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I'm writing a novel set in a future world where a global famine strikes. The population has just crossed ten billion people. Is it unreasonable to kill off a billion people during five years of famine? How would that scale of death be dealt with, just from a body disposal perspective? How about social and emotional aspects?

It seems to me that you can directly relate food production to societal energy. So, in a time of famine, society has less energy to deal with things like death at a time when it needs all that energy. I'm thinking that people would stop caring about where loved ones were buried, and maybe there are laws mandating cremation. Social unrest is going to happen (a few years later, WW-III comes about, with this as one of several ingredients; catalyst not yet determined), and the majority of deaths will happen in places that can least handle it (mega cities in China, India, etc.).

Am I reaching too far with a billion dead?

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    $\begingroup$ How would that scale of death be dealt with, just from a body disposal perspective? I'm going to go cynicaly gross and say just 10% consumed as food over five years by the rest of 90% is unrealistically low. $\endgroup$ – Adrian Colomitchi Mar 10 at 22:31
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    $\begingroup$ The economic principle of subtitution also applies. When meat becomes too expensive or unavailable, folks will switch to grains and cereals. When the grain crop fails and the stores are empty, folks will hunt mushrooms. When the mushrooms are gone, folks will trap rats and eat tree bark and insects. As an apex predator, we CAN eat a lot of life forms that we don't USUALLY eat. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Mar 10 at 22:33
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    $\begingroup$ Also, a "global" famine may be a stretch without some other causal calamity. Regional crop failures occur, but you need something that crosses continents and hemispheres. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Mar 10 at 22:35
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    $\begingroup$ Also note that in times of famine, only a fraction dies directly from emaciation. Most deaths are attributed to other causes (diseases, elements) to which emaciated people are becoming much more susceptible. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Mar 10 at 22:49
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    $\begingroup$ Does the story expect 9 billion severely malnourished and 1 billion starved to death, or 9 billion are slightly inconvenienced but everyone in Africa or India died? $\endgroup$ – Mark Mar 11 at 9:25

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I don't think you are reaching far at all. As a real-world example, humanity will run out of minable phosphorus deposits in about 30 years. You might be familiar with phosphorus, as it's the vital ingredient of fertilizers.

So, in 30 years we will have dispersed all known deposits into tiny amounts throughout the globe, and we'll have to revert to what our great grandparents did, i.e., let fields rest for 5-10 years to replenish phosphorus naturally.

With our current population, this might be ok if we cut down on livestock and golf courses, but if the population was twice as large, the onset of phosphorus shortage would actually lead to a global famine. In this scenario, rich developed countries now face a problem that they can't solve with money (assuming science doesn't come up with viable alternatives in time) - they actually need to use other countries' land to survive, which would probably start WW3. The death toll from the war would be much more catastrophic than the famine, because people now have very real motivation to kill each other.

In this scenario, the ultimate war crime someone could commit would be to use weapons that make the land unusable.

From a plausibility point of view, disposing of dead bodies in larger numbers than today would probably not be a thing in most countries. Europe's population has been declining for a while and it only maintains its numbers through immigration. If a global famine hit, it's the countries/places with the largest population & population density that would be impacted the most, e.g., Hong Kong, India, Bangladesh. For places that rely on immigration for numbers, they would simply close their borders so most of the skirmishes/increased death toll would take place at the borders.

Overall, I think that your greatest challenge here would be to plausibly explain how humanity was blindsided by the problem and did not impose a global 1 child policy to keep numbers low.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for phosphorus, that's a great idea. "plausibly explain how humanity was blindsided by the problem" Seems easy, it's already expensive to solve, so all you need is to create enough doubt, just like global warming. $\endgroup$ – Mark Mar 11 at 9:20
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    $\begingroup$ @Mark in fact maybe all the crops died because of the runaway greenhouse effect. (there's no CO2 or water in space, after all) $\endgroup$ – user253751 Mar 11 at 11:15
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    $\begingroup$ +1 Combine oil depletion, phosphorous depletion and desertification from global warming, then look how even less complex societies fared in the bronze age collapse. $\endgroup$ – pjp Mar 11 at 11:20
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    $\begingroup$ oh great, now i've got another thing to worry about, that the world is going to run out of phosphorus in 30 years... $\endgroup$ – Michael Mar 12 at 5:44
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    $\begingroup$ I don't know why you think developed countries can't solve their problem with money. The US, for instance, effectively pays large swaths of South America to use all their water for avocado production, even places with drought where all non-export crops are dying. $\endgroup$ – Nick Matteo Mar 12 at 20:58
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As an author, you can choose any level of mayhem and destruction, you only need to make it believable.

I think you do that by explaining the steps humanity took to forestall the famine, and how they worked and how they failed.

From our own current experience with coronavirus, we can see that the initial response is sort of disbelief and denial, followed by Disease Control Theater so politicians can say they are doing something while panic rises.

The soonest response would be the number of farmers would increase drastically -- from organic, hydroponic, to chemo-fueled maximized output of calories to close the gap. And, still 1 billion die. Why does this fail -- disease, incompetence, contamination, a combination of all of the above.

Longer-term, if we were faced with an increasing number of Dead, year after year, I am sure people would be concerned about where are we going put them, but the obvious answer would be that we would use them as fertilizer. And, if the famine got bad enough, we'd start eating them -- both cannibalism and soylent brand breakfast flakes (now with more grandma) So why does this response fail, or does it succeed and limit the famine to 1 billion dead

In the middle term, science would be furiously working to understand the famine and create GMO to counteract it. Why did this fail? Or did itsave the day? Or did it make things far worse?

So, in conclusion, your outcomes don't really matter, you only need to make it believable, and you do that by making it understandable.

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    $\begingroup$ +1. This answer sums up my feelings about most questions I see in this site. I feel it's unfair of me to think of so many questions this way, but still I'm constantly reminded of all the "please debug and rewrite this program for me" questions back in stackoverflow. Maybe I'm going about it all wrong, maybe I should see it as a sort of writing prompt forum that serves more as a sport to those who answer than as a resource to those who ask. $\endgroup$ – leinaD_natipaC Mar 11 at 7:53
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    $\begingroup$ @leinaD_natipaC, I look at this site, not as a mechanism to share my brilliance :), but as an opportunity to stretch and limber up my imagination and practice writing persuasively. The first because I enjoy it, and the second because I believe its an important skill as a writer. Loved stackoverflow, best site ever $\endgroup$ – EDL Mar 11 at 12:47
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    $\begingroup$ "you only need to make it believable." I disagree with that to some degree. If it's not actually relevant to the story, just to set a background, it doesn't even have to be believable. It can easily be handwaved or completely ignored, as long as you never put the focus on it. Lots of stories have completely unbelievable backgrounds, but they still work. $\endgroup$ – Morfildur Mar 12 at 14:47
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    $\begingroup$ I've been really torn for a day between accepting this as "the answer" and @Nikos' entry below. In the end I took his, but wanted to report that yours was useful as well. Thank you. $\endgroup$ – J.D. Ray Mar 12 at 19:54
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1 billion in 5 years, so, in average are 200 million/year.

I wanted a graph showing the total of deaths, crude, but only source I found was World Bank to Death rate (1 to 1000). Crossing this data with total of population you will reach in 52 to 56 million deaths/year, 28% to your goal.

Now let's take a new fact - not related to my own sci fi, and no idea about your own sci fi - the Covid-19.

For now, the mortality by age of coronavirus is as followed in this table.

The actual population pyramid can be found here.

And earlier today the German PM Angela Merkel estimated that 60 to 70% of the German population will be infected with virus. Let's extrapolate it to worldwide and ignore gender differences.

enter image description here

Now extrapolate Covid19 to 4 more waves, the virus mutating, or new similar diseases one after other with similar death rate.

So, like shown by this sheet with all those info, we can add more 56.8 million deaths to previous 56 million. 112,8 million/year, 564 million in 5 years. We're short with 436 million of deaths.

Extermination wars are rares now and if some leader brings this possibility, they will cause opposition in their own country.

To cause a huge impact and bring famine to the mass I think a intensive sequence of bushfires, similar with that happened last year, will ruin ecosystems around major rivers and the drought will cause major disturbs in food production. Extreme poor people are totalling 600 million persons and a considerable part of them will have no access to food if prices rise.

Collapse of national states due to climate changes, economical crisis and consequence of pandemias is easily feasible. Syria and Venezuela sadly offer such a scenario, even if few data is available.

Another two lateral consequences will bring more deaths in similar situations: suicide (since individuals lose motivations to live until fanatics in sects promote mass suicide) and paramilitary / mafia / terrorist groups taking power and even acquiring some sovereignty in parts of a country: ISIS and FARC are two good examples.

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    $\begingroup$ The So, like shown by this sheet... Need to kill more 436 million. paragraph is a bit unclear. Can you rephrase/elaborate a bit on it? $\endgroup$ – Adrian Colomitchi Mar 11 at 0:48
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    $\begingroup$ As brazilian, I m have a great dificulty in express ideas in english, not my native language and its the major lacks in my education. I no idea if is suitable say it here, but I m pretty thankfully to @AdrianColomitchi and now to Glorfindel for small corrections in my text, this teach me better than any other teacher I had in my formal education. <3 $\endgroup$ – Rodolfo Penteado Mar 11 at 10:32
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    $\begingroup$ Nah, mate, I'm not teaching you, no need for thanks. I'm just giving a slightly better form to your essence, because I think your essence worth understanding. In regards to English, it is you who are learning by your own effort. $\endgroup$ – Adrian Colomitchi Mar 11 at 11:02
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    $\begingroup$ The question specifically says famine. $\endgroup$ – user253751 Mar 11 at 11:11
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    $\begingroup$ @FluidCode, I told twice I extrapolate the numbers. '-' I even no believe this pandemia will spread so much (although, Spanish Flu spread a lot more and kill lots too), just use it to ilustrate a way to wipe 1 billion people. Others comented famine only no kill, people die due debility. Total infected will be underestimate globaly too, even in Hubei, that 3000+ deaths there one ratio more close to 1,13% than 4,49% that official numbers suggest. $\endgroup$ – Rodolfo Penteado Mar 11 at 18:33
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The Great Famine of 1315-17 killed approximately that proportion of the population: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Famine_of_1315%E2%80%931317

Historians debate the toll, but it is estimated that 10–25% of the population of many cities and towns died. Though the Black Death (1347–1351) would kill more people, it often swept through an area in a matter of months, whereas the Great Famine lingered for years, prolonging the suffering of the populace.

A modern famine would probably look quite different to a historic famine however due to a much higher urban population and greater dependence on logistics and (inter)national supply chains. There's also a greater diversity of food types than ever before, a single crop failure (even soy, potato or wheat) would be unlikely to be sufficiently decrease the worlds calorific output sufficiently to cause such a huge population loss. That probably means the "famine" is actually caused by lack of access to food rather than a lack of availability of food, which would likely have very different societal impacts as countries/regions fare differently due to their geography and politics.

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding@SE. Great well-written answer. $\endgroup$ – EDL Mar 11 at 17:51
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80 million + died in World War 2, so a billion is realistic.

Anything on that scale would soon become global conflict. There would be no worldwide attempt beyond lipservice to resolve the problem for all humanity. Politicians would have to find pretexts for war just to safeguard themselves. We put up with a lot from governments (more some places than others) but hunger leads to rebellion as people have nothing to lose.

Unlike WW2 this would be a truly global war as well as lots of local conflicts over resources which tend to be more bitter. And WW2 saw over 10% of some countries dead, many other instances of genocide have seen much more.

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    $\begingroup$ World War 1 killed 15 million people, not 900 million... $\endgroup$ – KeizerHarm Mar 11 at 0:03
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    $\begingroup$ How does the number of people killed in a war have any bearing on whether famine could kill 10% of ten billion? $\endgroup$ – JakeRobb Mar 12 at 14:11
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    $\begingroup$ @JakeRobb because global famine would lead to war, break down of societies etc,., and all sorts of freakshows would arm themselves and indulge in genocide or religious persecution or anything else $\endgroup$ – Kilisi Mar 13 at 0:27
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Wide spread famines will result in other affect like pandemics and warfare. Without adequate nutrition diseases will spread more readily. Resources like food are seldom evenly distributed. War will result as people try to use force to obtain food while others will try to defend it.

When Famine strikes areas today, the rest of world responds and supplies food. With a world wide famine, their will be no help from others unless we have off planet settlements or have met friendly aliens.

If anything limiting losses to 10% of population might be too low, the actual death rate could be much higher.

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The Irish Potato Famine caused the death of ~1 million of the population, which was then close to 9 million. (also, 1.5 million emigrated, but that's not relevant here)

With a disease that targets the source of a major food source (rice, grains?) then the loss of 10% of the world population can be achieved. Also, major emigration from affected regions would also add to the chaos, and possibly cause more deaths, as people start to fight over rarer resources.

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As mentioned in comments, a famine is not really a good cause of large-scale deaths. (Unless caused by the long-term effects of global warming, in which case the result is human extinction.) Disease is a much more likely cause, and we do have records of plagues which, over a large area like Europe or the Americas, had much higher percentage death tolls.

For example, the Black Plague of the 14th century is estimated to have killed 30-60% of the population of Europe, from around 475 million to 350–375 million. More recently, the influenza pandemic that started in 1918 killed an estimated 50 million, out of a world population of about 1.8 billion.

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    $\begingroup$ Long term effects of global warming won't cause human extinction. $\endgroup$ – pjp Mar 11 at 11:17
  • $\begingroup$ @pjp: Care to bet on that? There's certainly precedent: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Permian%E2%80%93Triassic_extinction_event $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Mar 11 at 16:45
  • $\begingroup$ So...70% of terrestrial vertebrate species and surprise: the more widely spread ones were less likely to be eliminated while Endemic species get wiped out. Does that mean humans will definitely go extinct? Talk about spurious extrapolation. $\endgroup$ – pjp Mar 13 at 9:14
  • $\begingroup$ @pjp: Apex predator, top of food chain, large-bodied so atmospheric changes hit harder... As I said, care to bet on it? $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Mar 13 at 16:45
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I think it depends on perspective. If you are talking about a uniform 10% decline in population worldwide over a five year period (~2% per year), people might not even notice or even worse, it might might be celebrated. However these things (wars, famines, plagues, etc.) are rarely uniform. Take for example the 2010 Earthquake that hit the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Both counties are on the same relativity small island but because of its long history of poor governance and public investment Haiti fared far worse. One country could see a massive die off that destroys the very foundations of its society, whereas the country next door might never have had it so good.

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One thing to think about is a famine that large that crosses major continents would have cultural, societal and regional military impacts as well.

Let's start your hypothetical famine in Africa and spread eastward.
Years -5 to year 0 were rainy years. Crops were bountiful, maybe in some regions, overly abundant.

Years 1-5 Crops are stunted from depletion of nutrients in the ground. Locusts have bloomed across multiple areas. Famines are raging across the continent. The Nile Delta is especially hard hit by the locusts. Approximately 1/3 of the crops are destroyed. Worldwide relief is being shipped in, but it can only feed 1/4 of the calories needed.

Locusts and a rice blight are impacting Indian crops.

Western Stock Exchanges have large drops in their Indexes

Year 6-7 A single year could be withstood. A multiyear famine however cannot not.
People are migrating to regions where the food is. This is putting significant pressure on the local populations. Riots break out in refugee camps. Armed clashes break out between local militaries and police, with camp militias looking for food.

Refugees by the millions are migrating out of Africa through the Middle East and trying to get into Southern Europe. Small scale clashes along the borders of Turkey and Greece are erupting. Turkey suspended from NATO.

Years 8 The blight and locusts have moved into China and North Korea. Clashes along the border of Turkey and Greece have increased. Greece has called in its military to protect its border. Turkey ramps up their military presence to force open the border. (They cannot handle the influx of refugees either.) Seeing a weakened rival Pakistan ramps up Kashmir attacks and attacks within India.

The major stock markets are at an all time low. Countries like Greece, Italy, Ireland, Iceland, are bankrupt. Germany and France can no longer bear the burden of keeping these countries afloat.

Year 9 Major clashes along the borders of Turkey and Greece. Greece invokes Article 5 of the NATO Treaty. NATO reinforces the borders and calls for calm. Offer some money if Turkey houses the refugees. They refuse.

Widespread famine in North Korea. Fearing the collapse of the government, the DPRK launches small scale provocations to force aid from the west in return of status quo. This includes a ballistic missile attack on ROK forces along DMZ. ROK declares war on NK.

With the West paying attention to NK, and India growing tired of the provocations in Kashmir, launch a ground war into Kashmir to reclaim territory and install a larger buffer with Pakistan.

China refuses to help NK as they are in the middle of the famine as well, NK blatant attack and the fact that they need the West for trade and aid.

Year 10 NK defeated but not before they used a Kamikaze attack with a nuclear warhead on Seoul. 250k dead, nearly 1M injured.

The West can no longer help feed the world. Its stockpiles are depleted. A general anger from the areas impacted the most spread anti-West sentiment.

War now ranging in Kashmir between Pakistan and India. Indian army is far larger, better trained and equipped, pushes deep into what Pakistan determines is their territory. Pakistan issues an ultimatum that unless India withdraws, total war will be declared. When India refuses, terrorist, later tied back to Pakistan Intelligence Service (the ISI) release nerve agents on police stations and hospitals, bio weapons are dispersed in large crowded areas in Mumbai and other major cities.

India retaliates with several small tactical nuclear weapons aimed at strategic points such as military bases and government installations.

Year 11 - Biological agents usage in India have spread. Over a million are dead from Anthrax, Cholera and Plague.

..........

What started out as a famine now has escalated in a nuclear war in 2 areas. Remember we are just 100 years from when the whole European continent exploded for very similar reasons.

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I think that 10% is possible (some other answers here do substantiate that) but just barely at the edge of realistic. What might work better is if there were some calamitous event which precipitated the famine. The event itself would cause a significant portion of the deaths but if it was a sudden and short(ish) duration event then people might remember living in the aftermath more than the event itself. Thus you get the old man telling his story of how he remembers living through the great famine and about how many people died but his father (blah blah blah) so he survived. This will all sound like the deaths were from the famine but a large portion were from the original event.

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10% of the world population is probably not feasible today due to the global economy being able to supply at least subsistence level food to mitigate any regional famine, and any natural famine will be regional due to differences in climate, crops, government, etc. A regional famine could spark a war that could kill 10% or more, but only within that region.

An engineered famine is another matter. If someone created blights that eradicated all three primary cereal crops (corn, wheat and rice), the entire world would descend into famine and war, with a global death toll from both easily reaching 10% and probably far higher.

Who would engineer a famine, and why? I see two main suspects:

  1. Eco-terrorists who see a drastic global population reduction as the only way to stop/reverse global climate change.
  2. World powers who attack each others' food supply to weaken the competition and take over the world, but unfortunately they all had the same idea (or at least capability) at the same time.
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  • $\begingroup$ In the third world the big problem with famine has been the lack of infra-structure to move food from the ports to where people were hungry. This isn't helped by the degree of corruption. $\endgroup$ – Sherwood Botsford Mar 22 at 14:54
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Given the number of people that live in cities, your catastrophe could be anything that stopped the distribution of food. In Stirling's Emberverse, the non-functioning of all electrical devices means no working vehicles beyond bicycles, and horse drawn... The result is that all cities became death zones that people couldn't exit on foot fast enough to not get eaten.

A similar set of circumstances happens with an 'oil bug' that eats oil destroying the entire hydrocarbon segment of the economy. (Stories appeared in Analog. Don't remember author) Small numbers of diesel engines still run on vegetable oil.


The world food supply is dependent on some small number of crops. Wheat, barley, oats, corn, rye, and rice make up a huge part of the world food supply. Suppose that one or more diseases drop the production of, say, 3 of these by 70%

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The last large scale famine I remember (not: happened) has been the Great Famine in China.

The estimates say China had 550 million people at 1950 (wikipedia) and lost up to 50 million (wikipedia) in a few years due the Great Chinese Famine, at least 15 million. (depending on source).

The reason was quite simple: The Great Leap Forward (wikipedia), where e.g. ideology and mismanagement and scientific ignorance got well combined.

So the social and emotional aspects relate directly to the society and local culture. The more the society has more a hierarchical culture, it gets easier as less people need to be convinced to do the right wrong thing.

As others have already answered (EDL): as long as the general reason (Niko Kazazazakis) fits to comprehensible actions by people and by people in power, 10 % is nothing special.

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