Famine is more than a short-lived season of hunger. It is a profound crisis of survival and order that strains social fabric, threatens political stability, and may force long-term change in economy and society. In the past, as in much of the contemporary world, famine has been a central part of human experience. In this original and timely work, David Arnold draws upon the history of Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe, to explain the origins and characteristics of famine. He considers whether some societies are more vulnerable to famine than others, and contests the assumption that those affected by famine are simply passive 'victims'. He compares the ways in which individuals and states have responded to the threat of mass starvation, and the relation of famine to political and social power. The author outlines the main theories of famine causation and tests these against historical experience. He considers the effects of famine upon a wide range of human activities and institutions - on for example systems of agriculture and patterns of migration - from the rise of the modern state in Europe to the impact of western imperialism on Asia and Africa.
The western world, having rid itself of mass hunger, now tends to regard famine as evidence of backwardness and inferiority in those Third World countries in which it continues to occur: David Arnold weighs the justice of this perception. A work of historical breadth and significance, Famine offers a fresh understanding of the phenomenon and critical reassessments of many established ideas about it.
David Arnold is Professor of History of South Asia, University of London.