October 3rd 2009

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Government push for sell-off of Telstra's infrastructure

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Union warning on China free trade agreement

EDITORIAL: Re-opening the case of the Balibo Five

WAR ON TERROR: The deadly peril still very much in our midst

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Misguided move for women in combat roles

ECONOMY: Development bank now urgently needed

TASMANIA: Can the Apple Isle become Australia's food bowl

GLOBAL FINANCIAL CRISIS: Policy-makers still refusing to face reality

REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH: Rudd Government ignores abortion link to maternal deaths

POPULATION: Solving the world food problem

The man who fed the developing world

OPINION: No apology after latest outburst from PM Rudd

Deplorable standards (letter)

Melting pot (letter)

Safer nuclear energy option (letter)

Obama changes tune on troops (letter)

CINEMA: Award-winning film about slain journalists - Balibo (rated M)

CINEMA: Deliver us from this left-liberal 'moralising' - The Soloist (rated M)

BOOK REVIEW: THE PLAN: Twelve Months to Renew Britain, by Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan

BOOK REVIEW: INSIDE THE STALIN ARCHIVES: Discovering the New Russia, by Jonathan Brent

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Solving the world food problem

by Brian Coman

News Weekly, October 3, 2009
And he gave it for his opinion, that whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass, to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together.
- Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels (1726).

The fortunes and misfortunes of Wall Street are not really my cup of tea, and when a friend recently directed me to an article in The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) I took to the task of reading it with some initial reluctance.

The piece in question was an obituary for a man called Norman Borlaug who died in early September at 95 years of age. I confess I had never heard of him, but after reading the article I stand astonished not just at my own ignorance but at the ignorance of a great many others in what we like to call the "developed West". Most of all I am astonished and greatly heartened by the fact that an organ of Wall Street choose to publish this encomium to a largely unsung hero of our time.

For Dr Borlaug was not a banker or stockbroker or company director. He was an agronomist who spent most of his life helping the rural poor in India, South America, Africa and elsewhere. As one of the principal engineers of what came to be known as "the green revolution", Borlaug undoubtedly saved the lives of hundreds of millions and improved the lives of even more. (According to WSJ, he "saved more lives than anyone who has ever lived").

It is not my purpose here to detail his accomplishments for they have been well presented in the WSJ article written by Gregg Easterbrook (WSJ, September 15, 2009). Sufficient to say that Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work in ending the India-Pakistan food shortage of the mid-1960s.

Now you might have thought that these achievements would be roundly applauded by all. Not a bit of it! While Dr Borlaug was labouring away with his peasant farmers in remote corners of the world, certain armchair scientists and media pundits in the West either ignored the early successes of the green revolution or presented it as an unqualified evil. There were even those, as I well recall, who argued that helping the poor in this way would only encourage them to breed even more!

In 1968, Paul Erhlich published his best-selling The Population Bomb in which he predicted imminent famines on a global scale. The fact that these and similar predictions from other Malthusians never came to pass has in no way dented their enthusiasm. Indeed, just last year we had a home-grown version in Mark O'Connor and William J. Lines's book Overloading Australia: How governments and media dither and deny on population (Sydney: Envirobook, 2008).

Here, I must confess to having a suspicion concerning the motives of many of these latter-day Malthusians. My suspicion is that even if it could be proven beyond any doubt that the world could support many more humans without disastrous famine or "ecodoom", many neo-Malthusians would not be in any way content to drop their argument.

Their deepest concern is not with the welfare of humans, now or in the future. Rather, it centres on a certain conception of the natural world and our place in it. In fact, these people form the core of another "green revolution" - one of a very different shade. I refer, of course to political ecology (to be sharply differentiated from the discipline of scientific ecology) and "green" politics in general.

In this worldview, humans are often simply seen as a destructive super-ape whose numbers need to be curbed to prevent further damage to planet earth. Human history, in fact, becomes nothing more than a chronicle of ecological declension.

In the beginning there was Wilderness - a sort of Platonic Form or Idea of Nature - with prehistoric humans living in harmony with it. Then came the Green version of the Fall - the development of sedentary agriculture and the invention of the plough. There followed as a consequence the protracted rape of Mother Earth by a species which had "jumped the tracks", so to speak.

Green philosophy

This, in a nutshell, is the ideology that lies behind much of what passes for Green philosophy. Do not suppose, then, that further efforts by future Borlaugs or the rising evidence not just for decline in population growth rates but for actual population decline in the near future, will change these views.

Nonetheless, these people will always argue that they are motivated by a concern for the future of the human race. But a genuine concern for humanity would surely encompass the present as well as the future, and I cannot recall too many Borlaug types coming from the ranks of the Greens. Their only contribution, I suspect, would be to send over shiploads of anti-fertility drugs and a few "family planning" experts.

Moreover, a genuine concern might begin at home. Perhaps they might consider the following statistic. In the decade between 1994 and 2004, the average size of a new house in Australia grew from 196 to 240 square metres, yet the occupancy rate per house has now dropped to less than 2.2 persons compared with 3.3 in the 1970s.

These days, a new home is considered incomplete without a special room for the home theatre. Could it be that this is a tad extravagant given the situation in many other parts of the world? Having acquired the home theatre, the swimming pool and the new jacuzzi, the next item on the list is a nice pristine wilderness to visit at the weekend and unwind after a busy week of getting and spending. I doubt that Norman Borlaug would have had the time for this aesthetic experience.

But there is another way of viewing these matters, a way which was central to the concept of the term "human" for most of our recorded history. In the Christian West all humans were seen to be created imago Dei - in the image of God - and therefore to have inherent value and dignity independent of their utility or function.

As a result, there developed within the Western tradition a concept of the sacredness of human life and of a duty to both protect and enhance it. No doubt, the concept was abused often enough, but it remained as a principle, and those who failed to observe it were judged by their failure.

With this came an elaboration of the notion of social justice which, amongst other things, demanded attention to the "universal destination of goods". I have no idea if Norman Borlaug was directed by his knowledge of this tradition, but I do know that he lived out his life in accordance with it.

Brian J. Coman, a former agricultural scientist, worked in the area of vertebrate pest control in Australia. After retirement he returned to university to take up a long-held interest in the humanities. His PhD thesis, Ecology, Modernity and the Western Tradition, was awarded in 2006. He has also written a history of the rabbit in Australia and a book of essays, A Loose Canon: Essays on History, Modernity and Tradition, most of which previously appeared in Quadrant magazine.

See also in this issue The man who fed the developing world

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