Ireland:Deforestation is what lead to the great Famine

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.

(Kings, Lords and Commons by Frank O’Connor)

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. 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.

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. 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”. 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.

Posted via email from Deane’s posterous

Comments (3)

Nina TaylorMay 11th, 2009 at 2:13 pm

Nice going with the explosives genusies! Oh and good going with destroying a nautrel resource!!!! YOU MORRONS!

LaoisJuly 30th, 2009 at 10:57 pm

It would seem that boom and bust is part of our heritage. There is something in this theory I belive.

Pat FlanneryJanuary 23rd, 2010 at 7:20 am

I thought the famine was caused by a fungus in the soil.

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