In 1845–51 Ireland’s staple potato crop was blighted, casting the country into starvation and misery. The nation was critically dependent on the potato because in Ireland a farmer could grow three times as much food from potatoes as from grain, from the same area of land. When the ensuing famine ended after ten years, 750,000 Irish had died and two million had emigrated to the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. The Great Irish Famine may belong to the nineteenth century, but it carries undeniable messages for the twenty- first. It reveals the effect of overreliance on a major food source, and even though few countries today are as dependent on a single crop, many crops around the world are vulnerable to the loss of critical inputs such as water, fuel, or fertilizer, to disease, or to weather disaster. Any of these can unleash a local or regional famine— and the famine, in turn, will release an outpouring of refugees. In a world as heavily populated as ours, it is not hard to imagine how refugee tsunamis could result from a general food failure in the Indian subcontinent, Central Asia, China, sub- Saharan or North Africa, or Southeast or East Asia.
Events of this scale are beyond all previous human experience for the simple reason that the world has never been so populous or its resources so fragile. The possibility of regional crises involving twenty, fifty, even as many as two hundred or three hundred million refugees must now be seriously contemplated. Such floods are unlikely to be stemmed by military force. They will alter the politics, demography, and culture of entire regions. They will change history. This is the most likely means by which the coming famine will affect all citizens of Earth, both through the direct consequences of refugee floods for receiving countries and through the effect on global food prices and the cost to public revenues of redressing the problem. Coupled with this is the risk of wars breaking out over local disputes about food, land, and water and the dangers that the major military powers may be sucked into these vortices, that smaller nations newly nuclear- armed may become embroiled, and that shock waves propagated by these conflicts will jar the global economy and disrupt trade, sending food prices into a fresh spiral.
Round the world, defense departments are already planning for what they anticipate as an era of rising instability and threats as populations swell, resources become scarcer, and climatic impacts hit home. Among the most notable examples is a U.K. Ministry of Defence Strategic Trends study that, among other insightful predictions, anticipated the collapse of global financial markets and the U.S. stock market by almost two years. Relevant findings from this report include:
increased risk of food price spikes and shortages, • water scarcities contributing to tensions in already volatile regions, • mass population displacement due to climate or resource scarcities, • possible collapse in fish stocks, • increased risk of development failure in some countries and “megacity failure,” and • greater societal conflict involving civil war, intercommunal violence, insurgency, pervasive criminality, and widespread disorder;
Another important report, this time from a U.S. perspective, is “The Age of Consequences.” This study explores the risks of a similarly destabilized world, erupting out of three different possible scenarios for climate change. Under the conservative scenario envisaged by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, this report anticipates “heightened internal and cross- border tensions caused by large- scale migrations; conflict sparked by resource scarcity, particularly in the weak and failing states of Africa.”
Under severe climate change, it foresees that “the internal cohesion of nations will be under great stress . . . both as a result of a dramatic rise in migration and changes in agricultural patterns and water availability. The flooding of coastal communities around the world has the potential to challenge regional and even national identities. Armed conflict between nations over resources, such as the Nile and its tributaries, is likely and nuclear war is possible.”
The catastrophic scenario, the report simply says, “would pose almost inconceivable challenges as human society struggled to adapt,” adding, “No pre ce dent exists for a disaster of this magnitude— one that affects entire civilizations in multiple ways simultaneously.”