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EDITORIAL: The humanitarian the greens hated

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 16, 2009

In his 1968 book "The Population Bomb," Earth Day co-founder Paul R. Ehrlich stated definitively that "the battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines ... a minimum of 10 million people, most of them children, will starve to death during each year of the 1970s." Such shameful crisis-mongering probably helped book sales among the panicky and impressionable.

But the 1970s did not see the end of the world, due largely to the efforts of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize winner, American agronomist Norman E. Borlaug. His work as father of the "Green Revolution" in agriculture has widely been credited with saving a billion lives.

When Mr. Borlaug passed away Sept. 12, most commentaries hailed him as great humanitarian and agricultural genius who brought modern farming methods to the developing world. As Dr. Henry I. Miller explains in detail on the facing page, this enabled many previously hungry countries to achieve food self-sufficiency.

Critics objected that he did not really solve anything, but only delayed the crisis; this line originated with Mr. Borlaug himself. In 1975, he said that the Green Revolution "only delayed the world food crisis for 20 to 30 years, and we have already used seven of them. If the world population continues to increase at the same rate, we will destroy the species." He called human population growth "monstrous," and in the 1980s criticized the Reagan administration for cutting funding for the United Nations Fund for Population Activities over its support for forced abortions in China. Mr. Borlaug wasn't always on the side of the angels.

By the 1980s, growth had already begun to ease. Global population growth rates peaked in 1963 at around 2.2 percent, and are currently around 1.2 percent and declining. This is in part because modern agricultural methods place less of a premium on brute labor, which means farmers can have smaller families.

More productive acreage also frees people to engage in other pursuits, which increase living standards. And unlike many liberal advocates for international aid, Mr. Borlaug did not have a paternalistic view toward people in the developing world. He had a basic faith in the rationality and self-interest of the people he was helping. "Many people say that the peasant farmer will never change," he said. "But you show him that he can improve his standard of living and you help him and then get out of his way, and he'll go."

Mr. Borlaug was a great sinner to the green alarmists. He was a global-warming skeptic; he was pro-DDT and called arguments against chemical fertilizers "vicious, hysterical propaganda"; his agricultural methods relied heavily on irrigation and fertilizers based on fossil fuels; he promoted growing non-native crops; and -- in the Third World -- he disrupted so-called traditional ways of life, which presumably means squatting in mud huts hoping for international food aid to arrive.

For eco-radicals, Mr. Borlaug's greatest sin was that for which he was most praised: preserving human life. The environmental movement at base is anti-human. People are the problem. A Huffington Post commentator took issue with the "anthropocentric" claim that Mr. Borlaug saved a billion lives: "How many non-human organisms have been destroyed to facilitate the constant demand for monoculture wheat farming that is needed to feed the billions of parasitic humans currently scratching and nibbling at the earth's surface?" We suspect that the ecosystem would not miss this particular parasitic scratching nibbler if he practiced what he preached and reduced his carbon footprint to zero.

This post underscores the hypocrisy of rich Western environmentalists. Of that species, Mr. Borlaug said, "They've never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for 50 years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things."

Mr. Borlaug valued humanity and had confidence in the capabilities and aspirations of human beings. He applied his intellect and energy in ways that allowed millions of people to live longer, better lives. He truly was a great humanitarian, in every sense of the word. No wonder the environmentalists hate him so.