The Price Point of Social Unrest?

H/T Jonathan Zittrain, this new article in MIT’s Technology Review, The Cause of Riots and the Price of Food.

Marco Lagi and buddies at the New England Complex Systems Institute in Cambridge, say they’ve found a single factor that seems to trigger riots around the world.

This single factor is the price of food. Lagi and co say that when it rises above a certain threshold, social unrest sweeps the planet.

The evidence comes from two sources. The first is data gathered by the United Nations that plots the price of food against time, the so-called food price index of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN. The second is the date of riots around the world, whatever their cause.

This clearly seems to show that when the food price index rises above a certain threshold, the result is trouble around the world.  This isn’t rocket science. It stands to reason that people become desperate when food is unobtainable. It’s often said that any society is three square meals from anarchy.

But what’s interesting about this analysis is that Lagi and co say that high food prices don’t necessarily trigger riots themselves, they simply create the conditions in which social unrest can flourish. “These observations are consistent with a hypothesis that high global food prices are a precipitating condition for social unrest,” say Lagi and co.  In other words, high food prices lead to a kind of tipping point when almost anything can trigger a riot, like a lighted match in a dry forest.

I am skeptical about this kind of analysis, particularly when it offers a specific date for when the threshold for social unrest is apparently going to be crossed – August 2013, if you were wondering.  Am I right or wrong to be skeptical of the simplifications involved in this kind of analysis?