The Era Of Great Famines Is Over

GWPF | 10 May 2016

 

The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate. – Paul Ehrlich, The Population Bomb (1968)

 

 

 

Despite widespread drought in 11 states across the country, India’s foodgrain production is actually set to grow marginally, the third advance estimates released by the agriculture ministry on Monday showed. Total foodgrain production in 2015-16 is estimated at 252.23 million tonnes, marginally higher than 252.02 million tonnes produced in 2014-15, the data shows. If the estimates hold up, it would imply that the damage to the agrarian economy is less than what had been initially feared; at the same time, it also reflects a degree of resilience of Indian agriculture to a deficit monsoon. —Sayantan Bera, Live Mint, 10 May 2016

 

 

How did Ethiopia go from being the world’s symbol of mass famines to fending off starvation? Thanks partly to some good fortune, but mostly to peace, greater transparency and prudent planning. Ethiopia’s success in averting another disaster is confirmation that famine is elective because, at its core, it is an artifact and a tool of political repression. Famine isn’t caused by overpopulation, and as Ethiopia’s experience shows, it’s not a necessary consequence of drought. Politics creates famine, and politics can stop it. –Alex De Waal, The New York Times, 8 May 2016

 

 

 

1) India’s Foodgrain Production Grows Despite Drought

Live Mint, 10 May 2016

 

2) The Era Of Great Famines Is Over

The New York Times, 8 May 2016

 

3) 2015 Global Hunger Index: The End of Calamitous Famines

International Food Policy Research Institute

 

4) Paul Ehrlich & Other Disgraced Prophets Of Doom

Daily Maverick, 3 May 2016

 

5) Michael Shermer: Why Malthus Is Still Wrong

Scientific American, 1 May 2016

 

 

 

The downward slope of the famines graph contrasts with the upward slope of world population, which rose from about 1.7 billion in 1900 to 7.3 billion today. This surely refutes the pessimism of the early 19th century scholar and cleric Reverend Thomas Malthus, who feared that world population was outpacing the food supply. More than two centuries ago he wrote that “gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear [of population growth], and with one mighty blow, could level the population. In fact, the converse is actually happening. The end of the Cold War, the adoption of international human rights norms, and the rise of globalization are among the key factors that make it possible to eliminate famine for the first time in history. –Alex de Waal, 2015 Global Hunger Index

 

 

 

Before climate change, there was the population explosion. Predicting disaster for humanity and environmental doom became the means by which government power could be expanded, even if the record of such prophesies is dismal. The most alarming predictions, which garner the most headlines and have the most impact on public policy, never come to pass. Perennial pessimism is nothing but paranoid neurosis. Prophesies about the catastrophes that would follow population growth have long been both shrill and high-profile. Yet they simply failed to materialise. The prophets of doom wish they would be quietly forgotten, and for the most part they have been. But they shouldn’t be, when the very same fearmongers remain in positions of influence or power. –Ivo Vegter, Daily Maverick, 3 May 2016

 

 

 

We think of eugenics and forced sterilization as a right-wing Nazi program implemented in 1930s Germany. Yet as Princeton University economist Thomas Leonard documents in his book Illiberal Reformers and former New York Times editor Adam Cohen reminds us in his book Imbeciles, eugenics fever swept America in the early 20th century. Science writer Ronald Bailey tracks neo-Malthusians in his book The End of Doom, starting with Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 best seller The Population Bomb, which proclaimed that “the battle to feed all of humanity is over.” Many doomsayers followed. Worldwatch Institute founder Lester Brown, for example, declared in 1995, “Humanity’s greatest challenge may soon be just making it to the next harvest.” In a 2009 Scientific American article he affirmed his rhetorical question, “Could food shortages bring down civilization?” In a 2013 conference at the University of Vermont, Ehrlich assessed our chances of avoiding civilizational collapse at only 10 percent. –Michael Shermer, Scientific American, 1 May 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

1) India’s Foodgrain Production Grows Despite Drought

Live Mint, 10 May 2016

 

Sayantan Bera

 

New Delhi: Despite widespread drought in 11 states across the country, India’s foodgrain production is actually set to grow marginally, the third advance estimates released by the agriculture ministry on Monday showed.

 

 

 
Total foodgrain production in 2015-16 is estimated at 252.23 million tonnes, marginally higher than 252.02 million tonnes produced in 2014-15, the data shows. Photo: Reuters

 

 

Total foodgrain production in 2015-16 is estimated at 252.23 million tonnes, marginally higher than 252.02 million tonnes produced in 2014-15, the data shows.
If the estimates hold up, it would imply that the damage to the agrarian economy is less than what had been initially feared; at the same time, it also reflects a degree of resilience of Indian agriculture to a deficit monsoon.

 

Last year was the second successive year of deficit rains, with the south-west monsoon recording a shortfall of 14% compared with the normal amount. While 2014 also received sub-par rains, in 2013-14, a normal monsoon year, India produced a record 265 million tonnes of foodgrains.

 

The third advance estimates show that wheat production is likely to rise by 8.7%, from 86.53 million tonnes (in 2014-15) to 94.04 million tonnes in 2015-16. The rise is despite 5.6% lower sowing of the winter crop of wheat and a warm and dry winter which fuelled fears of a lower crop.

 

Analysts are sceptical about the optimism underlying the latest advance estimates.

“Markets and traders were expecting a wheat crop of 88 million tonnes due to lower sowing, so 94 million tonnes comes as a big surprise,” said Ashok Gulati, agriculture chair professor at the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, Delhi. “The issue is the government has a huge machinery in place to estimate production and we do not have an alternative.”

 

The estimates show that India’s pulses output is likely to remain unchanged at 17 million tonnes in 2015-16 compared with the year before, despite a 7% lower sowing of rabi (winter) pulses. Pulses are mostly grown as a rain-fed crop in India with only 16% area under irrigation, compared with 93% of wheat area under irrigation.

 

Full story

 

 

 

2) The Era Of Great Famines Is Over

The New York Times, 8 May 2016

 

Alex De Waal

 

Famine isn’t caused by overpopulation, and as Ethiopia’s experience shows, it’s not a necessary consequence of drought. Politics creates famine, and politics can stop it.

 

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — The worst drought in three decades has left almost 20 million Ethiopians — one-fifth of the population — desperately short of food. And yet the country’s mortality rate isn’t expected to increase: In other words, Ethiopians aren’t starving to death.

I’ve studied famine and humanitarian relief for more than 30 years, and I wasn’t prepared for what I saw during a visit to Ethiopia last month. As I traveled through northern and central provinces, I saw imported wheat being brought to the smallest and most remote villages, thanks to a new Chinese-built railroad and a fleet of newly imported trucks. Water was delivered to places where wells had run dry. Malnourished children were being treated in properly staffed clinics.

Compare that to the aftermath of the 1984 drought, which killed at least 600,000 people, caused the economy to shrink by nearly 14 percent and turned the name “Ethiopia” into a synonym for shriveled, glazed-eyed children on saline drips.

How did Ethiopia go from being the world’s symbol of mass famines to fending off starvation? Thanks partly to some good fortune, but mostly to peace, greater transparency and prudent planning. Ethiopia’s success in averting another disaster is confirmation that famine is elective because, at its core, it is an artifact and a tool of political repression.

In 1984, the rains failed in the midst of a civil war, pitting the military regime headed by Mengistu Haile Mariam against rebels in the northern province of Tigray and neighboring Eritrea. When food ran short, Mengistu’s government blocked trade, bombed markets and withheld emergency supplies in rebel-controlled areas.

 

The suffering that ensued elicited a vast outpouring of generosity from the West, brought about in part by the Live Aid concerts. But all that charity was no more than a Band-Aid, as even its instigator, the musician Bob Geldof, observed at the time. That was because war was destroying Ethiopia’s rural economy, and food aid was being redirected from civilians to soldiers and government militias.

In 1987, as the famine was receding, a group of researchers and I went to Tigray on a mission for Oxfam to study local food markets. We reached a simple conclusion: When farmers could bring foodstuffs to points of sale — when the roads were clear of army checkpoints, when markets were held at night to reduce the risk of being bombed — the local economy worked efficiently enough. With markets in operation, the production of local crops increased, and food prices fell to levels people could afford.

Ending famine required ending fighting.

The Mengistu regime collapsed in 1991. Under the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, a former guerrilla turned advocate of rapid economic growth, Ethiopia enjoyed internal peace for the first time in a generation. There were localized droughts but no famines — with one notable exception.

In 1999, food shortages in the southeastern part of the country killed 29,000 people. What could have just been a crisis devolved into disaster because the government was at war with Eritrea along its northern border, and foreign donors, appalled that the government would spend its meager resources on fighting, were slow to provide food aid.

A major drought in 2002 caused hunger nationwide. But the following year, when I traveled with a team from the United Nations Children’s Fund to stricken areas in Wollo (north), Hararghe (east) and Sidama and Wollaita (south), we didn’t see the telltale canvas tents of emergency distribution centers. A vast relief effort mounted by the government and international agencies was managing to deliver at least some food to many villages, and so people were staying at home.

Some people were still going hungry, for sure, and in the worst cases children were starving, but in far smaller numbers than in the past. Our survey of child survival rates also found that outside these pockets of starvation, mortality rates weren’t rising relative to non-drought years.

Full story

 

 

 

3) 2015 Global Hunger Index: The End of Calamitous Famines

International Food Policy Research Institute

 

Alex de Waal

 

While more must be done to address the unique situations these invisible groups face, great progress has been made. Yet we are often so focused on the problems of the present, it is easy to overlook vast changes that have occurred over the long term. For example, the historic declines in all kinds of violence (Pinker 2012) and the reduction in the frequency and lethality of armed conflict (Human Security Report Project 2013) are often obscured by crises of the moment.

 

Much the same is true for famine. Indeed it is all too easy to overlook historic, but unheralded achievements of the last 50 years: the elimination of calamitous famines (those that cause more than 1 million deaths) and the reduction almost to a vanishing point of great famines, or those that cause more than 100,000 deaths (Howe and Devereux 2004).

 

Until the middle of the 20th century, the drumbeat of starvation was constant, with millions dying every decade. Between 1870 and 2014, 106 episodes of famine and mass starvation each killed 100,000 people or more (Mallory 1926; Newman 1990; Devereux 2000; Dyson and Ó Gráda 2002).

 

The trends are striking (Figures 3.1 and 3.2). During the 20th century, the death toll from great famines zigzagged, ranging from a 10-year high of 27 million in 1900–1909; to more than 15 million in each of the 1920s, 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s; to a low of 1.4 million during the 1990s. In the 21st century thus far, the death toll is near 600,000.

 

 

Click to enlarge.

 

 

Taking a closer look at the history behind the graphs, we see famines associated with the Age of Empire from the 1870s to World War I (Hobsbawm 1989). Famines killed tens of millions in South Asia and China, millions in Africa, and smaller numbers in Brazil. The causes: drought and havoc wreaked by imperial conquest and predation, including practices such as dismantling local production systems and imposing a regime of forced labor to produce export crops such as rubber and cotton. With the passing of the most ruthless era of imperial expansion, these famines, also known as “Late Victorian Holocausts,” ceased (Davis 2002).

 

During what historian Eric Hobsbawm (1996) called the “Age of Extremes” from World War I to the end of the Cold War, calamitous famines were caused by totalitarian systems: German and Japanese militarism, Stalinism, and Maoism. Wartime leaders routinely used starvation as a weapon.

 

Forced collectivization in Ukraine and southern Russia in 1932–1933—a possibly genocidal campaign known to Ukrainians as the “Holodomor”—was perhaps the most terrible example of famine as state policy (Conquest 1987). Had the Nazi Hunger Plan to starve 20–30 million Belorussians, Poles, and Ukrainians been fully carried out, it would have been worse still (Lowe 2012). Asian war famines killed many millions from 1936 to 1945 in Bengal, China, Indonesia, and Vietnam.

After World War II, Communist policies caused horrific famines. Thirty million people died in the Chinese famine of 1958–1962, caused by Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward (Becker 1996). The Khmer Rouge starved 1.5 million Cambodians in the 1970s (Kiernan 2008). These calamitous famines ended along with “faminogenic” regimes, such as totalitarian governments and wars of extermination (Marcus 2003).

 

 

Click to enlarge.

 

 

The last great Communist famines were in Ethiopia in 1983–1985, when collectivization and hunger as a weapon of war collided with drought, killing up to 1 million (de Waal 1997), and in North Korea in 1996–1997, when a food crisis killed 500,000–600,000 (Goodkind, West, and Johnson 2011).

 

In the 20th century, Europe and Asia accounted for the vast majority of famine deaths (Figure 3.2). Only two African famines in the last 100 years—Biafra and Ethiopia—have killed as many as 1 million each. Since famine has disappeared from Europe and mostly vanished from Asia, it has lost most of its menace.

 

And finally, the downward slope of the famines graph (Figure 3.3) contrasts with the upward slope of world population, which rose from about 1.7 billion in 1900 to 7.3 billion today. This surely refutes the pessimism of the early 19th century scholar and cleric Reverend Thomas Malthus, who feared that world population was outpacing the food supply. More than two centuries ago he wrote that “gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear [of population growth], and with one mighty blow, could level the population” (Malthus 1798, 140). In fact, the converse is actually happening.

 

 

Positive Developments

 

The end of the Cold War, the adoption of international human rights norms, and the rise of globalization are among the key factors that make it possible to eliminate famine for the first time in history. Governments no longer wield the grotesque sovereign privilege to starve their people and tell the rest of the world to mind its own business. Unparalleled global prosperity and interconnectedness, the legitimacy of international concern over domestic violations, and far more information-sharing mean people are less likely to starve in silence because their rulers, or the international community, do not know what is going on.

 

Full paper

 

 

 

 

 

 

4) Paul Ehrlich & Other Disgraced Prophets Of Doom

Daily Maverick, 3 May 2016

 

Ivo Vegter

 

Before climate change, there was the population explosion. Predicting disaster for humanity and environmental doom became the means by which government power could be expanded, even if the record of such prophesies is dismal.

 

The record of populist predictions about the evils of modern society is terrible. The most alarming predictions, which garner the most headlines and have the most impact on public policy, never come to pass. Perennial pessimism is nothing but paranoid neurosis.

 

Prophesies about the catastrophes that would follow population growth have long been both shrill and high-profile. Yet they simply failed to materialise. The prophets of doom wish they would be quietly forgotten, and for the most part they have been. But they shouldn’t be, when the very same fearmongers remain in positions of influence or power.

 

In 1967, the brothers William and Paul Paddock wrote a book, calmly entitled Famine 1975! In it, they predict that most nations will be unable to sustain their growing populations by expanding agriculture, leading to a “Time of Famines” within a decade from the book’s publication. They believed that the United States would become the “sole hope of the hungry nations”, but that its charity had to be limited by necessity, forcing it to choose which countries it would simply leave to starve.

 

The scientific community, far from rejecting the preposterous alarmism, took it seriously. A review in the magazine Science explains: “From its title, one might infer that this book is an attention-seeking potboiler, on one of today’s ever more gripping and therefore popular subjects. It is not. It is deadly serious, a solemn analysis of things to come in the food domain, together with a proposed plan for action in a field where others have none. … All serious students of the plight of the underdeveloped nations agree that famine among the peoples of the underdeveloped nations is invetiable. The US Department of Agriculture, for example, sees 1985 as the beginning of the years of hunger.”

 

The Paddock brothers may have faded into obscurity, but their book received high praise from a more famous prognosticator of environmental apocalypse. The central thesis of Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb (full text) is stated in the prologue: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programmes embarked upon now.”

 

Ehrlich’s problem statement was the same as that of the Paddock brothers, but his proposed solutions were different. As suggested in the subtitle, “Population control or race to oblivion?”, Ehrlich was a proponent of penalty taxes on families with more children, levying luxury taxes on childcare products, and incentivising sterilisation after two children. He even suggested putting sterilants in the drinking water, but dismissed the idea as impractical because of the “criminal inadequacy of biomedical research in this area”.

 

The book makes no bones about how doomed he thought the world to be: “At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate, although many lives could be saved through dramatic programmes to ‘stretch’ the carrying capacity of the earth by increasing food production and providing for more equitable distribution of whatever food is available. But these programmes will only provide a stay of execution unless they are accompanied by determined and successful efforts at population control. Population control is the conscious regulation of the numbers of human beings to meet the needs not just of individual families, but of society as a whole.”

 

He proposed that the United States establish a Department of Population and Environment, which “should be set up with the power to take whatever steps are necessary to establish a reasonable population size in the United States and to put an end to the steady deterioration of our environment”.

 

Despite the stubborn refusal of the population to grow poor and die, half of this wish did come true, and environmental bureaucrats have been spewing forth reams of rules and regulations ever since. Some of them have been sensible and beneficial, but many are driven purely by fear, political opportunism, cronyism, or sheer hunger for power.

 

As is common, Ehrlich invoked the presumed plight of the next generation, whose future his own generation were presumably destroying: “Nothing could be more misleading to our children than our present affluent society. They will inherit a totally different world, a world in which the standards, politics and economics of the past decade are dead. … We are today involved in the events leading to famine and ecocatastrophe; tomorrow we may be destroyed by them. Our position requires that we take immediate action at home and promote effective action worldwide.”

 

Almost 50 years later there is no sign of Ehrlich’s dystopian delusions about poverty and famine. Population growth, which peaked in 1963 at 2.2%, has halved. There are fewer poor people now than ever before, and even the poor are far better fed than they were in 1968. Agriculture has been boosted immeasurably by the adoption of modern farming techniques and new techologies, feeding a population of more than 7-billion better than it did a population half this size in 1968. Yet the echoes of Ehrlich’s language are louder than ever. Ironically, the generation that wasn’t yet born in Ehrlich’s day, but are parents and grandparents today, fret just as much about the future they’re bequeathing to their children as Ehrlich himself did.

 

At the first Earth Day in 1970s, predictions of the Ehrlich variety were commonplace headline-grabbers. According to Senator Gaylord Nelson, who quoted Dr Dillon Ripley of the Smithsonian, 80% of all species would be extinct by 2000. Four billion people would starve to death during the 1980s, predicted Ehrlich himself. Kenneth Watt, an ecologist, predicted that the world would be 11 degrees colder by 2000, but that we’d have run out of crude oil.

 

None of these alarming predictions has come true.

 

Full post

 

 

5) Michael Shermer: Why Malthus Is Still Wrong

Scientific American, 1 May 2016
 

If by fiat I had to identify the most consequential ideas in the history of science, good and bad, in the top 10 would be the 1798 treatise An Essay on the Principle of Population, by English political economist Thomas Robert Malthus. On the positive side of the ledger, it inspired Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace to work out the mechanics of natural selection based on Malthus’s observation that populations tend to increase geometrically (2, 4, 8, 16 …), whereas food reserves grow arithmetically (2, 3, 4, 5 …), leading to competition for scarce resources and differential reproductive success, the driver of evolution.

 

On the negative side of the ledger are the policies derived from the belief in the inevitability of a Malthusian collapse. “The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race,” Malthus gloomily predicted. His scenario influenced policy makers to embrace social Darwinism and eugenics, resulting in draconian measures to restrict particular populations’ family size, including forced sterilizations.

 

In his book The Evolution of Everything (Harper, 2015), evolutionary biologist and journalist Matt Ridley sums up the policy succinctly: “Better to be cruel to be kind.” The belief that “those in power knew best what was good for the vulnerable and weak” led directly to legal actions based on questionable Malthusian science.

 

For example, the English Poor Law implemented by Queen Elizabeth I in 1601 to provide food to the poor was severely curtailed by the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, based on Malthusian reasoning that helping the poor only encourages them to have more children and thereby exacerbate poverty. The British government had a similar Malthusian attitude during the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, Ridley notes, reasoning that famine, in the words of Assistant Secretary to the Treasury Charles Trevelyan, was an “effective mechanism for reducing surplus population.” A few decades later Francis Galton advocated marriage between the fittest individuals (“What nature does blindly, slowly, and ruthlessly man may do providently, quickly and kindly”), followed by a number of prominent socialists such as Sidney and Beatrice Webb, George Bernard Shaw, Havelock Ellis and H. G. Wells, who openly championed eugenics as a tool of social engineering.

 

We think of eugenics and forced sterilization as a right-wing Nazi program implemented in 1930s Germany. Yet as Princeton University economist Thomas Leonard documents in his book Illiberal Reformers (Princeton University Press, 2016) and former New York Times editor Adam Cohen reminds us in his book Imbeciles (Penguin, 2016), eugenics fever swept America in the early 20th century, culminating in the 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell, in which the justices legalized sterilization of “undesirable” citizens. The court included prominent progressives Louis Brandeis and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the latter of whom famously ruled, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” The result: sterilization of some 70,000 Americans.

 

Science writer Ronald Bailey tracks neo-Malthusians in his book The End of Doom (St. Martin’s Press, 2015), starting with Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 best seller The Population Bomb, which proclaimed that “the battle to feed all of humanity is over.” Many doomsayers followed. Worldwatch Institute founder Lester Brown, for example, declared in 1995, “Humanity’s greatest challenge may soon be just making it to the next harvest.” In a 2009 Scientific American article he affirmed his rhetorical question, “Could food shortages bring down civilization?” In a 2013 conference at the University of Vermont, Ehrlich assessed our chances of avoiding civilizational collapse at only 10 percent.

 

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