Social disorder

By Robert Hickson 19/08/2011

There has been much debate all over the place about the causes of the recent riots in the UK. Similar discussion and analyses occurred following the ‘Arab spring’ uprisings earlier in the year.

In this post I look at signals and trends that are being used to forecast social disorder in various parts of the world.

Conflicts over resources (food, water, oil, minerals) are regarded as underlying causes for some local or regional unrest. Poverty, corruption, and social inequality (among other issues) have been cited as factors in the Arab spring uprisings, as well as in the UK. One researcher considers that riots can develop and spread in ways similar to epidemics (and aspects of the spread of the uprisings in the Middle East did seem to have elements of a contagion).

However, riots and other forms of social upheaval rarely show simple cause and effect relationships. Analyses for the causes of such events are becoming more sophisticated (at least away from the popular media).

A recent paper by Marco Lagi et al notes that high food prices are an underlying cause for many riots, but by themselves aren’t the trigger. They predict, based on current trends, that late 2012 or early 2013 could be a period of very high food prices, and so have the potential for severe outbreaks of social disorder.

[For the record, and by-the-by, I don’t consider that this prediction supports the so-called Mayan end-of-the-world catastrophe! that some lost souls are proclaiming. I’ll be putting my money where my mouse is by taking advantage of the good current exchange rate and making long term subscriptions to my favourite overseas periodicals].

A less mathematical paper published earlier this year in the journal Foreign Affairs was called the Psychology of Food Riots. This also noted that high food prices by themselves don’t trigger riots. Rather, the authors considered that the perception of being cheated is usually the catalyst. Perception of inequality (rather than the actual degree of inequality) also seems to be an important trigger for other occurrences of unrest.

Another predictive model for increased levels of political violence has also been developed. This uses a range of variables and the model’s developers claim that it has successfully predicted unrest in a range of countries.

More rough and ready assessments of unrest and political stability are common. For example, The Economist’s Shoe-Thrower’s index of unrest (which they admit isn’t infallible) and political risk heat maps.

However, as a well-considered blog on food crises has noted, it is one thing to have a good set of indicators, but timely and effective responses to these are required to avert or minimise the crisis. Responses are often harder to get right than establishing the warning systems, as the recent conflicts in the UK and Middle East have shown.


Future prospects

Looking further ahead the UK’s Ministry of Defence’s 2010 Global Strategic Trends report considers that the world will be in a state of transition for the next few decades. The transition involves demographic, geopolitical, governance, economic, energy, technological and other societal changes. They (and other forecasters) see an increasingly complex world, with different countries facing different challenges and opportunities.

You could argue ‘hasn’t the world been transitioning since the industrial revolution, so is there anything different now?’ Key differences now are that the developed as well as developing countries are having to transition, and the increasingly connected (economically, politically, and electronically) world means that an event in one place can have a much greater extent than previously, and result in systemic failure. We can all think of examples of this.

Time will tell whether we are better able to spot and effectively respond to future events of a similar nature. I don’t have much confidence in that, based on what’s been going on in Europe and the US with respect to their financial crises. So, Ariadne expects lots of volatility over the coming decades.

One of the significant issues that the Global Strategic Trends report highlighted was the increasing urbanisation going on around the world and the potential for increased disruption of social disorder from this. The report notes the need to better understand the dynamics of urban societies to reduce the occurrence of social disorder.


What are the risks in New Zealand?

Will New Zealand descend into disorder if we fail to win the Rugby World cup yet again? Highly unlikely, even given the anger over the price of milk and Adidas jerseys. I don’t anticipate manning a barricade or helping myself to flat screen TV’s this year. Longer term, though, we shouldn’t be too complacent that we are immune from what has happened in the UK, or Tunisia.

Is New Zealand resilient enough to withstand crises that occur elsewhere or here? The New Zealand Institute has previously highlighted the mediocre to poor performance of New Zealand on a range of economic and social indicators. New Zealand’s social report generally shows stability or improving outcomes across a range of social well being indicators, but our rankings on some indicators (such as suicide, obesity, imprisonment rates and affordability of housing) aren’t something to be proud of.

The recent report on early childhood indicators from Every Child Counts also flags potential long term societal problems. How well will New Zealand be able to respond to volatile times in 20 years, if a significant part of the potential workforce is poorly educated, unhealthy or lacking a sense of social connection? The success with which we improve our social and economic performance over the next few years will determine how orderly our future society will be.