Try to imagine eating nothing but potatoes. I really can’t conceive it (nor do I wish to). Bleh. Yet potatoes, with a bit of milk products now and then, were the entire diet of millions of Irish in the 1800s. Then, out of the blue, the blight hit in 1846. Potato plants in the tiny plots of tenant farmers suddenly turned black and withered. All at once there was nothing to eat. The famine lasted until 1849.
In some ways, Ireland has never recovered. The population was about 8.4 million in 1845. A few years later a quarter of the Irish were gone. About a million starved. More than another million had emigrated, largely to the United States and Canada. Perhaps one fifth of these died crossing the Atlantic. By 1920, on the eve of Irish independence, Ireland’s population was only half what it had been before the famine. The famine started an exodus that went on for decades.
Today Ireland is a prosperous part of the European Union. Yet in 2011 its population had only recovered to 6.6 million. Across the Atlantic, by 1850 the Irish made up a quarter of the population of Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore. St. Paddy’s Day has it roots in starvation. All told, seven million Irish emigrated to America. Virtually every family in Ireland has relatives in North America.
A few days ago I was at our local Costco and wandered into the produce area. My eye caught a 30 lb. bag (this is Costco, after all) of potatoes for $5.99. A minimum wage worker in Washington State earns enough money in one hour to buy 60 pounds of potatoes. Good heavens, a tech worker in Seattle making $60,000 year (about $30/hr.) makes enough in one hour to buy 150 pounds of potatoes. In one hour. One hour’s wage (mostly sitting in air conditioned comfort, I might add) would feed an Irish peasant family for a week.
Most of us, and certainly everyone reading my little reflections on a high tech device, live surrounded by an abundance unprecedented in the human experience. We never think about starving. (More of us think about dieting.) Famine was a familiar and recurring reality for our ancestors. This is all very new. My own parents, growing up in the 1920s, often did not have enough to eat. Sadly, life is still precarious for tens, even hundreds, of millions.
Yet, and this is absolutely critical, for the first time in human history it doesn’t have to be this way. For the first time in the human journey we can actually provide a decent and sustainable life for everyone. We know how to do this. Technologically it would be no big deal. The barriers are political and cultural. And huge.
We literally and metaphorically have plenty of potatoes (and beans and corn and rice and wheat and oats and you name it). We need to get our heads around that. It changes everything.