Vijay Joshi, 19 November 1981
In our hearts, most of us are Malthusians. We associate mass starvation with too many people chasing too little food. There are too many people because they reproduce themselves too fast, in ‘geometric progression’, as Malthus put it. There is too little food because the supply of food cannot keep pace with the pressure of population. From time to time, there are famines, natural disasters like drought, flood or blight, which reduce the supply of food sharply, causing widespread death. Amartya Sen’s view is different. ‘Starvation,’ he says in the opening paragraph of this book, ‘is a characteristic of some people not having enough food to eat. It is not a characteristic of there being not enough food to eat. While the latter is a cause of the former, it is but one of many possible causes. Whether and how starvation relates to food supply is a matter for empirical investigation.’ Sen’s empirical investigation leads him to the startling discovery that in several major recent famines, which killed vast numbers of people, the supply of food did not decline or declined only slightly.