Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Slaying the Black Horseman

David Reiff writes in TNR about Cormac Ó Gráda's new book on famine and draws some surprising insights. He argues that famine is now basically preventable, and that the UN's World Food Program, which provides food to 90 million people per year, is making useful strides to prevent famines before they occur. Here is one particularly interesting portion describing the post-Malthusian discussion of hunger:
Sen emphasized that a famine caused by a failure, or even just a serious shortfall, in the harvest would rapidly engender a devaluation of all non-food possessions--what famine specialists call “entitlements,” so that the poorest people basically lose the purchasing power they need to ensure their own survival. Looking at the data without Malthusian prejudice, Sen demonstrated that it was simply not the case that food shortfalls were necessarily greater in periods of famine than they were in times when there was no threat of famine--and that, conversely, there were many periods, not only in Bengal but globally, in which the availability of food had actually declined and no famine had ensued. To state it simply, if a bit reductively: Sen’s work put an end, once and for all, to the false belief, derived from Malthus, that famines are primarily the result of food shortages and overpopulation.
Fluctuations leading to excesses or shortages of rainfall and volcanic eruptions still do have an impact on famines, but political systems play an even larger role. Elsewhere, here is Robin Hanson on whether we would be so nice following an apocalyptic scenario:
We like to think that moral progress has made us nice people. We’ve heard that our distant ancestors were mean and cruel and ruthless, and we can’t imagine that we would be such people – but we’re nice mainly because we’re rich and comfortable. And when we’re no longer rich and comfortable, we won’t be as nice.
So while we are still nice, let us take a moment to laud famine prevention efforts and beneficial political organization on utilitarian grounds.