Monday, August 6, 2012

Late Victorian Holocausts

In the years 1876-1879 and 1896-1902 between 12.2 and 29.3 million died of famine in India.  In the years 1876-1879 and 1896-1900 between 19.5 and 30 million died of famine in China.  In the same period, an estimated 2 million died in Brazil.  Famine hit these three nations the hardest, but many other nations were also affected.  In the US, churches organized to send relief to hungry farmers in the Dakotas and western Kansas.
Mike Davis wrote about these famines in his book Late Victorian Holocausts.  The famines occurred in regions slammed by severe drought.  The droughts have been linked to the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), a major factor in global weather patterns. 
Droughts have been common throughout history, and agricultural societies have commonly prepared for them by creating emergency reserves of stored grain.  Because of political shifts in many regions, these safety nets were in poor condition during the late Victorian droughts.  In the wake of the Industrial Revolution came a new mode of economic thinking that frowned on setting aside significant wealth for insurance against disaster.  It was more profitable to sell the grain today, pocket the cash, and worry about tomorrow’s problems tomorrow.  Peasants were expendable.
The Qing dynasty in China believed that subsistence was a human right, and it had relief management systems in place to reduce the toll of famines during drought years or floods.  By the late Victorian era, conflicts with colonial powers had drained the wealth of the Qing government, so it was incapable of effectively responding to the catastrophic droughts.
Prior to the British colonization of India, the Moguls had a similar system for responding to famine.  The British, on the other hand, were cruel masters (as they had been during the 1845 famine in Ireland).  Food was widely available, but few could afford the inflated prices.  While millions were starving, they exported Indian wheat.  They outlawed donations of private relief.  They forbid the Pariahs from foraging for forest foods, leading to 155,000 deaths.  They created relief camps where the starving received inadequate rations, and 94 percent died.  Very civilized chaps, eh?
The hungry hordes in Brazil were the victims of their own corrupt government, which had disposed of grain reserves.  Brazil was not a colony of Britain, but English investors and creditors played a powerful role in the economy, turning Brazil into an “informal colony” that was kept permanently in debt.
Davis argued that the millions of deaths were largely a deliberate “holocaust” rather than a spell of bad luck, because political actions were a primary factor behind the high mortality rates.  He also argued that this holocaust played a role in the creation of the Third World.  In the eighteenth century, Europe did not have the highest standard of living.  The biggest manufacturing districts were in India and China.  Their workers ate better, had lower unemployment, and often earned more than workers in Europe.  Literacy rates were higher, including women.
One of Davis’s primary objectives was to spank capitalism, colonialism, and the hideous overseers of the British Empire.  There has been lively discussion in the reader feedback at Amazon, and a number of critics have questioned the way in which Davis assigned blame for the massive famines.  For me, the book had important messages:  (1) Droughts happen.  (2) Agricultural societies are highly vulnerable to droughts.  (3) Famines commonly follow droughts.  (4) Famines can be horrific. 
When rains ended an Indian drought in 1878, the mosquito population exploded, and hundreds of thousands of malnourished survivors died of malaria.  Meanwhile, locusts gobbled up the growing young plants.  Hungry peasants murdered many creditors who threatened foreclosure.  Then came gangs of armed tax collectors.  Hungry wild animals became very aggressive, dragging away the weak, screaming.  In the Madras Deccan, “the only well-fed part of the local population were the pariah dogs, ‘fat as sheep,’ that feasted on the bodies of dead children.”
In China, the flesh of the starved was sold at markets for four cents a pound.  People sold their children to buy food.  Husbands ate their wives.  Parents ate their children.  Children ate their parents.  Thousands of thieves were executed.  At refugee camps, many perished from disease.  If too many refugees accumulated, they were simply massacred.  In some regions, relief took more than a year to arrive.
Davis’s vivid and extensive descriptions of famine times remind an increasingly obese society that we are living in a temporary and abnormal bubble of cheap and abundant calories.  Importantly, he puts a human face on the consequences of climate change, a subject usually presented in purely abstract form: parts per million, degrees Celsius, and colorful computer-generated charts, graphs, and maps.
Near the end of the book, Davis gives us a big, fat, juicy discussion on the history of agriculture and ecological catastrophe in China.  People who remain in denial about the inherent destructiveness of agriculture typically point to China as a glowing example of 4,000 years of happy sustainable low-impact organic farming.  Wrong, wrong, wrong!  This chapter provides a powerful cure for those who suffer from such embarrassing naughty fantasies.
The late Victorian droughts happened at a time when the world population was less than 1.4 billion.  Today, it’s over 7 billion, and growing by 70 million per year.  Cropland area per capita is shrinking, and soil health is diminishing.  Energy prices are rising, and water usage for irrigation is foolishly unsustainable.  We’re getting close to Peak Food.  World grain production per capita peaked in 1984, at 342 kilograms per person.  World grain stocks (stored grain) peaked in 1986, and have been declining since then.
On 24 July 2012, the venerable Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute published a warning in The Guardian.  “The world is in serious trouble on the food front.”  World grain stocks are currently “dangerously low.”  “Time is running out.  The world may be much closer to an unmanageable food shortage — replete with soaring food prices, spreading food unrest, and ultimately political instability — than most people realize.” 
For me, the main message of this book was a powerful warning about the huge risks of agriculture, and its insanely destructive companion, overpopulation.  The famines discussed in this book were not a freak event in history.  Famine has been a common, normal, periodic occurrence in virtually all agricultural societies, from the Cradle of Civilization to today. 
As the collapse of industrial civilization proceeds and life slows down, opportunities to live more in balance with nature will emerge.  Clever societies will carefully limit population size, and phase out their dependence on farming.  Un-clever societies will continue to breed like there’s no tomorrow, beat their ecosystems to death, and hippity-hop down the Dinosaur Trail.
Davis, Mike, Late Victorian Holocausts, Verso, New York, 2001.


Anonymous said...

Your takeaway from Late Victorian Holocausts is that farming and shit happens? Is this the impenetrability of ideology or what! Not quite as bad as exclaiming that 'the British Empire was cool and made 'em civilized' but its close.

Also I think Amazon discussions are more akin to flies to shit than an intelligent and intellectual debate.

What Is Sustainable said...

Anonymous, this is a blog about sustainability, not international relations. My point was that agriculture is not 100% reliable. Sometimes it fails catastrophically.
All the best!