Penn Jillette's "Greatest Hero of the Planet" (And Mine Too)

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Humorist (and libertarian) Penn Jillette has done a fantastic interview with Dr. Norman Borlaug. If you have to ask, "Borlaug who?," Jillette says, "If you know just one name of one person in the world today, that name should be Dr. Norman Borlaug."

Norman Borlaug, as the "Father of the Green Revolution," is the single human being who has saved more human lives than any other person in all of history. How many lives has he saved? My guess is easily more than billion. For his work in dramatically improving crop yields, Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

Give yourself a treat and listen to the podcast of Jillette's interview of a truly great man. (And just in case the link doesn't work you can get it at this URL: http://podcast.penn.freefm.com/penn/25352.mp3)

A new biography of Borlaug, The Man Who Fed the World: Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Norman Borlang and His Battle to End World Hunger will be out in September.

See also my Reason interview with Borlaug here.

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  1. More people = more demand for land and resources = more war.

    This guy got a Nobel Peace Prize?

    Then again, he actually did something, unlike most Nobel Sleaze Prize laureates…

  2. PS: Why not listen to the interview–you might learn something you didn’t already know, e.g., with advent of high agriculture the area of land harvested by humanity since the 1960s has been essentially stable. Why? Productivity increased faster than human population. If crop productivity had remained the same, an additional area of land the size of the entire North American continent would have had to have been plowed down in the hopes of producing as much food as we do today. In other words, Norman Borlaug not only prevented massive famines, but by doing so, he also saved vast swathes of the natural world that would have been destroyed as starving masses tried desperately to produce more food.

  3. You’re so dense, Sleaze. The whole point of Borlaug’s work was that, with increasing crop yields, more people can be supported with *less* land and *fewer* resources.

    By your logic, Osama should’ve been awarded the Peace Prize. Fewer people = less war, right?

  4. Correction: that would be “with advent of high yield agriculture”

  5. Postmodern Sleaze named himself well.

  6. I just started downloading Penn’s podcasts a few days ago. I heard him hyping this interview, but I have not listened to it yet. I am looking forward to it. Thanks for the reminder.

    Penn’s show is great. If you aren’t a listener already, check it out. Worth the time.

  7. If this man had ANYTHING to do with the 109 item China Buffet for $5.00 next to my work, forget about the Nobel, he should be sainted.

  8. Postmodern Sleaze,

    You’d preferred that a billion people starved to death? Dr. Borlaug’s achievements sound pretty worthy to me–much more so than anything most recipients have done, certainly.

    I’m doing some brainless work for a client and am listening to Penn Radio as we speak. It’s great listening to a radio show and actually agreeing most of the time with the guy talking! I’m a huge fan of Penn–he’s a skeptic, a juggler, a magician, and a real, live libertarian. If only he and Teller would run for president and vice president! Or make a movie about running for president. Unfortunately, I think I’ve heard that the answer to both running and to making another movie of any kind is NO. Oh, well. I still think a Penn & Teller administration could trick al Qaeda into abject surrender with the phrase (after the set up, which would involve placing a giant 3 of clubs on the face of the Moon), “Is this your card”?

    Maybe I should compile and e-mail to him my “The Top 100 Things I’d Do if I Ever Became a Libertarian President” and see if he’d change his mind πŸ™‚

    Anyway, I enjoy his radio show and Penn & Teller’s Bullshit. In fact, I’m ashamed to say that I had never heard of this great man, Dr. Norman Borlaug, until I happened to see their show on him (I think it was actually on genetically modified foods–can’t remember).

    Someday, before I die, I’m going to make the pilgrimage to Las Vegas and watch their show live. They should come out here at some point, since Randi’s base of operations is in south Florida, but I can’t recall the last time that they performed in Florida. Though they don’t really do the road thing anymore, I suppose.

  9. I’ve long argued with people about the dangers of organic farming (as in making all food organic not personally choosing to grown and/or eat it.)

    However I’ve always been interested to know how Dr. Borlgung (or Mr. Bailey) responds to the failures of the green revolution in some countires such as in Bali and elsewhere where it was tried and then eventually rejected.

    That said i’m still a big proponent of biotechnology.

  10. There’s an easy method of direct population control available to people like PS and Ehrlich who think having more humans is bad. If only they’d make use of it. πŸ™‚

  11. Sorry that should be Borlaug. Mea culpa.

  12. The Economist ran a good story of which Borlaug was a part of, entitled the History of Wheat.

  13. Brian Moore-There’s no doubt that less human death and suffering is a good thing. But I’m less sure that more humans (think more people being born) is an equally good thing. Is six billion not enough?

  14. Number 6:

    Everyone knows that the population of the planet is headed towards a stable number of about 10 billion in the year 2050. It’s even possible that it might be lower in 2106 than it is now.

  15. Brian:

    Are you inviting those guys to the Woodchuck Festival?

    Teller should run for Prez, and Penn should be appointed Press Secy. A silent State of The Union Address would be appreciated.

    Kevin

  16. Everyone knows that the population of the planet is headed towards a stable number of about 10 billion in the year 2050.

    You are making exactly the same mistake as the “Population Bomb” alarmists did in the ’70s: using current population growth trends to extrapolate events many years away. Nobody can say with real confidence, much less “know” what the world population will be in 2050.

    Is six billion not enough?

    Not to the 6,000,000,001st person.

  17. kevrob,

    However you configure it, the absolutely best part of the Penn & Teller/Teller & Penn 2008 campaign will be the debates. Teller will stay in his on-stage character and say nothing. His sole response to the debate questions will be his classic facial expressions. Maybe some magic. Penn’s debates will involve speech, sure, but he’ll also replicate his million cockroach trick from the Letterman show. Few candidates will overcome that rhetorical flourish, let me tell you.

  18. Brian 24- One number six billion and one is born, you’re right. However, the question I’m asking is not whether the population ought to be reduced by eliminating folks. It’s a given that a measure like that would be evil. It’s also a given, at least among liberty-loving folks like myself and most here, that mandatory birth-control policies are a bad idea. What I’m asking is a more general question- is an increase in human population an axiomatic good? If so, is there an upper limit?

    Since those who have not yet been concieved don’t exist, depriving anyone of life is not an issue. You can’t deprive a nullity of anything.

    General note-before anyone demonstrates Godwin’s law, I want to reiterate that I am not suggesting extermination, enforced birth control, or anything remotely similar. All I’m asking is if human life is such a universal good that there ought to always be more of it.

  19. the failures of the green revolution in some countires such as in Bali and elsewhere where it was tried and then eventually rejected.

    Linkee?

  20. All I’m asking is if human life is such a universal good that there ought to always be more of it.

    The optimal number of human beings is 13,528,845,009. I’d show you my equations that prove it, but then I’d lose my edge over the tawdry masses.

    😑

  21. What I’m asking is a more general question- is an increase in human population an axiomatic good?

    Replace “human population” with “immigration”, and you have exactly the same question, with exactly the same answer. People generally produce more than they consume. More production means more wealth. More producers means more innovations and more choices for the rest of the population. It’s not axiomatic that an increase in population is good, but it follows for most conditions from market theories of human action.

    In modern liberal societies, normal market forces will prevent too many people from being born. Children are almost entirely a private good: far and away the most benefit goes to the parents; far and away the most cost goes to the parents. A society based on voluntary association — i.e., markets — will not produce more children than desirable in any objective sense of the concept.

    However, similar to arguments against immigration, if non-market association — e.g., excessive state welfare, or child slavery — is the norm, then it is possible for more children to be born than desirable.

    Nonetheless, just as calculations of desirablility or utility of immigration ought to include the interests of the would-be immigrants, calculations of desirability or utility ought to include the interests of the as-yet unconceived. Of all the prejudices based on characteristics of birth, perhaps the last to fall will be that based on the characteristic of being born.

  22. Since those who have not yet been concieved don’t exist, depriving anyone of life is not an issue. You can’t deprive a nullity of anything.

    I suppose this is true, but I’m not sure how it’s relevant to the discussion of the Green Revolution. More food certainly has meant that fewer people have died of starvation, but it does not follow that more food means more people being born.

  23. More food certainly has meant that fewer people have died of starvation, but it does not follow that more food means more people being born.

    Indeed, to the extent that the Green Revolution has increased food productivity per person, fewer people will be needed to grow food. In less advanced agrarian societies, the “capital” improvement of more hands to do the extremely unskilled labor involved in growing food is a principal driver of high birth rates.

  24. “I suppose this is true, but I’m not sure how it’s relevant to the discussion of the Green Revolution. More food certainly has meant that fewer people have died of starvation, but it does not follow that more food means more people being born.”

    It follows, generally, that more are _successfully_ born. Malnutrition is obviously a factor in the number of miscarriages and stillbirths.

    But then that begs the same question: which is worse: more people being successfully born or more miscarriages and stillbirths?

  25. Mike P- You make a very good point about more food not leading to more births. I also don’t want to take anything away from Dr. Burlaugh; what he did is tremendously good in any sane system of values. My focus was really just on an abstract question about the inherent desireability of more humans.

  26. Again technology trumps political movements in increasing the quality of life.

    “People generally produce more than they consume. More production means more wealth”

    Umm… if we live in an open system(invest and actually develop cheap space flight). At the present time we live in a closed system. In a closed system an economy can’t continue to grow indefinitely. It can’t grow very long at all without technology.

    Also I’ll put forth that with sufficiently advanced technology we won’t need any more people at all to grow an economy.

    And yes, just to get it out of the way, I think most people are mouth breathing apes.

  27. In a closed system an economy can’t continue to grow indefinitely.

    While statements such as this may be true in some Platonic or tautological sense, predictions based on them have been proven astonishingly wrong time and time again.

  28. “While statements such as this may be true in some Platonic or tautological sense, predictions based on them have been proven astonishingly wrong time and time again.”

    You mean like in physics?

    There is a theoretical limit to how much you can
    accomplish with matter.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Computronium

  29. Guys, it was a joke. Really. πŸ™‚

  30. You mean like in physics?

    Yes, I mean like in physics. I was thinking more along the lines of this, but I’m well aware there are lesser limits of matter and energy that might hamper even post-Singularity humanity.

    Nonetheless, these are entirely irrelevant to the context of the modern day and the question asked. Even “running out” of natural resources on earth is quite unlikely in the foreseeable future…

  31. One can put one’s thumbs on either side of the scale when trying to figure if an increased population is a net good or not. Doc B’s advances have surely increased the functional capacity of the planet to “carry” more humans, and, if they have delayed destruction of various habitats that otherwise have been plowed under in favor of planting less efficient crops, it has probably slowed the disappearance of other species, too.

    What I’ve gleaned from reading Julian Simon and other “population bomb” skeptics is that initially, better and more food leads to population increases. It becomes clear after a while to families in less developed countries that more of their pregnancies will come to term and fewer of their children will die in infancy. The traditional behaviour of having large familes in order that enough kids survive into adulthood to support their aging parents changes when a society starts industrializing. Then Mom and Dad can depend on their savings and pensions, rather than on the kindness of their kids and kids-in-law. Even if the kids must be leaned on, two or three of them who have non-agricultural jobs in the city may be a more dependable source of aid than five or six of them all working on the farm.

    I believe demographic transition is the jargon for this change.

    Kevin

  32. Pro Libertate

    I think they still tour occasionally.

    I got to help with the bullet-catching trick in Scottsdale about ten years ago.

    Still have the bullet and brass.

  33. Dr. Borlaug recently turned 91 or 92 (can’t remember) but he still teaches every fall at Texas A&M.

  34. “Nonetheless, these are entirely irrelevant to the context of the modern day and the question asked. Even “running out” of natural resources on earth is quite unlikely in the foreseeable future…”

    When you say modern day do you mean today, tomorrow or 50 years from now? Technology is rapidly advancing both in the amount of research data and the speed at which the data is used to create new technologies.
    http://www.kurzweilai.net/articles/art0134.html?printable=1

    In light of this I think it’s short sighted to look to exclusively at past responses to population growth- ex. when all industrial processes are automated what will all the people do? How will people in undeveloped countries boot-strap themselves in to this new world? How will more people add to this type of economy?

  35. When you say modern day do you mean today, tomorrow or 50 years from now?

    I mean the next several hundred years. I see no limits to the earth that will keep either the economy or the economy per person from growing in that timeframe. There is one proviso: the generation of new persons and their integration into society must be moderated by voluntary or market processes.

    In light of this I think it’s short sighted to look to exclusively at past responses to population growth

    Concerns that new technologies and new means of production are going to impoverish vast swaths of the population have been around for 200 years. The fact that you can pose questions about a hypothetically extremely different future that neither you nor I can answer with the knowledge and norms of the present does not mean that there are no answers to those questions or that several of the 10 billion people in the future won’t find the answers and profit mightily.

  36. Note that I’m not saying that the economy will continue to grow under any population or even under any reasonable population. I’m saying that the economy will continue to grow without trouble caused by population so long as the economy and population are moderated by voluntary processes.

    Nor do I claim that that is an absolute, provable statement. But I do think it subsumes the large majority of possible futures. Nonetheless, one can imagine pathological cases where massive social change happens so rapidly that a condition that made having babies extremely desirable one year is utterly reversed twenty years later when they become adults. Your concerns for technology outstripping the known order of society likely fall in this domain.

  37. wingnutx,

    Wow. Absolutely wow. I think I’d let Penn & Teller actually shoot me if I could participate in one of their tricks.

    I should call in with a monkey story on Monkey Tuesday (on Penn’s radio show), now that I think about it. I used to own a gorilla suit in college, and we terrorized people while wearing it. Strange how scared the general population is of large apes.

    Is this your card? 3?

  38. if that interview is anything like penns interviews on bullshit I’m scared πŸ˜€

  39. “After the Earth was used up, we found a new solar system and hundreds of new Earths were terraformed and colonized.”

  40. Mal, from your superior vantage point in the future, can you confirm that the Earth was, in fact, destroyed by a Penn & Teller trick gone awry? During their second administration?

  41. Over and over, since our species first appeared, human knowledge and ingenuity have found ways to transcend the limitations imposed by envrionment. More people — especially educated people, given ready access to information — increase our species’ chances of winning the survival lottery. Buckminster Fuller once recommended that the government give everyone a cushy salary, because the contributions made by the few with talent and drive would be able to provide for themselves and all the rest, so it paid to incubate all. I don’t agree with the universal welfare scheme, but I do think he was right in his observation that the larger the population we can accommodate, the better off our lives can become, because of the boons that will accrue from the work of geniuses yet unborn.

  42. A hero, eh? Genetic engineering is a threat to the ecosystem and a threat to the ecosystem is a threat to all of us and the planet. My heroes are the deep ecologists who want to restore balance and harmony to the whole planet.

  43. For more information about Deep Ecology see Wikipedia article.

  44. Harmony and balance meaning a few hundred thousand people recreating the stone age.

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