The forgotten world is made up primarily of the developing nations, where most of the people, comprising more than fifty percent of the total world population, live in poverty, with hunger as a constant companion and fear of famine a continual menace.
Monday, September 21, 2009
On Norman Borlaug and the Sad Priorities of a Celebrity-Obsessed Culture
Saturday, September 12, 2009, marked the passing of Norman Borlaug, an American plant pathologist who won the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in dramatically increasing food production in developing nations. The founder of the “Green Revolution,” Borlaug is responsible for much of humanity’s progress in defeating world hunger over the past half-century. As declared by the Nobel Committee in awarding Borlaug the Peace Prize, “More than any other single person of this age, he has helped provide bread for a hungry world.” Some believe that Borlaug over his lifetime saved as many as one billion people from starvation and hunger. Due to his work and that of his colleagues on a world scale, food is more plentiful and economical than at any time in history.
A practical humanitarian, starting in the 1940’s, Borlaug applied scientific research in genetics, plant breeding, plant pathology, agronomy, soil science, and cereal technology to revolutionize wheat production in Mexico. His research and development of high-yield technologies enabled Mexico to become self-sufficient in wheat production and paved the way for a rapid increase in many other countries throughout the developing world. Borlaug’s techniques nearly doubled food production in India and Pakistan during a five-year period in the 1960’s, and his applied research has continued to avert famine and hunger in these densely populated countries (forty years later, wheat production in India has increased nearly tenfold from when Borlaug first applied his techniques there).
Borlaug believed that "the first essential component of social justice is adequate food for all mankind" and that "[f]ood is the moral right of all who are born into this world." Following his successes in Mexico, India, and Pakistan, Borlaug began programs throughout Latin America, the Middle East, and other parts of Asia. In the 1980’s, his work greatly increased wheat yields in more than a half dozen countries in sub-Saharan Africa. A professor at Texas A&M University in his later years – he worked out of a windowless office and never sought great privilege or fame – he was a genuine American (and world) hero.
Although Borlaug was a remarkable man, whose life and accomplishments should be celebrated, until I came across Borlaug’s obituary last week, I confess I had never heard of him. And based on a few anecdotal conversations with some well educated friends of mine, I suspect that 99 out of 100 Americans have never heard of him either. I cannot help but wonder, though, if the obscurity of Norman Borlaug is but a reflection of American culture – of an educational system that de-emphasizes science and math and basic knowledge of major world trends; a society that shows little concern for the plight of other nations, particularly those enmeshed in poverty and whose inhabitants do not share a European heritage; a media that glamorizes narcissistic Hollywood celebrities, self-centered sports heroes, anorexic bikini-clad models, and drug addicted rock stars, yet pays little attention to academic and scientific achievement; and a consumer culture that values the accumulation of wealth and material acquisitions, yet ignores the causes of world hunger, disease, and human suffering.
In a January 1997 article in The Atlantic Monthly, Gregg Easterbrook noted that, “[t]hough barely known in the country of his birth, elsewhere in the world Norman Borlaug is widely considered to be among the leading Americans of our age.” Why is this so? Why are Americans so woefully ignorant of the developing world? Why do the American media pay so little attention to the lives and achievements of people like Norman Borlaug? When Michael Jackson died, we were inundated for days with stories of candlelight vigils held in his memory, shrines created in his honor, and spontaneous outbursts celebrating his life and music. We idolize celebrities in a manner closely resembling religious worship, as if a pilgrimage to Graceland, or a shrine to Michael and Princess Diana can replace that lost portion of our soul no longer fulfilled by faith in God. We live in a celebrity-obsessed culture that values fame and wealth and glitz over substantive achievement, the virtues of public service, and selfless acts of charity.
It is as if our celebrity culture has become a replacement for family and a sense of community; as if Americans need to connect with celebrities on a spiritual level. We feed the paparazzi with an insatiable hunger for information on the most intimate aspects of the private lives of our public figures. We want to know about their sex lives, their personality quirks, their tastes in food and music; we judge the clothes they wear to every award ceremony, and devour magazines that critique hair styles and shoe selections. Entire television stations and websites are devoted to celebrity worship; we read about them in People and Us and National Enquirer; watch them on Entertainment Tonight and the Biography channel; listen to them spill their guts on late-night television and Oprah. Yet we ignore the desperate cries of a poverty stricken world, one full of human suffering and in need of repair; the same world Norman Borlaug devoted his life to improving, by alleviating hunger and disease and bringing a sense of justice and compassion to a viciously cruel, over-populated sea of humanity.
We rarely glamorize the works of our great scientists and cancer researchers, international assistance workers, and those who run our shelters and soup kitchens. Instead, we deify our celebrities; place them on pedestals until they fall back to earth, as they inevitably do, when their age increases and physical beauty declines, when their luck runs out or they do something to prove they, too, are human, full of imperfections, personality defects, and emotional insecurities.
In Revolutionary times, our heroes were George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, men who symbolized the essential worthiness of our struggling democracy, standing as the embodiment of national virtue. Today, public virtue has been replaced by superficial notions of character and personality, glamour and packaged imagery; we measure success by photo opportunities and face time. The American attention span is said to hover around 9.8 seconds, making us the epitome of the sound-bite society; it affects our tastes in culture, the arts, and how we spend our time, and unduly influences our news reports and presidential campaigns.
Norman Borlaug died last week and, if only for a few minutes, a small portion of the world took note. There were likely no street stoppages and spontaneous dance parties; no candlelight vigils and makeshift shrines. But the lives of hundreds of millions of people were saved in part because Norman Borlaug devoted his life to improving the living conditions of others. He may have never appeared in People magazine or been interviewed on Hollywood Insider, and he may not be a household name in American schools, but his legacy -- that of Norman Borlaug, the forgotten benefactor of humanity -- lives on throughout the world.