A distant mirror: Ireland's great famine

In the 18th century, Ireland lost much of its forested land. This graph of wooded land for sale has been generated from data reported by Eileen Mc Cracken in "The Irish Woods since Tudor Times" (1971). The data are fitted with a derivative logistic, as for a "Hubbert" curve. The good fit indicates the over-exploitation of a slowly renewable resource.

Deforestation was not the direct cause of the Great Irish famine of mid 19th century, but it was the start of a chain of events that led to it. In this article, I show the condition of "overshoot" that Ireland was in at the time of the famine has much in common with the "overshoot" condition our world is in today.

What shall we do for timber?
The last of the wood is down,
There’s no holly nor hazel nor ash here
But pastures of rock and stone
The crown of the forest is withered
And the last of its game is gone.

From “Kings, Lords and Commons”, by Frank O’Connor (1903-1966), (reported in McCracken, 1971).

1. Introduction

Today, we are more concerned about being overweight than about not having enough to eat, at least in the industrialized world. Famines appear to us as events that occurred in remote ages, nothing that could happen to us in our enlightened era of progress and abundance. Yet, the last major famine recorded in Western Europe, the Irish famine that started in 1845, is not so remote after all. It took place at a time when people already had railways, steamships, press, telegraph and more. Those were also the times of the great gold rush in California, of the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania, of the unification wars in Italy. It was a period of optimism and of economic growth; and yet more than a million people died in a few years in a European country because of lack of food. That is not something that we can ignore so easily.

Trying to understand the Irish famine means, usually, to seek its causes. We could just say that it was caused by the "potato blight" (Phytophthora infestans) that killed the potato crops and, in a narrow sense, we would be right. But that is not enough, obviously. We are looking for deeper reasons: what had led to conditions so critical in the Irish agricultural system that the potato blight could have such devastating effects? Many interpretations have been proposed. One is that the famine was due to overpopulation, as Malthus would have interpreted it. But several studies maintain that the Irish land could have sustained many more than 8 million people--the island's population at the time of the famine.

An Irish tradition says that the English were the culprit in the famine. If they hadn’t really caused the famine, it is said, they had at least exploited it to get rid of a good number of their unruly Irish subjects. For (perhaps) this reason, you sometimes see the term of “Irish holocaust” applied to the famine. There are other interpretations, such as those given by Joel Mokyr in his comprehensive work of 1983, "Why Ireland starved". We read of low productivity of labor, insufficient accumulation of capital, and other contributing factors.

Is a single one of these explanations the "correct" one, or are they all correct in a certain measure? Perhaps there is some confusion as to what we mean, exactly, as the "cause" of the famine. Ireland had, at that time, an immense and intricate web of relationships and connections that linked the social system, the political system, the economic system and the ecosystem. We call this kind of system "complex"; a characteristic of complex systems is that they can't be described in simple terms of "cause" and "effect". Rather, we speak of "forcings" to describe how an external influence (e.g. the potato blight) pushes the system in a certain direction. We speak of "feedback" in describing how the system reacts--amplifying or damping the influence. There were other failures of the potato crops before the Great Famine, but none had such devastating effects as the one of 1845. Evidently, at that time, the Irish social and economic systems were more sensitive to perturbations than they had been before.

So, if we want to understand the Irish famine, it is useless to look for a single cause to blame. Overpopulation was surely a factor, but it needs to be understood together with other parameters. Complex system need to be understood by looking at the specific patterns that they follow. One of these patterns, a typical one of economic systems, is resource overexploitation. It is a phenomenon that leads to the condition that we call "overshoot". A society in overshoot exploits resources beyond their capabilities to reform. Sooner or later, what has been borrowed must be repaid, and that implies a return to sustainability that may be traumatic: we call it collapse.

The point that I'll discuss in the rest of this article is the hypothesis that Ireland in the 19th century was a case of overshoot followed by collapse. It appears that the whole cycle started with the cutting down of the island's forests, in the 18th century. Deforestation generated a series of positive feedbacks that eventually led to the great famine. One of these positive feedbacks was the creation of arable land and the consequent increase in agricultural production. That, in turn, generated an economic boom that led to a population explosion. But population couldn't keep growing forever. Agriculture had reached its productive limits and was using a resource that couldn't be renewed: topsoil--easily eroded in a rainy northern country such as Ireland. Eventually, the return to sustainable population levels was triggered by a potato disease that generated the great famine, but some form of collapse was unavoidable one way or another.

2. Origins of the famine

The Romans of imperial times knew about the remote island of Northern Europe that they called Hibernia . It was a sparsely populated land covered with thick forests. It was too poor and too far away to be worth conquering, and so the Roman legionnaires never set foot there. Ireland was nearly unaffected by the collapse of the Roman Empire and played an important cultural role in early medieval Europe. But, as Europe recovered it became clear that Ireland was too small and too weak to compete with the new European powers of the time; of these, England was the closest and the most dangerous.

There were several waves of invasion from England; the final one was led by Oliver Cromwell and ended in 1653 with the complete conquest of Ireland and the collapse of the Gaelic Irish society. The ancient Irish nobility was exterminated or sent to exile. The surviving Irish lost all their lands, had little or no civil rights, could not carry weapons, and couldn’t vote or have representatives. Even the practice of the Catholic religion was forbidden. All the economic activities of Ireland fell into the hands of the English rulers, and the role of the Irish was only that of peasants or workers. Ireland was the first British colony; even though never formally declared one.

In the meantime, the modern era had started. New worlds had been discovered beyond the seas, and Spain, France and England were engaged in a worldwide struggle for power. All three faced the same problem: how to feed their population and at the same time equip their armies and their military fleets. Britannia, it is said, ruled the waves by means of wooden ships and iron men. But iron men were not enough: armies needed iron weapons and warships. Every kingdom needed forests; a strategic asset that provided charcoal, needed for smelting iron, and timber, needed for building warships. “No wood, no kingdome” had said Arthur Standish in his “The Commons Complaint” of 1611.

But kingdoms also needed food for their troops and their population. For that, it was necessary to clear as much land for agriculture as possible. It was a difficult strategic game: how to keep a country's forests and at the same time feed the population? Eventually, England found a way of winning the game by using its abundant coal reserves. With the process of “coking” developed in 18th century, plenty of iron was available for weapons. With England's powerfully armed fleet, England could get timber from anywhere in the world and, at the same time, prevent its competitors from getting it. More timber meant more warships and more warships meant more world domination and, therefore, even more timber. Weapons and warships also meant that powerful armies could be ferried overseas. Everywhere in the world, foreign kingdoms were brought down and transformed into colonial plantations that produced food for their remote rulers. More food meant larger armies and that, in turn, meant more plantations and even more food. It was this mechanism that created the British Empire, the first planetary empire of history.

But there was a problem with the food coming from far away colonies. In a time of slow sailing ships and without refrigeration, few kinds of food could survive a long trip without spoiling. One was sugar: the main product of remote plantations. That was the origin of the "tea at five" habit in England. But sugar wasn't enough to feed the growing British Empire and Ireland was the right place for getting the kinds of food, meat and butter for instance, that couldn't be shipped to England from remote colonies.

Making room for food production spelled the end of the Irish forests. At the time of the British Empire, we don’t have to think that Ireland was still covered with the lush forests of the time of the mythical hero Cuchulainn. But the data reported by Michael Williams in his “Deforesting the Earth” show that Ireland in the 17th century still maintained about 12% of the land covered with trees, significantly more than most European countries of that time. Ireland didn't need trees for a navy or an army, so there were no incentives or laws that could protect the Irish trees. That gave rise to a deforestation boom.

From the trunks, timber was produced and sold on the international market. From the shrubs, charcoal was made and used for producing iron. The Irish iron industry couldn’t compete with the English one, but Ireland had enough iron ore to keep the forges running and produce iron for local uses and for export. Then, the land cleared of trees left a rich fertile soil that could be used for agriculture. Exporting food could pay for even more deforestation and the process fed on itself. Jonah Barrington, Anglo-Irish landlord, said in late 18th century that,“Trees are stumps provided by nature for the repayment of debt.”

But, of course, trees were being cut much faster than they could regrow, and this was taking a heavy toll on the Irish forests. Arthur Young, an English writer, reported in 1776 in his “Tour of Ireland” that the greatest part of the kingdom exhibits a naked, bleak, dreary view for want of wood. That doesn’t mean that the whole island was cleared of trees at that time, but it does tell us that the effects of deforestation had started to become important.

We don't have detailed data on the extent of deforestation; apparently nobody would keep such a record at that time. But we can learn from Eileen McCracken (“The Irish woods since Tudor times”) that, for instance, the Irish exports of timber went from more than 170,000 cubic feet in mid 17th century to nearly zero in 1770 (p. 113). Timber imports, conversely, grew nearly 20-fold from 1711 to 1790. Evidently, in the 18th century Ireland was gradually becoming unable to produce enough timber for its internal market. We also learn from McCracken's book that the Irish iron production died out in late 18th century, most likely because there was no more wood for making the charcoal necessary to smelt iron ore.

The only quantitative data we have on the actual deforestation trends are from the extent of wood acreage on sale advertised in newspapers, again as reported by Eileen McCracken. The data can be plotted as shown in the figure at the beginning of this article. We may reasonably assume that the acreage on sale is proportional to the deforestation rate and, therefore, we see that Ireland had a “deforestation peak” in mid 18th century.

The curve is in agreement with the estimates of various authors on the extent of deforestation in Ireland. At the beginning of the 19th century, no more (and probably much less) than 1% of the Irish land was still covered with trees. The deforestation curve in Ireland very much like the oil production curve in the United States that was studied by Marion King Hubbert. Wood is a renewable resource, in principle, but if the forest is cut down too fast it doesn’t have the time to reproduce. This behavior seems to be general of slowly renewable biological resources and I found it also for the case of whale oil.

Deforestation in Ireland was not only nearly total, but it also paid no attention to things that today we take for granted; for instance leaving at least a few natural reserves. Native species were exterminated without regret, and even squirrels and deer went extinct--to be reintroduced only much later, in 20th century. The last wolf of Ireland is reported to have been shot in 1770.

The same destiny was reserved for the “woodkernes”, dispossessed Irish who had taken to the woods. We may be tempted to see these forest dwellers as romantic freedom fighters, an Irish version of Robin Hood and his merry men. But woodkernes, rather than sung as sylvan heroes, were lumped together with the wolves. They were hunted down and exterminated in an activity that seems to have provided much merriment to the landlords, as well as prizes provided by the government. Woodkernes were reported as still existing in the 18th century. But, just as it is difficult for us to imagine Robin Hood without the forest of Sherwood, the Irish woodkernes couldn’t exist without the Irish forests, and no mention is made of them any more in the 19th century.

The transformation of Ireland into a food producer for England's sake was highly successful. Historians have calculated that during the first half of the 19th century, Ireland provided more than 10% of all food available in England, including high quality food such as meat and butter. The Irish, instead, had to content themselves with potatoes--easy to cultivate and providing an abundant harvest. But relying on a monoculture is risky, and intermittent famines were a normal feature in Ireland. It was one of these periodic famines that had led Jonathan Swift to write his “A modest proposal”, published in 1729, where he satirically proposed to solve the problem of hunger in Ireland by having the Irish eat their children. Sir Jonah Barrington, cited before, tells us about the Irish peasants, “The only three kinds of death they consider as natural are--dying quietly in their own cabins, being hanged about the assize-time, or starving when the potato crop is deficient.”

Despite the recurrent hard times, an Irish family could get enough food to survive the year round from a relatively small patch of land by cultivating potatoes. The time that they were not working on their potatoes, they would work for their landlord in order to pay the rent. For the landlords, it was the perfect arrangement: they had manpower for free. For the Irish, it was far less than perfect but, at least, they had something to eat. And, as it is usual in a growing economy, population was growing, too. We don’t know whether the rapid growth of the Irish population was actively encouraged by the landlords in order to have more manpower for their plantations. It may also be that the Irish had reasoned as all peasants in the world do: more arms in the family, more wealth. Perhaps, they also dreamed that their growing numbers would allow them, one day, to get rid of their hated English masters. Whatever the case, the island experienced a real explosion in population. There had been fewer than two million people in Ireland at the time of the English conquest. By 1840, the historical population maximum had been reached--more than 8 million.

3. The deadly trap

Cutting forests to make room for agriculture is an ancient practice, often referred to as "slash and burn agriculture". The idea is that a cleared forest leaves a soil rich in nutrients, also resulting from the ashes of burned trees. Slash and burn agriculture is not necessarily bad for the land if it is practiced with moderation--that is if trees are allowed to regrow while crops are moved
elsewhere. If that is not done, the result is irreversible desertification. In Ireland, we don't know whether trees were commonly burned on the spot but, in any case, there was no attempt to rotate the cultures and re-grow forest patches.

Ireland is a rainy country, so desertification is less evident there than in arid areas. Nevertheless, the Irish soil is fragile since the low sunlight makes plant growth slower than in more southern areas. Without trees, and with the effect of the rain, Ireland's fertile soil is easily eroded and washed into the sea. It takes a lot of time for soil to reform--centuries--and we can be sure that erosion was a problem in the deforested Ireland of the 19th century. Soil erosion doesn't seem to have been studied in great depth in relation to the great famine, but a paper by Patrick Macgregor (1989) shows that the famine was more severe in those areas where erosion, too, was more severe. Evidently, these areas were in a condition of a more advanced overshoot than others.

Today, you can see how serious the erosion problem still is if you travel in southern and south-western Ireland. You can also use Google Earth or other satellite images to see erosion in those areas. In the picture below, you can see the characteristic appearance of south-western Ireland, with large patches of eroded land and the walls that the Irish have built over the years. The walls may have served as property marks but, clearly, had also the purpose of trying to free the fields from the stones that erosion had brought to the surface. (Picture taken by the author in 2007).

For the first half of 19th century, potatoes could still feed the growing Irish population. It is even reported that when the harvest was good, there was a surplus of potatoes, and some had to be thrown away. But the Irish were exploiting resources that couldn’t be renewed, and population could not keep growing forever. Something had to bring it back to levels that the land could support.

The return to sustainability started in 1845 when a series of waves of infection destroyed the potato crops of Ireland, one year after the other. The results were devastating. About one million people died in a few years as the direct result of the famine. Another half million died of diseases related to the lack of food. Many tried to escape to the United States. In many cases, they left Ireland on ships totally inadequate in terms of hygienic conditions and lacking sufficient food and water. These vessels were termed “coffin ships” and caused the death of an untold number of Irish emigrants.

We know that Ireland continued to produce food for England even during the worst years of the famine. That has generated the legend of the "Irish holocaust" that blames the English for the famine. But, surely, the British government had no interest in depopulating a colony that was producing plenty of food for England. Rather, the English simply were indifferent to what looked to them just like one more of the recurrent Irish famines.

And the British weren't exactly sympathetic to the Irish population. In the documents of the time, the Irish are often described as an inferior race and culture; lazy and good for nothing people who created by themselves the disaster that befell on them. Jonah Barrington describes the Irish peasant of his times (late 18th century) as something of a mixture of the troll and the hobbit; sometimes dangerous, sometimes funny, never fully human. Benjamin Disraeli, prime minister at the time of Queen Victoria, is reported to have said, “The Irish hate our order, our civilization, our enterprising industry, our pure religion” (we read this sentence at page 6 of Cahill (1985)).

Why should the English have cared about a colony peopled with primitive peasants who spoke an incomprehensible language, practiced a different and hated religion, and didn’t seem to be at all grateful for the civilization that England had brought to them? Not that the British government didn't try to do something to mitigate the effects of the famine, but what was done was always too little and too late.

Ten years after the start of the famine, Ireland had lost one-fourth of its population. Three decades afterwards, the Irish population had been reduced to about four million--half of its historical maximum. At that point, population stabilized; in part as the result of emigration but also because of a specific choice of the Irish to limit population growth, obtained mainly retarding the age of marriage. Still today, the Irish population has not returned to the level of before the great famine. Still today, the Irish forests have not re-grown in full. The northern regions of the country seem to have bee scarcely affected, but southern and south-western Ireland still show the scars of the events of mid-19th century. (illustration from Wikipedia).

It is not just the Irish land that keeps the scars of those times; it is also the memory of the famine that still lingers and still hurts. We can barely imagine the humiliation and the rage of people who saw their children dying of hunger while they knew that food produced in Ireland was being shipped to England. But we have very little material from those times that can tell us how the famine was perceived by the Irish. Most of them could speak only Gaelic and there wasn't a Gaelic press that could record their thoughts. We only have reports by English travelers that tell us of a devastated landscape where desperate figures moved aimlessly along the roadside. From one of them, we have the story and the image of Bridget O’Donnell, almost a walking skeleton with her famished children. Still today, that image summarizes the tragedy of the Great Hunger, An Gorta Mor . (Image from Wikipedia)

4. Implications for today

If you have read thus far, you have surely noticed the many similarities of the Island of Ireland at the time of the British Empire to the larger island that is the whole world at the time of the greater empire that we call "Globalization". Deforestation was a feature of both. The last chapter of Michael Williams' book “Deforesting the Earth” is entitled “The Great Onslaught”. He reports that more trees have been cut and more land cleared in the 20th century in the world than in any other period in history. Deforestation has affected mainly the tropical regions, whereas the temperate regions have been partly spared only because the abundance of fossil fuels has reduced the need for wood (so far).

Economic factors are leading to the onslaught of trees, but there also seems to exist a certain degree of aesthetic satisfaction in removing those ugly trees to make room for agriculture. I already mentioned Jonah Barrington's sentence “Trees are stumps provided by nature for the repayment of debt.” It seems to be a common kind of feeling. Many people see forest clearing not just as an economic activity, but as an embodiment of the human right of dominating nature. The forest is the place of wilderness and barbarism; the place where woodkernes live. Clearing it means to bring civilization and refinement. This feeling has a certain logic. We are predators of trees. We cut trees for fuel and for making shelter, just as we kill animals for food. Arthur Standish had said in 1611 "no wood, no kingdome": We can still say it: no wood, no civilization. So, there is nothing wrong in cutting a tree, not even in cutting many trees. But we don't seem to be able to understand when it is time to stop.

Over and over, we have exterminated the creatures that provided us with food, pushing them to extinction. We have destroyed the resources that provided us with wealth: the case of trees is, perhaps, less spectacular than that of woolly mammoths, but tree species do become extinct, too. More than single species of trees, what we seem to be able to do, and to do all the time, is to destroy whole forests, to clean the land bare until it becomes “naked, bleak and dreary”, as Andrew Young had described Ireland in 18th century. And that, as we saw, destroys our main source of survival: topsoil.

The destruction of the topsoil is the ultimate rape of the land. It started when our ancestors discovered that slashing and burning was a good way to transform forests into fertile land. We are still doing it today, although mechanization has given us ways of destroying forests much faster than any previous time. We do that because of the ruthless mechanisms that push people for short term benefits, forgetting about long term survival.

But the Irish disaster places us in front of our relationship with the land, which is the source of our existence. We can’t miss the analogy of the Irish potato, wonder of the agricultural technology of that time, with our “green revolution” and our “genetically modified crops”. Wonders of agricultural technology, too, but how fragile? The green revolution and genetic crops are all based on the availability of cheap fertilizers and pesticides. And both need topsoil that, with deforestation, is disappearing worldwide at rates perhaps faster than the Irish topsoil of two hundred years ago.

Something more that strikes us about the great Irish famine is the rapidity of the passage from abundance to scarcity. It is reported that in the years before the famine, there were so many potatoes in Ireland that people had to throw them away. Then, in a few years, people were dropping dead of starvation along the streets. Yet, the famine was not, and could not, be unexpected. There had been many other famines in Ireland before the great one of mid 19th century. Couldn't people see that with the growing population, they were becoming more and more vulnerable to another harsher, famine? But the lack of memory of the past, even the recent past, is not just a characteristic of mid 19th century Ireland. We tend to see our prosperity as the way things are and will always be. But, how long is it going to last?

We may not be losing just our topsoil. Stuart McLean in his book “The event and its terrors” tells us that in some measure, Ireland lost her soul because of the famine. Together with her trees, Ireland lost her language, Gaelic, and her traditions. Today, languages and tradition are disappearing all over the world. It is all part of the exploitation of the world's riches, forests and many other resources. As in the past, we don't seem to know when it is time to stop. In the “Morte d’Arthur” published in 16th century, Thomas Mallory tells us the ancient Celtic legend of a king whose sickness changes the fertile land of his reign into a barren land. At the time of the great famine, the ancient Irish kings had abandoned Ireland and the land had become just an economic resource. Trees had become “excrescences useful for paying debt”. For us, the fertile land of our planet has also become just an economic resource useful only for paying debt. In the end, we are all Irish.

5. Final notes and acknowledgments

This post grew out of a trip that I made to Southern Ireland in 2007. I had visited Ireland many times before, but, up until then, I had never been in that area. What I saw was a devastated landscape: almost no trees anywhere and nude rock at the surface as the result of topsoil erosion.

That led me to study the subject of Ireland's ecosystem more in depth. I hope it is clear from what I wrote that I don't mean to disparage or contradict the excellent work that people much more expert than I have done on the subject of the great famine. Not being Irish myself, I hope that I can be forgiven for having ventured into this subject, apparently remote from my personal experience. But I have always felt that the great tragedy that was "an gorta mor" is not something that should be seen as relevant for Ireland only. It is a mirror in which we can see an image of our world of today and of ourselves as well.

I wish to thank Bobbins and Colin Campbell for having taken me to Southern Ireland after the "ASPO-6" conference in Cork. I wish also to thank Lindianne Sarno who brought ancient Ireland alive for me with her novel “Greensleeves, An Historical Novel of the First Irish Diaspora.”


Regarding the literature I have consulted, a classic work that tells you the history of Ireland in remote times is “How the Irish Saved Civilization” by Thomas Cahill, Doubleday, New York, 1985.

Of the many academic texts about the famine, the most detailed one and perhaps the most complete is the one by Joel Mokyr, “Why Ireland Starved”, George Allen & Unwin publishers, London, 1983. Mokyr’s conclusion is that the Irish famine was not due to overpopulation but to factors such as insufficient accumulation of capital and low labor productivity. Surely these factors contributed to causing the famine, but Mokyr seems to miss the dynamic nature of overshoot, and he doesn’t explicitly consider the conditions of the Irish soil in his study. On this point, a paper by Patrick McGregor “Demographic Pressure and the Irish Famine: Malthus after Mokyr”, Land Economics, Vol. 65, No. 3. (Aug., 1989), pp. 228-238, corrects and integrates Mokyr’s interpretation by looking for an explicit correlation between the condition of the soil and the famine.

With respect to the reaction of the Irish to the famine, a text that is both fascinating and shocking is the one by Stuart McLean. "The Event and Its Terrors: Ireland, Famine, Modernity", Palo Alto, CA, USA: Stanford University Press, 2004.

Not much can be found on the internet about the history of the Irish forests. The book that I have extensively used as a source of data is Eileen Mc Cracken's “The Irish Woods since Tudor Times”, David & Charles, 1971. A qualitative account of the present condition of the Irish forests was written in 1997 by Rebecca Solnit in the Sierra Magazine . From this paper I learned about the extinction of the Irish squirrels in the 19th century.

A general description of the world’s deforestation over the past centuries can be found in Michael Williams’s book “Deforesting the Earth” (2006). It is from this book that I took the quote, "No wood, no Kingdome" by Arthur Standish. Another book on the same subject is, “A New Green History of the World", by Clive Pointing (2007). In this book, the author explicitly notes the relationship of deforestation and erosion to the collapse of civilization; this is a point also made by Jared Diamond in his “Collapse” (2006). Regarding the economic mechanism of plantations and empires, it is worth reading “Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History”, Sidney W. Mintz, (Penguin Books 1985). A good description of the loss of topsoil in the modern world can be found at this link from the University of Michigan .

A description of Ireland’s ancient economy and agriculture can be found in Lindianne Sarno’s novel “Greensleeves” (Music Garden Press, 2003).

Good stuff

Urgo what a great post! It is well researched and timely. The message relates clearly to the conundrum the world is facing now. You do honor to standards the editors of TOD try to maintain.

Keep up the good work it is much appreciated.



I agree, and think about it...he writes this well in his non-native tongue!

I grew up on the San Francisco Bay Area and we love our forests there. They cling to the mountains and circle our reservoirs. I can't imagine anybody tolerating their destruction.

And yet, go into the furniture and building stores and you see wood from forests elsewhere. I wonder sometimes what the locals from those places think about the forest products industry? Is it sustainable, are they employed by it long term? I think only recently have those questions been asked seriously.

Many thanks for the article. I certainly claim no great understanding of Irish history, but I am from the North UK and am very familiar with vistas such as in your photo.

This photo of an Irish landscape could be: The Pennines, Lake District, Wales, Peak District, Cheviots, The South West, and anywhere in Scotland and probably many others I have missed. I believe it's prominent cause after deforestation is sheep grazing.
I can see grass below, and bracken/heather/gorse/whatever growing above.
Since the UK has better climate regions for arable farming, there has never been a push to provide widespread arable crops in this marginal upland landscape. If there was a need for more arable land, the landscape would not look that way.

Also, beware the strange UK climate. If we had constant below zero winters such as other places on the same latitude [Siberia, Canada] then it would [obviously] be different. A UK winter hovers - + zero. This means behaviour like freeze-thaw rock destruction, scree formation, rocks pushed to the soil surface, and very treacherous slippy pavements [ice melts, refreezes etc] are normal.

Hi from Ireland.

1) most irish would consider the historical situation to have been exploitative.
Wondering why the irish did this, or that, should take into account the penalties offered by the occupying troops to those unwilling to work in slave-like conditions, sharecropping for landlords.
The british took these lessons on board and proceeded to do somthing similar in india within a few years (5+ million dead).
2) contraception was still illegal here in the 1980s, thanks to our 'catholic taliban'.
3) We were "highly leveraged"; already-small farms were repeatedly subdivided between children; a large nomadic workforce also depended on seasonal work. There were no schools, hospitals, industries, credit, or bail-outs for most of the affected popluation.
4) Ireland, brittany, newfoundland, scotland and galicia (NW spain) share geology, and were joined 200m years ago before the atlantic appeared. The terrain and landscape look strikingly similar.
5) as a young irishman, working menial jobs in london, I saw ample evidence of a culture, in britain, of treating irish as barbarian untermensch. Somewhat understandable due to our having been cut off from the evolution of general social fashions for several centuries, but also because dominance means not having to see oneself from another's point of view.

The wikipedia article on the indian famine above, and english media about the british empire in general, glosses over the excesses and brutality of the 'crown'; like the japanese imperial apologists, there is a prediliction to rose-tinted optics and the pretty groundless presumption that they meant well, knew best, and were doing one a favor by obliterating one's ancient language and culture.

Contrast the story of 'how the west was won' with e.g. Black Elk Speaks.

My father tells of his uncle's memory of his grandfather speak of seeing starved skeletal bodies by the road, mouths green from eating grass and leaves.
It's the lack of carbs that get you, not protein, so fish won't help as much as you think. Seal-blubber would of course be another story..


Thanks for these comments. I agree on all your points - Ireland was exploited by the British empire, of course. It was, as I say in the paper, treated as a colony. In an earlier version of the post, I also mentioned Black Elk when he said "there is no center and the sacred tree is dead" which I thought described well the relationship between the loss of the forests and the loss of the Gaelic culture in Ireland. But the post was already overlong, so I removed it. But the idea is there.

Another wonderful article, Ugo.

I think the Irish famine shows the relationship between the ecological and political. Ecological degradation is long-term and complex. The actual deaths and misery, however, are the result of political choices.

It may be that ecological situation in Ireland made a tightening of belts necessary, but it was politics that turned discomfort into disaster.

Indian economist, Amartya Sen, for example, says that countries with functioning democracies do not experience famines.

This is why I think that peak oil will sooner or later turn political.

Energy Bulletin

countries with functioning democracies

Too bad for America it is a dysfunctional Republic.

An interesting post, but I think you are wrong in thinking that the famine was due to deforestation causing soil erosion and overpopulation on two accounts.
It's clear that the disease potato blight caused an almost complete destruction of the entire potato crop either the growing plants or of the harvested tubers. This would be equivalent to the entire wheat and corn crop of the US being destroyed in two successive years. Had soil degradation played a role, we would have expected a long period of declining yields. In fact the best land was used for grazing, to produce meat and butter for export. Had all of this more fertile land also been planted into potatoes the crop would still have failed. A similar thing happened in Scotland and other parts of Europe at the same time. Had other food crops not been exported, or if wheat stored had been made available to the poor probably the famine could have been avoided.

Its unlikely that the sites used for potato cultivation were impoverished by deforestation and soil erosion; many of the plots are small and walled with stone fences. The rainfall in SW Ireland is frequent, and animals would have been excluded. Soil erosion is usually caused by overgrazing destroying ground cover, or droughts followed by very heavy rains. Many of the granite derived soils have a natural frost weathering that creates thin stony soil, you can see very similar landscapes in Scotland, Eastern Canada, the southern highlands of Australia. Stones on the surface are not necessarily due to soil erosion, but can be signs of soil erosion in other landscapes, especially where the is wind erosion and overgrazing( middle east).

The tragedy was that these poor soils were productive enough to provide a potato crop to feed the population but not productive enough if planted to cereal crops. Thus the poor were almost entirely depending upon one crop, just as Asia today depends upon the rice crop, or Russia on the wheat crop.

Neil - Your analogy:

This would be equivalent to the entire wheat and corn crop of the US being destroyed in two successive years.

does little to refute Ugo's assertion that "deforestation led to the Irish Potato Famine". The U.S. is a large continent with a large diversity of climate and soils. This "diversity" makes the U.S. agriculture more resilient to collapse (not immune however to blight from mono-cropping)than a relatively homogeneous landscape such as Ireland.

Although political factors such as Irish poverty were contributing factors (there is hardly ever one single cause of disasters such as famines or genocide) but deforestation is the leading cause of the current "Biodiversity crash" leading to impoverishment of "the poorest peoples" as pointed out famously by the eminent biologist E.O. Wilson.

Take some time and study one of the most recent famines on record: Haiti. Jared Diamond spelled out in Collapse how deforestation has led to the impoverishment of the unfortunate poor people of Haiti. Meanwhile the wealthy live in detached splendor in Gated Green Zones.


I would agree that tropical soils are rapidly degraded after deforestation, as are soils in the middle east( not due to deforestation but overgrazing).
I was pointing out that stones are not necessarily signs of soil degradation. The fact that agriculture is productive today in Ireland, in heavy soils that have been cleared and that the best soils were not used by landless peasants for food cultivation, and the rapid onset of food shortages co-incident with potato blight in many parts of Europe suggest that the soils that were used for potato cultivation did not suddenly erode causing a collapse of food production.
As I recall form visiting SW Ireland their are still abandoned small walled plots in these regions. With blight resistant potato varieties they would probably still be able to feed a large serf population. Better opportunities in Australia, and N&S America have ensured that both Ireland and Scotland have not been re-settled in this way.

Good thoughts Neil1947. Also thx to Ugo for a thought-provoking post. IMO the detail in a post, and whether it is deemed correct or not, can be less important than the discussion it stimulates.

For a bit more on the irish potato famine this article is quite good;


It talks about direct and indirect food entitlement and how population density was a factor driving the reduction in crop diversity. Also the factors that gave rise to the incredible vulnerability of subsistence on a monocrop. Vulnerability is probably the key word in trying to understand the primary causes of the famine. Socio-economic and political causes are also mentioned.

The current vulnerability of our global food supply to declining FF's is IMO truly terrifying.


Good points, Neil.

I also was surprised to read about soil erosion as a central issue, which shouldn't be this dramatic in this climate. However it may have been one factor that triggered the sudden decline as soon as the Irish met the Limits of Growth on their island.

Instead, I think that the monoculture of potatoes as the only food supplier for the Irish was the core issue: When potato harvest was bad the Irish had no alternatives to feed on (being not allowed to eat the export crops). I think I have also read this several times as a typical example for the unsustailability of monocultures and non-diversified economies.

The same is happening now in third world countries that make a "living" solely from mining or coffee crops. As soon as the coffee price goes down these have a national crisis - and are an easy prey for the shock-therapy of neoliberal first world playgrounds and their multinational corporations.

Nowadays monocultures and the lack of diversification are considered among the central causes of poverty and instability in third world countries. Meanwhile many have learned this lesson and strive to diversify their economy - which is a hard task as they are also hampered by protectionistic policies from the north.

Summing up: Ireland suffered the unsustainable economy structure of a third world country. Therefore the Irish had to starve.

With peak oil we are facing the same problem: We are dependent on the "oil monoculture". If we don't manage to diversify to other resources in time we'll have to die away as well.

Ugo - legend has it that the large eruption of Hekla (Iceland) in 1845 was implicated in deterioration of the weather and thus the Irish famine. Would you care to comment? Is there any evidence to support this?


Euan, I see that a real geologist is always looking for geological interpretations of everything! About the eruption, yes, there is some speculation on the web that the eruption of 1845 was related to the Irish famine. I think it might be. As I said, in a complex system there are forcings and feedbacks, but there are also triggers that abruptly cause the system to switch from a state to another. Now, the generally accepted trigger of the famine is the potato blight, but the eruption could have been another trigger. Difficult to say, though.

Exactly to some extent trying to figure out the exact chain of events is fruitless. We are probably living at or post peak oil now and have used in my opinion just about every possible approach to study peak oil yet even with thousand of enlightened people on the net working on the problem we find ourselves in a fog of unknowns.

Thats the real world and certainly the Irish did not have either the tools we have today thus they too where surrounded by a fog. I doubt many Irish even new the population of the land much less the rudiments of science needed to understand the danger. I'd suggest we are no better of then they. Our tools have done little to make our real situation clear.

The problem is not the exact cause timing or nature of our situation its understanding that complex systems have the intrinsic capacity to collapse if strained. We have enough information to understand that our current world is under immense strain and we know and understand the concept of collapse even if we lack the mathematics to really understand complex systems. Thats all we need to know the rest is wants. We have all the knowledge we need to have to make the right decisions to keep collapse a remote possibility.

In fact I suspect if it had been possible if you talked to the Irish before the famine they would have been uneasy about their plight and desiring change. Even they knew that they where not in a good situation. I'm sure even the poorest most illiterate Iraqi or African could tell would easily be able to explain if he thought his region was close to collapse. In the case of Africa of course it depends on the country but the point is we if we look are pretty good at seeing the looming problem. For the US at least we choose not to look.

I love your article it makes a reasonable guess at the cause of the problem and certainly you have highlighted important issues that at least played a supporting role in the collapse of Ireland. Figuring out the details is fantastic science and good for advancing our understanding of collapse but what you have presented is sufficient as a wake up call to the rest of the world we simply don't need more information.

For oil I think I've presented the case that a collapse of oil production has a reasonable chance or probability of occuring we simply don't have enough information to know for certain. However a reasonable argument that is sensible which has as dire and outcome as collapse of oil production or a famine in Ireland need not be perfect just reasonable. We need to act. Certainly one part of action is to do the science get the data find out what or real situation is and the other part is to proactively find solutions before a collapse happens while we still have a functional society. If people need more before they are willing to act then we obviously know one of the biggest reasons for collapse its that people are simply to arrogant to except that imperfect information is all we will ever get before we collapse. And thus collapse itself become ever more certain.

Euan, that's intriguing; do you have any links to this?

Apparently damp weather encourages the fungus that is the potato blight and so it is possible that the volcanic eruption may have locally modified the weather in the Northern Atlantic region.

However as the author states, it was merely a trigger to a primed situation.

damp weather encourages the fungus

note that the temperate maritime climate in ireland, at the eastern end of the gulf stream, is normally very damp year round..

damp weather encourages the fungus. This may have been a contributing factor but it's not the cause. What I know about the potato came from the book Propitious Esculent, The Potato in World History by John Reader. He said the potato late blight came out of a valley somewhere in Mexico, wiped out the potato crop in New England and was carried across to Belgium in a shipment of seed potatoes. It then proceeded to wipe out the entire potato crop in 2 million km2 of Europe in FOUR MONTHS.

You can't blame Irish land degradation for this - the crop failure happened everywhere. It was an opportunistic emerging disease. The death toll wasn't limited to Ireland because the potato was the food of the poor in a number of countries. But ultimately what killed people wasn't the lack of food but the lack of money to buy food, just as it is today.

The shortage of food triggered hording and profiteering which drove up the price of all foods, especially grain. The same thing happened last year with the rice 'shortages' and we'll see the same thing happening when peak oil sets in.

The English government's response was to order grain from the US in secret (to prevent profiteering), scrap the protectionist corn laws which cost the prime minister Robert Peel his job (the farm lobby weren't happy), and set up food relief.

You can blame nasty people for being nasty but humans have a tendency to blame everything on someone else. The bottom line was - no blight, no famine.

Firstly Ugo, great and very interesting post-

Secondly alanisthename , I tend to agree with your take on this

The bottom line was - no blight, no famine.

Add to that Queen Victorias bad politics/actions on the issue. Obviously deforestation is a necessity for preparing fields for agriculture in the first place, so that one is an overall miss, IMHO.

It is worth commenting on the status of potato blight. The organism (Phytophthora infestans) causing blight is always present to some extent in potato growing areas. To take hold on the potato vine the spores need continuously wet foliage for 48 hours. This can be caused by dew, pissy rain, fog and/or imprudent watering (irrigation).

Many areas are capable of experiencing these wet conditions. In large potato growing areas such as Idaho, it is often necessary to spray with fungicides weekly during adverse conditions. This bodes badly for people who have to consume, unknowingly potatoes from treated fields. The first signs of infection are usually mottled black spots on the leaves of the plant. Once established, the disease rapidly goes systemic and black spots appear on the stems too. There is no saving the plant once this happens. In addition, if the crop has developed tubers, the disease enters the tubers too making them unsuitable for eating or storage.

The disease spreads with amazing speed often infecting areas 200 km down wind in one day. Spoors have been detected 200 km at sea off of blighted areas. This disease also infects tomato plants with similar devastating results. The progress of the disease on tomatoes is nearly identical to that observed for potatoes. Often the disease appears just when plants are at peak growth and just developing fruit or tubers in the case of the potato. It may be that the stress of putting on fruit (or tubers) makes the plant more susceptible. A day or two before visible spotting appears, the plants often look the greenest and most lush of the growing season. Then just when you are congratulating yourself on your lovely crop the spots hit.

My experience is that once the disease has hit tomatoes in your area, it is nearly impossible to grow tomatoes on open ground for years afterward. For an organic producer like myself this means it is necessary to treat the plants constantly with Bordeaux mixture which is an inorganic copper spray. In spite of these treatments, damage can appear. Since I do not want me or my customers to eat tomatoes treated with this spray, I only grow tomatoes in greenhouses using reusable plastic on the ground and drip irrigation underneath the plastic sheets. The foliage never stays wet under these conditions and in our hands have never been affected by the disease even though we do not treat the plants with fungicide. Such a solution is a lot of work for the grower but the results are well worth it.

We reluctantly use Bordeaux spray on our potatoes but one must use it as a preventive treatment especially late in the growing season. At least the spray does not get on the tubers.

Relating to Ugo's article, is the fact that this viscous disease is always waiting to raise its ugly head and wipe out crops world wide. Should fungicides be difficult to obtain because of economic-peak oil reasons the world will be in deep doo doo.

Many other important crops have similar problems with disease including the important banana. Bananas are threatened with the fungus Black Sigatoka which has now spread over much of the tropical world. This nasty disease is threatening the very existence of millions, perhaps billions, of people who depend on it for food. Large banana producers treat their crop every time a new crown of leaves appear. Thus, the fruit is exposed to incredible amounts of organic pesticide and so are the consumers. Worse yet, one major cultivar, Cavendish, is grown in industrial banana production. This strain is highly susceptible to the disease and at present there has been no replacement found for the Cavendish that resists the disease.

Thus, survivalist-mentality people must be aware that dependence on common food crops such as the potato can be very risky. Diversity in food production is the best bet.

Very interesting comment, but having read your mention of Bordeaux spray makes me doubt about organic farming. Copper is a toxic heavy metal and can be accumulated in the soil.
On the other hand I'll tend now to eat organic bananas :-)

Hi Drillo, the term "heavy metal" is loosely defined and differs depending on who uses it. Being only a 4th row element it is not very "heavy" in the sense of atomic mass(compared to mercury and lead for example) but yes it is toxic as are most metals and yes it can accumulate in soil which is the reason we hesitate to use it even though it is allowed in "organic" agriculture.

I use the term "organic fungicide" for most synthetic fungicides which usually are carbon containing aromatic or heterocyclic compounds as opposed to Bordeaux mix which is essentially copper(II) carbonate which is considered by most chemical definitions to be inorganic (ie. non organic). Carbonates are not usually termed as being organic even though large amounts of carbonate deposits, eg limestone, clearly originate from living organisms.

For the most part Bordeaux mix is not absorbed by the plant (it is classified as a contact fungicide) and instead offers an exterior layer of protection against organisms such as Phytophthora infestans. Because it is a contact fungicide, it must be reapplied on new growth as it appears or the plant may not be protected. In contrast, many synthetic fungicides of the organic class as defined above can be absorbed by plant tissue and enter into the food chain very readily. Many of the synthetic fungicides have proven to be very toxic to humans and I suspect that many currently in use will be banned in future as more is known about their effects.

I have already stated my use of greenhouses to grow tomatoes as I do not wish to use Bordeaux on developing fruit.

On the other hand I'll tend now to eat organic bananas :-) I am not sure if by that statement you mean "organically grown bananas". If so, you are wise because the commercially grown banana is one of the most treated products in the market. But I would also suggest caution about commercially grown tomatoes because they most likely have been heavily treated with synthetic fungicides. There are many other common food items that I would avoid for similar reasons but that is beyond this discussion.

However, it should be stated that many products in past and probably present use have been shown to lead to DNA changes than can last for generations. Also, there is growing evidence that human sperm counts are decreasing (maybe a good thing :-) ) and I am quite sure that this will eventually be traced to environmental origins including residual pesticides, herbicides and fungicides as well as other chemical pollutants including plasticizers and emissions from combustion.



Bio1 - thank you for two very informative postings. Earlier this year my doctor told me I had to lose some weight and lower my cholesterol.

I used to snack on chocolate, ice cream, cheese, biscuits, cakes, burgers etc. I've cut these out completely and replaced this with pears, peaches, plums, bananas, strawberries etc.

The weight just fell off and I feel great. How to hell am I supposed to weigh the risks of cholesterol v pesticides? We do buy some "organic fruit" but it is difficult to eat it all before it rots and it is equally difficult to make the 10 mile round trip to the shop every second day.

Is to stop eating altogether the solution?


Hi Euan, Thanks, I am glad you found it interesting. If you have space start a garden. That is the only other choice, I guess. Frankly (sounds like blasphemy from an organic grower), I would take my chances with the toxins in place of the known and almost certain short term bad effects of a heavy fat, cholesterol and sugar-based diet. I forgo most fruits and vegetables unless I grow them but must admit to liking bananas a lot.



Parallel to the pesticide/fungicide use in crops is the antibiotic use in animal herds intended for slaughter. FDA recently limped away from a 'crackdown' on the off label use of cephalosporin drugs due to pressure from the agricultural industry which claimed they are needed to prevent infectious diseases.

"Cephalosporins treat respiratory diseases in cattle and swine but are also often given "off-label" for uses not approved by the FDA to poultry or more generally in livestock for non-approved infectious diseases."


The organism is commonly called a fungus, but is actually a protist in the group Oomycetes.


More closely related to brown algae than fungi.

The center of diversity of the genus is Mexico. Places there where potatoes simply can't be grown.

Euan, I had not heard this before. I live near Portland, Oregon USA. in May of 1980 Mount St. Helens erupted. I worked in a strawberry processing canary that summer. The ash fallout caused major problems with the fruit. It also caused what seemed to be an abnormal amount of rain. I don't know if this is typical with eruptions but that was a very wet summer, as I remember. Darker(cloud cover) and wetter would lead to an increase in disease. Phytophera spp. are primarily soil diseases. Overly wet soils always add problems.

I tend to agree with the comments above - no blight, no famine. But wonder to what extent the eruption may have made a bad situation worse. The Hekla eruption began 2nd September and lasted several months. Today, the potato crop in Scotland gets harvested in October and so the eruption could have led to bad / worse weather in the months ahead of harvesting. The wikipedia account indicates ash falling on the northern islands - Faroes, Orkney and Shetland - causing problems for livestock.


Hekla lies on the Iceland hot spot, essentially a bit of the mid Atlantic ridge sticking out of the ocean. Volcanos of this type tend to erupt often, small eruptions, ejecta confined to the troposphere. Ash clouds down wind from the volcano could lead to localised cooling and (I believe) the prospect of higher cloud cover.

Google "volcanic ash nucleation" for articles on formation of ice crystals

Excellent account.

I take it by your title "A distant mirror" you're echoing Tuchman's book of that title. That's apropos.

The 14th century in Europe, according to that book, was also a time of deforestation and overpopulation, a system extremely vulnerable to disruption, which in that case came in the form of climate change (the onset of the Little Ice Age) and of course plague.

Yes, Barbara Tuchman's book on the distant 14th century. A very good book, a good story, well told!

Interesting, thanks.

Several years ago I did masses of research for a novel about the famine. I'd always imagined that the Irish starved because there wasn't enough to eat in Ireland. The potato blight virually wiping out the entire crop, the Irish ate potatoes, and without them they died, pretty simple really.

In the back of my mind there was a nagging doubt about this explanation. I have family in Ireland and family that emmigrated from Ireland. The "legend" you mention about the causes of the famine was alive and well among them, stories handed down from generation to generation, of hunger, deaths and misery, being forced to leave one's home and loved ones behind.

I was shocked and angry when I dug deeper into the story and history of the famine. What surprised me was the ammount of food Ireland was producing throughout the famine years. The potato was hit but not the rest of agriculture. Ireland produced a lot of food, not just potatoes. However, most of this food wasn't produced for the benefit of the Irish peasants. It was produced for the benefit of the landowners, mostly of British orgin who owned the land and produced for the large markets in the major cities of Ireland and more importantly Britain. Ireland, left to itself, could have simply diverted its agriculural exports to the home market and fed everyone without any problems.

Ireland was producing, barley, wheat, rhy, pigs, beef, bacon, lots of stuff. British soldiers were actually called in to guard the fields in harvest time in many areas and the wagons carrying the grain to the ports for export oten had military protection.

Many Irish peasants were outside the cash economy, really subsistance farmers who relied on the potato to survive. They had no money to buy the premium products they were producing for export, so they starved.

The British knew what was happening in Ireland. That hundreds of thousands were starving. Civil servants went to Ireland and examined the famine in detail and reported back to the government and Parliament. But it was difficult to explain the sheer scale of the disaster that was developing. There was a colossal degree of complacancy, indifference, ignorance, dogma, racsism and incompetence about what was happening in Ireland and what one could do about it. The radical idea of interfering in the "free market" to divert Irish exports from England back to Ireland was considered economic heresy, and anyway this would have sent prices sky high in England.

But the British didn't sit totally on their hands, the ghastly reports about what was happening in Ireland couldn't be ignored or hidden for ever, as the disaster was affecting the entire domestic economy of Ireland and its social structure with hundreds of thousands of people wandering around starving and desparately searching for food and help.

The British found a substitute for the the potato, it wasn't Irish corn, which was still being exported to England in vast quantities. They found "Indian Corn" which was cheap and could be bought in huge quantities in North America. Unfortunately this cost money and the government was loathe to spend it saving the Irish which according to the dominant social and economoic ideology of the period really only had themselves to blame for their misfortunes. The poor were poor because it was their own fault.

So, despite the desparate pleas by British officials on the ground the central government never bought enough cheap corn to really make a difference. It's perhaps only a detail, but it's telling, the Indian Corn was something completely new in Ireland. The poor peasants didn't eat much bread and if they ground corn they used a grinding stone. Unfortunately Indian Corn was too hard to grind by hand. One needed a special cast iron grinding pot, which the Irish didn't have and couldn't afford. So the British government then had to start importing these things and all that took time and money to organize and in the meantime hundreds of thousands were starving to death.

To sum up. The Irish died primarily not because there was enough food in Ireland to substitute for potatoes. They died because they couldn't afford to buy the food that was available. It wasn't how they lived. They died because of economics, pretty much the same reason millions starve today and die needlessly. Ireland was also an invaded and occupied country and the British knew they were hated. They didn't trust the Irish peasants and despised them and their primative culture. They also thought they were lazy, ignorant, catholics, over-sexed, dangerous, untrustworthy, violent and a subhuman "race". So Ireland's entire economy was under the yoke of imperialism, as a colony everything was distorted and twisted to provide Britain with cheap food and other benefits. There was a lot of handwringing in London, but not much real action. In a way one could say that nothing much has changed over the years in the West's attitude to poverty, starvation and underdevelopment, only now it all on truly world scale.

I think that is a good point that people died because they couldn't afford the food that was available. Economics tends to be an intervening variable. I know that Scientific American studies have shows that keeping the income of the poor above some minimum level (and/or subsidizing food costs) is important to preventing starvation. All too often, there is enough food, but because of income distribution, some cannot afford it.

Very important point Gail.
The same applies to people providing most, or even all of their own food. They need cash for essential maintenance of 'tools' and other essential inputs, and 'insurance' against adversity. This is relevant today.
Worth noting that Ireland around 1840s had a huge population approaching 9M compared with recent modern population. This indicates a very large, if temporary, 'carrying capacity' for a mostly subsistence agriculture. For comparison, the Mainland population of England was only 18M, albeit seeing rapidly rising urban numbers, and only 20 - 25% of work force was in a very different 'commercial' agriculture. Also, there had been a general commercial agricultural depression after the Napoleonic wars, and the position of agricultural laborers in England was worse than their rural forebears 300 years before. Every town and City in England had what we would now call '4th World' slums - widespread cholera outbreaks for example. [Urban poor were also suffering high slum rentals for overcrowded one room housing. One policy response had been to build more jails.] England was needing more and more food imports to feed the growing population, and was about to go into net food deficit, despite much higher total domestic food production than in 1750. This period was a major turning point. England's agricultural history here
Ireland needs a separate history.

I have had a career in scientific control of potato quarantine diseases and do not underestimate the devastation of a newly invasive disease. The potato had proved an amazing crop when it came to raising carrying capacity of 'subsistence' small holdings in wet temperate climates. The crop could produce many more calories per acre than the available 19thC cereal crops. High levels of inputs including humanure as well as cow manure produce high yields of potato, where an old-fashioned cereal, barley or oat, crop would have fallen over and been lost because of too much N input. Seaweed and fish and milk imported soil nutrients from the wider environment into cultivation on Irish small holdings. That they were hit with a new crop disease at the zenith of carrying capacity was a very nasty 'Black Swan event' but needs to be seen against the background of mass migration from all rural areas in newly industrializing Britain, mostly into the growing cities and to America, at the point of maximum increase on the population trajectory.
[I have personal anecdote when I worked with older Irish construction laborers in London in early 1960s. A man told me he had from the age of 9 years barrowed seaweed daily to create a patch of soil in order that he could marry in his late 20s. Actually he left for England.]

I'd be interested to understand how a country that produced such valuable exports stayed as poor as it did because of the "free market". I'd wager that the british never "bought" the land from the Irish, but instead took it, or "owned" it through old feudal claims. I also imagine that the Irish didn't get a great deal of opportunities to diversify their economic activity beyond the poor "sharecropping peasant" type arrangements the English established. So the claim that the "radical idea of interfering in the 'free market' to divert Irish exports from England back to Ireland was considered economic heresy" would be considered erronious as the system in place would hardly be considered the Adam Smith "free market" system. The government's job wasn't to "feed" the Irish, but it also wasn't to enforce a system based on a non-economic peasant/lord arrangement. In the end though, like most things, a gun meant alot more than a contract or rational self-interest.

I don't think starving people to death is the logical conclusion of a strict free-market system, its the logical conclusion of a racist, authoritarian system covered in the veneer of a "market"

You mean like the system we presently live with, eh?

Its important to get definitions right, even they exist merely in a vaccuum.

Pure, unadulturated economic freedom may not be a reality, but if you've ever taken lunch from your accounting job to go get a sandwich from a local delicatessan, you should thank the millions of people who, though they didn't know you or cared about whether you lived or died, made it possible for you to do something you were good at and eat something you wanted. Rational self-interest in a non zero-sum world made it alot more comfortable to live on this planet.

The free market system does seem to be alive and well, though most of the arguements about it seem to concern the scope of that market in time and space. Life and human societies all evolve in what must be considered a free market in the long term.

When people adamantly oppose meddling with the free market they generally assume a starting place for that market at some arbitrary point somewhere in the near distant past and all 'interference' before that point as aprior conditions for their rather conveniently narrow interpretation of the marketplace.

Power structures, property systems, laws, geographic distrubtion, alliances, vested interests all evolve in the greater free market system of our planet as do new life forms, crashes and extinctions. And although too wide a view of the concept of free market may make the term too broad to be of any use in the world of politics and business too narrow a view will most certainly lead to our demise.

A little prehistory for peak woodlands sales with which Ugo's story begins:
In 1536, the potato was introduced into Europe from recently discovered South America. (I don't know when it arrived in Ireland, but not before 1536.) Henry VIII ascended to thrown of England in 1509, and was declared King of Ireland in 1542, 6 years after potato arrived in Europe. Potato agriculture was not an ancient way of life in Ireland and it was probably never practiced by independent yeomen farmers. It was instead introduced into a defeated realm soon after its defeat. By whom was it introduce? Surely not the Irish, IMHO.

This smacks of later colonialist ventures such as the rubber plantations in Indonesia. A foreign cultivar is introduced into a region where its pathogens are unknown, and where the population is easily forced into working for the conquerors as tenders of the new crop.

And another really prehistory idea:
I have seen it suggested that human desire to cut down trees stems from a primal desire to live in savanna rather than forest. It has something to do with the first primates to choose to walk on the ground rather than swing from tree branches.

Interesting pre-history geek7. Thanks!

Yes, I agree that the potato was forced on the Irish by the British. Also, the blight had been around for as long as the potato had been around. The reason it spread so easily was because the Irish crops were planted so close to each other -- a necessity to feed a booming population.

On another note, has anybody read that the Irish were murderous toward their own during this time of famine? It seems like histories chronicle the starvation but I haven't read anything about crime.

I'd be interested to understand how a country that produced such valuable exports stayed as poor as it did

Fairly simple, when all's said and done:
Shooting, slaughter, oppression, blowing up, knocking down, beating, whipping, killing, ethnic cleansing. That usally does the trick.

The Irish famine is quite similar to the great Ukrainian famine of 1933. Six or seven million people lost their lives:


Absolutely yes: there are many points in common with the great "holodomor" of the 1930s. In an earlier version of the post I mentioned the Ukrainian/Russian famine and I tried to make a comparison. Then, I cut it out, since the post was already too long. But the Holodomor is, possibly, more orrific than the an gorta mor; if nothing else; the British at least didn't try to hide the situation in Ireland, whereas the Soviet government did. Also shooting farmers as enemies of the people, all that...

Two of the mistakes the Irish made we seem hellbent on repeating;
-overharvesting of wild resources
Nowadays that includes not only timber but fish, clean water and perhaps even air.
- underinvestment in infrastructure
I suspect every man, woman and child will eventually need a fraction of a wind turbine, a corner of a nuke, some railway and transmission line and a piece of a dam. This will be much more so than ever before.

Now as Ireland returns to economic problems I doubt there will be another wave of emigration. In Australia circa 2000 some Irish friends returned to Co. Galway because of the economic upturn. If that was due to a boost from EU membership it seems to have since petered out.

The problem with timber cutting in the USA.

Much like Ireland might have been but now its for paper and BBQ charcoal and to send to Japan and China.

The reality is that the high grade trees are about gone. I mean hardwoods like oak. Pecan went long ago. Walnut is almost gone.

So they cut the great oaks. And the hickories as well. Both nut trees and with them gone no seed exists for new ones to sprout. The 'seed' trees are gone you see. So animals find no 'mast' to consume.

What replaces those long to grow to maturity hardwoods is trashy,weedy growth trees. Like mostly sweet gum and maples. Lots of other fast growing but essentially almost useless tree varieties.

Around here when times get hard then landowners start selling their timber. And right now its going on at a rapid pace. Also the huge maws of the pulp paper mills and the bbq trade.

In midsouth Missouri I drove past a huge valley that was all covered in smoke from fires making BBQ charcoal.

The southeast was timbered to death way back. Now the midwest is going and I think since loggers were pushed out of the northwest they came here. Just my thought. Gray owl you see.

Whatever. When people drive around the countryside while the leaves are on they think they see a lot of woodland but in reality what they see is the fast growing almost worthless growth and think its ok..but its not ok. Its depleting rapidly.

All the river bottom land which once was full of huge forests is about all totally disappeared. It won't be coming back since it takes a woods oak like 30 years to get to a good size and some grow for 200 years.

Popular comes back fast and can be used for some things but firewood it is not. Neither is ash. Both will never produce the heat that oak and hickory does.

Many many species I used to see plenty of I no longer see. Persimmon. Mulberry. Walnut. Pecan. White Walnut. Linden. the list goes on and on.

Folks we are destroying our woodlands in the name of making crops to send to others. Just like the Irish did. What is so different?

We send it to Asia. They make junky furniture and mostly of veneer and ship it back to us. Its rather shabby stuff.

The pulp mills and chip mills are the worst though. They are going to eventually take it all and we aren't even noticing it. Not at all because most live in cities or suburbs and they really don't see it.



Good example of interesting cross-disciplinary research. Of course, just as you state correctly that complex adaptive systems do not have single causes and effects, this can be also applied to your own text: you choose to look at the problem with "overshoot-and-collapse" glasses that link deforestation to famine.

Not only in Ireland, but also in other European countries has deforestation taken place as a result of local industrialisation. The book "In the servitude of power" describes energy crisis in Paris in the 1550s due to lack of firewood. In the 16th and 17th centuries both England and France cut down their forests to fuel their small-scale iron-making, glass-making and ceramics furnaces/forges.(I assume this was no different for other European countries; England eventually had the option to switch to coal). Already back then policies were suggested for reforestation - sometimes to little avail.

In other words: many countries were deforested, but very few suffered from famine on such a scale. You already say that deforestation wasn't the cause of the famine; I would also be careful about branding it as the "start" of a chain of events. Possibly it is a "tipping point"...

I agree with those who suggest you may have overstated the cause and effect relationship here. What I think is probably most telling, actually is the realities of Ireland's heavy exports - which were ensured even as the people starved. We'll probably see that again.


I too think the causal relationship between de-forestation and famine is not proven. For example I note in the article that in the good times before English occupation Ireland had 12% of its land covered in forests. A drop from 12% to even 0% could hardly be considered catastrophic.

Deforestation is not a sole cause of famine, but it is a strong contributor.

Forests, especially in tropical areas, have a lot of biomass but relatively shallow topsoil. That's because there's so much stuff living that anything which dies doesn't rot in the ground but is consumed by animals, insects and bacteria on the surface. So if you cut down the forest and farm there, you get a few really productive years, and in exporting the food from your farm you're also exporting the organic material of the soil, and so after a few years it's mostly gone, and you get sand, clay, mud or rocks.

Forests also act as stores of water, because of all the biomass. So if rainfall is irregular, they ensure there's some waterflow into the surrounding area. And clouds tend to form over forests, since the plants transpire at night, releasing water. And of course a tree provides shade, reducing evaporation of other water around. Here Down Under many a stupid farmer has cut down the trees next to his water dams, thinking that the tree will suck up all the water - when in fact it would help keep the water around.

Forests help retain topsoil in the regions around them. Good loamy soil turns to mud when hit with heavy rainfall, and thus flows. If there's enough tree cover then the flow of the topsoil stops there, and eventually turns back to the farmed area. If there's no tree cover then the topsoil washes away, as in Haiti.

Forests also ensure a good mix of plant and animal life, which helps keep pests down. For example some birds living in trees eat locusts. So if you cut down the trees then the birds have nowhere to live and the locusts breed up to enormous numbers and then eat your grain crops, woops.

In general, a country with a good amount of forests will have higher agricultural productivity than a country with little or none. And it is true that in every place where there was rapid deforestation, there was also a drop in agricultural production unless there were high inputs of energy - for fertiliser, irrigation, etc.

A drop from 12% to 0% forest cover is certainly catastrophic. You may feel the causal relationship is not proven, I suggest you try living in the countryside for some years. You'll see that when a hill range has its trees cut down it rains less in that area, and the soil flows away when it does rain.

You raise a very interesting point: deforestation and famine in Europe. I have studied the question also in regards to Tuscany, and in my opinion there is a link: in 15th and 16th century Tuscany was extensively deforested and famines started in late 16th century earlier 17th century. True, not on the same scale as in Ireland. Ireland was especially vulnerable mainly because it was a colony. Tuscany in 17th cntury, instead, was an independent state and the government acted almost immediately in order to restore the forests. Hard times were unavoidable, but in a century, famines were basically gone. So, every system is complex and has its own story. In my opinion, deforestation remains the basic starting point of many cases we know. Of course, not of all cases.

Exactly, I agree. The backdrop is the state of the environment and whether it has recently been seriously damaged. Then depending on the economic-political overlay the problem may be partially addressed or not and it is the actions and decision of that society or at least those in power that determines how bad the outcome will be.

And that very much applies today and I think we all realize here that the current economic-political overlay dominating the world is not one that is taking any actions or making any significant decisions to deal with and avert problems due to our global overshoot. And as someone stated already above, the West is pretty much indifferent to the rest of the world. A prime example is the infinite quantities of money being used to bailout bankers but do we see the same quantity of money go to restore global fisheries, forests, energy reduction, equitable distribution of food and many more pressing problems? No.

Exactly, I agree. The backdrop is the state of the environment and whether it has recently been seriously damaged. Then depending on the economic-political overlay the problem may be partially addressed or not and it is the actions and decision of that society or at least those in power that determines how bad the outcome will be.

And that very much applies today and I think we all realize here that the current economic-political overlay dominating the world is not one that is taking any actions or making any significant decisions to deal with and avert problems due to our global overshoot. And as someone stated already above, the West is pretty much indifferent to the rest of the world. A prime example is the infinite quantities of money being used to bailout bankers but do we see the same quantity of money go to restore global fisheries, forests, energy reduction, equitable distribution of food and many more pressing problems? No.

here the question of causality arises:
Did people starve because forests disappeared or did they have to cut down the trees in order to get more arable land they needed to avert the famine?

Drillo, it is a point on which I have meditated for a long time and I think by now I have arrived to a general conclusion: there is no simple causality in complex systems. As I said in the post, there are "forcings" (external influences) and feedbacks (internal reactions to the forcings). So, the Irish didn't starve "because" forests were cut. Cutting forests, however, produced a feedback that was the growth of agriculture. That produced an increase in population and.....

Joseph the second, Holy Roman Emperor (1741-1790) planted extensive beech forests near Brussels, Belgium. The forest is still there, Forêt de Soignes.
It was supposed to become timber for building a navy. If so, Joseph had a long time frame; beech grow older, and bigger, than oak.

It sounds as though more countries may become the 'New Ireland' - and not as Celtic Tigers.

Here is lovable old Mugabe:
Robert Mugabe 'was joking about cholera' say his officials

Robert Mugabe’s government has attempted to row back on the President’s claim that the cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe is over, saying he was joking.


What a card!

Yep Dave...Africa has its share of fun loving jokers. Some years ago the current dictator of Equatorial Guinea suspended a highly successful malaria spraying effort in the island nation. His uncle, who he assassinated, had set the program up. But nephew had other needs for the trucks. Of course, malaria came back with a vengeance. It was made all the worse by a sudden loss of protein in the diet of the citizens. This was largely the result of the nephew destroying the commercial fishing fleet for fear of it being used to transport an invading coup (as had been discovered in 2002). Yep…a starving population sitting in the middle of an ocean full of fish. But, on the positive side, gun violence is virtually unheard of there since only the dictator has any guns.

Too bad the US gov't didn't consider exporting democracy to this small country of 500,000 folks. I doubt we would have had to fire a shot. Just parking a carrier off the coast in sight of the presidential palace would have done the trick. And we wouldn't offend any religious sensitivities: the country is 100% Catholic. BTW, most don't know that the per capita income of EG is one of the highest in the world: they ship several million bbls of oil to the EU every week. Just doesn't seem to trickle down to 99.9% of the population.

No need to park a carrier off the coast of Equatorial Guinea. They are doing what we want already; they are exporting cheap oil.


Great article bm. After working in EG last year I developed a soft spot for the folks suffering there. Daily I would watch $150,000 of NG burned into the atmosphere even though the operator offered to lay a pipeline and deliver the NG for free to the mainland. The dictator didn't want the expense of developing a distribution system. That was 20 million cubic feet of rich NG burned into the atmoshere every day...a lot of green house gases to say the least. But I do think the article gets carried away with all the chatter about bribery. Not that such practices don't happen elsewhere and is deplorable. But remember: EG is ruled by a dictator. You don't need to bribe the man getting paid for 100% of the country's royalty on production. He is a dictator. He has no trouble admitting it. The rest of the world knows he's a dictator. All the banks know he's a dictator. The African Union knows he's a dictator and is stealing every penny of the oil revenue.

As far as dispatching the carrier I was referring to actually bringing democracy to those folks. Allow them to elect their own leadership (with a watchful eye from us). The EU would still get their oil at whatever the market prices is. I wasn't being sarcastic: the US could easily do something great there in the eyes of the entire world with virtually no risk and very little expenditure. The fact that we haven’t, and won’t, testifies to the hypocrisy of the gov’t when they offer exporting democracy as one of the prime reasons we’re in Iraq. We could free the 500,000 folks in EG with no US deaths (even the police aren't allowed to be armed) and at virtually no cost.

Problem is, as soon as a nascent democracy emerged, it would immediately become a target for the next "nephew" with an eye on the oil revenue. Installing a democratic system is one thing. Keeping it in place and healthy is quite another.

Great article and follow-up comments. I am always amazed at the breadth and depth of those who write and blog here. There another disturbing parallel is draw from this story. England was competing with France, Spain and the Dutch for both military and industrial supremacy. They did so in a way that ignored the dangers of their almost single minded pursuit. I am also struck by Benjamin Disraeli's comment, “The Irish hate our order, our civilization, our enterprising industry, our pure religion." This is disturbingly close to many of the comments about the Islamic world that we have heard from U.S. officials in the last few years.

We here in the U.S. spend more on defense than just about the rest of the world combined. We are able to do this partly because of cheap energy. But the military-industrial complex consumes vast resources at a phenomenal opportunity cost. If over the last 50 years, we had devoted a portion of that effort towards creating a sustainable civilization, we would not be in the situation we are right now. But just like the English, we don't seem to be able to pull our foot off of the military accelerator and put that effort towards our own sustainability.

Total agreement on all points. Saved me having to write anything.

This is disturbingly close to many of the comments about the Islamic world that we have heard from U.S. officials in the last few years.

Except in the case of the Islamic world, it's true and has been for centuries.  Here's the tale as related by Thomas Jefferson:

Jefferson's first encounters with the Barbary pirates stemmed from his service as ambassador to France in 1786. From the beginning, he opposed paying anything to the pirates. He asked Tripoli's ambassador to Britain why the Barbary States were so hostile to America.

The frank reply: "It was founded on the Laws of their Prophet, that it was written in the Koran, that all nations who [sic] should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as Prisoners, and that every Musselman who should be slain in Battle was sure to go to Paradise"

This problem was largely abolished by a US naval flotilla and the newly-constituted United States Marine Corps.  The reason it's popping up again after being suppressed for two hundred years is... oil money.

Ugo, that was an exceedingly well-researched and erudite post.

As an Irish emigrant (albeit US citizen), the Famine has always been a lingering 'bad taste' in our mouths. Back in the 60's, when I was in 'school', we were made very much aware that, at the time, 'all our food' was being *exported*, and the famine was essentially the result of economics and political apathy. That has always been hard to swallow especially since conventional wisdom has it that it was purely 'the potato blight'.

I think I'm actually going to re-read your post ...to remind myself just how lucky I am.


Gerry, a chara, you write:

Back in the 60's, when I was in 'school', we were made very much aware that, at the time, 'all our food' was being *exported*, and the famine was essentially the result of economics and political apathy.

I attended the Jesuit school in Galway from 1956 to 1965. There was far more indoctrination than there was 'awareness raising'. Irish history was good guys versus bad guys.

Certainly none of our history teachers ever mentioned either the M-word (Malthus) or the C-word (Contraception). Unsurprisingly, I suppose.

Increase, multiply, and then blame somebody else when TSHTF.

Ugo, an excellent article. BTW we were on the same boat on the Lakes of Killarney last year.

There may have been dozens of proximate causes of the famine but the ultimate cause was, quite simply, overpopulation. Or rather, quite complicatedly. Because theories and explanations are underdetermined by the data. As every Cartesian knows.

So take your pick. The Irish blame the Brits. The Brits blame the Irish. The free marketeers blame the regulators. The regulators blame the free market. The Ulster Prods blame the Roman Harlot. Ad infinitum. Choose whatever explanation best matches your prejudices.

Personally, I blame stuff. Stuff happens, has happened, and will happen. Stuff sucks.

There's a lot of stuff coming our way these days.

Sorta gives "stuff-it/get stuffed" a whole new meaning.

Good article Ugo Bardi. Many years ago I read "The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845 - 1849" by Cecil Woodham Smith. It was a sobering read that I recommend to anyone wanting to become depressed. Ironically, many of the young men who escaped the potato famine by emigrating to the US arrived just in time to participate in the American (un)civil war.

How very appropriate to our times! Bardi continues to put our current issues in a historical perspective--wonderful stuff


The Irish diaspora (Irish: Diaspóra na nGael) consists of Irish emigrants and their descendants in countries such as Great Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina, Mexico, and states of the Caribbean and continental Europe. The diaspora, maximally interpreted, contains over 80 million people, which is over fourteen times the population of the island of Ireland itself (6.11 million in 2007) [1].

Regarding late marriage - my father and his father did the same, marrying or having kids very late with younger or very younger wives. Mostly however such marriages have lots of kids as they would use no contraception for birth control. So this form of birth control, delaying marriage is of little use. Emigration continued for most of the time since then as the economy was undeveloped. So since the 1840s and even before emigration, to the New world or British colonies has been a release valve for the traditonal large families. Russia had Siberia. The famine was just one period of course but probably accelerated the whole process and practice of emigration as a conscious practice like say a career choice for younger siblings who had no land or job opportunities. There were I believer a quarter million Irish in UK and in US each in the 80s. Maybe some come back home but more Poles have arrived now in Ireland to take their place. The whole world cannot have this Irish attitude of high birth rates and emigration as release valve or it will do the world in.

will do the world in.


Agreed on thesis. It is incredible to me that any supposedly "civilized" population would not simply hang from the nearest lamppost any "religious" leaders who ban birth control at the risk of "eternal damnation". And I was married in a Roman Catholic ceremony myself, though born into English Catholic.



My Irish ancestry is so weak (my Grandparents having been Protestants in Southern Ireland) that I have never visited the Island. Much to my regret and dismay. I believe that your conclusions for the world as a whole are excellent. I hope that they are timely enough to cause proper reflection and proper action to remedy the situation.

I should note that US forest cover has improved significantly over the last 100 years. As I understand it, Massachusetts used to be 80% cleared for agriculture and 20% forested. It is now 80% forested. Also, predator populations (cougar, wolf, etc.) in the US have been increasing. Wolves have been spotted close to Interstate highways in Wisconsin (moving south from Canada and Minnesota) after having been almost eliminated from the contiguous 48 states. A cougar made it is as far as the northern suburbs or Chicago last year (unfortunately it was shot dead, old habits die very hard). So the use of fossil fuels and the increased productivity of agricultural areas (whose acreage is slowly dwindling) has some positives (as well as negatives like topsoil erosion). I still believe that JUDICIOUS use of technology can be a wonderful thing. It is the greed that drives us all to exploit resources to their eradication, that is a problem. There is certainly more than enough food to feed all the humans on the planet (I would argue this even with lower fossil fuel inputs), especially if we embrace a simpler more vegetarian diet. It is our greed to drives us to consume more than is good for us even when so many go without or with too little. If India, with a fraction of the arable land of the US, can feed its own 1.1 billion person population, then certainly the US could feed the same number (and many more) if so much of the land wasn't devoted to growing monoculture corn for cows and ethanol(probably the most inefficient feeding process ever invented by humanity). Of course, eating corn and milk, cheese and hamburger is a major source of disease (and obesity) for Americans. How much better off would they be to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle with locally grown vegetables?? I suspect we are too greedy to change easily, but I still hope for a miracle (they have happened before).

Good luck to us all! (we will need it). And keep up the wonderful posts!!


I should note that US forest cover has improved significantly over the last 100 years. As I understand it, Massachusetts used to be 80% cleared for agriculture and 20% forested. It is now 80% forested.

I would bet that wood consumption increased, even as forestation increased. This is because America outsources deforestation to the third world via globalization. As globalization winds down, expect Massachusetts to be devoid of trees in short order.

A much larger population will be struggling to cook and keep warm without hydrocarbon fuels in the future.

The stony, acidic soils of New England could not support agricultural enterprises able to compete with fossil fueled agroindustry in the midwestern American gutland. Hence many small family farms in NE have been abandoned and trees allowed to regrow on them. These second or third growth woodlands are far cries from the mature old growth forest ecosystems that existed at the time of euro invasion. The invasive exotic Norway maple dominates much of this woody regrowth, to the exclusion of native species. It's possible that the colder upper tier of states will depopulate to sufficient degree that relict populations can sustainably maintain themselves burning wood, given that mechanized timber harvesting will be a thing of the past.

Elsewhere in the US, single age stage monoculture tree farms (mostly loblolly pine & hybrid poplar) are counted as acres undergoing "reforestation." This is disingenuous; perennial woody plant agricultural lands are nearly as depauperate as cornfields, and patently are NOT forests.

Great stuff. The Irish landscape does have a deep sadness to it (cheered up, of course by Colin Campbell and the pub in Ballydehob).

I keep trying to see the current dire world situation through the eyes of folklorists in a hundred years time (what few are left, that is). All those lovely period photos on TAE set the tone. Mere scientific reports and government charts don't seem to do it justice.

The tale of the Hungry Grass might be a ghost story of hunger from the past or just maybe it is a portent of the Hunger yet to come..

The Féar Gortha is Gaelic for 'The Hungry Grass' which sounds like the Irish word Fear for 'man'. There is a strange superstition around rural areas particularly after the Great Famine of 1848 that certain patches of land were bewitched and that if a traveler passed over them that he would suffer uncontrollable pangs of hunger and if assistance were not given to him immediately he would die right there on the ground.

There was also a 'Fear Gurtha' or 'hungry man' who appeared as a travelling mendicant, a gaunt figure, miserably clad who begged alms from passers-by; those giving alms received good fortune for the rest of their lives while those refusing suffered some calamity whereby they were reduced to poverty themselves and knew the gnawing pangs of hunger.

Irish peasants used to sprinkle the grass with any left-over crumbs from their meals in order to stave off the hungry grass. Which is supposedly sent as a warning from the fairies against lack of generosity.

There is a hill in County Cork known as Hungry Hill which rises over the estuary of Bear Haven and Bantry Bay. It is 2000 feet above sea-level and has a waterfall which descends from a height of nearly 800 feet. It was called Hungry Hill because the local peasants believed that many patches of Féar Gortha grew on it.

Source: O'Hanlon, rev. John (Lageniensis), Irish Folklore: Traditions and Superstitions of the country. first published 1870, republished E.P publishing Ltd., 1973.



Thank you Ugo for this very interesting article.

That is an amazing crash in population. So one "meme" about post peak collapse is that ravening hordes of starving poor will denude the landscape. Yet somehow in Ireland the government kept order. Food was exported. And that was accomplished with muskets, bayonets, and red wool jackets (a tiny amount of expense compared to a modern military or police force).

I feel this lends support to the catabolic collapse theory. The collapse will be slow and drawn out. People may be starving in one town, and yet life may be going on much the same in another.

If 12% of the population dieing off in one year and at least 25% no longer living on the island within a decade is long and drawn out I would have to agree with you. It appears very sudden to me.

Major differences between island earth and island Ireland make the slow starve collapse model unlikely. The power that contolled Ireland lived on a larger island next door and had multiple and far flung sources of wealth with which to support its control apparatus.

The powerfull and overpowered all live on the same island these days. A trigger causing a worldwide collapse proportional to what the blight triggered in Ireland would not inspire those with might to sit by and starve quietly. Well disciplined militaries would be able to maintain order within their own organizations for as long as they could feed themselves, they would also be very busy doing what they have historically done best, killing and conquering to put resources in their own supply base.

Even if a large collapse was triggered unevenly worldwide (likely) the massive conflicts that erupted would spread rapidly. If such a scenario occurred while most of the western world's oil was being delivered by a relatively few large ocean going vessels, whichever powers thought they had the best chance of surviving by eliminated the floating oil supply would do that in short order. That does not make for a long drawn out fade. Cut off the ocean going oil spigot and there is drastic change very suddenly.

Sorry, I was not clear in my point. I think we are mostly in agreement.

A rapid collapse of food supplies led to a rapid collapse of population. However, that did not lead to a rapid collapse of government or order (as has often been predicted would happen post peak). Food was still exported. Private property laws remained intact. (to the detriment of the local population, no argument).

I do disagree that separate islands are needed to have one area do ok while another area suffers a rapid population drop. The very lack of transportation will create new "islands". It is also true that those areas that have a supply of fossil fuel will have an working economy (goods and services they can trade) while losing access to fossil fuels will mean an end to most economic activity. So areas that slip into poverty will lack the economy and money to compete for the remaining resources. I don't think a war is the necessary outcome. The market will grind down the poor areas until they are defenseless.

It would not surprise me to see Iowa trading grain to Saudi Arabia for oil. And that relationship keeping both regions relatively intact for another 50 years even if people in the Southwest are starving.

I do think you are right that war is the wild card, and I have no idea how to predict it. It will have a negative influence. But what can we do to measure and include it? I don't know.

War is a wild card alright. Thus far, for all the ill that came out of Yalta, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin did accomplish their overacrching goal--avoiding another world war for at least 50 years. The intervening time has given the larger powers the chance to see (after a fashion) that their interests are more common than competing. Lets hope we all see that better and better as time move on.

As for the seperate island. The British both exacerbated the famine and maintained order during it through force of arms, still profitting from the Irish crops while isolating themselves from the human devastation on the island next door. Something we in the U.S. can cetainly identify with at one level or another.

All I was saying is if something hits the big island, earth, as hard as the blight hit Ireland all hell will break loose, fast. And if such a trigger is pulled while all our modern life hangs ahead of the wakes of the oil fleet, expect the worst. That is a strong arguement for making weaning ourselves from foreign oil as our number one defense policy. Lets just hope those viewers 'out there' want to keep 'the planet earth show' with its giant cast of human characters playing on cable for a while.

Remember that in the case of the Irish, they had somewhere to go. A pot doesn't boil over if you take the lid off.

If we imagine a sudden and global decline in the availability of fossil fuels, well it's global, yeah? So where do the people go, then? Gandhi noted that Western wealth required a Third World to exploit, making Third World development difficult - who, he asked, would be India's India? Likewise we might ask, the Irish had America to go to, but where can the world go?

I don't think the decline will be as dramatic as the potato blight was, but still, there you go.

I see it, but don't agree with it. I am certainly no cornucopian, but neither am I a doomer. People cope remarkably well with all sorts of disasters both man-made and natural, large and small.

We are likely to be in serious trouble, we are not likely to have some sort of global "dieoff". That's because as I said, it's almost never the case that an entire country is knocked over at once, usually it's just part of the country and the rest can rush to help those in trouble. Likewise with the world as a whole. It's unlikely that (for example), the US, all 27 nations of the EU, the Middle East countries, India, China, Japan and so on will all have catastrophic climate events or fossil fuel shortages at the same time.

Everyone will have different troubles at different times, and be able to help each-other out. Now, that doesn't mean everyone will be helped. We have only to compare Bosnia and Kosovo with Rwanda, Sudan and Zimbabwe. But most of the world will be willing and able to help most of the world.



However, while people died because of government inaction and indeed the direct interference and even violence by authorities, in the end people were able to travel away from the dangerous area, and be housed and fed.

That's rather different to, for example, the recent events in Burma.

We're also talking about hundreds of deaths attributable to government incompetence or malice, compared to hundreds of thousands or even millions in other less free countries.

As much as you might like to see a "dieoff" in the USA or elsewhere, absent some truly overwhelming disaster like several nuclear weapons being detonated in cities, I just don't think it's likely in the developed world.

Much more likely is that things just turn shitty and hard. Consider the transition in the former communist countries - they had a very hard time, but did not have mass famine. People muddled along.

It's unlikely that (for example), the US, all 27 nations of the EU, the Middle East countries, India, China, Japan and so on will all have catastrophic climate events or fossil fuel shortages at the same time.

However, the changes we are creating to the chemistry and heat circulation of the atmosphere and the oceans are day by day increasing the probability of the unlikely happening. For instance, a significant change in climate could occur with the shutdown of thermohaline circulation.

Great Ocean Conveyor Belt

And it's even easier for me to see a fuel shortage occurring worldwide, as do the participants of the Oil Shockwave Simulations. In the simulation they modeled the impact of a damaged pipeline, but as this Wired article points out, there are several energy nodes that, if damaged, would cause big problems:

  • The Abqaiq processing facility

    "The Abqaiq processing facility, located near a Saudi megafield of the same name, desulphurizes two-thirds of the country's oil. That's already made it the target of one thwarted attack in 2006."
  • The Ras Tanura offshore oil terminal

    "An incredible 10 percent of the world's oil goes through the oil terminal at this huge Saudi ARAMCO facility in the Persian Gulf, according to the New Scientist article."
  • The Strait of Hormuz

    "Almost 20 percent of total daily oil production, 16 million barrels, goes through the Straight of Hormuz, which links the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea."
  • The Strait of Malacca

    "The Straight of Malacca, between Sumatra and Singapore, is even narrower at less than two miles, yet 15 million barrels of oil (18 percent of global oil) pass through it."

And the author of a New Scientist article on energy notes that "Most industrialised countries keep an emergency reserve as a first line of defence, but in the face of worldwide panic buying this may not be enough."

I think an under-appreciated and under-discussed topic is the increased difficulty we will have with disasters of all sorts in a post peak world. As dependent as we are on fossil fuels for transporting all things, including relief workers and food, the response to a modern potato blight, for instance, might be significantly hampered as oil availability (and the ability of relief agencies and governments to pay for it) declines.

In my public talks here in the Bay Area I have begun showing earthquake simulations as I discuss Energy Descent. Only 5% of our population has an earthquake kit, according to my local county disaster chief (Marin County and the Bay Area). The animation I show is the Hayward Fault with an epicenter near Santa Rosa and I show it to wake people up to risk of which they are unaware or they ignore.

Where you see resilience, I see great fragility. In my view, it is quite possible that we become completely overwhelmed from any number of post-peak disasters, whether it is due to crop failure, earthquakes, fossil fuel disruption or pandemics.

If you want a strong argument about the importance of a few facilities or places, rather than saying X% of world production, you're better off referring to Y% of traded oil. After all, if (say) Hormuz gets shut by war, we're not going to find that Saudi Arabia has 20% less oil, are we? But the strait takes almost 40% of the world's traded oil. This makes it more important to the world than suggested by a simple % of production.

That aside, you're quite right that a series of different crises may cause a collapse. It's the same as a person's life. A man who loses his wife but keeps his children, job, friends and hobbies will be able to go on. A man who loses his wife and children and job and friends and hobbies will probably crack.

Likewise, we can deal with an economic crisis, or an environmental one, or a political or military one, and so on. But two or more together cause great strain.

So really it's not resilience or fragility; it's simply that while our systems are resilient, there are limits to what they can deal with. The UN's definition of "disaster" is a crisis which overwhelms the ability of the locals to deal with it. A housefire is a disaster for the householder, but not for the town they live in. A tsunami is a disaster for a country, but not for the world. This is simply because one can deal with the crisis and the other can't.

Looking through history, we have many more predictions of general collapse than we have examples of it. It's amazing what people can struggle through. Nonetheless, everyone has their limits.

Where exactly those limits are is hard to predict beforehand. While I think we're more resilient than you give us credit for, I'm not keen to test it. I would rather not have climate change and resource depletion. But these are fairly easily avoidable - "easy" in the sense that we do actually know what to do, and it need not lead to a miserable life for all. We just need to sort our shit out.

Hear hear

Thanks for all the comments that I received so far. As I said in the text, not being Irish myself, I was a bit afraid that the real Irish would unleash the leprechauns on me for what I wrote. Seems not to be the case - so far....

I see that some people are perplexed at the link that I propose of deforestation and famine. I understand the perplexity but, please, note (again) that there is no such a thing as a direct causation link in a complex system; there are only forcings and feedbacks. In my opinion, deforestation was both an economic and a physical forcing. Physical because it paved the way to erosion, economic because it provided the resources for agricultural development and population growth. Quite possibly, the economic forcing was the most important. But, of course, the link is indirect. In any case, overpopulation was the main feedback of the economic forcing of deforestation and you could say that overpopulation "caused" the famine. The point I try to make is that there are deeper interactions within the system.

I'm simply not convinced that you've made a compelling case for either deforestation or overpopulation - that is, Ireland was, as I understand it, exporting enough food to feed most of its population, had it had full access to its own food stores. Among other sources, the Oxford History of Britain makes this claim. I appreciate the value of this article, and the effort involved, but can a region that can support its population be said to be overpopulated? The requirement for export (and this is often characteristic of modern famines - Ethiopia was exporting grain during the famine of the 1980s) suggests that they may, in fact, have been over-colonized more than overpopulated.

Again, that might make an even better parallel to our present situation.

That said, neither factor is good, and both could be called major contributing factors - but I'm not sure it is sufficient to focus on them to the exclusion, say of colonization (which, a quick look at my demographic references suggests also contributed some of the overpopulation - populations tend to become unstable due to increased pressure for new laborers during colonial periods, as Vandana Shiva has demonstrated in re: India.)


Ethiopia ... may, in fact, have been over-colonized more than overpopulated.

Agreed that perhaps foreign merchants may have been what you describe as colonizers, but I'd suspect it would be just as likely that the merchants involved were local, and long-term local. The Irish peasantry's experiences in the 18xx famines were far less attributable to "colonization by foreigners" than to "unfairly unequal access to the product of their labours and lands", a situation which has often caused just as much difficulty for local peasantry's at the cores of large colonial empires as for those out at the edges. See history of France around Louis XV XVI, Russia under Tsars, etc. etc. ad nauseum. See also poverty in modern North America.

Is death by starvation the only inequalty worth addressing? How about inadequate shelter for a family in a cold climate? (No jokes re peak energy please. We DO have the knowledge to adequates house to a livable standard, all people).

My point is, too often, "foreign colonization" is scapegoated when the culprit is much deeper and more sinister.

I'm simplifying a bit, as I don't want to write another book about the famine, but I have to admit I find many of the comments relating to this article quite extraordinary. But maybe it's because I've studied; history and economics and have been to Ireland several times and actually done research in London, Dublin and Cork into the origins and course of the famine.

Dforestation didn't cause the famine. Overpopulation didn't cause the famine. There was no shortage of food, only food the Irish peasants could afford. This article is, sorry, a form of vulgar Malthus, and I'm quite a fan of Malthus. His theories actually influenced thinking in London about how one dealt with the poor, poverty and hunger, which didn't help the Irish at all. The ruling ideology was that basically the poor were always going to be there and it was a shame, but there was nothing much one could do about it, and death and desease were pretty much "natural."

There is no causal link here at all, between deforestation and the famine. When the potato blight ended Ireland still produced and exported masses of food to England, yet the rural population had been drastically reduced, and ever really recovered. The rural economy was almost ruined for generations, but people weren't starving, not because their numbers had fallen so they were in "balance" with the production of food, the overall production of food was not the problem, repeat - not a problem! The potato blight was the immediate problem followed by the transfer of agricultural resources to England, and chronic British mismanagement of the Irish economy, which was sacrificed in brutal colonial relationship, that benefitted the colonial power at the expense of Ireland. Why do you all think the British occupied Ireland? It wasn't for the climate, it was to steal everything they could lay their hands on, and damn the consequences for the Irish!

These kind of "famines" were an integral part of the colonialist/imperialist system and occured in other colonies, for example India. Where millions also died due to colonial mismanagement, and forcing India to think in terms of export rather than providing for their own population. Ireland was not unique, though unique in Europe at this time. The blight also hit england, only the British rural population didn't starve like the Irish because they weren't as reliant on potatoes, not that hard to understand is it?

The twisted and perverted economic relationship between the occupied colony, Ireland, and the exploiting, impirialist, colonizing, great power, England, caused the famine. Repeat and remember. There was plenty of food in Ireland, only most of it was going to England, so when the only crop the poor could really afford, the potato failed, people starved. This isn't rocket science, it's elementary level colonial history for dummies.

These kind of "famines" were an integral part of the colonialist/imperialist system

My problem with your thesis is this statement. You go on as though we would solve all world problem by simply halting colonialism. Would that fix today's Zimbabwe? What is the difference between there and 1850's Ireland, from people's POV?

The issues goes much deeper than just the simplistic label "colonialism".

Zimbabwe was a relatively profitable, stable (if not equal) country before Mugabe decided to turn it into his personal piggy bank, ragdoll.

So your point is??

not every problem is systematic, sometimes you just have a strong single point of damage that comes in and wreaks havoc. Zimbabwe's problems are similar to the problems of colonialism. Its all about a small group taking power from everyone else.

I wrote "were" an integral part of the colonialist/imperialist system - the past tense! Today the relationships are more complex. There is nothing simple about the concepts of colonialism or imperialism, not in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and certainly not today, when these concepts have been transformed and are far more subtle. Though I would contend we are entering a new phase of colonialism/imperialism, the return of blatant and bloody imperialsim with Iraq and Afghanistan as prime examples, Somalia also springs to mind, the attacks on Yugoslavia were almost a dry-run for the new "liberal, humanitarian, imperialism."

I don't really know why there's so much emphasis on Zimbabwe and it's problems. I've got no time for Mugabe. He's a ruthless, incompetent, dictator. But Britain, again, does have some responsibility for the crisis. Zimbabwe beleived they had a deal with Britain based on the peace agreement at the end of their war of independence. Basically, Britain agreed to pay compensation to white farmers in a phased change-over and transfer of the best land to black farmers. White farmers, due to the colonial system controlled most of the best land and the biggest and most productive farms. This caused a lot of tension in Zimbabwe. Anyway the negotiations broke down and the compensation deal collapsed. The regime in Zimbabwe then began taking over the farms by force. Instead of confrontation one could have designed a agreement so that the farms were owned by the state, but the white farmers stayed on in a consultative capacity lasting years, their "wages" paid for by Britain, which made substantial profits from their Rhodesian colony over the decades. Anyway this deal collapsed and the fault was not all on Mugabe's side.

It's easy to demonize a guy like Mugabe. In the West we've turned him into a characture of a mad, bad, typical African dictator. It's a role he fills well. I think we need people like Mugabe to concentrate on, we concentrate on bad individuals, instead of the wider and complex "neo-colonial" relationship the West has with Africa, which has kept Africa poor for decades, but that's another story.

we concentrate on bad individuals, instead of the wider and complex "neo-colonial" relationship the West has with Africa, which has kept Africa poor for decades

This begs the question of why Africa was so poor that it was easily colonized in the first place, but I doubt that such questions fit into your narrative.

You're implying that I'm letting "ideology" colour my "narrative" this is untrue. I'm in fact doing the opposite. Historical reality is what influencing by narrative. I am not forcing reality into an ideological box.

Africa wasn't "poor" at all. It was very rich which is why the Europeans coveted it in the first place. What characterised "Africa", and this is simplifying, was it's relative lack of technological development, primarilly in the field of modern weapons. And the colonisation of Africa wasn't easy, it was hard and very, very, bloody, especially for the Africans.

You remind me of the story of the blind men and the elephant. what you say is generally correct, but it is not the whole elephant. Yes, Ireland was a colony and the English had no interest in the well being of the Irish. Yes, it is what we call today "imperialism" - stealing everything from an occupied country is the normal way of doing things all over history - we are still doing it. Yes, the English didn't starve, even though the potato blight hit England as well; of course they didn't starve, they weren't some other kingdom's colony!! And, yes, colonies were normally managed so efficiently (in terms of "cash crop" production) at the times of plantations that their economy had no resilience at all: the smallest perturbation caused famines. Yes, it is all true. But it is also true that the destruction of the physical resources of the land had caused this lack of resilience. Everything is of this story is linked in a complex chain of feedbacks; there is no single "cause" for what happened. Deforestation was just the starting point, then, as I mentioned in another comment; if Ireland had been an independent state, the government could have acted to reduce the damage, as it was done in Tuscany after the great deforestation in 15th and 16th century. But Ireland was a colony and so.....

Nice article, Ugo, thanks.

So is the world worse for the Irish potato famine?

The overshoot's the tragedy, it just doesn't feel like the tragedy. And humans were not the big losers by a longshot. In the case of overshoot, it seems "the sooner the better" may be the lesson as far as population crash is concerned. Disease, famine, and war are just the gritty details of winding down.

There's the "social monkey" aspect of famine and the rational overview. It's a bad way to go from a human point of view since it extends suffering.

I realize this is a rather trivial and unoriginal observation, but would like to see famine more closely tied in human thinking to overshoot. The "green revolution" will, one way or another, be the cause of the biggest human famine in earth's history.

Getting a slow start today and figured some down arrows might spice up the morning.

Greenish, it doesn't compute. Being aware of overshoot, over-population doesn't absolve you from basic humanity.

Personally, I suspect about half of us will die in the first wave of collapse, possibly followed by more halvings.

Nevertheless, as a human being, I cannot discount my need to give succour to the needy. Feeding your kids, your family, friends and strangers is one of the most satisfying things a human being can do.

We both know lots of people are going to go hungry and die. That doesn't stop us from helping those we can, and we need to help each other if we want to remain sane through the long way down.

We are a social monkey, and we like being friendly to strangers, if we feel we can trust them.

We are a social monkey, and we like being friendly to strangers, if we feel we can trust them.

Monkeys have tails, apes don't. We're an African cannibal ape. Since we can recognize strangers it may pay to behave altruistically towards them, so long as we can expect our altruism to be reciprocated. More often it will pay to eat strangers, and to distribute excess meat to those related to us, in proportion to the degree of relatedness. Xenophobia is a human universal precisely because in the environment of ancestral adaptation, strangers were likely to be out to eat one's kids. So don't trust them. Eat them before they eat you. "Noble" sentiments are touching but what it comes down to is Darwinian fitness. Your own, not that of individuals who don't share your genes. Not prepared to accept these realities? Maybe you'll be among the first to die and thereby not have to.

Lukitas, who speaks of absolution? I refer to frames of reference. I experience monkey angst to the same degree as anyone else, and am as horrified on a personal by the human toll of famine. It "feels good" for me to feed the needy as well. Just like it "feels good" to reproduce. On a human emotional level it feels bad that I chose to have no kids. On a human security level it feels bad that I gave my assets and time to the less fortunate.

But doing what feels good is the problem, eh? I think that our collective actions will be based on what "feels good", and that they will thereby greatly err.

great answer. thanks.


Sorry to sound so harsh with you. Please accept my apologies.

I think your article was very interesting and over a longer timescale it has validity in many respects. However, I do not think it's a correct explanation for the Irish famine. It may have been a contributory factor, but the main cause was the blight that destroyed the potato crop which was the staple food of the peasants. Of course in wasn't the only cause in isolation. Famines are never that simple, but it's difficult not to make the most important connections. Blight, no potatoes, people die in hundreds of thousands, the state is complacant, incompetent, steeped in laissez-faire economic dogma. There's nothing simple about that chain of events is there?

Furthermore, did deforestation, lack of resilience, influence the British government's attitude and lack of real action to mitigate the effects of the famine?

What I concluded and learned from my research into the history of the Irish famine was how similar public, bureaucratic, and political attitudes to the disaster were then and now. Sometimes one thinks one is reading contemporary accounts of modern famines, or the problem of world hunger. We still, mostly, look at the symptoms of world hunger, instead of underlying, root causes. Also there was the similar attitude that the problems in Ireland were simply too big and the state was overwhelmed, it basically gave up. It reminded me of the initial US reaction to hurricane Katrine and the disaster in New Orleans. We give up and have a tendancy to let "nature" take it's course when faced with enormous and multi-faceted challenges.

Writerman, no need to apologize. The fact is that the Irish famine has a strong emotional effect on us (many of us, at least). Think of me: I am not Irish, my only claim of irishness is that I love Guinness beer. And yet I spent so much time researching on this story. But it is because, as I said, I see in it a mirror of ourselves and our times. So, maybe I am wrong in my interpretation, as you say. There are surely many other interpretations. I just did my best.


I agree, mostly, about other interpretations, being possible. History, perhaps doesn't really exist, at least not anymore, it's over. The past, may always be a foreign country to us. A friend of mine that teaches history at in Israel, and that is really a minefield! thinks that history isn't really about "truth" or "facts" at all, and probably can't be on philosophical level. It's really about the ideology of the historian! This, of course, could be seen as an extreme point of view, and it's acutally more complex and nuanced than it sounds on paper. I don't think I really agree with him. Though I appreciate his attitude to ideology. I suppose he means that the only reality we really can "know" is now, and history exists now, not in the past.

I think striving to do one's best is an admirable quality in person, who can ask for more? I feel guilty that I might have unintensionally insulted you. If I have I apologise. It wasn't so much your article that I objected to, as some of the gushing and uncritical praise heaped on it by people who obviously know next to nothing about the, admittedly complex and controversial, historical relationship between Ireland and England.

Intrestingly there are younger "dissident" historians in Ireland that have questioned the accepted, nationalist, narrative, which traditionally puts the entire blame for Ireland's hisoric woes on British subjugation and imprerialism.

A final, chilling thought, at least for some people, is that, arguably, but for the famine and mass emigration, today Ireland's population would have probably been in excess of thirty million! So the famine didn't just devastate Ireland for decades and severely reduce its population perhaps by as much as a third. To understand the full impact, perhaps on should factor in the tens of millions of Irish people who were never born and had a chance to live?

Yes, Writerman, very interesting points you make. History is fascinating but, perhaps, it doesn't even exist at all and we all look at the past with an ideological attitude. Personally, I tend to be fascinated by those past events that can be seen as a complete cycle: something that started and arrived to some kind of conclusion. One is whaling in 19th century, another is the great famine in Ireland; there are other cases: I am sure that Gibbon and Tonybee (among may others) felt the same kind of fascination for the completed cycle of the Roman empire. So, having a full cycle to look at gives one the feeling that you can understand it. But perhaps it is just an illusion. Thanks for this comment and - again - no need to apologize!

I understand your position and frustration with some of the critiques. All complex systems have tension and release dynamics. Tension building is usually due to positive feedback loops interacting to cause a process of growth that at some point presses against limits. But the limits themselves are not fixed and easy to identify and may include social factors that exacerbate the problem. The lack of resiliency because of the building tension in the system is key. Then it is a matter of a precipitating event of some sort to cause the release of the tension via some form of system collapse.

The precipitating event could be a volcano that fouls the climate that weakens the plants that makes them susceptible to disease all in the context of a people who now find themselves living in a deforested landscape with little economic margin and political capital.


why do do you not answer the main criticism he points at your reasoning: that the Irish weren't starving because their country didn't produce enough food, but rather beacuse this food was exported to England?
A country that exports food on a large scale can hardly be described as beeing in "overshoot" or even overpopulated.

Nigeria exports oil I dare say your comments apply to them. In fact I'd suggest you should consider migrating to the nirvana that is Nigeria.

Sorry to be harsh but the argument is stupid.

I am sorry, there are too many comments. And when you wrote; it was 3 a.m, here! Anyway, about this specific question, all the studies say that even if all exports of food out of Ireland had been stopped, it wouldn't have been enough to cope with the famine; even though surely it would have helped. In the end, it was not a black and white story: the fact that food was exported to England was part of the way the Irish economy was set up, it was not easy to change it. It was a tangle of factors, not a single one, that somehow converged all together to kill a million people right a way. It is bad, of course, but it seems to happen all the time

I wondered about that as I read your gem quality post Ugo.

The question that actually jumped up in front of me was 'how much did Ireland's food exports fall as its population evaporated?' It would seem food exports would have fallen much more dramatically than the population did as a great portion of those who did not actually starve to death would have been in very sad shape and not been much of an asset to the crop for export business. If exports did not drop significantly faster than the population did some other major factor must have been in play. All the guns in the British army could not confiscate food that wasn't there because there were not enough able bodied people to grow it.

Yes, and to simply say that any country that exports food could feed itself during a famine isn't nearly enough to go on. How much food was exported and by how much was the local population short? If the two are equal, the argument holds. If they aren't, famine occurs unless food can be imported.

Regardless of the contribution of deforestation to the famine, there is still a valuable lesson here regarding relying on monotonic food sources. If I'm not mistaken, across the US, thousands of farmers plant use the exact same seed each year. This is kindling for a agricultural flash fire. Whether it ever gets ignited becomes a element of chance, and you never want to put yourself in a position of constantly playing Russian roulette with your food source. Should a blight arise, it could wipe out vast amounts of corn or wheat, and while we might have enough, millions could starve to death around the planet as a result. To prevent this, we (the U.S. dept. of Ag.) should pass regulations mandating crop/seed diversification to prevent more than, say 10% to 25% from being planted with genetically similar stock. And it’s not a small chance. In California, grape vines (table and wine) are grafted onto "native" root stocks that are resistant to native pests (nematodes and phylloxera). However, almost everyone used the same stock developed by U.C. Davis (AxR-1) and when phylloxera "B" emerged in the late 80's that could attack AxR-1, hundreds of thousands of vines were lost.

See: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9E0CE2DD1131F931A2575BC0A...

Unfortunately both the Irish potato blight and the CA phylloxera lessons, almost exactly 100 years apart, seem to be lost on modern agro-business.

Its worse than you think.

How many here know what 'spray coupes' are? Not many I am sure.

Before planting, during planting, during growth in the summer and in the fall spray coupes are all over the fields spraying the crops.

First to 'burn down' weed growth. Roundup for soybeans and corn. Stuff to fight rust, blight and other diseases.

They are spraying weed/grass killers,pesticides,insecticides,herbicides and very toxic brews they are.

And without that , for this is what monoculture ag causes, there would likely be very very dismal yields.

I see the worms and butterflies hovering over and in the milo. Worms in the corn. Rust on the soybeans. On and on...and sometimes it takes two passes over time for just one problem.

They never stop. Right now a soybean rust is moving north. Its appears unstoppable. Massive amounts of certain insects can come on in a few days and destroy a crop very fast.

So when those chemicals are not available? Kiss our food supply goodbye.

I routinely notice dead leaves on trees that are in the fence rows and bordering croplands. The winds carry them there. Cars pass by and clouds of chemicals are floating by. No one knows. No one cares.

Like I said. No one notices this much. Its worse than you think for Ahhmurkan agriculture. Hidden out of sight.

Currently the seed salesmen are out and about getting order for next years crops. I asked one in the office what his thoughts were about
our future,economically,depletion wise and so on.

He just stared at me,shook his head and said" there are always ups and downs". At that I shook my head and left.


I found the top post highly interesting and thank the author (I plan to re-read it.)

The discussion is great as well.

Yet, I agree with writerman. Am also some brand of neo-Malthusian, meaning have nothing against those kinds of arguments. My Irish ancestors, what I know of them - just a few stories, here are the raging leprechauns from their graves! - blamed, as one might expect: the British. (Fill in the rest, enough has been said already.)

I think that some of us tend to get carried away with the very idea of a “Gaia” and hyper complex systems. Lacking precise analysis on a grand scale (even the flora and fauna of my small patch of ground 1900-2008 gives me a headache) everything is linked to everything else, and one can pick out relationships and make much of them.

The proximate causes - potato blight, the velocity of money decreasing, etc. ad infinitum - often seem somewhat trivial, not sufficiently explanatory, and have their own presumed causes, etc. in endless loops. So we look further and may get lost.

To my mind, what is often neglected are the socio-political systems that regulate and drive production, exchange, distribution and re-distribution (i.e. 'the economy') in favor of material, physical happenings or outcomes (which are certainly crucial and have to be charted and understood.)

At the other end of the pole, the input into the system, one of its driving forces, if one wills, one finds weak explanations/predictions that rest on some particular views of human nature, epistemic or individualistic, as if it was a ‘given’; these veer between hubris (e.g. technotopists, human resilience), inshallah, Nature will have its way, or psychological doomerism (it’s greed, baby, greed, human nature - primitive social Darwinism.)

And between the two - our own idiocy or brilliance - and the catastrophic or pretty fair results, there is a lot of theorizing, mostly in the shape of appeal to traditional models of societal organisation, such as the ‘tribe’ vs. Communism vs. Social Democracy vs Benevolent Dictatorship vs Corporatism or Fascism, etc., all of it quite steterotyped and not much use.

Hi Ugo

Jared Diamond addressed in is book 'collapse' some of the environmental issues around uncontrolled population growth.

But In ireland's particular case, there was agriculture going on for 5000 years, and the lake-bed-sediment cores (pollen studies) that i've seen suggest a fairly gradual deforestation (initially low hill-tops for grazing) and introduction of cultivars. (paywall)

The proximate cause of the population crash (a mixture of starvation, disease, emigration and military action) was the potato blight, exacerbated by its role as principal food-crop, and being a monoculture.

However it canot be assumed that this would have happened without the british empire colonising ireland and turning it into a food-exporting colony.

Therefore, from an irish perspective, the famine and population crash is seen as a consequence of defeat by a hostile foreign military power.

It is not knowable, but is possible that without this interference, we irish, ruling ourselves instead of being ruled, could have done something different.

But we lost control, to the invader; the invader destroyed our culture and language, and with this went not only customs and vocabulary but also a rich store of 'ways of being' in our enviroment, of stories and knowledge gathered empirically over 5000 years of how to survive here.

So Ireland might not be the best cautionary tale of deforestation (I'm sure there are many others, e.g. middle east), but IS a cautionary tale about losing autonomy and losing cultral heritage.

Contrast the deforestation of Ireland which has a excellent fit with HL and MRC wells pulling attic oil and ponder the consequences.

Yes; deforestation in Ireland had started well before the English invasion. It is a guess that being invaded made it worse. I can only compare with the case of Tuscany, where the government acted strongly against deforestation in a similar condition. But it was an independent government. So, history is rich of examples and in the end it tells us that we always do the same mistakes

I suppose, after the above two comments, it's now incumbent on me to state what I think IS the sinister "real" problem. I'm not yet entirely clear on it though i've pondered it for decades. As near as I can tell, I think the problem is a combination of a) people de-valuing people of different cultures and ethnicities b) an economic system which often incorrectly sets values on individual contributions.

These two have often clearly manifested themselves in colonial situations historically, but never exclusively. Obviously education and communication, combined with good influences from cultural leaders, can address item a). b) is much tougher. It seems humanity has not yet discovered the proper method to set values on exchanges of goods and services. Result is many proponents of withdrawal from the exchange market, eg. grow your own food on your own suburban plot, but that's stepping backward rather than progress. I think perhaps a large part of present problems with the "free market" system is that it provides no inherint means to value i) leisure ii) externalities.

Perhaps if we as a whole worked on these issues a little, we might do better.

Money has a strange relationship to the things money buys. Money buys commodities, labour and bets.
Commodities lose value at differing rates: bread moulds in a few days, iron rusts over years, houses crumble, but a dollar remains a dollar for ever (so to speak;).
Labour, which can be defined as human energy over time, is worth dollars. Pricing labour is a very iffy endeavour: some charge fortunes for time spent talking or reading, most gain not quite enough for time spent sweating.
Bets are crazy: I predict X will happen, and I'm ready to pay if it doesn't. or like this: I'll pay you a little every month, and if ever X should happen you'll pay me a lot.
Money pays for pain and loss, money buys pleasure and power.

If I wasn't convinced it is quite too late, it would be nice to try Silvio Gesell's devaluating money: Currency loses 1% of value every week, making savings senseless and work paramount. (see http://www.utopie.it/pubblicazioni/gesell.htm)
The system was tried in Wörgl, Austria before the second world war. It looked quite successful, before it was forbidden.

It sounds like a trial run for the Zimbabwe dollar.

About the only thing that a depreciating currency would do is make people use other things as a store of value.

Off on a tangent - Money is a poor measure of anything.

It is all encompassing and put to so many uses:

A medium of exchange, thus a shifting measure of ‘value’ in transactions; a store of value, accumulating for the future from past actions/wealth, allowing both hoarding and the planning of future transactions; and a good or commodity in itself, which can be rented, lent, exploited for power and prestige without being ‘spent’ etc. to mention just its main official, or accepted, uses.

All that at once is a bit much for one symbolic, representational system to take on simultaneously.

Our other universal or accepted symbolic systems are mostly measures of physical, materially embodied dimensions, all constructed through human abstract reasoning, i.e. mathematics cum semantic categories - light years, meters, speeds, no. of sheep, the volume of a barrel, description of elements, etc. etc.

Even speech, or language, is much of the time (not always) represented by figuring sound waves, digested into phonemes, and clumsily translated into ink traces or now pixels.

The measures or transcriptions may not be optimal and lead to confusion, and are under perpetual review, they evolve, but the underlying physicality (sound waves, composition of elements, sheep in the field, volume of a 'pint', light years...) and human analysis and transcription methods (number system, with all its extensions) are not questioned today, and haven’t been so for many hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

Nobody can state exactly what money represents. And that is the sinister real problem, from one pov.

Very interesting article. The landscape shown is not typically Irish, but is typical or Northwestern, Western and South Western areas of Ireland, areas that are close to the Atlantic. There are also upland areas which are very similar. Much of Ireland is good farming land. The idea that an eruption in Iceland might be causally related should be checked by asking the Armagh Observatory if they have any records. The proximate cause of the Great Famine WAS the potato blight; at least three successive harvests were affected. The area of Ireland west of river Shannon was heavily populated and almost completely dependent on the potato as their principal food source. Areas east of Shannon and in the south were much less affected by the famine. The deforestation idea is also interesting, particularly with respect to the areas mentioned above, thin soils and strong persistent prevailing winds. Also Ireland was almost completely covered during the ice age, and the scene pictured is typical of that left by a retreating glacier. Lots of things to think about and consider. By the way Ireland was NEVER a British colony - we were, until 1922, part of Great Britain with elected representatives in the Commons and Irish peers sitting in The Lords. The Nationalist Party was a strong and forceful group in Westminster.

Brian Woods

Ireland was NEVER a British colony

Go mo leiscéal a Bhríon, ach tá tú as fo cheann. Cad a mbhíonn tú ag chatach?

What have you been smoking?

Quick history:
- 0BC - romans invaded, colonised britain
- 200AD - romans left; anglo, saxon, jute colonists arrive from germany/denmark area
- 900AD - vikings turn up in numbers, parts of ireland (dublin, wexford) and normandy
- 1000AD - normans conquer britain
- 1200AD - more normans conquer vikings in dublin etc
- 1300-1500 - norman settlers assimilate in ireland
- 1500-1700 - more english arrive, conquer norman-gaelic state
- 1700-1920 - ireland run "for profit" by english as a cash cow. numerous uprisings, rebellions, revolutions, etc etc ulimately partially successful.
- 1920+ - "post-colonial" status leaves ireland nominally independent, but ruling elite (the 'golden circle') mostly hail from the ranks of the descendants of colonists and conquerors, speak english as mother tongue, have intimate economic and political realations with britain, etc etc.

For example, who owns and runs irish mass media? is it
a) swedish/french socialist consortia?
b) nationalist gaelic groups with deep respect for unique irish history and culture?
c) people educated in british 'public school' system with links to the british right-wing?

here's your coat.


Fortune on offer for local papers

John Taylor, MP, 'Lord Kilclooney'
'Far Right' Monday Club
Declared Interests
* Tontine Rooms Holding Co. Ltd.; publishing and printing;
* Tyrone Courier Ltd.; publishing.
* Ulster Gazette Ltd.; publishing.
* Carrickfergus Advertiser Ltd.; publishing.
* Ulsternet (NI) Ltd.; internet services.
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Irish times Editor G. Kennedy, ex-TD, ex editor

'Sir' Tony O'Reilly, british subject, Knight of the british empire

Interesting history line. Colonies are not run by the natives, but by their masters. Ireland (the island that is) was mostly run by 'ourselves'. We had our own devolved Houses of Commons and Lords - but Wales and Scotland did not - until recently that is. Ok, so we lost our self-government 1799 - but we obtained elected representatives to the Westminster Commons instead, and later in the same century the Anglican Church was dis-established and the 'land question' was essentially settled. Did these things happen in Britain? Ireland was not a colony; we had our own civil administration in Dublin. Please contrast us to India - a genuine colony. Very different governance. Read J.J. Lee, Michael Laffan and Nicholas Manseragh. Actually I do not smoke - like a drop of Bushmills though!

B P Woods

Very interesting article. The landscape shown is not typically Irish, but is typical or Northwestern, Western and South Western areas of Ireland, areas that are close to the Atlantic. There are also upland areas which are very similar. Much of Ireland is good farming land. The idea that an eruption in Iceland might be causally related should be checked by asking the Armagh Observatory if they have any records. The proximate cause of the Great Famine WAS the potato blight; at least three successive harvests were affected. The area of Ireland west of river Shannon was heavily populated and almost completely dependent on the potato as their principal food source. The deforestation idea is also interesting, particularly with respect to the areas mentioned above, thin soils and strong persistent prevailing winds. Also Ireland was almost completely covered during the ice age, and the scene pictured is typical of that left by a retreating glacier. Lots of things to think about and consider. By the way Ireland was NEVER a British colony - we were, until 1922, part of Great Britain with elected representatives in the Commons and Irish peers sitting in The Lords. The Nationalist Party was a strong and forceful group in Westminster.

Brian Woods

Thanks for the comment. Indeed, Ireland never was a British colony, formally. I said "the first British colony" because after Cromwell's conquest it was managed for a long time, in practice, as a colony - at least in economic terms.

The previous posts regurgitate books instead of reflecting basic research. "Famine" and "blight" are misnomers if applied to 1845-1850 Ireland. See my irishholocaustdotorg web site and click on its (copyrighted) map. Its data on the 75 British regiments that removed Ireland's foods at gunpoint I transcribed from the Deployment of the Army records in Britain's Public Record Office in Kew Gardens. My map shows which regiment starved which Irish district. Also; check my death toll math applied to the census records.

Thats the difference between what started a problem and why the problem grew.

A fire starts with a spark a conflagration destroys a city.

Again don't get caught int the details of functional form. If a collapse is possible it may happen.

Lets look at it in reverse any thing on a long enough timescale is Guassian everything averages out.

You job is to determine if the timescale of interest is Guassian or not.

If its not it becomes interesting to a Mathematicians I'd assert that WHT is a mathemetician thus
his use of a petubation theory he calls a shock model.

Seeing if WHT is reading :)

What it really is is a perturbation on a Guassian thus cannot handle hyperexponetial forcing fucntions
on a chaotic regime. I.E he cannot reproduce TSHTF and more with the shock model since the shocks cannot change
the underlying distribution.

A correct model would have on a precentage basis the step function i.e 100% to 0%.

What your talking about is a initiated feedback condition that changes the outcome.
I.e the shock changes the underlying functional form.

WHT does not evolve his basis function.

To translate this to english TSHTF can translant to the fan throwing a blade and becoming
imbalances and exploding which is hyperexponential.

Suffice it to say step functions are not impossible. The slope of the cliff can be 90 degrees.

Politicians have no fooking clue how bad things can get left unattended.

Bullets tend to change the underlying condition to live or dead.

If the info at http://www.irishholocaust.org/ is correct it is not the difference between what started the problem and why it grew. The removal of the majority of foods from Ireland by a large and powerful army was the sole cause of the famine. If it was not for the occupation of Ireland the Irish would have been eating all of the other foods they were producing and not just potatoes. And those other foods were more than enough to sustain the population. Especially if you add in the potatoes that were being taken away too.

Ugo's article claims that soil degradation through deforestation caused conditions that prevented Ireland from growing much of anything besides potatoes. But apparently Ireland was producing plenty of grain, fruits and other vegetables and raising much livestock. And there was a long list of registered merchant ships hauling it away under the protection of an occupying army 75 regiments strong.

I suppose you think the current rampant malnutrition and starvation in Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Haiti, North Korea, the Congo, etc. are mostly due to ecological factors and little to do with political considerations?

I would argue that the ecological and population pressures are greater in China then most of the above named countries and yet starvation is not rampant in China.

I agree that environmental degradation and over population could eventually lead to starvation but political factors come into play first. And political factors are also largely responsible for environmental degradation and over population.

Forest vs the Trees.

This article is a perfect example coupled with your response of why our civilizations collapse over and over again.

How to say it does it really matter what collapses us its fairly obvious that he has set up the underlying contraints on the underlying situation correctly. Just like peak oil will not be the cause of our collapse I've said so many many times. Its the constraint that absolutely ensures collapse. In this article the constraint is 100% accurate its the real reason for collapse the underlying political system just works to determine the timing of collapse its not the cause.

Given the situation outlined Ireland would have collapsed with our without the British occupation thats a secondary detail not the cause.
Cannot you not see this ?

Once its certain its certain the route it takes to happen is irrelevant that just changes the time.

Why do you care so much about the events that determined when a collapse happens take any of the issues mentioned in this article and remove them and the potato famine simple does not happen. Put them in and it does.

The British only worked to set up a situation that ensured certain collapse they did not cause it at best their actions where part of the timing.

Just like each of us as individuals regardless of our status face certain death time is irrelevant when you can see its obvious the deck is stacked against you.

Forget about times and paths thats not even important for complex systems we care because we have short lifespans.
What matters is if we have set up a system thats going to collapse and this collapse will reverberate through time and countless generations just like the Irish potato famine its effects are still with us today.

Can you look beyond your short little lifespan and your focus on time to see the forest for the trees ?

I am dumbfounded that people here can call this article science. It is nothing of the sort. Merely idle speculation. It is impossible to attribute this 'collapse' to deforestation when other major factors such as an army of occupation come into play.

And your claim that it would have happened sooner or later anyway is rubbish. You can not know how events would have unfolded in absence of an army of occupation. And it is not an experiment that can be run.

It is well established that excessive deforestation can degrade some landscapes. But that is insufficient to say it caused or was even a factor in this 'collapse'. It is also possible to clear forest from land and then sustainably farm the same land for eons. The outcome depends on countless factors from the nature of the land and climate and the agricultural methods practised.

There is no analysis here of what percentage of Ireland's land was degraded in carrying capacity by loss of forest or to what degree. There is no analysis or correlation of where land was degraded by deforestation and where starvation was greatest. Chris Fogarty's map though does indicate that the areas where folks starved were the areas under occupation by British troops. Norther Ireland not subjected to a hostile occupation did not have starvation.

Memmel, if you ever decide to get an education I highly recommend you take an introduction to science course and one in basic logic.

My previous reply was done hastily while in a state of annoyance.

After reflection I think further explanation is in order.

"Deforestation was not the direct cause of the Great Irish famine of mid 19th century, but it was the start of a chain of events that led to it. In this article, I show the condition of "overshoot" that Ireland was in at the time of the famine has much in common with the "overshoot" condition our world is in today."

The above is worded too strongly. There is an assumption that Ireland was in overshoot but that is undemonstrated. Overshoot implies resource depletion such as deforestation but the over exploitation of one or even many resources does not imply overshoot. The following statement from the article is much better.

"The point that I'll discuss in the rest of this article is the hypothesis that Ireland in the 19th century was a case of overshoot followed by collapse."

"One of these positive feedbacks was the creation of arable land and the consequent increase in agricultural production. That, in turn, generated an economic boom that led to a population explosion."

Here is another whopper. The article states elsewhere that the Irish peasantry (the vast majority of the population) were impoverished living under the British yoke. It wasn't an economic boom that lead to the population explosion. This is a pattern we see today. The highest growth rates occur in places in economic distress. And economic distress occurs in places where there is exploitation.

Consider the following statement and realize the population of England was far greater than that of Ireland. How can one make this statement and yet be so sure this was merely a case of overshoot and not a case of death occuring under colonial exploitation?

"Historians have calculated that during the first half of the 19th century, Ireland provided more than 10% of all food available in England, including high quality food such as meat and butter. The Irish, instead, had to content themselves with potatoes--easy to cultivate and providing an abundant harvest."

"But, surely, the British government had no interest in depopulating a colony that was producing plenty of food for England. Rather, the English simply were indifferent to what looked to them just like one more of the recurrent Irish famines."

I find the above extraordinary and offensive. The enormous factor that a military occupation might have played in the famine can not be dismissed with speculation. There are countless cases of significant population losses under occupation and colonization.

In summary I would say that today we see a world with many resources being rapidly depleted. Humanity is not living sustainably. But does that mean we are in overshoot? Much of the worst resource depletion has not been done for true need but for want, for greed, for needless wasteful consumption. We blame the poor and the exploited for their woes. We blame their poverty on their excessive populations and their unconstrained growth. But our lifestyles are non-negotiable as are the even more excessive lifestyles of our elite ruling classes that make the policy and frame our thinking.

I think the earth would be healthier with a smaller human population. But we could be making tremendous strides immediately towards a healthier planet if all of the people currently alive made sustainability a top priority. Here in the US, "defense" is clearly our top priority based on government spending. If/when humanity experiences collapse it would take some twisted logic to lay the blame on the least powerful members of human society for having bred too much and chopped down too many trees.

But that logic will still be comforting to the powerful. We don't need to change our ways. Those that die first are the ones to blame. It was simply overshoot. It was inevitable. Nothing could have been done. Hand me the remote control. I need to get back to channel surfing. Buurppp.

Your actually missing one of the most important and insidious problems with collapse. As the system collapses you look around you and see that more is possible i.e lets just farm this land or lets make this change and we will be getter.

This can be seen in our EROEI calculations the EROEI cliff is obviously at 1:1 however the problem is societies are very inefficient we see this inefficiency and assume that the only thing that needs to happen is we need to increase our efficiency and all will be well. From what I can see the mainstream media and a lot of posters on the oildrum believe that all thats needed is a switch to EV cars and maybe growing some backyard gardens or other nominally renewable methods and suddenly our problems will disappear.

The above is worded too strongly. There is an assumption that Ireland was in overshoot but that is undemonstrated. Overshoot implies resource depletion such as deforestation but the over exploitation of one or even many resources does not imply overshoot. The following statement from the article is much better.

Right at the very begining the problem is your assuming you have a clue what overshoot is.
You don't you have no idea. You don't understand it.

You know why I know this because we don't know i.e no one does.

The problem is you think you know.

However if you understand the problem you will realize that complex systems go into overshoot well before the even show symptoms of the overshoot condition. The problem is that overshoot is often hidden by expansion. Thus the society can be in overshoot but expansion is allowing the stresses to dissipate. This condition is quite different from a sustainable society that is expanding.

As and example its fairly obvious that when the settlers first arrived in the New World that it probably could readily support a larger sustainable population. What this number should be is certainly up for debate but needless to say by any metric and with basically any reasonable lifestyle the new world was fairly sparsely populated.
This new world however served as a safety net for Europe which was in overshoot. The influx of new world timber played a role in decimating the now unneeded forests of Ireland. You can see in this feedback that the saftey valve only served to delay the point in time that the overshoot condition finally resulted in collapse for the entire society. Partial collapses i.e the Irish Famine happened and other terrible problems but the problem of overshoot was never solved.

This defines overshoot as when a society is using resources at a unsustainable rate such that at some point in the future it will become strained and subject to collapse. The other bound is of course when the resource base goes to zero i.e you chop down the last tree on the island. This is when the overshoot condition is finished.
In between these two extremes the society can kick the can down the road so to speak delaying the inevitable collapse but at any single point in time and analysis of the energetics of the society would show that by continuing as it was would eventually result in resource exhaustion.

The overshoot condition for western society started in about 1100 AD as near as I can tell. Effectively the moment it had recovered from the fall of the Roman Empire. This is using my definition of a society consuming resources in and unsustainable manner. Understand that this definition of overshoot is the only one that can be reasonably made since it a fairly simple accounting problem.

One link thats relevant to this time period.


Certainly after the collapse of Rome several hundred years of chaos allowed the forests and lands to recover in addition the populations had not been that large in the northern parts of the empire in the first place.
Given that the initial overshoot was coupled with using wood faster than the forests could be replaced its difficult to determine exactly when the society converted from sustainable to unsustainable living. This has more to do with lack of records then with any technical inability. However intriugly a set of climatic changes are overlaid on the period I assert initiated the unsustainable expansion of Europe.


One can see from the climate signal that the expansion starting in 1100 was probably initially sustainable given the new warmer temperatures but then the gradual cooling forced society into unsustainable expansion to prevent collapse from the now unsustainable expansion from the brief warming period over the continent.

The first collapse came fairly quickly in the form of the Black Plague.


As you can see a society that is in the overshoot conditions collapses when the a correct trigger is pulled.
War and pestilence and or famine are the most common ending conditions.

Now between the initial onset of the modern overshoot era in 1100 and now we have a effectively impossible task of determining when the overshoot conditions lead to collapse. This is when the feedback loops go positive. It really depends on the driving factors and although common themes emerge each collapse has its own unique signature and in almost ever case the collapse has the potential to spread until the entire civilization is destroyed.
The Black death could have readily marked the end of the new European civilization and regrowth of the Roman Empire if the plague had spread differently. Its a rich nexus to speculate about alternative histories.

But the basic point is once a society is in overshoot then its collapse is certain however when it actually collapses is very difficult to determine with the exception that collapse seems to happen well before the society has even fully exhausted its resources. In fact in general it seems that often the societies collapse at the peak of their power or zenith I think this depends on how far ponzi scheme concepts have infiltrated the society and resulted in concentration of wealth. The faster wealth is concentrated the higher the probability the society will collapse at its peak. For Ireland this can be seen in it collapsing with a population that has never been reached since. Also I suspect if we had the numbers Irish exports probably peaked shortly before it collapsed.

This we do have a second bound for collapse that can be accurately determined via HL and its societies tend to collapse when they near peak resource extraction via the logistic curve. They can live past this point but in general its the first alarm point.

Hopefully you will at least realize that this great game has been playing out over one thousand years we have been at it so long that few even realize that the game is ongoing.

Overshoot means the population has grown larger then can be indefinitely sustained. The population is consuming key resources faster then they are regenerated. But the population won't be forced into decline until the quantity of the remaining key resources drops to a level insufficient to sustain the population.

But resource depletion occurs without overshoot. Introduce a new species into an existing ecosystem and the new species can cause one or many extinctions without being in overshoot. The new species may cause extinctions of competitors or even favorite foods long before it reaches its equilibrium population level. Thus resource depletion is insufficient to show overshoot. Humanity which is constantly learning to substitute resources is much like an invasive species. We are rarely if ever in equilibrium with our supporting ecosystems.

Plagues and diseases are also insufficient to indicate overshoot. Disease afflicts populations that are far below their equilibrium level. Small populations with limited genetic variability can be especially susceptible to disease.

Populations can crash by either disease or from other causes without being in overshoot. The passenger pigeon population was enormous but overshoot wasn't the reason for the population crash and extinction. Rather it was being over shot that caused their 'collapse'.

The Norse in Greenland were completely wiped out due to a deteriorating climate. They weren't in overshoot. They might have degraded some of the land that they depended on but there were sufficient resources available to sustain their population. The inuit thrived while the norse died.

I believe humanity has caused tremendous ecological damage to our life support systems and that human population will likely crash. But that does not guarantee that we are in overshoot. Our needs are but a tiny fraction of our wants. Only a tiny fraction of total human energy is directed towards meeting needs. Could we meet the absolute bare minimum needs to support our current population level indefinitely? And even if that's not the case, even if it was only possible to indefinitely sustain a much smaller population collapse still isn't certain. If reproduction is reduced below replacement levels while there are still sufficient non-renewable resources remaining a gradual reduction and transition to a sustainable population/system is within the realm of possibility.

Another possibility is that we manage to not only hold off collapse but manage to sustain an exponential rate of growth by constant technical advancement and the substitution of ever more resources for the ones we wipe out. If we keep this going long enough we could set ourselves up for a crash so big and hard that we completely destroy the planet's ability to support humanity. And that would not just be a tragedy for humanity, it would be a tragedy for Bella, my dog, too!

memmel, you are normally smarter than this.
Here it seems to me that you are completely lost in the woods or among threes if you like.

Long story short : It's a nobrainer that Ireland would have been in a totally different and better off situation with the Englishmen somewhere else.The same goes for Ukraine under Stalin in the 30's

And the Native Americans without the Spanish and then the English and before them the first wave of Indian before the later waves arrived. Concentration of power in the hands of a few is the natural course of events not the abnormal one. Famines are not caused because someone seizes power or a region strips itself of resources its caused because these are all integral parts of a complex system becoming strained and unstable and finally collapsing. Plenty of famines happen with a homogeneous population ask the Chinese.

In fact the civilizations that seem to survive and generally only suffer partial collapse have one thing in common.
They are built in large river deltas and the yearly floods revive the soil. Egypt and the Chinese river civilizations are prime examples although almost all river basins that can flood enough to replenish the soil have stability.

What we find is that stable civilizations seem to have a undercurrent of a renewable source of wealth generally replenishing the soil but you have others like the arctic cultures and that lived off the sea.

Collapsing cultures have a signature that is seen time and time again the resource base is exploited well beyond the capacity of the system in a unsustainable manner this excess wealth leads to concentration of power and this concentration of power causes pressure on the poor to have more children leading to a population explosion as the poor fall into the trap of trying to breed their way to wealth.

And eventually the system collapse but the common theme runs through countless civilizations and thousands of years.

And one thing is clear civilizations based on exploiting resources and concentration of wealth always have exploding populations and they always collapse.

Globilization allows the teeming masses to be safely hidden "over there" so in our world we don't see the misery that supports our wealth but its there and not all that hidden if you care to look. If you follow the trade routes the bulk of the trade is resources and food etc streaming into the wealth nations with very little making it back.

No brainer that they would have been better off without the English ?
Perhaps I have a sneaking suspicion that local tyrants would have filled the void. The English market was simply to close and to tempting.

I'm sure if you dig you will find plenty of Irish who's actions where just as harsh to their fellow Irish as the English.

And I'm not using this to justify the English actions just stating that these situations can and do arise as often in a homogeneous culture as they do in the case of a invasion of some sort. More often then not your simply replacing one tyrant with another. The saga of the African countries shows this playing out in modern times and same in South America. The new tyrants simply adopt the wealth concentration mechanisms put in place by their predecessors. In fact you can actually see this happening right now in India and China as power is concentrated in these countries and Indians and Chinese start using methods that are normally associated with external aggressors against their own people in the endless desire to concentrate wealth at all costs.

I'm actually very interested in the few regions of the world capable of a true sustainable civilization. I'm drawing closer and closer to the conclusion that only small parts of this planet can actually support sustainable civilization. Deforestation as given in this paper highlights how many regions actually cannot support a large population for very long in the historical sense i.e more then a few 100 years 500 at most. Given how small the areas that are naturally sustainable are then it makes sense that populations in the rest of the world would need to aggressively practice sustainable living. So it looks to me like many parts of the world need to practice active sustainability if they want a long term civilization.

In the US for example I've only identified to regions that tend to be able to recover quickly from mans excess and rebound in less then 100 years back to being fertile. Its the pacific north west and the Mississippi river basin.
Not all of it but large parts of the Mississippi/Ohio/Missori river basin system seem to have the flooding regime needed to replenish the soil along of course with rain.

I don't know Europe that well in this sense maybe the Rhone valley ?

Its interesting that any movement away from these "cradle" areas seems to result in eventual exploitation and collapse of the surrounding region. We even have the case of the Iraq where the river valley system was eventually destroyed and the civilization collapsed.

1. Basic research requires a bibliography. Like, essential.

2. Blight destroys crop. No crop, no food! Starvation, ill-health, disease, high death toll!

3. Are you alleging a genocidal campaign on top of a natural disaster? I always understood (in a capitalist economy anyway) that the civil (and military) authorities were there to protect private property against looting.

B P Woods

Everyone shuts their eyes at this sorta stuff. Images like this.

We really at this stage don't give a heap of greased owlshit about other countries. And not too much about our own, you see.

We know folks are dying in Africa.We know that our Green Revolution did a real number on other countries. We don't care.

We are worried about saving a bunch of financial whackos and their brethern the automakers who gave us the iron penius we drive and no other options.


Airdale-glad I still got 3 VW bettles in my barn,not running but can be made to and will be made to if time permits and the smoke from burning the woods in the Amazon don't blind my sight first

Recommended reading:Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World by Mike Davis. Doesn't cover the Irish famine but mainly focuses on India and the indifference of (most of) the British there. My father taught me "we English gave them their railroads". Through this book I learned that we English used the railroads to ship Indian grain to the docks and hence to the UK to feed Lancashire cotton workers (amongst others).


And Ireland's and Britain relationship in the near future?

This article here: http://www.indymedia.ie/article/75517 titled: How Long Before Britain Occupies All of Ireland Again due to Climate Chaos and Peak Oil? explores what the consequences of Peak Oil and Climate Change will be for Ireland and the UK. It suggests that Britain will once again turn its attention back to Ireland simply because it is the most logical thing to do as it is the nearest breadbasket and that the UK with 64 million people is clearly incapable of feeding itself. As globalisation falters, the UK will need to get more of its resources from Ireland again.

Note: 2016 would be exactly 100 years after the 1916 rising which led to the explusion of Britain from Ireland.

A good article, but I think it needs some elaboration.


Poverty and industrialisation
Irish poverty made them have lots of children, because when there is no pension your only provision in old age is your children. And the adoption of the potato let them feed them all. Also, the country was with the rest of the UK (slowly in Ireland) industrialising, so they hoped to have children leave the farm to work and send money back home. But not all of them left, and their inheritance laws meant that land was split evenly between all heirs. These two combined made their farms get smaller and smaller.

Declining acreage
Because the acreage was so small, they had to get the most production out of it. If you have 100 acres for 6 people, then you can afford to have some lie fallow; if you have 2 acres for 6 people, you must put every last bit into production. The Irish themselves tell us,

"In 1845, for example, 24% of all Irish tenant farms were of 0.4 to 2 hectares (one to five acres) in size, while 40% were of 2 to 6 hectares (five to fifteen acres). This included marshland and bogland that could not be used for food production. As a result, holdings were so small that the only crop that could be grown in sufficient quantities, and which provided sufficient nourishment to feed a family, was potatoes."

So because of their small land they grew only potatoes. Whenever you rely on just one crop for your food or livelihood, you're in trouble. If not the blight then some insect or burst of bad weather or whatever. Something will wipe out that crop eventually. Now, if you're growing several other crops then you'll be okay. You have a bad year or two but you live. But if you're growing just one, then you're in trouble.

A chain strong as its weakest link
It's no different to a large family having only one person earning a money income who has their hours cut, or there being only one train line and no roads between two towns and the engine breaks down, or a sick person having only one friend who's willing to help them and that friend is busy that day. When you rely on just one thing, the slightest problem with that one thing puts you in big trouble. (The parallels with our oil and transport in some countries are obvious.)

Had the Irish not already cut down most of their forests in earlier centuries, they certainly would have done so in the 1840s, to open up more land to farm. Things would perhaps not have been as bad, though - if there had been more forests the land would have been more fertile, and they could have planted something other than potatoes. But then they would have cleared the forests, and faced the same problem again a decade or two later.

It's instructive to look at a more recent and surprisingly similar example in Rwanda, talked about by Andre and Platteau in Land Relations Under Unbearable Stress [pdf]. Rwanda has a population density between that of the UK and Netherlands, but those countries have modern agriculture with heavy energy inputs, while the Rwandans have hoes and their own poo for fertiliser.

They have also cleared a lot of their forests to free up agricultural land.

Like the Irish, the Rwandans responded to poverty by having more children in the hopes they'd leave the farms and find non-farm work and send money back home.

Also, the calories per person available from the 1960s onwards went up, mostly because of the adoption of tubers - including potatoes. If you have lots of food but a low money income then you have lots of children in the hopes that these well-fed children will contribute income to the family from non-farm jobs. Again, like Ireland.

However, Rwanda in the 1980s and 1990s under globalisation (our version of the laissez-faire which hurt the Irish, too) was not exactly an industrial powerhouse, so children remained on the farms. There was thus less and less acreage for each person. Again, all these things are like Ireland. And as the acreage declined so did the calories available.

In one area "in 1988, 36% of the sampled households owned less than one fourth of an hectare [...] and, five years later, this proportion had climbed to about 45%." [ibid]

A household with less than 2,500 sq m, and the average household size of 5-6 people, thus about 400-500 sq m or one-tenth an acre per person for food. People went hungry.

This meant that the couple percent of households owning the amazing amount of a bit more than hectare, these families were strongly resented. And of course the small landholders borrowed money and food and acreage from the large landholders, thus there was a growing rich-poor gap ("rich" being very much a relative term), with wealth flowing from the poor to the rich. Again, more resentment.

Deforestation contributed to this, since it made topsoil loose, and floods would commonly wipe out fields. This still happens today, as described here.

The paper I mentioned earlier specifically says that cynical leadership playing on ethnic tensions was the main cause of the conflict. However, they also say that land stress was a contributor. The leadership may have been the spark, and ethnic tensions the tinder, but land stress was at least a log on the fire.

They tell us that many of the victims were not chosen simply because of their ethnic background, but because they were relatively well-off. There were some old people who'd inherited a lot of land, or young people who'd earned off-farm income and bought more land. Their deaths brought about a more equitable distribution of land.

The opportunity was also taken to knock off any trouble-makers, like violent thieves and layabouts. Also killed off were members of the various militias, and some of the poorest people - who were not actually murdered, but who had no reserves for the harder and more chaotic times.

Had the Rwandans not had yet another of their periodic genocides (genocides in the 1960s and 1970s drove people out of the country and freed up land for those left behind) in 1994-5, they very probably would have had a famine within a few years.

The lessons are that,
- forest-clearing offers fertile land for a few years
- but after a few years the land degrades, and new forest must be cleared
- this leads to loss of or irregular rainfall, floods and loss of topsoil in non-forested regions
- thus the amount of agricultural land drops
- so that whether population increases or not, agricultural land per person drops, too
- this makes people do bad things like rely on just one crop, or fight over land, unless they have access to heavy fossil fuel inputs to improve the output of the land
- and thus gives us famine and/or civil conflict

The second-last lesson is particularly relevant to peak fossil fuel concerns. If countries like Rwanda can't afford irrigation pumps, artificial fertilisers and tractors with oil at $44/bbl, what will happen at $250/bbl?

Further we can add that,
- when a country is industrialising it's vulnerable to a lot of troubles coming from people moving or trying to move from agricultural to urban work
- these troubles are generally made worse by laissez-faire economic policies, since they lead to land scarcity in the country or live in slums in the city

Lastly, being under a dictatorship or occupied by a foreign power doesn't help. It's rare that an entire country will go bad and stop producing food or have civil conflict or whatever, so usually there's some spare production. This is why democratic countries don't tend to have famines, they move the surplus they once exported to the hungry part of the country. But in a dictatorship, foreign or domestic, the surplus is needed for cash for elites and armies and so on.


Sorry but perfect.

Now simply go ask a Rwandan what he thinks will happen in ten years.
They know in their hears that TSHTF is coming.

Trust me the people do know although nothing will happen.

As I note above, what happened in Ireland in the 1840s or Rwanda in the 1990s and is happening today in Sudan and Ethiopia won't necessarily happen in the US or (say) Italy.

Basically, the world doesn't care about Africa, but the world does care about the US and the EU. So while the world happily allows the Irish to starve in the 1840s, or the Africans today, they won't let the US or EU starve.

We in the West today also have more resilience in our agricultural systems than do subsistence farmers, not because we're smarter, but because we have systems and structures to give us this resilience. For example, US and EU farmers benefit from about US$300 billion in subsidies each year; Rwandan or Bangladeshi farmers don't, and indeed can't because of IMF-imposed lassez-faire policies.

Excellent. Thanks!

Whatever the merits of the argument about deforestation and consequent denudement of the landscape, the photo in the article isn't an example of it. The coastal uplands of Ireland, especially the south west and the east were never covered with forest.

These hills are granite domes which were scraped utterly bare by the last glaciation. Whatever soil exists today is quite acidic, hence the extensive heather coverage and the growth of heather bog. The affect of the underlying rock on vegetation is striking, especially where you see heather give way to ferns along the metamorphic aureole joining granite and limestone in east Wicklow.

I have walked extensively in the heather bogs of these uplands. The bogs have been growing at a rate of about an inch per century for a hundred centuries. It is easy to find places where the bog has been cut through by streams. Here you get a vertical slice down through the bog from the living top few millimetres, down through the black peat to the bare granite below in the stream bed. Unlike other Irish bogs, these upland ones do not contain noticeable amounts of "bog oak" -- chunks of wood preserved by the bogs acidity -- indicating that they were not extensively forested.

The walled-off fields on the hillsides such as the ones in the photo are in areas that always had poor soil, with lots of granite outcrops close to the surface, and strewn with glacial erratics. I don't think deforestation can be blamed here, in fact farmers sometimes tried to enrich the soil using seaweed brought up from beaches.

Good to see PS200306 adding a bit of sense to the discussion. Those from more southerly parts forget that the ecology of the Northwest Atlantic fringes is still recovering from glaciation, which scraped much of our land down to bedrock, or else left the subsoil heavily indurated. The forests of course were wiped out, and very few valuable timber species managed to return unaided. Ireland suffered even worse than Scotland because no useable conifer survived there.

The author starts by suggesting that there was a Hubbert peak in forest exploitation in Ireland in the 18th Century, which led to overpopulation, which led to famine. Frankly this is rubbish. It's debatable what the natural forest cover would be in Ireland, but I would guess 50% - 60%. So at 12%, deforestation was already near-complete. Like the rest of the British Isles, intense grazing pressure and regular burning would have done most of the damage - not logging, despite what the author (and a lot of the transatlantic contributors) seem to think.

Due to land pressure, in Western Europe the rule of thumb for hundreds of years has been "the woodland that pays is that woodland that stays", whether it be for the aristocracy to hunt wild boar, to provide timber for buildings & ships, or just firewood. If a woodland didn't provide payoff, then it didn't last. This is different from the situation in North America, Australia/NZ or for that matter Siberia. The final burst of deforestation in the British Isles, down to only around 5% forest cover, came because timber could be imported more cheaply than it could be grown at home, and coal was better value than firewood, whilst the English aristocracy wasn't interested in woodland hunting.

Excellent article, Ugo!

A few remarks:

...the whole cycle started with the cutting down of the island's forests, in the 18th century.

The unsustainable cutting down of trees is a very interesting feature: In Germany the contrary of this - the sustainable management of forests - gave rise of the origin of the German word "nachhaltig" (= sustainable). The first known mention of this word was in a paper from Hans Carl von Carlowitz in 1713.
(Today, forests cover one third of the areas of Germany and Switzerland and half of Austria, compared to 12% in the UK.)

The concept of the sustainable forest management is even older, with a first known mention in an Electoral Saxonian forest ordinance of the year 1560 AD.
The forest management issue addressed there is considered as the beginning of a sustainable deveolopment policy in In Germany.

(This doesn't mean that all is fine in Germany - I may just mention the word "coal")

there also seems to exist a certain degree of aesthetic satisfaction in removing those ugly trees

Interestingly, this doesn't seem to apply in Germany, where forests have a more positive connotation. For example the "Waldsterben" of the 80s gave rise to Robin Wood - a Greenpeace-like NGO.

And, as it is usual in a growing economy, population was growing, too.

This risky combination of rampant poverty + population explosion resembles very much nowaday's failed states like the poor and oil-rich Nigeria.

I saw over and over in these comments reference to proximal causes. Because this is a complex system, the proximal cause is possibly the least relevant to averting future events. The most relevant factors are those which moved the system from stable short-term equilibrium (small forcings leading to negative feedback which restores balance) to unstable short-term equilibrium (small forcings leading to positive feedback which destroys balance). If the situation were a marble on a landscape the question would be what changed it from shaped like a smiling valley (marble stays put) to shaped like a frowning hill (marble rolls off). The marble doesn't roll because the wind pushed it, it rolls because it's on a hill.

Forests provide stability. They're a store of biomass, fertility, land, erosion control, wind control, food (hunting, etc.) They provide resources at low cost of effort, and land that can be taken at need (and cost to the future) to deal with increases in demand. I don't doubt that deforestation was a significant one of many non-proximate causes - the factors that turned the valley into a hill.

People interested in this article by Ugo might find the following also of interest:

Famine Echoes
Famine Echoes is a 16-part series based on the folklore about the great famine of the late 1840s and the memories of it passed on within communities throughout the country.

Producer Cathal Póirtéir combed the manuscript collection of the National Folklore Collection in the Delargey Centre in UCD for material about the famine. The thousands of pages he found provided him with the raw material for 16 half-hour programmes in which actors revised the material, originally collected by the Irish Folklore Commission in the 1940s. He gave each programme a separate theme and included memories from much of English speaking Ireland in Famine Echoes and the Irish language material in its companion series Glóretha ón Ghorta.

The programmes were highly acclaimed when first broadcast in 1995 to mark the 150th anniversary of the famine.

Cathal Póirtéir's book of the series, Famine Echoes, is being republished by Gill and Macmillan to coincide with the repeat broadcast of the series over the next four months.

Listen to the series
Audio links to all the programmes in the series.
(although note, the programme doesn't actually start until 6/7 mins into the audio stream)

A book was also published in connection with the series:
Famine Echoes

By now I am starting to get lost among all those comments - anyway thanks to everybody; I see that my article was well received on the whole but that there were two main lines of criticism: one about the causal relationship between deforestation and the famine, the other about the role played by erosion.

From the comments, I think I have to agree, at least in part, with the second criticism: I have somewhat overstated in the paper the role of erosion. But, please, note that it is not something that I made up in my mind: I did base my point on the paper by McGregor cited in the references and also on the work by Willams that describes the erosion problems in northern countries; not everybody knows that one of the worst cases of erosion caused by deforestation in the world is Iceland! Anyway, this point should be studied more in depth.

About causality, I see that it is not so easy to understand that in complex systems there are no simple causal relationship. A complex system is like a human being. Think of a person who dies of cancer, that was the proximate cause. But why did he get cancer? Maybe he was a smoker; but already there the relationship is fuzzy and, until not long ago, it was hotly contested that smoking causes cancer. Then, why was he a smoker? So you can discuss his psychological traits and maybe there are reasons for that; or maybe it is genetic, or some other reason. In any case, you enter into a tangle of relationship that make every human being different and not something that can be described in simple terms of causes and effects. The bottom line is: "don't smoke!" About countries, I think you can say "Don't destroy forests!"

So the paper was not perfect but, as I said in one of my answers, I just tried to do my best. Thanks again to everybody!

Fascinating discussion. I didnt manage to read all the comments.
The photo looks similar to the areas around where I live north of Bantry in SW Cork.
According to Zuckerman "The Potato" (1998),the potato was first cultivated in Ireland in Wicklow from about the 1600s, and by the 1640s the potato was already used widely as a back-up in times of hardship- in other words, the potato itself may have played a big role in the rapid increase of the Irish population from the 1600s onwards. This would have hastened the state of "overshoot" and collapse. Its introduction allowed more food to be grown in total, on more marginal land, and was ideally suited to the high rainfall in much of ireland.
Climate change is predicted to lead to dryer summers in the eastern part of the country, thus renering the potato less suited to the country than it has been historically.
Nowadays, most small holders and organic farmers here rely on either growing early varieties which mature before the blight becomes a problem, or only harvest as required- in the south frosts are infrequent and not severe and you can leave the crop in the ground for much of the winter, reducing the likelihood of the blight effecting the whole crop (the spores do not effect the tubers unless they come into direct contact; often, by the time the blight hits, and kills off the haulms, the tubers are at least fairly mature).
New blight resistant varieties such as the purple-flowered "Tibet" and Sarpo Mira are more widely grown but there needs to be a continual programme of plant breeding new varieties to keep ahead.

I still cannot forget this historical tragedy - an entire country shocked, paralysed and to a large part exterminated by an unavoidable shortage of a natural resource.

What if the same happens with the world population when peak oil hits?

Perhaps the Irish would have survived if they had had someone like Mahatma Gandhi. They hadnt.

I hope there will be a Gandhi for us. Somewhere. Soon.