’t have, in the hope that it will be returned several times over in the future. It is because banks have no confidence in the future that lending ground to a halt and the ‘credit crunch’ has brought the global financial system to its knees since 2008. The terrifying reality is that the entire basis of our modern civilisation relies on everyone believing in the lie, that the money flowing through our financial systems has a real value. When the credit crunch crippled the global economy, trillions of dollars were wiped out. How does such a vast sum of money simply disappear? Where does it go? The fact is that the money didn’t go anywhere, it didn’t exist in the first place. Even after the credit crunch, the world is playing with ‘virtual money’ that is not actually anchored to the real world today.

The modern financial system is a product of a vibrant banking system pioneered in Italy and mastered by the great British and Dutch trading nations. When money in the form of coins or paper first appeared in Europe it was either actually an object of value (such as gold or silver) or a paper note that represented actual objects of value stored safely in a bank vault. However over time it simply became more convenient to exchange the notes themselves rather than transfer actual gold and silver. Banks used the deposits of silver and gold to lend money in return for interest and over time they lent more money than they actually had in their vaults. The system worked so long as everybody didn’t want their money back at once. Today, money is not actually anchored to anything of value, it relies rather worryingly on faith in the system. When that faith goes, so does the value of the money. In the USA, the Federal Reserve requires that banks keep just 3-10% of their capital, leaving them to lend the rest, which in turn can get deposited in another bank and be lent out again.

The reality is that money is ‘invented’ on a massive scale in the real world, with banks generating vast sums of new money based on the creation and constant recycling of loans, going far beyond the real basis of the wealth. Banks even trade in the debts that they manage, with unscrupulous banks selling off high risk debt to other banks and investors. At some point someone has to pay for all the ballooning debt. When there is a high risk that the debt can’t be repaid it becomes ‘toxic’, instead of being an asset on a bank’s balance sheet, it becomes a liability. This is what brought down the biggest banks all across the world; when so called assets were at a key stroke classified as liabilities and vast sums of virtual money simply ‘vanished’ from the banking system. Every single country on this planet is spending money it does not have; borrowed from future generations that have not yet been born and that may never be exist. The system only works on the flawed hypothesis that the next generation will be richer than the one before, so is able to pay the debts generated today. The problem is that next generation, the young people of today, even in developed countries, are being dubbed the ‘lost generation’, emerging poorer and more debt ridden than their parents before them.

If you need further evidence that money is not actually connected to real wealth, simply observe the recent practices of central banks all around the world as they participate in ‘Quantitative Easing’ (QE) which is a fancy way of saying printing money. Except that money isn’t even printed, it is simply electronically typed into central bank’s balance sheet. It seems bizarre that money can be created in this way, but it is common practice for the world’s biggest central banks. This invented electronic money is then used to buy government debt or is lent to other banks thereby allowing the government to keep paying its bills and banks to keep functioning long after other banks and private investors have lost faith in them.

As we have seen, banks are essential for the capitalist system as they provide easy access to equity for businesses and individuals to invest in growth or buy goods and services. As a result of the credit crunch, banks are far more cautious about who they lend money to, which has had the result of applying the brakes to economy. Banks may lend money, but in order to function effectively they also require equity which they gain from depositors and investors. However, investors have been staying away from banks as they are seen quite rightly as a high risk investment. This has meant that financial institutions have had to pay a premium rate of interest just to get access to investment. This is the same for governments, Germany for example has recently raised money by selling debt at 0% interest as investors became more concerned with putting their money somewhere safe. By contrast Spain or Greece struggle to raise money at all, and have to pay high premiums that they can barely afford at around 6 or 7%.

This is where QE comes into play. At a key stroke the central banks can create money which they then use to buy assets, (such as government or banking debt) which has the effect of reducing the interest that governments and banks have to pay to investors. In practice the financial institutions have happily accepted the central bank’s cash but have done little to share that money into the rest of the economy, instead hoarding the money and paying down debts. This has led to central banks all over the world injecting even more invented money into the financial institutions. In the USA, the Federal Reserve created approximately $2.5trillion through QE. Similarly the UK’s Bank of England generated around $490billion to buy up the debts of the banks and government.

It might seem too good to be true; and it is. By creating additional money, the central bank is in effect devaluing the currency which means that savings are eroded and prices sky-rocket. Hyper-inflation has happened in the past (Germany during the Great Depression) and happens today (Zimbabwe). It can happen again with disastrous consequences. Today China and other Asian economies are busily snapping up the extra dollars, pounds and euros in the system as they try to keep their own currencies low enough to export their products to their main markets. The global economy is reliant on the continued growth of Asia, but that growth cannot be taken for granted as the financial crisis deepens and their main export markets stagnate. What happens when Asia can no longer buy vast quantities of dollars?
Our unsustainable growth has placed many of the poorest on the verge of disaster but even in the west, the cost of living is rising, the number of houses being repossessed due to bankruptcy is record breaking, and many tens of millions are losing their jobs. This is just the beginning as the slide into longer term decline was delayed by massive Government spending programs that have bailed out bad banks, helped people buy new cars and invested in new infrastructure projects. This spending has served to put many nations into great debt and developed nations from Iceland to Greece have come close to bankruptcy. At some point, the spending will have to come to an abrupt end as Governments tighten their belts and raise taxes.

Public sector cutbacks will have a negative impact that will ripple out into the wider economy as unemployment rises, peoples spending decreases and those who are still have jobs are burdened with higher taxation. These factors will starve spending on the high street. At best, the world economy will see a slow and painful recovery, but it is far more likely that the coming years will bring further economic woe across the globe. Unlike the Great Depression there will be no cheap oil to bail us out. Having utterly exploited nature’s great gift, we will have to pay the price in full.

One of the attributes of capitalism is that it is dependent on the need for constant growth, if growth slows or stops, the system fails. Employers have to cut production and this increases unemployment that in turn decreases demand and leads to further production cuts which in turn leads to further unemployment. At the same time wages slow or fall and people generally cut spending. It is a downward spiral that rapidly gets out of control and this is why unfettered capitalism can be so dangerous.

Food prices soar, as thousands starve to death

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Like water, we are utterly dependent upon food for our survival. In developed countries, people spend about 10-15% of their income on food but in developing countries that figure is a lot higher. For China or Brazil this figure is closer to 50% of an average person’s household income. In Africa people spend on average 75% of their earnings on food and it is here that most of the 25,000 people who starve to death each day live.

Little wonder that civil unrest was widespread in the developing world when food prices last peaked 2008 and then again in 2011. The rising cost of rice led to an explosion of violence from Haiti to the Philippines as people struggled to feed their families. In 2008, countries that previously exported food had to cease export in order to feed their own population, further driving up global prices and depriving governments and farmers of crucial export earnings. In January 2008, India was the first Asian country to ban almost all rice exports and this quickly followed by similar bans right across the region from China and Cambodia to Indonesia and Vietnam. The export bans which swept the region demonstrate just how quickly the panic of soaring food prices can spread and just how terrified regimes are of the impact this will have on their survival.

Burma (Myanmar) has had one of the most brutal and autocratic military regimes in south East Asia. Any opposition is crushed and the key opposition figure head, Aung San Suu Kyi has spent most of her political life under arrest. Both of the biggest and popular uprisings in Burma (1988 and 2007), would probably not have occurred if it were not for escalating food prices. The junta is well aware of this fact and as dictatorships are being toppled around the world, the regime has started to relax its tight grip on the opposition, freeing political prisoners and organising limited elections.

Food prices and inflation have contributed to the ‘Arab spring’ riots which were triggered by the police orchestrated murder of a university-educated fruit seller trying to make ends meet in Tunisia. The rapid overthrow of the regime in Tunisia inspired similar movements throughout North Africa and the Middle East where undemocratic regimes are the norm. Egypt’s Mubarak administration was the next to fall, followed by Libya’s Colonel Gadaffi. The region’s undemocratic regimes are responding in different ways; those with the cash (such as Saudi Arabia) are throwing money at their population. Those without the spare money are either embarking on the road to democracy or are fighting a pitched battle with their own citizens, as is the case in Syria and Bahrain.

Not only are global food prices higher, but the financial crisis has meant that countries are less able to deal with them. Across North Africa and the Middle-east, countries had been cutting back on food and fuel subsidies which were simply unsustainable and unaffordable as their populations expanded. At the start of 2012, Nigeria was brought to a standstill by several days of public strikes against the sudden removal of a fuel subsidy that doubled petrol prices overnight. Eventually the government had to reintroduce the subsidy or face ongoing riots. People have tolerated dictatorships and autocratic regimes for decades, but when their standard of living starts to go into reverse and they cannot feed themselves or their families that is when the flames of revolution spread as rapidly, dangerously and unpredictably as wildfire.

The price of food is causing anxiety amongst regimes across the world. In April 2011, Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank stated that rising food prices were a ‘toxic brew of real pain contributing to social unrest’. He stated that over the course of the year, another 40 million people had reached the depths of ‘extreme poverty’, subsisting on less than $1.25 a day. In China, food prices are monitored closely by the authorities who are attempting to ensure that its citizens are able to afford basic essentials. It knows that the country can only be controlled if it continues its blistering pace of growth and increasing living standards. Should that system falter and should people find themselves sinking backward into poverty, then anarchy will follow. China knows as well as any government that the food crisis is only get worse and instead of relying on its ability to import its way out of trouble by competing on the open market, it is not taking any chances. China is in the process of a colossal global land grab – buying up premium agricultural land all around the world to be used exclusively to feed its own people.

Speculators are one of main factors behind rising food prices, as traders buy and sell vast quantities of grain and pork for profit. Glencore is one of the world’s biggest trader in wheat and in 2010 courted controversy when it betted on grain prices to rise while simultaneously urging Russia to impose a grain export ban – triggering a huge increase in the global price of grain, while handing the company with a large profit.

Demand for everything from food to hi-tech goods is constantly growing whilst at the same time our fuel and natural resources are being rapidly depleted. More land is required to grow the food necessary to feed the tens of millions of new mouths every year whilst simultaneously agricultural land is being destroyed to build new houses and other developments. As less productive land is employed to try and feed the masses, so to the risks of bad harvests and famine escalate. This is happening all the time around the world.

There is a simple law that every creature on Earth must obey, or else they will starve. We must burn less calories getting food then we gain from the food that we consume. During the agricultural revolution, humans were able to harvest calories more efficiently; generating surpluses that could be stored for leaner years or traded for other goods. Yet, they were never able to break the rule that they had to consume more than they used. Ultimately food surpluses meant that populations could grow rapidly as they were less vulnerable to seasonal and annual changes in food availability. Even this system has its limitations, as the human population rises and available land for agriculture reaches its limit. Animals that were used to boost agricultural productivity also required their share of the output.

Since the discovery of oil and gas, we have literally turned this law of consumption on its head. Today we spend a whopping 70 calories of energy for every calorie we obtain from food. Oil and gas is so abundant in energy and so cheap that it has been economically viable to burn far more calories than is actually gained from the food that we eat. Despite this huge expenditure of energy, food has never been so abundant and cheap, particularly in developed countries where people spend just a fraction of their incomes on their groceries. Yet this system also makes us highly reliant on oil and gas which is steadily becoming more expensive as demand rockets and supplies dwindle.