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Hunger: A Modem History.

Hunger: A Modem History. By James Vernon (Cambridge and London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007. xii plus 369 pp. $29.95).

In this wide-ranging study, James Vernon analyzes the changing attitudes toward hunger and poverty among British politicians, journalists, scientists, and the general public during the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the process he sheds new light on the origins of the Welfare State and the roles of different groups in its creation, as well as on colonial and post-colonial development policies (in passing).

Vernon's study begins with the conflict between the political economy and humanitarian views of hunger. British economists Smith and Malthus discredited medieval religious views of hunger, instead attributing it to natural disasters and market forces, but Malthus also blamed what he saw as the moral failings of the poor who had too many children. These views underlay the New Poor Law of 1834 and its workhouse policy. After its passage, Vernon writes, the British press unleashed a "tidal wave" of articles that devastatingly exposed the brutality and injustice of the workhouses and prompted a parliamentary investigation. Later 19th century journalists, reporting on widespread hunger among Britain's poor, the Irish famine of the 1840s, the late 19th century famines in colonial India, and the Boer War concentration camps, argued that reversible policies and heartless officials created or perpetuated these problems.

These reports changed views of the poor in Britain from improvident and immoral to innocent victims of larger forces beyond their control that humanitarian social efforts and responsive government could alleviate. This reversed the Malthusian view by portraying the hungry as morally superior and government as immorally hiding behind Malthusian rationalizations. These new cultural values, Vernon argues, motivated political activists horn unemployed workers to suffragettes and Irish and Indian nationalists to resort to hunger strikes and hunger inarches, using self-induced hunger to claim moral superiority and embarrass the government into action. Vernon's discussion places these actions, such as Gandhi's fasts, in an illuminating context.

While British officials resisted such tactics, nonetheless they recognized the seriousness of the problem from the fact that most Boer War recruits were unfit for service. Simultaneously with the hunger strike movement, scientists including Seebohm Rowntree began a series of laboratory investigations, studies, and surveys to define human dietary needs and the character and extent of hunger in Britain and certain colonies. Their research led to the concepts of malnutrition and undernutrition, to articulation of nutritional standards and a reevaluation of diets among colonial peoples. Related research, especially by the anthropologist Audrey Richards, also exposed the social and cultural values that influenced diets and laid the basis for the Held of social nutrition.

This research, in the context of two world wars, increasing evidence of the extent of poverty and hunger in Britain (including reported cases of deaths from starvation that provoked highly publicized debates), and widespread popular protest against poverty, stimulated governmental and private efforts to improve the nutrition and food efficiency of the population. Several studies attributed at least part of the problems to nutritional ignorance and harmful consumption habits, which introduced another moralistic factor into hunger by blaming housewives (often unjustly) for their families' malnutrition. Politicians, scientists, and private groups responded with increasing efforts to educate the population, and especially mothers and schoolgirls, about the basics of nutrition. They also attempted to influence consumption directly through collective feeding schemes such as canteens in factories and schools, and similar nutritionally-guided restaurants for the public. These programs were sometimes ineffective or counterproductive: one postwar survey entitled "why did they make me eat that?" found that most adults remembered hating their school canteens' food. Nonetheless, Vernon's discussion indicates that these efforts did increase popular awareness and concern over nutrition, to the extent that commercial food companies increasingly used nutrition to advertise their products.

Another consequence of this research and the policies that followed was to persuade many scientists and politicians that similar efforts applied on a global scale could eliminate world hunger. The staunchest advocate of this was John Boyd Orr, director of the important Rowett Laboratories, who advocated a world food board that could eliminate hunger through control of prices and distribution. His ideas and optimism led to his appointment by the United Nations as the first director of the new Food and Agricultural Organization in 1945, but he resigned in 1948 partly out of frustration at the United States' use of food exports for political purposes.

Vernon concludes his study by emphasizing the complexity of the origins of the Welfare State. The heroism and sacrifice of the labor movement in the hunger strikes and marches played a less important role than research documenting the causes and extent of hunger and possible solutions, and the calculus of the losses caused by malnutrition against the potential gains to be attained by government and private efforts to alleviate the problem.

Vernon's study is extremely valuable both for his arguments and the large and up-to-date bibliography in his footnotes. I am writing a similar study of Russian and Soviet attitudes toward famine, for which Vernon's study provides a useful comparison. This comparison, however, raises a point that Vernon did not follow up: the contrast he cites early in his book between the 2,973 people who died in the September 11 2001 terrorist attack and the estimated 24,000 people who died that day, and who die almost every day, from hunger and related diseases throughout the world. Vernon shows that attitudes toward hunger in a country, among officials, specialists, ordinary people, and the poor themselves, help explain why hunger persists and how hunger declines. Implicit in this is the point that the British government was uncorrupt and genuinely committed to alleviating these problems.

Attitudes toward hunger and the poor are much more problematic in developing countries. These range from the mendacity of corrupt dictators like Mugabe to the well-intentioned failures like Nyerere's ujamaa program and the corruption in too many governments. Development specialists have reported how developing country elites and officials express concern for their country's poor publicly but think privately and act in often quite different ways, but it is often impolitic to raise these issues or even report on them too publicly. Studies like Vernon's need to he replicated in many other countries both for historical understanding and policy formation.

Mark B. Tauger

West Virginia University
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Author:Tauger, Mark B.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2010
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