The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."

Sunday, October 24, 2021

The Age of Exterminations (VI): The Great Famine to Come

The third horseman of the apocalypse, hunger, is traditionally represented with a scale in hand, symbolizing scarcity. Famines are not normally considered exterminations but, in many cases, they have been provoked by human actions. Today, we tend to see famines as a thing of the past, but there is a rule in history that what happened once may happen again, and it usually does. By a mere coincidence (or perhaps not), the same day when this post was published, President Putin said at the Valdai Club that  "
a number of countries and even entire regions are regularly hit by food crises. ... there is every reason to believe that this crisis will become worse in the near future and may reach extreme forms." There have never been nearly 8 billion people on Earth, and what the future will bring to them is all to be seen.
This is the 6th post of a series that explores one of the darkest sections of human behavior, that of mass exterminations. Previous posts dealt with the extermination of the witches in Europe, of young men during WW1, of elderly people, of the rich, of the useless, and now this one about famines as a weapon of mass destruction. From now on, I think I'll move to different subjects, although I may return to this one, a little depressing but surely fascinating.

Imagine you are an Irish peasant living in the early 19th century. You stay with your family in a mud or stone cottage. A single room under a thatched roof, no windows, no chimney, little furniture. You pay a small rent to your British landlord by working for him. You eat the potatoes you cultivate in a patch near your home and you warm yourself using the peat that you dig out nearby. You haven't seen much of the world outside your village, but that's the place where you live, where you were born, where you have your friends and family, and where you have your social life. You own nothing and you are perfectly happy.

But your happiness turns into chagrin in 1845, when you see your potato plants turning black and curled, then rotting. You can't know that it is because of a fungus that attacks the potato plant, but you know that soon you'll be running out of potatoes. By the end of the year, the great famine begins. 

You didn't imagine that being poor would mean being so wretched. Owning nothing means that you can't buy food or bargain for it. You have no power, no influence, no relevance to the British landlords who don't care about you and about your family.  And you have no weapons, nor the military training that would allow you to rebel against your masters. If you can't leave Ireland, you have nothing to do but wait for death to come. 

In the years from 1845 to 1852, Ireland lost a quarter of its population as an effect of the Great Famine (the An Gorta Mór). In a few decades, Ireland's population was reduced to 4 million, half of what it had been before the famine. 

Was it an extermination? Yes, if you define the term as the death of a large number of people caused by human action (or inaction). And there is no doubt that the Irish disaster was not just the result of the chance arrival of a fungus that liked Irish potatoes. Ireland was heavily populated, certainly, but not much more than most European countries. So, what happened? 

For some, the fault lies squarely with the Irish who merrily went on having children without realizing that the population was growing beyond the limits of what their island could continuously support. For others, it was because of the evil English who refused to help the Irish when they were starving. Some even claim that the extermination of the Irish had been planned in advance. They call it the"Irish Holocaust."

It is unlikely that there ever was a plan to depopulate Ireland, the British had no reason to do that. But it is true that they behaved abominably with Ireland and not just at the time of the famine, although not worse than other colonial powers did with their subjects. Ireland never was a British colony, but it was treated as a colony. The land was exploited to the utmost possible level and the Irish were despised and considered only as cheap manpower -- of which there was an excess. When the famine came, the British government did very little to help, sometimes acting in ways that worsened the situation. So, yes, the term "extermination" is appropriate, even though nobody had planned it. History is a great wheel that rolls onward and crushes whoever it finds on its path. It was the destiny that befell Bridget O'Donnell, one of the many victims of the famine, of whom we have a drawing showing her with her starving children.


Now let's examine our times. Remember that if something happened once in history, it can happen again, and it usually will. We have been already told that in the near future "we will own nothing and we will be perfectly happy." This may not be a bad idea in itself, but if you think of the destiny of the Irish peasants, then it is ominous. Even more ominous is the fact we completely depend on fossil fuels for our agriculture, and it is guaranteed that their production is going to decline in a non-remote future. Could we face the same destiny of the Irish of the 19th century? After all, we live on an island, too, just much larger.  

When discussing these matters, it is traditional to be pelted with rotten Irish potatoes for being "catastrophists", but the question is legitimate and the fact that some predictions turned out to be overpessimistic, such as those by Paul Ehrlich in 1968, doesn't mean that a great global famine could not happen. But to avoid past mistakes, we need more detailed models of the future. One of the first studies that dealt with the global population trends was "The Limits to Growth" study of 1972.

You see, above, the results of the "base case" scenario calculation, the one which used the data that were considered the most reliable and accurate at the time. You probably know that the study was widely considered overpessimistic, then demonized and consigned to the dustbin of the wrong scientific theories. It was not. But it may have been overoptimistic in its projections for the world's population. 

Note how, in the calculation, the world population decline starts around 2050, some three decades after the start of the crash of the industrial and agricultural systems. Why is it that the population keeps growing while people are starving? Unlikely, to say the least. 
It is hard to quantify people's intentions to have children or not have them, so the modelers used past data on birthrates as a function of the gross domestic product (GDP). It was equivalent to "running in reverse" the demographic transition that took place in the 1960s when natality had collapsed in many regions of the world in parallel with an increase of the GDP per capita. The result was that the model assumed that a contraction of the GDP caused people to have more children. 

These assumptions were later reconsidered and different results were obtained in 2004. 

Now, the population starts declining around 2030, less than a decade after that food production starts collapsing, and that looks much more reasonable. Yet, even this curve has problems: would you really believe that in the midst of the great turmoil of the global collapse the result would be such a gentle decline? 

More likely, all the four horsemen of the apocalypse would enter the game and generate a disastrous general crash. This is called the "Seneca Effect."  You see the typical shape of the Seneca Curve in the figure: decline is much faster than growth.

Models such as the one used for the "Limits to Growth" cannot reproduce a really sharp Seneca Curve because they do not consider the many possible "tipping points" that may affect the world system. But the historical data tell us that the Seneca shape is the typical behavior of population collapses. Here is an example with the data for the great famine in Ireland (From Ugo Bardi's book "The Seneca Effect.") You can clearly see the "Seneca Shape" of the curve, with a sharp decline following growth. 

Here is another example, Ukraine, as shown in an article that I published on "The Journal of  Population and Sustainability," 

The Ukrainians didn't really starve after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, but they suddenly became much poorer than before. The result was a lower quality diet and a collapse in the health care system. Add to that the general decline of the quality of life, then you can imagine that the Ukrainian population started to decline for two combined effects: the rise in mortality, and the fall of natality. Note how similar the curve is to that of Ireland. Other former Soviet Union countries show this kind of curves. It seems to be a general trend: when a serious disaster hits, the population starts declining almost immediately afterward.

If something similar were to happen at the world level, we would see it in just a few years after an economic or political crash. It is perfectly possible that it is exactly what's happening with the current crisis that sees a series of factors combining to bring the system down: health care collapse, food supply disruption, climate change, soil erosion and mineral depletion, financial crisis, and more. They are all pushing toward a global population crash that could start in the coming years. 

Could we call this population crash an "extermination"? That will depend on what governments will do. Surely, it is unlikely that they are planning a future famine, but how would they react if one comes? They might try to do their best to help, but they may also do nothing. Or they may well decide to actively push toward strengthening the crisis as a chance to eliminate people they do not like. 

If you are among those people who are not useful for the state (like the Irish peasants in mid 19th century) or, God forbid, a burden for the ruling elites, then you face hard times ahead. Your situation will be especially worrisome if you will be one of those "happy" people owning nothing, or at most electronic money that the government can erase at will. To say nothing about the electronic surveillance methods that leave you no chance to do anything they don't like or to go anywhere they don't want you to go. 

And, yes, it is perfectly possible that the coming crisis will appear in the form of an extermination by starvation: the third horseman on his dark horse. 

President Putin 's complete sentence at the Valdai Club conference: "Furthermore, a number of countries and even entire regions are regularly hit by food crises. We will probably discuss this later, but there is every reason to believe that this crisis will become worse in the near future and may reach extreme forms." Maybe he reads this blog?

A longer post of mine on the Irish famine subject was published on "The Oil Drum" in 2008. 


  1. There is no Peasant that's not valuable to governments. If that wasn't the case, our Western Civilisation would not have traded all finite fossil fuels cheaper than water - as if looted - until today fossil fuels are almost no more....

    Our Western Civilisation needed to be conscious to that letting Life to flourish is not like extinguishing Life.

    Fossil fuels are so hypnotic, they have hypnotised the Civilisation and the Social Engineer no less than their Peasants.

    DR. RIMA LAIBOW talks here (at 14:30) about potentially a Two-Tier World;

    ...more or less like this set of assumptions.

    The assumptions she expressed assume fossil fuels are abundant now as they were at the time Ghawar, Texas and others were coming out gushing.

    No one can say today - the little remaining crude oil is mine and mine alone, the rest are Peasants.

    If the Civilisation keeps the little oil remaining to itself, it should relinquish Control over the masses and all peasants.

    Controlling the masses is energy-intensive enough to evaporate any crude oil reserves, even if no barrel produced worldwide ever, yet.

    Dr. Rima's assumed Culling of Useless Eaters requires fossil fuels much greater than the fossil fuels burned assisting that Life to come to existence - in the first place.

    In an Energy system, Control is what consumes Energy the most.


    1. 'fossil fuels' are a myth. A complete misnomer based in false geophysics.

      Part of the charm of societal collapse is watching the parade of false beliefs crumble along with social order as many grope causation memes.

      There's lots of petroleum manufactured by mother earth daily, friends. Our crises are clearly manufactured by corrupt and greedy power-monger class.

      Reference Georgia Guide-stones content.

  2. Figure 5, the figure in the Ukraine and the slope generally reminds me of what rests on the Grim Reaper's shoulder ready for use.

  3. Lo que pasó en Cuba el año 89, cuando con el colapso de la Unión Soviética cesó repentinamente la llegada de combustibles subvencionados a la isla, puede darnos pistas sobre cómo enfrentar un colapso sin acabar en la extinción necesariamente. Comenzaron a pasar hambre, y el 30% de la población tuvo que volver al sector primario, a la agricultura, organizándose basados en la cooperación y la autogestión. No fue fácil, incluso soportaron tensiones con el Estado, pero siguieron a flote. Cierto también que años después, volvieron hacia la industrialización. La cercanía de los vecinos "ricos" siempre ha resultado tentadora para los cubanos. Algunos dicen que las generaciones venideras tendrán que arreglarse con un nivel de vida asimilado al de los años 50/60 del siglo pasado. No está mal, si la alternativa es que te hierva el cerebro...

  4. We follow the trajectory. Extreme weather is here and crop yields begin to fall across the globe. Fuel scarcity causes blackouts in China. Gasoline expected to hit $5 / gallon soon in America. When that happens the American economy fails, causing a new curtain of tyranny to come down. Privilege preserved by the electronic suppression of a bankrupt middle class.

    Horsemen will ride.

  5. President Putin just said this at the Valdai Club conference:

    "Furthermore, a number of countries and even entire regions are regularly hit by food crises. We will probably discuss this later, but there is every reason to believe that this crisis will become worse in the near future and may reach extreme forms."

    Maybe he reads my blog? :-)

    1. For all his faults, Putin has always given me the impression of someone who is well-informed, not least about fossil fuel production and availability. I believe he did his PhD in global gas supplies.

      There may be others, but I cannot think of any other global leader who is well-informed. Indeed, the leaders of the UK and USA could be described as members of the donkey-club. Unbelievably badly-informed, incompetent people that are puppets for the powers that be. I wonder if Putin takes a lot of satisfaction in being one of the few leaders also willing to call a spade a spade, as in your quote? It must rile other political leaders who don't want the subjects (such as mega-famine and peak natural gas) discussed, or are simply too ignorant to get involved in any discussions.

    2. I too have had exactly the same thoughts

  6. The scale in the hand of the horseman is interesting. In a Tamil verse written five centuries ago describes the famine as: gold on one pan of the scale and paddy on the other.

    1. Interesting observation. In ancient times, commerce was doing using scales to weight gold or silver grains.

  7. Throughout history the combination of disease with hunger has probably been the major killer.
    Hunger sucks. Hunger kills. No food - no fun.

    However, we have built a global food production system on diesel fuel and synthetic fertilizers, which also destroys the top-soil, all since the WWII.

    I think hunger is the main challenge for humanity, starting more or less now.

    Therefore, I have changed my career to work on reliable, resilient, low-input food production. The best crops I have found are tree crops, combined with perennial leafy greens and some tubers.

    Recommended reading is the excellent book by FH King "Farmers of Forty Centuries" (1911). The American agronomist went to Asia to see how it was possible to farm in the same place for 4000 years, while the US prairie was destroyed within 50 years of the John Deere Tractor Plow.
    My main takeaways from the book were: 1. Use humanure (composted), 2. small fields, 3. surrounded by fruit trees, nut trees and vegetable trees.

    Text version here:
    Scanned book here:

    I now grow nut trees, vegetable trees and fruit trees for farmers who want to diversify away from current cash crops and factory meat. The awareness in the farmer community is very, very small, but enough to get my tree business going.
    The awareness in the rest of the population is probably even smaller.

    Many people will be surprised when food starts to disappear from the shelves.
    Or when we get to the Chinese situation where people don't trust that the food in the supermarkets is unadulterated, and people prefer to get food from their home town farmers.

    I wish you all good success with your own tree plantings. May you harvest forever.


    1. Good idea, I am seriously thinking of moving to the countryside and plant trees, too!

    2. Io ho fatto una mappa di dove sono le querce bianche vicino al paese, per mia sorella (I did make a map of white oaks near the village, for my sister).

    3. Göran, I've come to a similar conclusion, planting a lot of treas around my small-scale farm in Sweden. Do you happen to be situated in Sweden? Your name suggests so. Do your tree business have a web site? I may be interested to buy some of your trees.

    4. Göran, I would like to see your website or read any more information you have published on what you are doing. Thank you.

    5. A bit confused about the "vegetable" tree part??

    6. The Irish depopulation exercise was quite intentional. The potato blight was partially effective three seasons before the complete collapse. The English knew that the type of potato grown in Egypt, which was part of the Empire at that time, was resistant to the Blight. No attempt was made to replace the problematic strain. After the collapse of the peasant's food supply laissez faire economic policy was the official reason to deny aid to the affected regions. This a troublesome population of Celtic origen was removed from lands under Anglo-Saxon control. Perfidious Albion indeed. The Scot Highlands were similarly depopulated, albeit by less draconian means.

  8. I imagine that the deaths of maybe 6 billion people and the subsequent reduced energy demand would effectively push the most dire effects of global warming back a few decades - time that the elite could use to try to find useful solutions to the climate and energy issues we face today. The surviving 2 billion subjects could even provide useful labour (burying the dead etc) until AI and robotics advances render them completely surplus to requirements. I think the near future looks akin to 16th century living for the masses with 'God like' elite overlords backed up by 21st century tech and weapons... at least until all the insects die...

    1. Hello Thatguy,
      My personal opinion.
      If we, in a very short period of time, have over 75% of humanity die the likely hood of there being any new produced technology is vanishingly thin. I believe that any technology that will be used would have already been produced. It will be a catabolic world for the survivors. Non mechanical tech skills will be useless.

  9. According to this limits-to-growth modeling result, Footprints to Singularity by Bystroff, we may be at peak population this year:

    1. Very interesting paper. Thanks for the link!

    2. The paper says peak is 7.6 billion but in a day we hit 7.8 billion per consensus in paper link.

    3. Very good paper. Nice to see someone distilling the essence of the World3 model and making it simpler and more understandable.
      I think the title is very strange, however. @Erv: Thanks for pointing out the link, I had missed this one.

  10. Hello Prof. Bardi,
    Enjoying your series...though enjoying might be an odd way to phrase it.
    Mass famine is possibly the most chilling and dehumanizing disaster that Mankind faces. It is a slow, long drawn out destruction of the body, the mind, and any society. Cultural abominations are almost assured and any survivors are left with harrowing memories and, most probably, guilt. Its effects will be passed on to at least a couple succeeding generations.
    We have recent examples of deliberate mass starvations...the Holodomor perpetuated against rural Ukrainians (1932,33)...3.3 o 7 million. Soviet POW's in the beginning of German assault on Soviet Union, 3plus million. In book Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder he asserts the plan was to starve 25 to 30 million Bellarussians (using same methods as was used In Ukraine Holodomor) to make way for German colonizing. Only the failure of the Soviets to totally collapse in 1941 stalled the plan indefinitely.(wasn't yet secure enough for colonization, and food was still needed from the area, so the galley slaves were allowed to live so as to serve the Nazi ship).
    I believe it was General Sherman who stated that the buffalo hunters did more to defeat the North American Natives than the army did. It seemed as though he approved.
    All of the aforementioned were deliberate. I am sure there are countless other examples from history. I agree with the view that much, much more is coming in a dystopic future whether deliberately planned or not. As you have come to state, "it happened because it had to happen." As agriculture output it due to changing climate, scarcity of resources, nuclear or conventional war, poisoned water, loss of topsoil,etc Malthus will finally get his due.

    1. Well, yes, "enjoying" this series has a certain ring of weirdness to it. For this reason, I think I am moving to different subjects for a while. But I also have to say that I was shocked by Putin's comment. "They," the people in the upper echelons, know what's happening and they are probably planning for it. Ah... as a footnote to your list, also the Allies had planned to starve a few tens of millions of Germans to death after the end of the war. They even started doing that with the German POWs, but they soon gave up because they realized that they needed a strong Germany to keep the Soviets away. Some people say we always are 5 hot meals away from societal collapse.....

    2. Hello Ugo and all. "Enjoying This Blog" has a distinctly weird connotation, to state the obvious. Nevertheless, I do. These are matters that don't get discussed enough.

  11. Anyway, we are in the middle of the sixth great extinction event right now. Every species except humans and our dependent species (our livestock and other symboints and parasites) is in decline, with thousands of creatures already gone. Do we really expect to continue to eat regularly and sleep well while such a die off goes on all around us?
    Not bloody likely. The questions of how many people can live on earth at once and what level of total consumption is actually sustainable will be really important ones very soon.
    Total consumption is what matters ... the A for Affluence in I = PAT if I recall correctly. The super rich and their dependents do not intend to cut their consumption, but may very well succeed in cutting ours.

    1. Los "superricos", y los que no los somos también tendremos que reducir nuestro nivel de consumo. Sí o sí, por las buenas o por las malas: la generación, transporte y consumo de mercancías depende de energía y materiales de disponibilidad decreciente. Lo importante es el cómo. Atentos a la COP 26. De ahí saldrán pistas sobre cómo los Estados piensan sacarnos de ésta. Aunque los acuerdos que se han tomado hasta ahora, Kioto, Paris... de poco han servido.

  12. Sorry for the confusion. I was trying to add a small ad on the right column, but Google decided to pester the whole blog with ads. Trying to remove them.............

  13. If it matters, I don't see any ads . I am coming from the USA.

  14. I mean the 2nd Spanish Flu or even Bubonic Plague could be released at the same time as the Famine that results from Peak Oil. Along with Healthcare collapse coupled with deliberate Triage.

    To get the population decline over with and also so that social unrest is minimized.

  15. And I'd imagine they would also cut all childcare subsidies. And paid parental leave, general healthcare.

    Do away with IVF help or any subsides on that front in regards to medical fertility treatments.

    To contribute to birthrate decline.

  16. For a while a link to a you-tube showing part one of two of:

    The Hunger: The Story of the Irish Famine info ->

    was here. I watched it and would like to see part two but I can't find it. A great documentary. A million died because owners did not take care of the owned. Same as it ever was. Same as it shall be if nothing changes.

    1. I am preparing a specific post about that documentary. Truly impressive.

    2. No ads shown on a galaxy tablet (android) in USA,BTW.
      I once visited the west coast of Ireland ... where the workhouses and useless walls were built. Where Cromwell once is supposed to have said "You can go to hell or you can go to Conamara". All the while Ireland was exporting food to England.

  17. A man once told me, that his father told him, when talking about the Great Depression, that there was nothing as scary as a starving man.
    I am not creative enough to figure out how we avoid the Mad Max scenario and the world becoming an extremely violent place.