July 28, 2004
The Real Good Guys
Not that you could easily tell, but I try not to be negative. It just isn't healthy.
So you may wonder why all the negative coverage on Rifkin, Ehrlich, Kass und so weiter?
Well, I figure it's not really negative if it generates wholesome enjoyment.
But even so, I sometimes tire of transcribing idiocy, and at times like that I enjoy reading about genuine heros.
Norman Borlaug fills the bill nicely.
Borlaug is an eighty-two-year-old plant breeder who for most of the past five decades has lived in developing nations, teaching the techniques of high-yield agriculture. He received the Nobel in 1970, primarily for his work in reversing the food shortages that haunted India and Pakistan in the 1960s. Perhaps more than anyone else, Borlaug is responsible for the fact that throughout the postwar era, except in sub-Saharan Africa, global food production has expanded faster than the human population, averting the mass starvations that were widely predicted -- for example, in the 1967 best seller Famine -- 1975! The form of agriculture that Borlaug preaches may have prevented a billion deaths.That's an excerpt from a Gregg Easterbrook article originally in the Atlantic Monthly. You can read the whole thing here. Here's a little bit more.
...the Midwest was becoming the Dust Bowl. Though some mythology now attributes the Dust Bowl to a conversion to technological farming methods, in Borlaug's mind the problem was the lack of such methods. Since then American farming has become far more technological, and no Dust Bowl conditions have recurred. In the summer of 1988 the Dakotas had a drought as bad as that in the Dust Bowl, but clouds of soil were rare because few crops failed. Borlaug was horrified by the Dust Bowl and simultaneously impressed that its effects seemed least where high-yield approaches to farming were being tried. He decided that his life's work would be to spread the benefits of high-yield farming to the many nations where crop failures as awful as those in the Dust Bowl were regular facts of life.
For a slightly different take, try this article. My favorite:
Borlaug recalls, "We were to help Mexico solve its own food problems. In other words, alongside our own work we were to train local scientists and ease them into our jobs. Moreover, we were to be neither consultants nor advisors, but working scientists getting our hands and boots dirty, and demonstrating by our own field results what could be done."
...But in the process Borlaug had to fight some aspects of Mexican culture, in particular the conviction that scientists were above hand labor or getting dirty. He was told by one of his colleagues in the early days, "Dr. Borlaug, we don't do these things in Mexico. That's why we have peons. All you've got to do is draw up the plans and take them to the foreman and let them do it."
Borlaug lost his temper (it wasn?t the last time). He yelled back "That's why the farmers disrespect you. If you don't know how to do something yourself, how can you possibly advise them? If the peons give you false information, you wouldn't even know. No, this has to change. Until we master our own efforts, we will go nowhere in this project."
Nice to see the American virtues unambiguously displayed, isn't it?
On the other hand, if the first two articles are too long for you, the interview makes a pleasantly sized introduction.
Reason: What do you think of Paul Ehrlich's work?
Borlaug: Ehrlich has made a great career as a predictor of doom. When we were moving the new wheat technology to India and Pakistan, he was one of the worst critics we had. He said, "This person, Borlaug, doesn't have any idea of the magnitude of the problems in food production." He said, "You aren't going to make any major impact on producing the food that's needed." Despite his criticisms, we succeeded, of course.
Reason: When an alleged expert like Ehrlich is being negative like that, does that discourage people? Does it hurt the efforts to boost food production?
Borlaug: Sure, because we were funded by a foundation....They'd hear his criticisms, and I'm sure there were some people at Rockefeller saying, "Maybe we shouldn't fund that program anymore." It always has adverse effects on budgeting.
Reason: Why do you think people still listen to Ehrlich? One can go back and read his doomsday scenarios and see that he was wrong.
Borlaug: People don't go back and read what he wrote. You do, but the great majority of the people don't, and their memory is short. As a matter of fact, I think this [lack of perspective] is true of our whole food situation. Our elites live in big cities and are far removed from the fields. Whether it's Brown or Ehrlich or the head of the Sierra Club or the head of Greenpeace, they've never been hungry.
Maybe I am feeling just a little negative....
posted by Justin on 07.28.04 at 05:25 PM
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