In January, as Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was fleeing a mass uprising in Tunisia and the first demonstrators were crowding into Cairo's Tahrir Square, global food prices reached peaks not seen in two decades of U.N. records. Whether the food riots that exploded in countries from Algeria to Yemen that month were a cause or simply a confounding factor in the Arab Spring, to Lester Brown the lesson is clear: "Get ready, farmers and foreign ministers alike," he wrote, "for a new era in which world food scarcity increasingly shapes global politics."
Brown has spent decades calling attention to the true fragility of a global agricultural system that the average Safeway shopper takes for granted, warnings that proved prophetic when global food prices first spiraled out of control in 2007-08. He foresees a future in which agricultural innovation slows and countries engage in a kind of resource nationalism over food, exacerbating already chaotic market fluctuations. And as Brown argues in his 2011 book, World on the Edge, the food crisis is just one symptom of a civilization hurtling toward an array of environmental tipping points -- collapsing polar ice sheets, exhausted aquifers, diminishing fossil-fuel reserves -- without the political will to avoid them. "Rising food prices," Brown wrote back in 2003, "may be the first global economic indicator to signal serious trouble between us … and the earth's ecosystem." He was right about the rising prices part; even Brown hopes he was wrong about the rest.
The global economic crisis has exposed some ugly preconceived notions about poor people: that they're lazy, that they deserve unemployment. But as Deepa Narayan, the former director of a World Bank anti-poverty program who has spent nearly 30 years working for NGOs, governments, and global organizations in Asia and Africa, argues, the reality is anything but. "[P]oor people … are born capitalists in the Horatio Alger mold, more capitalist than the average New Yorker or Londoner. They believe in the power of their own effort -- they try and try, and even if they are foiled or cheated, they try again," she wrote.
Narayan brought this iconoclastic attitude to her groundbreaking Moving Out of Poverty program, which former U.S. President Bill Clinton called "an important resource for everyone who is working to alleviate poverty." Involving interviews with 60,000 poor people in 17 countries since 2003, the study -- a follow-up to Narayan's monumental 60-country Voices of the Poor study in 2000 -- is one of the few ever to focus on mobility and how people overcome poverty. It draws a unique and textured picture of the realities of modern destitution, in which the bottom billion, often left out even from the inadequate government and aid programs meant to help them, must fend for themselves. "No matter if I fall, I get up again. If I fall 5,000 times, I will stand up another 5,000 times," said one subject from Narayan's study.
Muse Warren Buffett.
Stimulus or austerity? Stimulus.
America or China? America and China.
Arab Spring or Arab Winter? Arab Spring.
Reading list Lords of Finance, Liaquat Ahamed; The Great Disruption, by Paul Gilding; The Abundant Community, by John McKnight and Peter Block.
Best idea Cars that use compressed engines will shift energy needs and free us of the oil curse.
Worst idea Greedy poor and middle-class households are responsible for the housing crisis.
In casting off apartheid 17 years ago, South Africa became one of the world's great human rights success stories -- so it is a grim irony that the country now spends much of its time on the international stage defending the likes of Muammar al-Qaddafi and the Burmese junta. In October, when the Dalai Lama -- welcomed to South Africa personally by Nelson Mandela in 1996 -- tried to travel to Cape Town for an 80th birthday celebration for Desmond Tutu, the South African government, which was negotiating a $2.5 billion investment deal with China, refused to grant him a visa.
No one has more loudly lamented this state of affairs than Tutu. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate has called the actions of President Jacob Zuma's government in the visa flap a national disgrace and, most explosively, "reminiscent of the way authorities dealt with applications by black South Africans for travel documents under apartheid." Tutu may be an octogenarian now, but he has been fighting Zuma just as aggressively as he once stood up to the white regime in Pretoria. For years he has criticized the "moral failings" of Zuma, whose political career has been dogged by rape and corruption allegations, and chastised the ruling African National Congress for failing to make good on its promises to fight poverty. For a country growing awkwardly into its new role as a regional heavyweight, he is exactly the conscience South Africa -- and the world -- needs.