The Irish famine has been cited by Malthusians as proof of their theory of overpopulation–Robert Zubrin

cropped-cropped-cropped-irish-potato-famineFor the last century and a half, the Irish famine has been cited by Malthusians as proof of their theory of overpopulation, so a few words are in order here to set the record straight.13 Ireland was certainly not overpopulated in 1846. In fact, based on census data from 1841 and 1851, the Emerald Isle boasted a mere 7.5 million people in 1846, less than half of England’s 15.8 million, living on a land mass about two-thirds that of England and of similar quality. So compared to England, Ireland before the famine was if anything somewhat underpopulated.14 Nor, as is sometimes said, was the famine caused by a foolish decision of the Irish to confine their diet to potatoes, thereby exposing themselves to starvation when a blight destroyed their only crop. In fact, in 1846 alone, at the height of the famine, Ireland exported over 730,000 cattle and other livestock, and over 3 million quarts of corn and grain flour to Great Britain.15 The Irish diet was confined to potatoes because—having had their land expropriated, having been forced to endure merciless rack-rents and taxes, and having been denied any opportunity to acquire income through manufactures or other means—tubers were the only food the Irish could afford. So when the potato crop failed, there was nothing for the Irish themselves to eat, despite the fact that throughout the famine, their homeland continued to export massive amounts of grain, butter, cheese, and meat for foreign consumption. As English reformer William Cobbett noted in his Political Register:

Hundreds of thousands of living hogs, thousands upon thousands of sheep and oxen alive; thousands upon thousands of barrels of beef, pork, and butter; thousands upon thousands of sides of bacon; and thousands and thousands of hams; shiploads and boats coming daily and hourly from Ireland to feed the west of Scotland; to feed a million and a half people in the West Riding of Yorkshire, and in Lancashire; to feed London and its vicinity; and to fill the country shops in the southern counties of England; we beheld all this, while famine raged in Ireland amongst the raisers of this very food.16

In the face of the catastrophe, the British government headed by Lord John Russell refused to provide any effective aid. According to one biographer, Russell 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.”17 Accordingly, Russell gave authority for managing the famine to Charles Trevelyan, who had been indoctrinated by Malthus personally while he received his education at the East India College.18 Trevelyan elevated his Malthusianism to cult status, explaining that the famine was a “direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence.”19 According to Trevelyan, the famine was simply God’s way of redressing an imbalance between population and resources. “Posterity will trace up to that Famine the commencement of a salutary revolution in the habits of a nation long singularly unfortunate, and will acknowledge that on this, as on many other occasions, Supreme Wisdom has educed permanent good out of transient evil.”20 Trevelyan’s claim of divine sanction for his policy of starving a nation shocked the Catholic church. Archbishop John Hughes of New York declaimed:

They call it God’s famine! No! No! God’s famine is known by the general scarcity of food, of which it is the consequence; there is no general scarcity, there has been no general scarcity of food in Ireland, either the present, or the past year, except in one species of vegetable. The soil has produced its usual tribute for the support of those by whom it has been cultivated; but political economy found the Irish people too poor to pay for the harvest of their own labor, and has exported it to a better market, leaving them to die of famine, or to live on alms; and this same political economy authorizes the provision merchant, even amidst the desolation, to keep his doors locked, and his sacks of corn tied up within, waiting for a better price.21

But it did no good. In the face of massive international criticism, the Malthusian ideologues ruling the British cabinet stuck resolutely to their merciless course. In the course of three years, in scenes of incredible horror the like of which would not be matched in Europe for another century, over one million Irish were starved to death or, weakened by malnutrition, died of rampant disease.22

 

Zubrin, Robert (2012-03-20). Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism (New Atlantis Books) (Kindle Locations 206–233). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

13 See, for example, Paul Ehrlich, Anne Ehrlich, and John Holdren, Ecoscience: Population, Resources, Environment (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman, 1977), 232, where the Irish potato famine is referred to acting as a “safety valve” against unrestrained population growth.

14 Roderick Floud and Paul Johnson, ed., The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain, Vol. 1: Industrialisation, 1700–1760 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 65; United Kingdom, Government Statistical Service, Julie Jeffries, “The UK Population Past, Present, and Future,” Focus on People and Migration (2005), available at http://www.statistics.gov.uk/downloads/theme_compendia/fom2005/01_fopm_population.pdf ; United Kingdom, Census Office, The Census of Great Britain in 1851 (London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1854), 90; Geographical comparison relies on data from the CIA World Factbook: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/, accessed on August 14,2011. The demographic data for 1846 is obtained by interpolating from the census data of 1841 and 1851.

15 Christine Kinealy, The Great Irish Famine: Impact, Ideology and Rebellion (New York: Palgrave, 2002), 105–111.

16 William Cobbett, Political Register, 1834, reprinted in Cobbett on Ireland: A Warning to England, Denis Knight, ed. (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1984), 272.

17 John Prest, Lord John Russell (London: MacMillan, 1972), 271.

18 Jim Handy, “‘Almost Idiotic Wretchedness’: A Long History of Blaming Peasants,” Journal of Peasant Studies 36, no. 2(2009):332. 19 Charles Trevelyan, The Irish Crisis (London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1848), 201. 20 Ibid., 1. 21 John Hughes, “A Lecture on the Antecedent Causes of the Irish Famine in 1847,” (New York: 1847; University of Virginia, 2004). 22 Kinealy, The Great Irish Famine, 2.

19 Charles Trevelyan, The Irish Crisis (London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1848), 201. 20 Ibid., 1. 21 John Hughes, “A Lecture on the Antecedent Causes of the Irish Famine in 1847,” (New York: 1847; University of Virginia, 2004). 22 Kinealy, The Great Irish Famine, 2.

20 Ibid., 1.

21 John Hughes, “A Lecture on the Antecedent Causes of the Irish Famine in 1847,” (New York: 1847; University of Virginia, 2004).

22 Kinealy, The Great Irish Famine, 2.

 

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