Famine: A Short History by Cormac O Grada. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009. 327 p., $18.45.
Having only a cursory background in development economics, I decided to take this crash course in the history and causes of famines. I consider famines to be one of the most serious (and preventable) of human disasters, and I hoped to discover the general academic consensus of the causes and prevention of famine and hunger. Though the book satisfied my interest in the history of famine, I found it lacking in prescriptive power and creativity. I suppose I should have paid closer attention to the subtitle; this is a history book not a policy book so those looking for a static perspective on the past will not be disappointed.
Judging this book by the cover would be a mistake. Though "the third horseman" features prominently throughout the book, the general tone of the book is positive. For the author, famine is not the inevitable Malthusian scourge of humanity, but rather an unfortunate event occurring with declining frequency. Drawing on all available information-hearsay or otherwise-O Grada reviews the ancient and modern past, charting prominent famines over time. The Great Irish Famine (1840), Bengal Famine (1944), St. Petersburg Siege (1943), and Great Leap Forward (1960) are of particular interest to the author, largely because the data is available and largely reliable. Famines farther back are only sketched in minor detail since it is difficult to trust oral or unofficial accounts prone to exaggeration.
Besides the historical reviews, O Grada exmines economic and physical elements of famine. Markers such as food prices, declining health statistics, negative weather cycles, and other telltale symptoms are warning signs that policymakers ignore to their detriment. The consequences of famine also outlast the immediate crisis, including reduced birth rates, stunted growth, and greater risk of future famine. And political organization certainly has both exacerbated and alleviated suffering in periods of famine. The Great Leap Forward in China and the ARA rescue of Russia in 1922 are perhaps the starkest examples of governmental stupidity and benevolence respectively. Despite differences across time and place, I was struck by how resilient societies have become in the face of enormous hardship. Malthus truly underestimated the ingenuity of humankind.
I appreciate O Grada's academic honesty in equivocating on data reliability, but I would have appreciated the author taking a stand more frequently. What is his unique contribution to the debate? For instance, how common is famine over the length of history? How many have died? Given his review of the existent literature, what are the key causes of the Bengali famine? What is the best way to mitigate future famine? O Grada does strike an ambivalent tone toward NGO relief efforts, pointing to their need for constant crises to substantiate their existence.
In the final chapter, the author is almost whimsical in his claim that major global famine crises are a thing of the past. "Probably for the first time in history, only pockets of the globe, such as parts of Africa, Afghanistan, and North Korea, now remain truly vulnerable to the threat of major famine." It was only at this point that I felt duped by this book's optimistic tone because this claim depends on a number of dubious assumptions. Climate change, loss in biodiversity, regional war, and economic instability will all heighten the danger of famine in the near future, probably in unexpected areas. Any study of history should provide us with a sense of caution, perspective, and vigilance for the future. I acknowledge progress made, but I remain skeptical that we have beaten this evil simply through economic development. When I read "for the first time in history," I start looking for history to rear its head soon. I am going to make sure I have some food storage.