Monday, April 21, 2014

No more Borlaugs if smart ones rush to Wall St and the Silicon Valley?

As I have often remarked in this blog and elsewhere, a primary trigger for me to get to doing what I do now was the context in which I grew up--born into relative privilege with a great deal of material deprivation all around me.  I did not know how I could ever contribute to help in reducing that deprivation; but, I wanted to at least understand it.

Thus, even in the early semesters in grad school, I was impressed with how much people had invested their time and energy into not only understanding many of those issues but even doing something about them.  Oddly enough, even though it was Marx who urged philosophers to go beyond interpreting the world and into doing something about it, it was more often than not the anything-but-Marxist ones that seemed to have done a great deal, and doing quite some work to change the world.

One of those was Norman Borlaug.

The readers of this blog are way informed and they know the name all too well.  But, in the world outside of this blog, most likely the response will be "Norman who?"

In 2014, especially in the obese and overweight US of A, it might be difficult to imagine that not too long ago there was a real threat of food shortages. And famines.  While there were political reasons, such as Mao's crazy policies, the threat of undernourishment was real.  Which is where Borlaug's contributions in developing better varieties of staples take on remarkable weight:
Mexican wheat production per hectare leapt from 1,400 kilogrammes in 1960 to 2,700 kilogrammes in 1963. ...
Borlaug repeated the trick in India and Pakistan, despite initial resistance from farmers wary of planting a crop developed by Americans that might (so they had been told) introduce foreign pests to the sub-continent. However, the new seeds were soon embraced and Indian wheat production jumped from 12million tonnes in 1965 to 17million tonnes in 1967, while Pakistan soon became self-sufficient in wheat seeds.
And, just like that, conditions changed in a matter of a generation.
Borlaug’s single-minded devotion to his task and his optimistic belief in the possibility of improving the world demonstrate what can be achieved by science as a humanist and humane endeavour.
Secondly, Borlaug is a wonderful example of a life lived well. Touched by poverty and hunger both in his native United States and in the developing world, Borlaug devoted himself to the task of finding solutions to problems that were ruining or even ending lives. We can only marvel at the intelligence and stamina of individuals like Borlaug who persevere to make innovations that change the world.
Even now there are plenty of real problems that we humans face in the contemporary world, which is vastly different from the one more than fifty years ago.  However, I do not get a sense that there is a commitment to innovations that are driven by "science as a humanist and humane endeavour."  As has often been reported, the attraction to earn gazillions juggling numbers at Wall Street or by making us waste time are luring plenty of scientific and technological talent.  Do we have the likes of Borlaug in the works at all?

I worry that our priorities are messed up.  Which, perhaps, is all the more why Borlaug's contributions are impressive.
For all you did, and all you represent: thanks, Norman. RIP.
Yes, thanks, in this centenary year.
A fitting epitaph is a line from a poem by Matthew Arnold: a man “who saw life steadily, and saw it whole.”


Ramesh said...

Norman Borlaug is clearly one of the few men who had the most profound effect on the human race. Especially for an Indian, he is a hero like nobody else.

RIP indeed. Amen.

Anne in Salem said...

Perhaps the scientists researching and developing immunizations and vaccinations that save many lives are the successors to Dr. Borlaug's mission of humanist and humane scientific innovations?

Sriram Khé said...

There are Indians who think otherwise, Ramesh. One of the leading voices on that is Vandana Shiva, the "acclaimed" champion of the poor farmer and the environment and everything else, who would claim that Borlaug's work created all the problems! What is really, really horrible is that there are plenty of people who passionately believe that this nutcase Vandana Shiva is correct and that Norman Borlaug is wrong ... the power of ideologues :(

Good to see you here, Anne. What you say is partially right is what I would respond with. In the first place, I don't get a sense that the bright minds are dedicating themselves to the kinds of projects you suggest. And even within those projects, there is a lot more research and development work on the rich people's problems than on the poor people's problems. Viagra is a poster-child for this! The near apathy towards malaria is a classic example (for which now Bill Gates is trying to attract people by dangling $$$) And this is where the contrast with Borlaug becomes even starker--the manner in which he dedicated his time and energy to make better the lives of people far away in poorer countries ...