I thought I understood the Irish famine of 1846. I knew that the population was dependent for sustenance on the potato and when a disease hit the potato crop, the Irish starved. I had also read of Irish produce being exported to England while this was going on, but that was about the extent of what I knew.
The truth was more interesting. It wasn’t just greedy Englishmen and a plant disease that caused the problem. There was an ideology at work.
A very influential English professor, Thomas Malthus, argued that there were limits on how many humans could exist, since there were limited resources in nature. So the population had to be kept down. So
“instead of recommending cleanliness to the poor, we should encourage contrary habits. In our towns we should make the streets narrower, crowd more people into the houses, and court the return of the plague. In the country, we should build our villages near stagnant pools, and particularly encourage settlements in all marshy and unwholesome situations.”
Before we look at Malthus as a monster, we should realize that from his point of view, the poor would die anyway, by over-reproducing until there was not enough food to support them, and the death from famine would be quite horrible. So why not encourage them to die in more humane ways, before the inevitable resource crunch?
Malthus was thinking of his fellow Englishmen when he said this, but he also wrote
“The land in Ireland is infinitely more peopled than in England; and to give full effect to the natural resources of the country, a great part of the population should be swept from the soil.”
Malthus was also against those “benevolent, but much mistaken men who have thought they were doing a service to mankind” (by seeking cures for diseases).
Before I go on, I should say this material was gathered by Robert Zubrin, in his new book (of which more below), and he shows the problems with Malthus’s ideas. Malthus’s beliefs did have plausibility – if population constantly grows on a finite planet, you would expect crisis at some point.
(You might be shocked to know that John Holdren, a science advisor to President Obama, is an admirer of Malthus)
Back to Ireland:
Ireland was underpopulated in 1846. 1846 was the height of the famine, and in that year Ireland exported over 730,000 cattle and other livestock, and over 3 million quarts of corn and grain flour to Great Britain.
The reason the Irish themselves ate potatoes was because their land had been taken, they paid merciless taxes and ‘rack-rents’, and they were denied the opportunity to acquire income through manufactures and other means.
So they ate what they could afford.
Evicted from their homes, millions of Irish men, women, and children starved to death or died of exposure.
Was this the fault of Malthus?
Well, the head of the British government, Lord John Russell, refused to aid Ireland, and one biographer says that he was motivated by a “Malthusian fear about the long-term effect of relief,”, while the government’s representative in Ireland, Lord Clarendon, argued that “doling out food merely to keep people alive would do nobody any permanent good.” So Charles Trevelyan, who had Malthus as a professor, was put in charge of managing the famine. This man said that the famine was a “direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence.” The idea was that it was God’s way of redressing an imbalance between population and resources.
So as a result, as Zubrin says, there were “scenes of incredible horror the like of which would not be matched in Europe for another century…”
In India, three decades later, the British again contributed to the causes of a famine, and then used Malthusian reasoning not to try to stop it. They talked of overpopulation, and Zubrin says that “As Indian peasants, driven from their land by taxation, a collapsing currency, and crop failure, began to roam the country searching for food..” they were rounded up and put in hard labor camps and limited to rations of one pound of rice a day, with no meat, fish, fruit or vegetables. This daily dole of 1,630 calories was actually less than the 1,750 calories per day provided by the Nazis to the inmates of the Buchenwald concentration camp.
Many millions died in this catastrophe.
Before the reader gets too angry at the British, he should know that the British community of Madras was outraged at all this, and attempted to raise private funds to save the Indians from starvation, but Viceroy Lytton stopped them.
Red Cross founder Florence Nightingale called on her nation’s government to suspend its merciless taxation of India, but she was likewise rebuffed by Lytton. A British officer is on record as saying that reducing taxes on the Indians would encourage overpopulation.
So what are we to make of the deaths of millions? Is this a “laissez faire” ideology gone mad? Is it racism?
It is valid to question the value of charity in certain circumstances. The United States, for example, despite being in debt by trillions of dollars (and if you count unfunded liabilities, by a hundred trillion), gives foreign aid to many countries. The United States basically borrows money from China to give charity to other countries.
China, on the other hand, invests in Africa and many other continents. A sample article on that topic is “A Pacific Island Prefers Chinese Investment to U.S. Welfare” in the April 2 2013 Wall Street Journal.
If somebody asked me to drive fifteen miles away to a slum and give money at random to poor individuals, I would tell him that the money would be wasted, it would be like throwing it down a well.
Malthusian ideology is different though. For the greater good of humanity, much of humanity must die. It’s not exactly racism, because Malthus applied it to his fellow Englishmen too.
The book that Zubrin wrote where this all appears is about environmentalists (who often believe both in limited natural resources and a negative human impact on our green planet). I read it on the recommendation of someone who had just used it for a quote, and then got fascinated by the section on Malthus, and then Darwin, and then eugenicists, and then the Nazis. (The Nazis were not just bigots, they were extreme eugenicists).
In my view, Zubrin goes overboard in applying his thesis, for instance its not really relevant that a believer in population control was also involved in running the war against Vietnam, and he overplays his hand when talking about the environmental movement in general. But sometimes, such as when he talks about China’s ‘one-child’ policy, he hits the ball right out of the park.
Merchants of Despair – by Robert Zubrin (2013)