Over the years, I’ve created any number of simple, “burning Earth” collages for articles documenting ominous geopolitical developments or generalized angst among a species bent on destroying itself. The version that sits atop this article is actually new, although it’s similar to another I’ve used on occasion.
The flaming planet visuals are deliberately hyperbolic, even when they can be taken a semblance of literally (e.g., when California is ablaze or someone, somewhere, has blown something up for no good reason). Currently, though, our world is about as close to being on fire as it can get without spontaneously combusting.
So perilous is our current predicament, that you’re probably safer in the near-term aboard the International Space Station where, if you like, you can use your flight suit to make a political statement (or support your alma mater). “Sometimes yellow is just a color,” Russia’s space agency snapped, in an irritated Telegram post, after three cosmonauts showed up at the ISS draped in what was either the Ukrainian flag or the colors of the Bauman State Technical University, which one expert from Harvard called “sort of Moscow’s MIT AeroAstro.”
Sunday’s headlines described a worsening global food crisis as countries erect export barriers in a bid to safeguard domestic food security amid soaring prices (figure below).
The problem with export bans, of course, is that they jeopardize the rest of the international community. No matter how much a given country’s leaders might abhor the idea of contributing to a burgeoning global food war, if everyone else is doing it, you’re compelled to do it too, lest you (and the citizens whose livelihoods you’re duty bound to protect) should starve.
“Any stability that you get in the country that’s putting up the export ban is instability exported to the rest of the world,” Joseph Glauber, a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, told Bloomberg. “It has a cascading effect.”
In a recent article co-authored by Glauber, the IFPRI analyzed the impact of the war through the lens of the wheat market in Egypt, where wheat accounts for as much as 39% of caloric intake per person, and where nearly two thirds of total wheat used is imported. The figures (below) speak for themselves.
“Now is the time of year when Egyptian wheat imports are usually at their peak, in the first quarter before the domestic harvest begins in April,” the IFPRI remarked, adding that “Black Sea exporters are also particularly active this time of year, making the current crisis especially disruptive for Egypt.”
EU officials will meet this week in Brussels, where The Agriculture and Fisheries Council will discuss, among other things, “what measures could be taken to… safeguard food supplies in the short-term and enhanc[e] food security in the long term.”
Last week, Janusz Wojciechowski, Europe’s agriculture commissioner, told the European Parliament that, “What’s going on in Ukraine is going to change our whole approach, and our view.”
Meanwhile, the Houthis launched attacks on a half-dozen Saudi targets Sunday, including several Aramco-operated facilities. The IRGC-backed fighters used ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and, of course, the usual convoy of drones, at least nine of which were intercepted by the Saudis. There were no casualties and no disruptions at Aramco, but it says a lot about the intractability of the conflict in Yemen that the Houthis launched new attacks just a few days after being invited to Riyadh for peace talks.
Speaking of Aramco, net income more than doubled to $110 billion in 2021, the company said Sunday. Capex could rise by as much as 56% this year. The company also declared a one-time bonus share distribution. Bloomberg’s data shows adjusted net income for the fourth quarter was probably more than $35 billion (figure below). The official breakdown was due Monday.
Amin Nasser nodded to clean energy. “We are also investing in CCS, renewables and low-carbon hydrogen production, supporting the global energy transition and advancing our net-zero ambition,” he said.
Nevertheless, Aramco’s self-serving realism around fossil fuels stood in stark contrast to the more idealistic rhetoric often employed by Western producers. “Substantial new investment is required to meet demand growth, against a broader decline in upstream investment across the industry globally,” the company said, in a press release detailing its results. Later, Nasser told the media that Aramco “anticipate[s] oil demand will continue to grow for the rest of the decade.”
So, don’t count on the Saudis for a quick transition away from fossil fuels. But maybe we should blame ourselves. If there’s demand, someone’s going to meet it with supply. Here again, we’re conspiring with ourselves to destroy our species, and the only thing that’s going to slow us down in the Arabian Peninsula is if the rebels next door manage to knock things off track with some missiles fired from a country experiencing the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet.
“The terrorist, Iran-backed Houthis escalated their hostile, cross-border attacks towards the Kingdom last night and earlier this morning,” General Turki Al-Malki, official spokesperson for the somewhat euphemistically-named “Coalition to Restore Legitimacy in Yemen,” said, in a statement, calling the attacks a “dangerous escalation” on the way to dryly noting that “they also represent the terrorist Houthi militia’s position in regards to… efforts and initiatives aimed at reaching a comprehensive and sustainable political resolution to end the Yemeni crisis.”
When you consider all of the above, it’s unfathomably ignorant. And it speaks to my longstanding contention that the odds of human beings surviving long enough to realize the promise of utopian scientific advances, efforts to develop some rudimentary version of interstellar travel and other giant leaps that’d be within our grasp if we could stop killing ourselves for a generation or two, are very low indeed.
Coming full circle to the food discussion, Glauber, writing in the same linked article cited above, noted that “some countries have already imposed export restrictions in response to rising prices, as many did during the food price spikes in 2007/08 and 2010/11.” Such efforts, in combination with disruptions associated with the war in Ukraine, “will likely add further upward pressures on prices going forward.”
The bottom line: We’re probably not going to make it. Maybe you can catch a ride with Elon Musk to the space station. Assuming, of course, he comes out unscathed from “single combat” with Vladimir Putin.