Cormac O Gráda


On his book Famine: A Short History

Cover Interview of May 24, 2009

A close-up

The book ranges from describing the horrors of famine in some detail to musing, with tempered hope, about the prospects of eliminating famine, at least in peacetime.  I would hope that even a quick browse through Famine would alert the reader to the connection between what made communities vulnerable to famine in the past, and help one understand the prospects of making famine history in the future.

It is almost a truism that all famines are caused by a combination of economic backwardness and human action.  Sometimes, as in medieval Europe or late Qing China, factors associated with the former, such as poor communications and the high cost of storage, have been more important. Sometimes, as with several well-known twentieth-century famines, human interventions have clearly mattered more.

It is tempting to simplify, and to blame famines long ago on Malthusian factors, and more recent famines on the likes of totalitarian despots such as Stalin, Hitler, or Mao.  Now, undoubtedly, the balance has shifted over time from ‘natural’ to ‘man-made’ causes, from bad weather combined with poverty to human action (or inaction).  Undoubtedly, too, the relative importance of these causes has been—or continues to be—controversial.  And that goes for many famines, not least the Great Irish Famine.

The book ends with some mildly optimistic speculations about the prospects of ‘making famine history’ in the near future.  I note, however, that past prognostications have rarely got it right.  A notorious case in point is biologist Paul Ehrlich’s doomsday forecast.  In the late 1960s, Ehrlich predicted that in the following decade ‘hundreds of millions of people…[were] going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now’.

Ehrlich got it almost exactly wrong. In the following decade fear of global overpopulation prompted hard-line (and high-profile) Malthusian writers to predict the ‘Great Die-Off’ in which some four billion people would perish.  The Ethiopian famine of 1974 forced Wallace Aykroyd, a famine scholar, to add an epilogue to his book The Conquest of Famine, in which he tempered optimism with the hope that the knowledge and experience gained in Ethiopia would prove useful in relieving famines elsewhere in future.