“… No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat, or kill, as God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.”
Gone With the Wind
Steven Pinker wrote an important book The Better Angels of Our Nature arguing that along a number of dimensions and on a number of time scales, human societies have been getting less violent over time. I think he’s pretty much right, but there’s an obvious problem to be wrestled with, the massive killing in the First and Second World Wars and associated mass killing.Here’s a figure from his book:
Pinker argues that there’s a lot of random variation around the long-term trend to reduced violence. But I think there may be more systematic causes of twentieth century violence, including (1) food insecurity, and (2) the formation of “meta-ethnic frontiers” in the face of Western expansion. I’ll talk about the first here, and the second in a later posting.
The anthropologists Melvin and Carol Ember did a study of the correlates of war across cultures, and discovered that one of the strongest predictors of warfare is fear of natural disasters and subsistence crises. This is not about chronic (i.e. non crisis) food shortages. The most warlike people are not those who know that there will be a hungry season every year, when some of the population starves, but those who are doing well now, but fear a disaster – drought, flood, insect plague, typhoon – in the future.
Europeans in the early twentieth century were better fed than any time before in European history. But the international and national markets that kept them fed, bringing grain and animal products from the Americas and Eastern Europe, and from country to city, also made them exceptionally vulnerable to interruptions in food supply. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw a move toward protectionism spurred in part by fear of food vulnerability. This reached a crisis with the First World War, when England and Germany both attempted to interrupt each others’ food imports. England and the Allies were more successful: the blockade of Germany helped force the country out of the war, and pressured Germany after the war to agree to the Versailles Treaty. About 750,000 Germans may have died as a result (although the number is disputed).
The war also interrupted food supplies between country and city, as urban industry shifted from supplying consumer goods for farmers to supplying war materiel. Urban food shortages in turn contributed to both Russian and German Revolutions. In both countries, the aftermath of war was a determination on the part of a new generation of political leaders never to let this happen again, to make sure that one’s folk – whether the German Volk or the Russian working class – stood at the top of the food chain, even if it meant stealing food from others.