How Far Will You Go to Survive?

Cannibalism, infanticide, pet slaughter

How Far Will You Go to Survive?
The Famine Memorial sculpture on Custom House Quay is located on the departure site of the Perseverance, one of the first famine ships to leave Dublin in 1846. It shows a group of people about to enter the ship with various expressions of sadness, despair, and hope. Photo by Bernd Thaller from Graz, Austria.

Before I begin, let me apologize. This article is morbid. But it covers something that will probably happen in the future. It's best to consider the subject now while still of sound mind.

The climate crisis is ultimately a food crisis. Unpredictable and changing weather patterns - compounded by resource shortages - threaten our ability to grow enough food to feed 8+ billion people.

The food crisis has already started. A visit to the grocery store reveals the increasing threat to food security. On a hotter planet, droughts worsen and floods persist increasing the probability of a breadbasket failure.

What happens to humans when food availability declines by 20, 50, 80%? The answer varies, but inevitably it all comes down to desperation, cognitive breakdown and violence.

Today these are words on your computer - ambiguous, nebulous. But what they really mean is unimaginable.

Side Rant: No, we can't simply move farms to more 'favorable' locations. The food system depends on complex infrastructure that converts fossil fuels into the calories on your plate. This system evolved over generations, and would require a similar amount of time to fundamentally shift. Moreover, farming today already exists on the most arable land. What's left is sub-par. Feeding today's population depends on the unlikely combination of predictable weather, prime land and petrochemicals. Our population would have never reached today's level without this lucky combination.

Some also argue that food supply isn't at risk because food production has grown remarkably over the past century, primarily because we've become better at converting fossil fuels into calories. This argument suffers from normalcy bias. In reality, the world only surpassed 1.5 degrees above benchmark in 2023. We are just beginning to see the effects of our changing climate. Disasters are anticipated in the future, not the past.
"No sooner is the rage of hunger appeased than it becomes difficult to comprehend the meaning of starvation. It is only when you suffer that you really understand." - Jules Verne

What happens when we starve?

We all know what pain feels like. We can empathize with someone who's been hurt physically or psychologically. In contrast, few of us have ever missed more than a couple meals at most.

We don't know what starvation feels like so it's impossible to place ourselves in that situation. Moreover, most of us are culturally distanced from living or even institutional memory of historic famines. The concept is foreign, yet since starvation is likely a big part of our future we must give it a voice today.

Starvation is an excruciating experience that affects both the body and mind. Initially, it triggers intense hunger pangs, creating a gnawing and painful sensation in the stomach as the body demands food. This progresses to extreme weakness and fatigue, making even simple tasks exhausting. Rapid and severe weight loss occurs as the body breaks down muscle and fat for energy, leading to a gaunt, emaciated appearance. Muscle mass decreases significantly over time, causing weakness and difficulty in movement. Prolonged starvation can also destroy the heart, liver, and kidneys, eventually leading to organ failure.

The body lowers its metabolic rate to conserve energy, resulting in a constant feeling of cold and decreased physical activity. Hair becomes thin and brittle, and skin becomes dry, flaky, and susceptible to infections. A weakened immune system increases the risk of infections and diseases, as the body lacks the necessary nutrients to maintain a strong defense.

Starvation reduces the brain’s glucose supply, leading to difficulties with concentration, memory, and decision-making. When the body lacks sufficient nutrients, it prioritizes survival functions, which adversely affects brain function and mental health. Thinking becomes slow and foggy. Severe mood swings, irritability, and anxiety are common. Individuals may become easily frustrated or depressed. Starvation also causes obsessive thoughts about food, with the mind becoming preoccupied with fantasies and dreams about eating, often leading to obsessive behaviors and planning around food.

Decision-making becomes impaired under starvation. Hungry individuals take uncalculated, impulsive risks, prioritizing short-term gains over long-term benefits. The constant hunger and physical decline lead to feelings of hopelessness and despair. Individuals withdraw from social interactions, lacking energy and becoming consumed by the struggle for food.

Starving individuals may engage in risky or desperate actions to survive, such as stealing food or consuming unsafe substances. People become antisocial as the fight for survival becomes paramount. They hoard food, isolate from others, and become aggressive.

Long-term starvation can cause permanent cognitive damage, affecting the ability to think clearly, make decisions, and remember important information. In children, it can lead to stunted growth and development, both physically and mentally. Survivors often suffer from chronic health problems, including chronic fatigue, digestive issues, and weakened bones and muscles. The psychological trauma of starvation can also leave lasting scars, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression.

"We were living like animals, fighting for a piece of bread. There was nothing human left in us." - Survivor, Siege of Leningrad

Famine is a recurring theme for humanity. The fact you and I don't know what it means to starve is through sheer luck. We were born at the right time, in the right place to reap the benefits of the Haber-Bosch process before global population grew to soak up excess food production capacity. In other words, we grew up in a food-plenty world.

Unfortunately, this is unusual throughout human history. Famine always lurked in the shadows, and most were familiar either through direct experience or cultural narratives. If your neighbors grow food every summer, the stories of great famines below might explain why:

The Great Famine (1315-1317)

The Great Famine was primarily caused by a series of adverse weather conditions, including unusually heavy rains and cool temperatures beginning in the spring of 1315, which persisted through 1316 and led to successive crop failures. These conditions were compounded by a severe outbreak of livestock disease, drastically reducing cattle populations. Estimates suggest that the Great Famine resulted in the deaths of 10% to 25% of the population in affected areas, translating to approximately 7 to 17.5 million people out of the 70 million pre-famine population. The famine lasted from 1315 to 1317, with some regions not fully recovering until 1322, marking a period of severe food shortages, widespread hunger, disease, and mortality. Efforts to mitigate the famine included setting up price controls and attempting to import food from southern Europe, but these measures were largely ineffective due to the scale of the crisis and the inability of medieval governments to manage such a widespread disaster. The famine led to a significant increase in crime, as people resorted to theft and violence to obtain food, undermining the authority of the Church and the state, and resulting in heightened instances of cannibalism and infanticide, reflecting the extreme desperation of the population.

The Irish Potato Famine (1845-1852)

The Irish Potato Famine, also known as the Great Hunger, was caused by a potato blight that destroyed the primary food source for the Irish population. Approximately one million people died, and another million emigrated from Ireland, significantly reducing the population. The famine lasted from 1845 to 1852 and was characterized by widespread starvation, disease, and emigration. The British government's inadequate response and policies that exacerbated the crisis are widely criticized. Relief efforts included soup kitchens and workhouses, but these were insufficient to meet the needs of the starving population. The famine had a profound impact on Irish society, leading to significant population decline, emigration, and lasting economic and social changes.

“Children were lying about with distended bellies, tiny, shrunken limbs, and big, death-haunted eyes... People were eating human flesh. A woman was arrested for cutting off and eating her own child.” – Miron Dolot (on Holodomor), survivor and author of Execution by Hunger: The Hidden Holocaust

The Soviet Famine (1932-1933)

The Soviet Famine, particularly in Ukraine (Holodomor), was caused by forced collectivization policies under Stalin, grain requisitioning, and political repression. Natural factors, such as droughts, also played a role but were secondary to the man-made causes. The death toll is estimated to be between 3.3 million and 7.5 million people, with the majority of deaths occurring in Ukraine. The famine lasted from 1932 to 1933 and was particularly severe due to the deliberate policies of the Soviet government, which exacerbated the food shortages. The Soviet government denied the existence of the famine and continued to export grain, refusing international aid and implementing internal measures that were often counterproductive. The famine caused immense suffering and led to widespread instances of cannibalism. Historical accounts describe instances where parents killed and ate their children, and other acts of cannibalism driven by the intense hunger and desperation of the people. The famine left a lasting scar on Ukrainian society and contributed to the animosity between Ukraine and Russia.

The Siege of Leningrad (1941-1944)

The Siege of Leningrad during World War II, from September 8, 1941, to January 27, 1944, was one of the longest and most devastating sieges in history. The German forces blocked all supplies to the city, causing extreme food shortages and widespread starvation. Approximately 1 million people died, mainly from starvation. The people of Leningrad endured harsh winters with limited heating and severe malnutrition. In their desperation, they ate anything they could find, including pets, wallpaper paste, and leather, with some even resorting to cannibalism. While most cannibalism involved the consumption of those who had already died, there were instances where people were killed for their flesh, driven by the desperate need to survive. Despite the immense suffering, the residents showed incredible resilience, continuing to work in factories and support the war effort. The siege finally ended when Soviet forces broke the blockade, but the city was left in ruins, scarred by prolonged deprivation and the immense loss of life.

The Bengal Famine (1943)

The Bengal Famine occurred in British-ruled India and led to the deaths of an estimated 2-3 million people. The famine was caused by a combination of crop failures, wartime policies, and inadequate response by the British colonial government. The famine lasted from 1943 to 1944 and was exacerbated by the British government's prioritization of military needs over civilian relief. Relief efforts were slow and insufficient, and many people resorted to eating leaves, grass, and other inedible substances to survive. The famine had a significant impact on Bengal, leading to widespread suffering and mortality, and contributing to the growing demand for Indian independence.

The Chinese Great Famine (1959-1961)

The Great Chinese Famine was primarily caused by the policies of the Great Leap Forward, which aimed to rapidly industrialize China, leading to inefficient agricultural practices, crop failures, and a breakdown of food distribution systems. Natural disasters also contributed to the famine. Estimates of the death toll range from 15 million to 45 million people, making it one of the deadliest famines in history. The famine lasted from 1959 to 1961 and was severe due to the combination of policy failures and natural disasters, leading to widespread starvation and mortality. The Chinese government initially denied the severity of the famine and continued with the policies that had caused it, eventually making policy changes and seeking international aid, but these efforts came too late for millions. The famine led to widespread suffering and reports of cannibalism, profoundly impacting Chinese society and leading to significant social and political changes in subsequent years.

The Ethiopian Famine (1983-1985)

The Ethiopian Famine was exacerbated by drought, conflict, and government policies, leading to the deaths of approximately 400,000 to 1 million people. The famine lasted from 1983 to 1985 and attracted international attention and aid. Relief efforts included food aid and international fundraising campaigns, but the response was often hampered by logistical challenges and the Ethiopian government's handling of aid distribution. The famine displaced much of the population and highlighted the need for better global disaster response and food security measures.

"We started eating things we shouldn’t eat. We were eating grass, tree bark, and even dirt. I heard about people eating human flesh, although I never witnessed it myself." - Kang Chol-Hwan, author of "The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag"

The North Korean Famine (1994-1998)

The North Korean Famine, also known as the Arduous March, was caused by a combination of economic mismanagement, loss of Soviet support, and natural disasters such as floods and droughts. The death toll is estimated to be between 600,000 and 2 million people. The famine lasted from 1994 to 1998 and was severe due to the complete collapse of the North Korean economy and food distribution systems. The North Korean government initially denied the famine and refused international aid, eventually accepting aid from international organizations and countries, but often diverting it. The response was marked by secrecy and inadequate relief efforts. The famine caused widespread suffering and reports of cannibalism, displacing the population and leaving a lasting impact on North Korean society, contributing to ongoing food insecurity and economic challenges.

Would you eat your cat?

I ask this uncomfortable question from the comfort of my couch with a well-stocked fridge. I ate well yesterday and I'll eat well today. However, there is a time and place - and frame of mind - in which this becomes a relevant question.

It's easy to align to morals when fat and happy. However, to judge those who, under extreme duress, strayed from those morals is to lack understanding of what starvation means. It's a fight for survival, but also a re-wiring of the brain. The mind knows how to shut down moral judgements if survival is at stake.

It is impossible to empathize with someone who hasn't eaten in a week. But this is something we must consider.

“I have no strength left, none at all... People are dying like flies... I have nothing to eat. Last night, we ate our cat. We loved him so much, but what could we do?” – Anonymous resident of Leningrad

When faced with imminent death from starvation, the survival instinct can override deeply ingrained social and moral norms. The brain prioritizes immediate survival over long-term consequences or ethical considerations.

Prolonged hunger and malnutrition cause significant psychological stress, altered states and trauma. People may experience confusion, delirium, and impaired reasoning, leading to actions that would otherwise be unthinkable.

To cope with the horror of their actions, individuals might mentally dissociate, separating their actions from their sense of self. This psychological defense mechanism can make it easier to commit acts that are otherwise morally reprehensible.

The sad truth is this: yes, you will eat your cat. The horrifying question is this: what other loved ones would you eat?

Predator becomes prey

As apex predators, we individually assume we will be the ones forced to make such grueling decisions. However, it's just as likely that, during a famine, we - or our loved ones - would be seen as a source of sustenance. Worse, people you once knew and trusted - neighbors, family, friends - will turn on you. In a weakened state, you will be seen as prey.

“It was a dreadful thought to use the flesh of our fellow sufferers as the means of sustaining life... When we reflected that we must die if we did not have recourse to this means, it reconciled us to the idea.” – Patrick Breen, Donner Party member

Are you prepared to defend yourself and your family from human predators? Can you defend against armed, starving bandits disassociated from reality?

At first, they will search house-to-house for stored food. Once that's gone, what they search for next you and I both know but will never admit.