There are few truer heroes than Norman Borlaug. As the father of the "Green Revolution" of the 1960s, Borlaug saved the lives of more people than any other person in history. For his achievement Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 and America's highest civilian award, the Congressional Gold Medal, earlier this year.
However, as the new issue of Technology Review reminds us, just as Borlaug's work was being dubbed in 1968 as the "Green Revolution," many experts confidently predicted that massive famines were inevitable. To wit:
Paradoxically, 1968 also saw the genesis of an environmentalist dogma that was pessimistic about humanity's capacity to feed itself. In that year–when the global population growth rate peaked, at 2 percent per year–Paul Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, intoning, "The battle to feed all of humanity is over. … Hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs." The madding crowd of "stinking hot" Delhi was odious to Ehrlich: "My wife and daughter and I … entered a crowded slum area. … People, people, people, people. … [We] were, frankly, frightened." It was a "fantasy," he said, that India would ever feed itself. Yet Borlaug's program delivered such stunning results that India issued a 1968 stamp commemorating the "wheat revolution," and by 1974 it was self-sufficient in all cereals.
Nonetheless, a neo-Malthusian fear of overpopulation became endemic to environmentalist thinking. Science philosopher and Arts and Letters Daily founder Denis Dutton says, "Well-fed Greens flaunt their concern for the planet but are indifferent, even hostile, to the world's poor with whom they share it. Some Greens I knew acted for all the world as though they relished the idea of a coming worldwide famine, much as fundamentalists ghoulishly looked forward to Armageddon." Dutton, who served in the Peace Corps, personally saw the Green Revolution benefit India. "For the catastrophist, India becoming a food exporter was disturbing," he says. "This wasn't supposed to happen. They blame Borlaug for spoiling the fun."
The Malthusian nightmare didn't come true because Borlaug and his team developed highly productive wheat varieties that were resistant to the devastating wheat rust fungus. Technology Review notes that Borlaug is now working to defeat an outbreak of a new rust fungus that is menacing the world's wheat crop.