Nick Wilson, "Political Ecology and the Irish Potato Famine"


who did not depend upon the market for their subsistence. They depended upon a precarious potato monoculture that was open to exactly the type of disease that struck. Ironically enough, the people who do have a complaint on the grounds of this second point are English farmers, who saw their protective Corn Laws fall by the wayside as the famine raged.

Davis' third point is essentially that imperial governments failed to appropriately maintain public works infrastructure to reduce vulnerability to climatic cycles. This point does have some grounds in the Irish case, but still does not fully fit the picture. The British undertook a massive system of public works over the course of the famine that at their peak employed over 700,000 people. These works also predated the famine, and they were designed to do precisely what Davis' model predicts they should not. However, it is difficult to laud the system of public works, because they were ineffectively implemented and proved murderous for their workers.

A more difficult aspect of the famine to judge is the degree to which the philosophy of laissez-faire constrained British government action. Was it a philosophy that inspired dogmatic adherence no matter the situation? The facts presented in this essay suggest that this may not have been the case. It seems that laissez-faire was instead a flexible ideology for the British, used to justify a particular course of action, and then appropriately modified when it became inconvenient.

Davis writes that "India like Ireland before it had become a Utilitarian laboratory where million of lives were wagered against dogmatic faith in omnipotent markets overcoming the 'inconvenience of dearth.'"55  [Emphasis added.] Similarly, he describes the British viceroy of India, Lytton, as forbidding any government interference with manipulating the price of food.56  However, any serious examination of the Irish famine reveals that the British government,

55. Davis, 31.
56. Davis, 31.
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