Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Irish Potato Famine Offers a Glimpse of the Potential Impacts of Climate Change

The Great Hunger was a humanitarian disaster. Economic inequality and rampant xenophobia made it dramatically worse.

A starving family during the Irish Potato Famine. (Credit Source: Public Domain)  Click to Enlarge.
This may feel like a uniquely precarious moment in our nation’s history.  Xenophobia is dominating our politics at the same time climate change threatens to spur mass migration from the poorest and most fragile countries in the world.

In fact, we’ve been here before, and experts say we can learn from history.  The Irish Potato Famine shows that environmental disasters don’t happen in a vacuum.  The famine was the product of an unjust economic system, and its impact could be felt oceans away.

In the 19th century, Ireland was part of the United Kingdom.  Wealthy Protestant families with ties to England owned most of the land on the Emerald Isle, renting small tracts to Catholic peasants.  While landlords dedicated acres upon acres to raising cattle and grains for export to Britain, renters were left with scarcely enough land to sustain their families.

These plots were so tiny that tenant farmers came to rely on a single, durable, calorie-rich crop — the potato.  In the early 1840s a fungus afflicting potatoes arrived from the continent, and it devastated small farms, leading to widespread famine.  One million Irish died. Another million immigrated to Britain, Australia and North America.  The population of Ireland has never recovered.  Fewer people live on the island now than did before the blight.

“Basically, what you had is a society controlled by what we would today call neoliberal capitalism, in which the rich viewed poor people as totally superfluous,” said Kerby Miller, professor emeritus of history at the University of Missouri.  Landlords exploited Ireland’s natural resources and people to generate wealth that was then exported to Britain.  When calamity struck, it was the poorest who suffered most.  “Once their strength to share and resist was exhausted, people were reduced to fighting murderously over scraps of food because they were so desperately blinded by hunger,” Miller said.

The British response was tepid, to say the least.  “They didn’t reach out to the Irish at all to help them survive the famine,” said Jay Dolan, professor emeritus of history at the University of Notre Dame.  “They thought it was punishment from God.”  Britain’s role in the potato famine has led some to characterize the event not as a natural disaster, but as a genocide perpetrated against an ethnic and religious minority.

“The main thing with environmental disasters is that the government has to step up and respond and try to reduce the human suffering, whether it be famine or flooding or whatever it is,” Dolan said.  Britain utterly failed in this regard.  Inaction is a form of action.  Willful negligence can have devastating consequences.  That goes for climate change, too.

Neoliberal economic policies  —  environmental deregulation, cuts to research, tax breaks for polluters  —  have led wealthy nations like the United States and the United Kingdom to dump vast sums of carbon pollution into the atmosphere, exporting all manner of mayhem to the poorest parts of the world.  While the carbon crisis will hurt people all over the globe, those countries that have contributed the least to the problem stand to suffer the most.

Over the coming decades, extreme heat, severe drought, and dangerous floods will drive mass human migration from vulnerable nations in South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.  Climate change is already taking a toll on Mexican farmers.  Scientists say that rising temperatures could send millions of Mexican immigrants to the United States.  The Potato Famine gives a sense of what that might look like.

Read more at The Irish Potato Famine Offers a Glimpse of the Potential Impacts of Climate Change

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