Political Ecology and the
Irish Potato Famine:
A Critical Response to Mike Davis'
Late Victorian Holocausts

Nick Wilson


In Late Victorian Holocausts, Mike Davis proposes a model of "political ecology" to interpret a series of droughts in the second half of the nineteenth century. Quoting Amartya Sen-one of the leading scholars on the economic sources of famines-Davis proposes that famine is "the characteristic of some people not having enough food to eat. It is not the characteristic of there not being enough food to eat."1 Indeed, he views famines as a complex interaction between market forces, climactic changes, imperialism, and the larger functioning of the world capitalist system.

Only a few times in his work does Davis mention the Irish famine of 1845-1849, and he does so only to point towards similarities between British actions in Ireland and in India during the droughts of 1877-1879. This essay will more closely compare the Irish famine to Davis' political ecology famine model. It will show that while political ecology is a useful point of departure for a discussion of the Irish famine, it is inadequate as a complete explanation. Furthermore, it will show that the doctrine of laissez-faire was not consistently followed in the Irish famine and was more complex and flexible as an economic doctrine than is usually assumed.

A. Davis and his argument
Davis begins his analysis by examining the cyclical El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) patterns that cause a series of droughts and floods throughout the world. Essentially, warming and cooling of the oceans in different parts of the world can cause massive shifts in the climates of other regions. Hence, droughts, floods and the famines with which they correlate can

1. Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World (New York, 2001), 20.
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