Monday, September 21, 2009

On Norman Borlaug and the Sad Priorities of a Celebrity-Obsessed Culture

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.
--Norman Borlaug

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.


  1. Mark,

    Well after, what eight posts? I’m finally in agreement with you, although maybe for slightly different reasons. Count me as one of the 99 who had never heard of Norman Borlaug until now, which is a shame, because in a lot of ways he’s my kind of guy: a real American who, when faced with an endless stream of doomsayers, proved that there was no such thing as an insolvable problem.

    Years before Al Gore zipped up his Chicken Little outfit and began shrieking that the sky is warming! the sky is warming! there was Paul Ehrlich, who, after he was safely born, began complaining that there were too many people on the planet and that millions would die from famine. Like Gore, no matter how many times he was proved wrong, people still listened to him, as if he really wasn’t mentally challenged. Luckily, Borlaug knew that Ehrlich was either stupid or French, and ignored him when Ehrlich said, “I have yet to meet anyone familiar with the situation who thinks India will be self-sufficient in food by 1971.”

    Because of Borlaug’s work, later editions of Ehrlich’s 1968 hissy fit in print, “The Population Bomb,” had to edit out that prediction, after India was almost self-sufficient a mere three years later. This didn’t stop another doomsayer, Lester Brown, from divining more recently that the “world’s farmers can no longer be counted on to feed the projected additions to our numbers.” Borlaug, predictably, disagreed, stating that advances in technology will provide more than enough food for the anticipated world population of 8.3 billion in 2025. Place your wagers now: We’re all going to die! versus Stop your whining and let’s get to work solving the problem!

    Borlaug may be the founder of the “Green Revolution,” but that should not be thought of as an insult, like calling someone an “environmentalist” or a “Green Peace Activist” or a “Sierra Club member” or a “Global Warming believer.” Borlaug believed in insecticides and pesticides and maybe, when nitwits were bashing DDT, he even believed in homicides. He testified against banning DDT in places like Africa, where it was a very effective way to kill malaria carrying mosquitoes. Unfortunately, the Rachel Carson groupies won that debate and Africans by the millions died needlessly.


  2. Borlaug understood what no tree-hugging extremist apparently does: technology is ultimately good for the environment. As an example, Borlaug related that in many parts of Africa, when sharp spined grasses invaded the fields, the farmers simply moved on and cleared more forest to start again. But with the use of genetically altered crops that are designed to tolerate weed killing chemicals, these grasses can be killed with no harm to the crop and no need to cut down trees and destroy forests.

    Borlaug also advocated the need for more roads and other infrastructure in developing countries, which ultimately makes the transportation of fertilizer more economical. This doesn’t sit well with the activists who fret about the destruction of the rain forest, but Borlaug would have none of this: “These extremists who are living in great affluence... are saying that poor people shouldn’t have roads. I would like to see them not just go out in the bush backpacking for a week but be forced to spend the rest of their lives out there and have their children raised out there. Let’s see whether they’d have the same point of view then.”

    As the Wall Street Journal related, Borlaug understood the real problem in feeding the world and was always warning that “fear-mongering by environmental extremists against synthetic pesticides, inorganic fertilizers and genetically modified food would again put millions at risk of starvation while damaging the very biodiversity those extremists claimed to protect.”

    Although I agree with most of what you write (except “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,” which, because of time, space and blood pressure I chose to ignore) the more interesting question is not why Americans find Lindsay Lohan’s breasts and Pete Rose’s battle with the Hall of Fame more interesting than a man who studies “plant breeding, plant pathology, agronomy, soil science” (am i still awake?), but why charlatans like Gore, Ehrlich and Brown, who offer apocalyptic scenarios based on sloppy science and outright fraud, are better known? Why are we drawn to those who say we are killing ourselves by living well and dismiss those who say that the entire world deserves to live well and let’s figure out how?

    Rich R.

  3. Rich,

    Well, I am glad we agree on something -- although you did your best to ruin a moment of potential harmony, by attacking Al Gore and those, implicitly, who believe that Global Warming may be an actual phenomenon (including the great majority of the world's scientists). But we will leave the global warming and greenhouse effect discussion for a later time. I won't take your bait on Lester Brown and Paul Ehrlich, though, because I am not any more found of extremists than are you. In any event, three cheers for Norman Borlaug who, in addition to eradicating mass starvation, enabled you and I to agree (sort of) on something -- a far more significant accomplishment!