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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Nature Didn't Cause the Great Irish Famine

Posted by on Wed, Jun 11, 2014 at 8:56 AM

What is wrong with this opening paragraph to a post concerning a famous pathogen that kills potatoes?

The potato blight that caused the Great Irish Famine of the 1840s left families starving as their source of food was left rotting in their fields. Now, though, researchers have tracked the origin of this blight, and have found that the deadly plant disease actually first originated in an alpine valley in central Mexico.

The problem is this: The blight did not cause the famine that killed a million people in Ireland between 1845 and 1852. The cause of this catastrophe was not natural but cultural. In a kind of economic thinking that is still with us today, but took a bad hit in the stock market crash of 2008, an economic thinking that believes itself to be a science that deals with reality as it is, with a process that's completely independent of human culture and politics, an economic thinking that has faith in the powers of self-organization, the goodness of invisible hands, and sees the market as a kind of emergence whose workings are disrupted and even harmed by government intervention—in this, and this alone, we will see what was behind the famine that killed a million humans, and deracinated a million more.

To read a good account of how liberal economics lead to political policies that blocked any real action on this Irish disaster, read Felix Martin's Money: The Unauthorized Biography. It's all there. It's very depressing. Worst of all, we are ruled by an economic thinking that is related to, but much more potent than, the one that dominated much of the 19th century and only ended after the Second World War.


Comments (8) RSS

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Geocrackr 1
Except, as we see, that kind of thinking didn't end after the Second World War; it just went into remission.
Posted by Geocrackr on June 11, 2014 at 9:15 AM · Report this
Abe Frohman 2
Famine is never agricultural. It is always political.
Posted by Abe Frohman on June 11, 2014 at 9:34 AM · Report this

Agriculture is unnatural (as are cities).

Farming is a response to over population.

The natural Earth is basically automated for humans.

We get some sticks and kill a buffalo or a cave lion and eat meat. It's pretty easy, and we end up with a net energy gain.

That's what this guy says, anyway:
Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe http://_ on June 11, 2014 at 9:43 AM · Report this
After calling for an Amazon boycott, there's this link to the Amazon page for Martin's book. So all of that "activism" was just sound and fury, signifying nothing, then?
Posted by diorist on June 11, 2014 at 10:08 AM · Report this
Will in Seattle 5
The problem is the English lords imposed potato monocultures as compared to the varied diet before, exacerbated by punitive taxes and trade restrictions.
Posted by Will in Seattle on June 11, 2014 at 11:16 AM · Report this
The English overlords were exporting wheat from Ireland during the famine years. Grain is for profit, not for feeding the neighbors. Maude Gonne sold her diamonds to buy grain to feed people; grain was available, at a price. (This is my old personal memory-retrieval system at work; Ireland scholars please correct & clarify.)
Posted by MsBoyer on June 11, 2014 at 12:21 PM · Report this
venomlash 7
You never actually mention the reason the blight became a famine. It is because potatoes, like apples and tulips, do not breed true from seeds. That is, growing one from a seed will produce a plant whose tubers (or fruit, or flowers) are very different from its parent's. Therefore, these crops are propagated via cloning: potatoes by planting sections of tubers, apples by growing trees from cuttings, and tulips by planting bulblets.
However, these clones are (by definition) identical to each other. Without a varied initial selection to create diversity and recombination to maintain it, every single individual has the same strengths and weaknesses. So when a strain of fungus emerges that one plant has no resistances to...every other plant is helpless against it.
The Mayans didn't have potato blights. They grew potatoes from seed and from tubers, producing a wide array of spuds and avoiding any monoculture. If a fungus killed one variety, there were plenty more to fall back on.

@3: I'll one-up you:
Posted by venomlash on June 11, 2014 at 3:10 PM · Report this
@7 - Exactly! Lack of biodiversity was the cause of the Irish potato famine. A great read on the subject of biodiversity is 'The Botany of Desire'. It talks about the McDonald-ization of many of our key crops, and the risky road we're traveling for the sake of the perfect looking french fry.
Posted by elbowman on June 12, 2014 at 4:56 PM · Report this

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