Borlaug the Great?

The death of Norman Borlaug has columnists of all political persuasions offering tribute and thanks to an unsung scientific hero

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Back in the mid-20th century, "green" and "hybrid" referred to agriculture, not automobiles, and an American agronomist named Norman Borlaug was at the forefront of the field. News of the 95-year-old Nobel laureate's death over the weekend prompted columnists to offer near-unanimous tribute to the man who remained anonymous despite developing an ingenious means to feed the world's exploding population. Many of the remarks included careful reminders of Borlaug's later years, when he clashed with environmentalists over the use of pesticides and global warming.

  • Incontrovertible Humanitarian  By far the predominating viewpoint articulated by columnists is that Norman Borlaug was one of the most underrated, under-reported men in history. As Austrian Economist blogger Steven Horwitz put it, "In a just world, people like Borlaug would be the subject of hours of media commentary and coverage and special commemorative issues of Time or Newsweek while politicians got a cursory obit notice on the back page of the local rag." David Boaz, writing for Cato, agrees heartily. "But that’s not the way journalists and historians see it," he wrote. "Just think of the people who have gone down in history as 'the Great': Alexander the Great, Catherine the Great, Charles the Great (Charlemagne), Frederick the Great, Peter the Great — despots and warmongers. Just once it would be nice to see the actual benefactors of humanity designated as 'the Great': Galileo the Great, Gutenberg the Great, Samuel Morse the Great, Alan Turing the Great...Borlaug the Great."
  • Latent Liberal   The Guardian maintains that Borlaug is essentially the personification of postwar liberalism, too readily criticized by the eco-crusaders of the millennial era: "No one person could ever encapsulate all the progressive hopes of the 20th century – faith in science, education and the triumph of fact and reason over tradition and superstition – but Norman Borlaug came close." At the Daily Kos, Strobusguy attempts to reconcile Borlaug's emphasis on mass-production with the modern sustainability movement: "He eventually acknowledged, to some degree, the problems of overapplication of (if not over-dependence on) artificial fertilizers and pesticides...I'm left wondering what might have happened had he continued to explore actively the complicated connections between conservation and agriculture."
  • Not Easy Being Green  Conservative commentators were especially assertive in highlighting Borlaug's disagreement with central tenets of the modern environmental movement. Indeed, the "Green Revolution" that Borlaug is credited with starting refers to increased global agricultural yield rather than sustainability. The Wall Street Journal opines such: "In later life, Borlaug was criticized by self-described 'greens' whose hostility to technology put them athwart the revolution he had set in motion...In saving so many, Borlaug showed that a genuine green movement doesn't pit man against the Earth, but rather applies human intelligence to exploit the Earth's resources to improve life for everyone." Michelle Malkin advises: "Please teach your children about Borlaug. This is what a true environmental hero looks like."
  • Invisible Benefactor  Writing for the Atlantic back in 1997, Gregg Easterbrook investigated the curious contrast between Borlaug's immense global impact and the scant praise he had received in the U.S. A mixture of personal modesty and a rejection by the power structure were to blame, he concluded. "[One] reason is that Borlaug's mission -- to cause the environment to produce significantly more food -- has come to be seen, at least by some securely affluent commentators, as perhaps better left undone. More food sustains human population growth, which they see as antithetical to the natural world. "
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