A Dutch girl photographed at the time of the “hongerwinter”, the famine that hit The Netherlands in 1945, during WW2.
In the West, we tend to think of famines as events of the remote past that will never return, a view typified by Steven Pinker in his 2011 book “The Better Angels of our Nature.” This attitude is often accompanied by sneers at Paul Ehrlich who, in 1968, had predicted extensive worldwide famines that were soon to occur. Even when famines are discussed as a real possibility, they are seen as affecting only those remote countries where hordes of dark-skinned or slant-eyed people already live in near-starvation conditions.
We forgot how close in time was an age in which hunger was a fact of life and famines a common occurrence. The last important famine in Europe was in the Netherlands in 1946 — that was less than a hundred years ago, not in the Middle Ages. Our lack of historical memory is the reason why we see books such as “One Billion Americans” by Matthew Yglesias, where the author happily neglects the problems involved with supplying food and energy to a U.S. population three times larger than it is nowadays.
The real problem with assessing the possibility of future famines is that they are often man-made, that is actively created by human actions. Starving an enemy is a time-honored strategy that works beautifully. We have a detailed report of how it was put into practice by the Romans at the time of the Siege of Jerusalem of 70 AD, but it is surely much older than that. In recent times, the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, threatened Iran in 2018 by saying that they must listen to the U.S. ‘If They Want Their People to Eat.’ Clearly, the temptation to starve another country into submission never completely disappeared and it may returning.
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