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. ...And, just like that, conditions changed in a matter of a generation.
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.
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.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?
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.
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.”