What Can the Man Who Saved a Billion Lives Teach Us About the Future of Environmentalism?

March 26th would have been the 105th birthday of Norman Borlaug, a Nobel Peace Prize winning agronomist widely credited with saving a billion lives. He worked tirelessly to develop new strains of wheat that would increase yields, resist disease, and feed a growing population of people, especially in developing countries.

Charles C. Mann’s new book The Wizard and the Prophet tells Norman Borlaug’s tale, contrasting it with William Vogt, a forefather of doom-and-gloom environmentalism. The two men characterize polar opposite reactions to environmental challenges.

Vogt and Borlaug are among the few who have some glimpse then of the magnitude of the tests that face our species today, as we move ever closer to 2050, when the world will hold 10 billion souls. But their understanding of how to resolve them differs, as do their views on their causes. Vogt sees the city reaching across the dry lake bed to engulf the last fields and streams and says: Hold it back! We cannot let our species overwhelm the natural systems on which we all depend! Borlaug sees the pitiful scrim of wheat and maize on the tract of land and says: How can we give people a better chance to thrive? Vogt wants to protect the land; Borlaug wants to equip its occupants.

In the face of environmental challenges, do we despair and retreat? Or do we face the challenges through innovation, in an attempt to create both a healthier and more prosperous world?

Both men were responding to the perceived threat of unlimited human population growth in a world of presumably finite resources. Followers of Vogt, which Mann labels “prophets,” advocated for restrictions on population growth and succeeded in getting many countries to adopt such policies. “Wizards,” Mann’s label for Borlaugians, by contrast, sought to feed and house the growing population, while reducing environmental impacts.

Although people continue to debate overpopulation as an environmental challenge, the results so far strongly favor the wizards. Prophets predictions of mass starvation and death in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980, and 1990s proved spectacularly wrong (although such predictions continue to be made). Disaster was avoided because the wizards succeeded, through the green revolution, in dramatically increasing the productivity of poor people’s farms. That, in turn, has allowed more people to leave hard agricultural work for cities, which promise greater prosperity. Because human prosperity tends to also promote awareness and interest in the environment, the result is a virtuous circle—the innovations that overcome immediate environmental challenges promote the prosperity necessary to solve future ones.

Despite these results, the same conflict of values is apparent in environmentalists’ response to today’s environmental challenges, whether clean drinking water, recovering wildlife, or responding to climate change. For each issue, there’s a camp that insists man’s impact on the globe must be reduced, usually by decreasing his number, and another that embraces human ingenuity and prosperity as the best of means of finding a solution (without resorting to human misery).

Free market environmentalism holds a lot of promise for the latter camp. It allows people to make better environmental decisions, empowers innovators to create new markets for environmental assets, and reduces barriers to technological innovation. As free market environmentalism has been tried and succeeds, more environmentalists have embraced its ideas. As the Environmental Defense Fund’s Fred Krupp, recently explained in the Wall Street Journal:

Market-based approaches and corporate partnerships are standard practice today. Yet too many environmentalists still regard business as the enemy, and vice versa. That may finally be changing, because an emerging wave of environmental innovation is making these partnerships more productive, and their results more precisely measurable. Call it the Fourth Wave of environmental progress; Innovation that gives people new ways to solve environmental problems.

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