My tribute to Norman Borlaug

Norman Borlaug, quite possibly the most important person you’ll never hear about in school, died today at the age of 95. Why was he important? I guess he didn’t do that much, if you consider saving the lives of a billion people nothing…

He did that by being the father of the Green Revolution. While some were saying that overpopulation was at hand, and mass starvation would result due to our silly idea of reproducing. Instead of declaring doom and gloom, Borlaug introduced new strains of wheat to Mexico, India, and Pakistan, and introduced modern farming practices. The results were immediate and astounding. Grain yields exploded, and these nations’ food security grew substantially. The fact that we’re able to fit over 6 billion people on this planet today is a direct result of his work. For his work, he has recieved a well deserved Nobel Peace Prize, as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. To say he’s the greatest person of the 20th century may not be an understatement.

Today we’re faced with some of the same problems Borlaug successfully dealt with. We are told that global warming is a threat so vast that draconian measures must be taken. And while few people of any importance seriously suggest the matter out of fear of public backlash, many of the alarmists believe the same solutions as the Malthusians. They say we need to shrink the population of the human race in order to survive. And even those that don’t offer other draconian measures. We must suffer in order to save the planet. Third world countries must remain in squalor. We must join them. It’s an inherently pessimistic view, not only of the future but also of humanity. It’s the belief that we don’t have the power to confront the struggles and difficulties we face, and so we must therefore offer ourselves up to the difficulties as a sacrifice.

Borlaug had a more optimistic outlook, and believed in human ingenuity and exceptionalism. I for one share that outlook. We can make it through this energy crisis intact. We can produce clean, renewable energy, not just for ourselves, but for everyone. We can feed the world and live in relative peace. Is all the technology there yet? No. But we’re a brilliant species. Just because we can’t immediately see it doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

In my own small part of this issue, I deal with the same thing Borlaug dealt with. My work is related to biofuels. Nowadays, mention of such is practically a pariah. There are those who consider it to be a crime against humanity, believing we will actually cause more starvation and suffering due to stealing all the land. Sure, that may happen if we’re stupid about it. But like I said, we’re a brilliant species. And if we put our minds to it, we can do it correctly. Mother Nature works in mysterious ways, and we haven’t come close to maxing out our food productivity yet. Borlaug’s contemporaries though that there would be starvation in his era too. He proved them wrong. God willing, we can prove the naysayers of today wrong too.

In fact, that’s what my specific work is at the moment. I know we can make biofuels without hurting our food production. The technology is within reach, and just needs to come down in costs a little bit more. My estimates are that we can displace over 25% of US petroleum use on our croplands alone. Add in forest land, rangeland, electric powered cars, and the hoped-for algae farms, and we can kill petroleum use entirely. And export out ideas to the rest of the world, giving others the chance for a better life. I don’t know if it’ll happen. But I’m optimistic.

Because if there’s one thing Borlaug’s life should teach us, it’s to never bet against human ingenuity.

We will always have struggles ahead. There will always be those predicting catastrophe and chaos due to our simple desire to be fruitful and multiply. There will always be those who see these struggles and immediately ask “What must we sacrifice in order to delay these ominous signs?” Let us always take the optimistic route. Let us instead ask “How can we overcome these obstacles and make life even better?”

Rest in peace, Norman Borlaug. You’ve earned it.

(Other tributes from the around the web can be found here, here, here, and here)

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One Response to My tribute to Norman Borlaug

  1. ahrcanum says:

    Ah, but a brilliant species would take note that the incidence of GMO’s correlates with an increase of cancers. Death by starvation, malnutrition, or cancer? As Obama’s choice for the FDA worked for Monsanto I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a preponderance that tilts the level playing field.

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