Monday, September 14, 2009

Norman Borlaug, 1914-2009

Norman Borlaug died on September 12 at the age of 95. He was one of the nation's great Iowans (and there have been many). When the neo-Malthusians were warning us about a "small planet" and "limits to growth," Borlaug was engineering what became the Green Revolution which unlocked the wealth of the Creator's provision that lay yet untapped within what people of smaller spirit saw as our irremediable collective poverty.

In his obituary, Ronald Bailey provides us with the relevant quotations from Paul Ehrlich's 1968 prediction of impending global doom, The Population Bomb.

In the late 1960s, most experts were speaking of imminent global famines in which billions would perish. "The battle to feed all of humanity is over," biologist Paul Ehrlich famously wrote in his 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb. "In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now." Ehrlich also said, "I have yet to meet anyone familiar with the situation who thinks India will be self-sufficient in food by 1971." He insisted that "India couldn't possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980."

Borlaug soon afterward proved him wrong, accomplishing precisely what Ehrlich said was impossible. Not only does the Lord provide, he has already provided more bountifully than we imagine or deserve.

The irony in the term "Green Revolution" is that the phrase has been re-embraced by the pusillanimous doom-and-gloomers who see the earth as a paltry and all too delicate resource, and human beings as the recklessly short-sighted and irresponsible tenants who will ruin and squander it if they are not soon placed under strict supervision. They act as though we live in a china teacup, when in fact God has placed us in a mansion which we find to be ever more sprawling with every new room and wing that we discover.

I don't know what Norman Borlaug thought of his creator, but I thank God for creating and cultivating this man who had such confidence in the goodness of God's earth and who set about so intelligently and industriously to unlock greater depths of its goodness. In his honor, I am re-posting what I wrote on October 26, 2007.

"No African Development Without Local Wisdom."

Everyone puzzles over Africa. Much of the world is enjoying runaway economic growth and increasingly widespread prosperity, but that huge and wealthy continent is left largely behind. It's a human tragedy. In today's Wall Street Journal, 1970 Nobel Peace Prize winner, and one of the fathers of the 1960s Green Revolution in world food production, Norman Borlaug lays out what is required to save Africa from its chronic development crisis ("A Green Revolution for Africa"). He emphasizes science and agriculture, but the subtext is a political challenge to the African leaders themselves.

He compares the Green Revolution in Asia to that of Africa. He says that small-holder agricultural production in sub-Saharan Africa has been especially anemic. Unlike Asia which has a good road and rail network, "African farmlands are generally isolated from motorized transport systems." In addition, population growth "has resulted in progressive -- and now often dramatic -- degradation of the soil resource base, while fertilizer use has hardly increased at all, and is the lowest in the world." Whereas agricultural R&D in Asia has tripled over the last 20 years, in Africa is has grown by only 20%, and in half the countries it has actually declined. This is especially tragic given the "special production circumstances" that put Africa in particular need of research and development investment.

He recommends a "broad and more integrated perspective" that focuses on "transforming staple-food production" and giving greater attention to "post-production market linkages -- especially to grain markets and agro-industrial food processing that offer off-farm employment opportunities." Improvement also requires "[s]ubstantially greater investments in infrastructure -- roads, electrical power, water resources." Without this, "there is little hope for real progress in reversing the alarming food insecurity trends or in making agriculture an engine of economic growth."

Borlaug has been calling for an African Green Revolution for years (e.g. International Herald Tribune 1992; New York Times 2003). He did his great work in the 1960s. He is 93 and he is still beating the drum for this cause. So what's the hold up? There is a important political aspect to all this that Borlaug touches upon at several points, but does not emphasize. Perhaps he is being subtle. Perhaps he is leaving it to the multitude of political leaders, government and NGO officials, journalists and scholars to see the political point and make it explicit. Let me do my part.

These nations are governed by more or less sovereign governments. Implementing many of his recommendations presupposes governments that actually care about their people, i.e. that they are not tyrannies which sadly many of them are. In his opening paragraph, concerning Asia's Green Revolution and the global development agenda, Borlaug quietly underscores the critical role that wise political leadership must play: "Research and development, political courage, effective policies and good governance were the driving forces." African leaders are not known for their"political courage, effective policies and good governance."

One cannot help but wonder why "political courage" should be necessary, at least at the highest levels of power. Why shouldn't crass self-interest and naked ambition not suffice to bring the thug-tyrants of the African continent into line with this program? Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe comes first to mind. It is a marvel, especially in view of the enormous productive power that modern economic and political principles have made possible, that they see their personal security, prosperity, and glory in brutalizing their peoples whom they keep in heart-rending poverty, rather than in securing their peoples' property, enriching their nations' economies and establishing themselves as the fathers and protectors of these accomplishments.

John Locke argued this point, appealing to the shrewdness of every ruler, in his great Second Treatise on Civil Government (section 42):
This shews how much numbers of men are to be preferred to largeness of dominions; and that the increase of lands, and the right employing of them, is the great art of government: and that prince, who shall be so wise and godlike, as by established laws of liberty to secure protection and encouragement to the honest industry of mankind, against the oppression of power and narrowness of party, will quickly be too hard for his neighbours.
I am not an Africa specialist by any measure, but as a student of politics I find Africa a vivid illustration (all too often a sad one) of many political principles, and of course it draws my Christian concern. You might refer back to two of my previous posts on Africa.

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