Sunday, September 13, 2009

Norman Borlaug.

I left a comment on the NYT article on Borlaug's passing. Here it is:

The one time I met Dr. Borlaug, I made a complete fool of myself. We'll pass over how.

He was very gracious about it. There was nothing in the least pretentious about the man. But it was awe-ful to be in the same room with him. A large part of that was his complete accessibility. He would listen to you- no matter who you were. Which is the mark of a true scholar.

As an ecologist, I'm quite aware of the shortcomings of the Green Revolution.

He was, too. And it hurt him to have to cope with the sometimes sharp and unfeeling criticisms.

His motivation was simple. And pure. When people are hungry- you feed them. Gandhi had the same thought.

He fed them. Yes, it wasn't perfect, and he knew it. He bought us time; only that, and he knew it. In part, he figured he'd done his part- and now it was up to someone else to take the next steps.

That would be you. And me.

We miss you already. And will for a long time to come.

Norm was a man.

It's too easy to forget that about towering figures, and he was one.

Yes, I know I know I know; many aspects of The Green Revolution have not worked out well, or to the benefit of the common people.

But that truly was not Norm's fault. He was not a great philosopher; not a politician, though he tried consistently to use the weight of the Nobel Peace Prize as a bludgeon on the World Bank officials and other politicians he had to deal with. It wasn't his skill.

His skill was understanding crops, deeply. And need.

Could you stand and see a starving child- with food in your pocket- and not feed the child?

If your answer is yes- either you have never actually been in the presence of utter poverty; or you are subhuman.

Norm saw the poverty- and injustice, and all the rest that goes with living at the bottom of the human pile. His skill was plants. So he gave his life to working for the poor, primarily in that way.

Others saw ways to profit from his work, and often heartlessly derailed it. He hated that; but the starving, dying children still faced him. He never could do nothing.

Down deep, I think he expected others to give as he did; everything, their lives; to deal with the other aspects of the problem of too many people on one limited planet.

He was a farm kid from Iowa. Just a man. Not perfect; but he tried, with everything he had in him.

After I'd made a fool of myself, we eventually found ourselves alone together; for about 4 minutes. We talked about what was next on his schedule; he had rushed to get to the meeting we were at, and had to rush off to another. And another.

(Ok, that was how I made a fool of myself. I had to introduce him to the meeting. And I bungled it, because I was so nervous.)

I said; "They don't really give you much time to sit down, do they?"

"No, they don't." And more slowly again, "No, they don't."

We looked at each other, and he told me silently that he missed his family, and the time to savor life a bit.

Then he pulled himself back up, and went off to the next battle.

People will argue forever, I think, about whether his work alleviated human suffering, or created more.

I can't say. Philosophically, how can you say that it would be better if Person X had simply never existed? Very easy, in the abstract- but could you stand next to X, look him/her in the eyes, and think so?

He knew a simple thing that an astonishing number of humans never learn; people do not exist in the abstract. Each one is real, with pains, hopes, fears, despairs- exactly like your own.

He worked among the people, and knew them, face to face. He could not say; "No, you must not have any children. The world has no room for you."

He thought that decision was not his to make. Perhaps one of those whose lives he saved would in turn hold the answers for what happens next. We can't know.

What we can know is that here was a man who fought with everything he had; every day of his life- for the people of the world- all of them; every last one.

Is there more a person can do?