What would Attenborough say about the Irish genocide?

The exploitation of the Irish economy during the potato famine caused widespread devastation. With the justification of overpopulation, to what extent does David Attenborough echo these intentions in the present day?

Sebastian Power
25 September 2013

Flickr/Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Some rights reserved.

It’s nothing new for rich, powerful people to blame the poor for problems mostly caused by the rich. It’s a great way to shift the debate away from themselves and onto the victims of their policies and practices, which – coincidentally – usually increase their wealth and power at the expense of everyone else and the environment.

During the Irish potato famine, 1.5 million people died [1] and a similar number emigrated. John Power, my great, great granddad was one of those forced to leave his country, his culture, his home and way of living because of the famine. He was one of the lucky ones.

But what caused the famine and this great tragedy? There were two basic reasons, natural and man-made: the decimation of the potato crop by blight and Victorian free market capitalism; it was the latter which had the greatest impact. The famine would likely not have occurred at all if it were not for a number of policies forced on the “aboriginal” Irish people by the British government led by Sir Charles Trevelyan, who was more concerned with modernising the Irish economy and testing new free-market principles (ring any bells?) than the starving Irish [2].

At the time of the famine, Trevelyan's economic policies led to Ireland exporting about fifty shiploads of food produce a day. This, combined with other policies such as land acquisition, the Corn Law, absentee landlords and the 1690 penal laws (only repealed in 1920), lead many authors – including Tim Pat Coogan in his recent book [3] – to conclude the Irish potato famine was either direct or indirect genocide: “the deliberate killing of people who belong to a particular racial, political, or cultural group”. 

Of course the British government at the time refused to acknowledge their instrumental role in bringing about mass starvation. Quite the opposite in fact, as the British upper and middle classes believed the famine to be a divine judgement on Irish agrarian inefficiency. They believed the unfettered market economy would allow the divine providence to set things straight (or the invisible hand of the market in today's language) and it would therefore be morally wrong to interfere. Trevelyan described the famine as “the sharp but effectual remedy by which the cure is likely to be effected...” [4]. In other words, he believed the famine to be a natural rebalancing of an inefficient economy.

Whether this market and religious ideology was merely a belief or an excuse, it is difficult to determine, because the economic policy preached and forcefully implemented by the upper class just so happened to massively benefit them financially. Ironically, the Corn Law brought in to financially protect English landlords who had colonised Ireland was certainly nothing to do with a free market. The law forced the export of corn from Ireland during the famine and slapped a massive tax on any imports [5]. The English upper class were literally profiting from the famine. They preached free market economics to the poor, whilst protecting themselves from this market. 

David Attenborough, Britain's most famous naturalist, much loved for his narration and presentation of BBC nature programmes, recently said in an interview to the Telegraph that it was “barmy” to send food aid to famine stricken countries. Using Ethiopia as an example, he said there were “too many people for too little piece of land” and that the world is “heading for disaster” due to overpopulation. To me, this sounds strikingly similar to Trevelyan - an Englishman attributing famine to natural causes, in this case overpopulation, in a country long hit by the impacts of imperialism. But is the privileged Englishman right this time? Is nature to blame for famines in Africa or economic policies as before?

Africa went from managing to feed itself in the 1960s and early 70s to being dependent on imports, food aid and Western charity today. Like Trevelyan's Ireland, the Reagan-Thatcher dogma of free-market and monetarist or neoliberal policies wreaked havoc in Africa during the late 70s onwards. Reagan and Thatcher were able to use their economic influence in the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank to force Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) on 36 of Africa’s 47 Sub-Saharan nations. The SAPs were imposed to restructure the economy towards exports in order to pay off Western debts, but since the 80s debt has increased by more than 500%. Officially, even the World Bank admitted this was a failure, at least in achieving their openly stated aims of debt reduction.

Like in Ireland, there were the same winners and losers. The SAPs eliminated subsidies for small-scale farmers whilst the US and the EU protected their agribusinesses with billions of dollars of their subsidies. Western agribusinesses then dumped their cheap produce on African nations, forcing the unsubsidised local farmers out of business. The SAPs also favoured large scale farming practises in order to export cash crops to the West. Much like 1840s Ireland “the hungry starved as scarce land and water were diverted to provide luxuries for rich consumers in Northern countries” [6]. All the while Western corporations made, and continue to make, massive profits. 

Overpopulation isn't to blame either, as Ethiopia has far more agricultural land per person than any Western European country. According to a paper in the scientific journal, Nature, global population will peak this century at around 10 billion [7]. The planet will be able to sustainably meet the needs of everyone, provided the richest, mostly Western, billion people stop unsustainably over-consuming [8]. This evidence clearly points the finger at Western over-consumption, not global or local overpopulation. 

Like Trevelyan, Attenborough is blaming the victims and not the manufactured causes of famine. Like Trevelyan, his ideas and the policies he supports disproportionately negatively affect impoverished people of a different ethnicity to himself. This is systematic racism. Like Trevelyan, he is shifting the blame from the richest, most powerful people to the poorest, most vulnerable.

We are all shaped by our times, and few public figures in today's Britain would be as opely brutal as Trevelyan. But is not Attenborough's basic logic the same as Ireland's one time colonial administrator? And unlike Trevelyan, Attenborough is also a Malthusian and a patron of Population Matters who vociferously oppose immigration. At least Trevelyan allowed 1.5 million Irish to escape starvation, including my great, great granddad. We can't know what Attenborough would have said about the Irish potato famine were he alive in the 19th century. But we can continue to reject his logic today.


[1]  P.sdfootnote { margin-left: 0.5cm; text-indent: -0.5cm; margin-bottom: 0cm; font-size: 10pt; }P { margin-bottom: 0.21cm; } Fry, W. 1997. Resurgence of the Irish Potato Famine Fungus. BioScience Vol. 47, No. 6, pp. 363-371.

[2] Coogan, T. 2012. The Famine Plot. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

[3] Coogan, T. 2012. The Famine Plot. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

[4] Long, S. 200. Divine Economy: Theology and the Market. Oxon, UK: Routledge

[5] Cody, D. 1987. Corn Laws, The Victorian Web: literature, history and culture in the age of Victoria.

[6] P.sdfootnote { margin-left: 0.5cm; text-indent: -0.5cm; margin-bottom: 0cm; font-size: 10pt; }P { margin-bottom: 0.21cm; } Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply Vandana Shiva

[7] Wolfgang Lutz, Warren Sanderson and Sergei Scherbov, 20th January 2008. The coming acceleration of global population ageing. Nature. doi:10.1038/nature06516

[8] Population 10 Billion by Danny Dorling


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