On a Hero

As far back as Frederic Bastiat’s Ce qu’on voit et ce qu’on ne voit pas (That which is seen and that which is unseen), economists have been aware of the difficulty of getting people to look past the immediate and highly visible, through to widely distributed, hard to distinguish, long-term effects of decisions and policies.

This turns up in human concepts of historical greatness. A lot of what is thought of as history is a chronicle of the deeds of generals, statesmen, conquerors, tyrants, kings and those who had opposed or supported them. Lincoln is given eternal heroic status for ending slavery, Hitler eternal enmity for the murder of millions of jews and other victims.

These are highly visible acts of history. But what about those who save lives? These are honoured, but to far lesser an extent. I suspect that the problem is that life-saving is a counterfactual situation. Plus our evolutionary and cultural history has perhaps leant us an interest in the concept of personal glory. Thus we talk about the generals of World War 2, but much less about the mathematicians (such as Turing) and the antibiotics (Fleming) that saved as many lives. The work of the generals is over, but Turing and Fleming continue to shape and save lives today.

So it is for perhaps the greatest man of our time, Norman Borlaug. Here is a man who, depending on how you estimate, saved approximately one billion lives, on top of preventing the deforestation of an area the size of Canada. He did this by the simple expedient of quadrupling crop yields through the development of “semidwarf” crops that could make effective use of chemical fertilisers.

Borlaug is being feted for the moment, but I suspect he will fade away soon enough. When the historians of the future look back at the 20th century look back, there will be many chapters on the World Wars, quite a few on the Cold War, and not a few on the men and women who drove them. But the Green Revolution, an event which changed more lives than all the wars and politicians and generals put together, will probably be relegated to a footnote. I, for one, don’t know what to say about that.

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