History teaches us that nearly all famines are caused by varying combinations of economic backwardness and human agency. Sometimes, as in medieval Europe or late Qing China, factors such as poor communications and the high cost of storage have been more important; at other times, as with many 20th-century famines, human interventions have clearly mattered more. It is tempting to simplify and to blame famines long ago on Malthusian factors and more recent famines on the inhuman actions of totalitarian despots such as Stalin, Hitler or Mao. Undoubtedly, the balance has shifted over time from 'natural' to 'man-made' causes, from bad weather combined with poverty to human action (or inaction). And still, even in recent cases where the human factor seems paramount, Malthus should not be entirely excluded. A controversial example might be the massive Chinese famine of 1959-61, undoubtedly the greatest ever recorded. Although that famine would not have happened without Mao's Great Leap Forward, it would be wrong not to allow some role also for China's extreme poverty at the time and for poor harvests caused not just by the Great Leap but also by bad weather. In the mid-1950s, after all, China was one of the most backward economies in the world in terms of gross domestic product per head. It must be added that when famine is the by-product of warfare, as at La Rochelle in the 17th century and at Leningrad and in Bengal in the 20th, the man-made element is nearly always paramount.
For those of us living comfortable lives in the developed world the harrowing horrors of famine are hard to imagine. Famines are an emotive subject not only because of what they inflict on people and communities but because there is always the belief that they could have been contained or avoided by more generosity on the part of those who had towards those who had not.
History suggests that famine's symptoms have been rather similar across the continents and over the centuries. One of the earliest graphic depictions of famine comes from a fifth-century Syriac chronicle which records events in Edessa (today's Ourfa in south-eastern Turkey). It describes in morbid detail many of the features that have characterised famine throughout the ages: high food prices ('there was a dearth of everything edible ... everything that was inedible was cheap'); spousal or child desertion ('others their mothers had left'); unfamiliar substitute foods ('bitter-vetches, and others were frying the weathered fallen grapes'); migration ('many villages and hamlets were left destitute of inhabitants'); and infectious diseases ('many of the rich died, who were not starved; and many of the grandees too').
When extreme hunger sets in and the instinct for self-preservation takes over, all sense of communal and family loyalty ebbs and famine forces normally decent people to do the most terrible things. These include child abandonment, voluntary enslavement, opportunistic land-grabbing, rising criminality and, in extreme cases, outbreaks of cannibalism. Famines produce some saints and heroes but many more sinners. Famines don't just kill people. They make them behave in ways which are unimaginable in normal times and therefore unimaginable to us. These pit not just the haves against the have-nots, or vice versa, but the have-nots against other have-nots. For every brave and selfless act there must be ten awful ones born of the instinct of self-preservation. People born in countries with a recent history of famine sometimes like to see themselves as vicarious victims but many of the 'victims' must also be--and this is the part that is difficult to accept--child ahandoners, thieves, land-grabbers, black-marketeers and worse.
It is impossible to say for sure how common famines were in the more distant past. Over a century ago, William Farr and Cornelius Walford in England and William Wilde (Oscar's father) in Ireland used a blend of medieval chronicles and other documentary sources to produce long lists of past famines. …