It is hard to remember what used to be taken for common sense after it has changed. It used to be taken as common sense, for example, that famine was God’s punishment for the wicked, or nature’s revenge on the promiscuously reproductive. It also used to be common sense that famine was a permanent condition of human history. We have more or less forgotten the first two tenets. With Cormac Ó Gráda’s effortlessly readable new book, the third may have to go as well. Global food abundance, better transportation and communication, and the extensive coordinated efforts of governments and NGOs have more or less brought the history of famine to an end. This is the new endpoint to the history of famine that Ó Gráda wants to tell.
An optimistic take on the history of famine
Ó Gráda situates his study within a masterful overview of the issues and debates that have swirled around the subject since Thomas Malthus published his famous Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798, in which he theorized famine as the outcome of population growth outstripping food supply. This “positive check,” he believed, came into play whenever the usual negative checks, such as abstinence, failed to lower the birth rate — and which the lowest classes, inured to immorality, were least likely to respect, thereby threatening welfare of all. Malthus’ pessimism about the capacity of people to produce food at the same rate at which they reproduced themselves has been a tenacious and popular attitude for the past two centuries. Perhaps millennia of anxiety about harvest failure have hard-wired us to fear that, at some point, the food will run out. It is a habit of mind that has been hard to shake, especially for those of us who have lived through the largest absolute increase in world population in human history, and have been recurrently reminded that, amidst our abundance, there are places where people lack food.
Ó Gráda would like us to step back from this pessimism, given that we have also lived through the largest absolute increase in food production in world history. He has good evidence to suggest that the situation is not as dire as we think it is, and indeed that it has not been as dire in the past either. Looking back over the history of famine, he doubts that starvation has been the constant and powerful material factor in human history we take it to be. He argues that the demographic impact of famine is always short-lived. Though many die during a famine, many survive and will reproduce quickly to make up for the deficit. This compensation is cold comfort for those who lose their family members, and Ó Gráda, whose earlier research is on the Irish potato famine, does not retreat so far into social science as to neglect the individual tragedies of famine. He is aware of the powerful hold that the prospect of famine has had over human subjectivity. But he does want us to look at the larger picture and then ask ourselves whether our in-born pessimism is justified. Despite a deep-seated belief that famine has been a regularly recurring experience through human history, it has been neither as frequent, nor as widespread, nor as destructive, as has been assumed. A sense of the fragility of human survival in the face of hunger lingers, yet we are now a long way from the gloomy experiences of the eighteenth century that led Malthus to propose his unhappy correlation between population growth and food supply.