by FJehn1 min read7th Apr 20215 comments
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Are the potato famine and the revolutions of 1848 an example for the fragility of the modern world?

Recently I came across the potato famine and how it contributed or even caused the revolutions of 1848. I wondered if this is an good example to show how cascading failures lead from an natural event to an agricultural crisis, to an economic crisis, to an financial crisis and finally resulting in a political crisis.

 So what happened?

In the 19th century potatoes became a staple crop in Europe, because they were easy to plant and harvest, cheap and filled you up quite nicely. However, there were very few varieties at that time and this made them vulnerable to disease. In 1845 a new potato disease spread all over Europe and destroyed much of the yearly harvest. This was especially a problem in Ireland (because they almost exclusively used potatoes), but most parts of Central Europe were at least a bit affected. This basically left Europe without potatoes until new varieties could be developed.

In 1846 bad weather also affected the wheat and rye harvest. This lead to rising prices all over Central Europe, as now all major food crops had considerably lower yields. These food shortages forced people to kill most of their livestock, as they did not have any feed for it. But as many people slaughtered their animals at the same time, prices for meat plummeted (though they were still way to high for poor people).

This agricultural crisis lead to an economic crisis, as everybody had to use most of their money for food. Therefore, there wasn't anything left to buy other consumer goods. This in turn increased unemployment considerably, as many people in the consumer goods industry lost their jobs. Especially in cities this was a problem, as many people had moved their in the last decades and could not find any jobs to sustain themselves.

So, after the agricultural crisis in 1845 and 1846 were followed with an economic crisis in 1846 and 1847, next came an financial crisis in 1847. The financial crisis was mainly driven by the bursting of a bubble around building railroads. In the 1830s and  1840s many railroad projects were started, but most were crap. The bubble burst in 1847 after states started to rise interest rates to consolidate their finances in the economic crisis. In addition, the food crisis diverted funds away from the railroads and this showed that most of the projects could only continue if they got more money continuously. When this did not happen they crashed and with them everyone who had invested their money. This again led to more unemployment as all the railroad companies closed and due to a lack of available loans many smaller businesses went bankrupt, making even more people lose their job.

So in 1848 you had a crashed economy, a debt crisis, still some famine and massive unemployment. Many people all over Europe faces several years of fear, hardship and poverty. They looked for someone to blame. This brought many people to politics. And finally in 1848 we can see revolutions in most states of Central Europe. Some being successful (France), while others failed (Germany). Still, it seems like an new potato disease basically started a chain of events that led to a drastic change of the political landscape in Central Europe.

This comment was mainly inspired by the revolutions podcast: https://thehistoryofrome.typepad.com/revolutions_podcast/2017/08/707-the-hungry-forties-.html

Knowledge is fractal. Every time I wander into a new field of knowledge I am fascinated that it has its own tales, language, heroes, secrets and traditions. However, it does not stop at this scale. Every field had its own subfields and again we find exactly the same thing. You could spend your whole life trying to understand a field and you would still be completely surprised by what you might find in its subfields if you venture out. And again you would just find more subfields of the subfield you started exploring. It seemingly never ends. I like this personally as it means I will never run out of fascinating thing to find, but I wonder how long humanity can continue to amass knowledge until we get lost in the depth of our own fractal. Or will we just find new ways to cope with that?

Is it an important research topic to explore the availability of flammable materials in major NATO cities to assess the effects of nuclear war?

Today I read "Examining the Climate Effects of a Regional Nuclear Weapons Exchange Using a Multiscale Atmospheric Modeling Approach". It models the effect of a regional nuclear war between Pakistan and India. One quote stood out to me:

"The assumed 16 g cm−2 fuel loading and 100% burn rate for the fire is actually uncertain, and in fact, Reisner et al. (2018) assume only ∼1 g cm−2 fuel loading. Reisner et al. (2018) points out that Indian and Pakistani cities are built of concrete, and there fore, firestorms that erupted in fuel-rich Hiroshima and Hamburg would not occur. Our simulations, using 1 g cm−2, cause no global radiative forcing, because the BC emitted into the lower and middle troposphere is quickly removed by EAM."

This means the effects of a nuclear war are mainly determined by how bad the firestorms will become and this in turn is determined by how much flammable material is available in the bombed cities. However, the possible range for this parameter seems to be from "there is too little fuel to cause a nuclear winter" to "nuclear winter is basically certain". This seems like a pretty big research gap to me. 

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