Despite several revolutions in agriculture and more intensive farming than ever before, famine and its attendant evils – disease, chronic malnutrition, civil unrest – remain a threat to all but the wealthiest countries; Even in the first world, the specter of food shortage has only been dispelled in the last century. The international community frequently debates food aid to starving nations, particularly those in Sub-Saharan Africa. In our own national politics, food supply issues, from environmental degradation to genetically modified foods, are constant topics of argument. While some writers herald modern agricultural achievement as the long-term solution to the pressures of the global food-supply, others continue to warn of the possibility or even inevitability of greater crises to come.
In this seminar, we will investigate underlying causes of famines, the policies of nations to guard against the failure of their food-supply and people's experiences of hunger and starvation. We will also examine the clashes between differing visions of modernization, environmentalism and human rights. Finally, we will consider the difference between chronic malnutrition and outright starvation, the definition of “famine” and popular representations of starvation and suffering. By studying several famous famines in history – the Irish Potato Famine and the Great Famine of medieval Europe, among others – we will seek to understand more than historic famines in themselves, but also to recognize the social, political, medical and cultural underpinnings of disasters that might await us in the future.