Potato power saved the Irish (for a while)

08 May 2010

Chances are that if you ever think about the Irish and potatoes, you think of how dependence on potatoes set up millions of people for famine.

But actually, for a while, the potato helped make the Irish more resilient, says archaeologist Brian Fagan in his book The Little Ice Age:
“The tubers were remarkably immune to sudden climatic shifts… Above all, they were an effective famine food [that is, famine-prevention food]. The potato-cereal combination offered a safeguard against the failure of either crop. As long as a balance was maintained between the two, the Irish had a reasonably reliable safety net against hunger.”

But the big problem, as Fagan explains, was that eventually there was no balance between the two. Poor farmers were pushed onto marginal land, where they had to rely on potatoes alone. Then when the potatoes were wiped out, and the British refused to halt wheat exports out of the country or otherwise aid the starving potato farmers, then the famine took its toll.

Hunger itself wasn’t always the biggest killer, though. In Ireland, Fagan writes, “famines were commonplace and invariably followed by plague and pestilence, which often killed more people than hunger.”


books I've read on failure & grace

The World Without Us
The Last Oil Shock: A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
Hell and High Water: Global Warming--the Solution and the Politics--and What We Should Do
The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl
The Tipping Point
Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time
The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization
Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail
The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850
Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff
Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future
The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World

Mason's favorite books »