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A Tribute To Dr. Norman Borlaug: The Man Who Fed The World

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Last year, I dedicated two days to honoring two unique individuals who literally saved the world. Those individuals were Stanislav Petrov and Vasili Arkhipov. Between the two of them, they literally held the fate of the human race in their hands at one point. Their ability to rise to the occasion and make the right decisions are why we’re still alive and the world isn’t a nuclear wasteland.

I strongly believe that people like that deserve recognition for doing the right thing during critical moments in our history. They embody a unique aspect of the human spirit that is worth honoring. Today, I’d like to honor another and like Petrov and Arkhipov, most people probably don’t know the name of the man I’m about to praise.

His name is Dr. Norman Borlaug. He was born on, March 25, 1914. He’s also a Nobel Peace Prize winning agricultural scientist from Iowa and what he did to earn that prize may very well be the greatest over-achievement in history. That’s because what he did for humanity cannot be overstated.

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To understand why, you need only recall the last meal you had. Whether it was a fully-cooked turkey or a frozen burrito, chances are Dr. Borlaug is partly responsible for making that food possible. That’s because Dr. Borlaug was an instrumental figure in the Green Revolution, a culmination of various scientific advances that led to a massive boost in crop yields.

If you don’t think that’s a big deal, you need only take a cursory glance at history to see the devastation that famine has inflicted on our species. It has defeated armies, destroyed empires, and ended dynasties. On top of that, it does so through the prolonged torture that is starvation. No matter the time, place, or people, the pain of starvation hits everyone hard.

Dr. Borlaug fought that and fought it better than anyone in history, modern or otherwise. Do you remember the last time your entire community endured famine? It’s doubtful. Mass famines have been largely eliminated in modern societies. Those that use the techniques and advances that Dr. Borlaug developed enjoy a level of abundance that’s unprecedented in history.

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Sure, there are times when it’s difficult to get food to certain areas due to war, disasters, or just plain incompetence, but the inability to actually produce that food is no longer an issue, so much so that now that most of the food-related problems we face involving having too much of it. Sometimes we eat too much. Sometimes we throw too much away. It’s still a problem, but it beats the hell out of famine.

However, Dr. Borlaug did more than just sit in a lab and do science. This man actually went out into the world, got his hands dirty, and fought famine with the ferocity of a young Mike Tyson on crack. Armed with a potent blend of science and humanitarian spirit, the old forces of famine didn’t stand a chance.

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He started off as a microbiologist working for DuPont, crafting new pesticides and preservatives for food. Regardless of how you feel about big chemical companies like DuPont, that’s an entirely noble endeavor, protecting and preserving food. That just wasn’t enough for Dr. Borlaug. You don’t win a Nobel Prize just by thinking small.

First, he traveled to Mexico, a place that had been hit hard by major crop losses in the late 30s and early 40s. While there, Dr. Borlaug helped develop a strain of high-yield, disease-resistant, semi-dwarf wheat. That didn’t just make up for the losses. It more than quintupled the overall harvest by 1944.

Helping Mexico stave off crop failures was an accomplishment in and of itself, but Dr. Borlaug was just getting warmed up. In the early 1960s, he moved to India, which happened to be in the middle of a major drought, and helped them increase their yields by orders of magnitude. If that weren’t impressive enough, he did all that while in the middle of a war with Pakistan. Not one to take sides, he even helped them too.

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By the late 1960s, both India and Pakistan were self-sufficient in terms of wheat production. At that point, the Nobel committee finally took notice of Dr. Borlaug’s greatness and awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. Short of Tom Brady’s induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, there has never been a more obvious choice.

Unlike some recipients, there’s no question that Dr. Borlaug’s work contributed to furthering peace in this chaotic world. The man himself said it best.

“You can’t build a peaceful world on empty stomachs and human misery.”

Even after getting that prize, he just kept raising the bar impossibly high. In the mid-80s while Africa endured a terrible famine due to severe drought, Dr. Borlaug came out of retirement to help the governments fix a broken agricultural system. Just as he’d done before, his techniques and know-how helped crop yields soar once more.

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When considering just how much he was able to improve agricultural output and how hard he worked to promote these techniques, it has been estimated that Dr. Borlaug saved over a billion lives through his work. That’s not a typo. This man, without superpowers or help from aliens, saved a billion lives by helping mankind produce abundant food.

Unlike Petrov or Arkhipov, Dr. Borlaug wasn’t just in the right place at the right time to make the right decision. He worked hard for years on end, researching and cooperating with others to increase food production so that future generations need not starve like so many others before us. Rather than simply prevent ourselves from self-destruction, he gave us the means of prosperity.

I know everyone has a different definition for hero, especially someone who reads as many superhero comics as I do. However, such a title is almost lacking for a man like Dr. Borlaug. There aren’t many people who can honestly say their efforts saved billions of lives, present and future alike. Dr. Borlaug could make that claim right up until his death at the age of 95 in 2009.

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That’s not to say he didn’t have his critics. Even Superman has plenty of villains to deal with and if Dr. Borlaug had a Lex Luthor in his life, it was those who believed that his advances were unnatural and potentially damaging to the environment. Even today, his reputation among environmentalists and organic food enthusiasts is mixed at best.

Most of those critics, however, are not poor farmers in third-world countries who are just one crop failure away from starvation. Many are affluent enough to afford the overpriced asparagus at Whole Foods. They’ll probably never know or appreciate the abundance that Dr. Borlaug’s work has given them and how many lives are saved every day because of it.

Then, there were doom-sayers like Paul Ehrlich, who wrote a best-seller in 1968 called “The Population Bomb” that said that the rapid growth of the human population was unsustainable. He claimed that there was simply no way food production could keep up, which would result in massive war or unprecedented famine. Even by 1960s standards, this was pretty scary stuff.

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Rather than despair, Dr. Borlaug just kept on working so that we did have enough food. With all due respect to Mr. Ehrlich, his predictions failed because men like Norman Borlaug confronted these problems rather than whined about it. That’s not just heroic. That’s an important lesson that’s more critical now than it has ever been.

Today, even without Dr. Borlaug among us, we face many challenges including war, disease, poverty, and unskippable video ads. However, as daunting as they may be, we can take comfort in the knowledge that more people than at any point in history need not do so on an empty stomach.

I’ve often commented on how survival and reproduction are the two key drives for humanity. While I tend to focus heavily on the latter, I don’t often have to mention the survival part because Norman Borlaug made that unnecessary. It’s because of this man’s work that we have more food than we’ve ever had before in our history.

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His spirit lives on in the work of other researchers looking to further improve our food production. From vertical farming to in vitro meats, the promise of abundant food and full stomachs will continue as our population keeps growing.

More than anything else, though, Norman Borlaug embodied a humanitarian spirit that helped improve the human condition for all. It’s not unreasonable to say that the world is better because of him. So at some point tomorrow, March 25, take a moment to appreciate the contributions of a man whose name you probably didn’t know before now.

The next time you eat and go to bed with a full stomach, be sure to thank Dr. Borlaug for his contributions to the world. Most importantly, honor the humanitarian spirit he embodied. That’s how we’re going to make a more peaceful world.

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In Memory Of Stanislav Petrov: The Man Who (Literally) Saved The World

Stanislav Petrov

Today is an important day, one that became even more important this past year. You probably didn’t realize it and for good reason. Until recently, the significance of this day had been lost to history, but it’s a day that deserves recognition, albeit for a very sobering reason.

This day became one of the most significant days not affiliated with a holiday sale at the mall on September 26, 1983. On that day, the world as we know it almost ended. That’s not a hyperbole. That’s not a conspiracy theory out of a an Alex Jones fever dream either. It’s painfully true. The world almost died in a nuclear fire on that day, but it didn’t because of a decision made by one man.

That man’s name is Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov and if you were alive on that day, or were born after it, then you owe your existence to this man. For a brief moment on that day, 35 years ago, he literally held the fate of the world in his hand and he made the decision that saved it. As someone who regularly lauds superheroes and the values espoused in comics, even I can’t overstate the significance of what that man did.

The incident that almost ended the world and made Stanislav Petrov a man for the ages widely known about until the mid-2000s. It involved an incident in the former Soviet Union that brought the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation. In terms of worst case scenarios, this ranked right up there with an invasion by aliens armed with atomic anal probes.

At the time, Petrov was a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defense Forces and had been on duty at the Serpukhov-15 bunker near Moscow. In terms of Soviet defense strategy, his role in that bunker was pretty damn important. It was tasked with monitoring Soviet air space to detect an incoming nuclear attack.

It’s worth mentioning that this was a time of heightened tension. President Reagan, at the time, was going long and hard on anti-communist rhetoric. Being a former Hollywood actor who’d just been elected President, the Soviets had no idea if this guy was just going to shoot nuclear missiles at them because he thought it would make a great movie.

In a sense, this was the worst possible time for the systems at the Serpukhov-15 bunker to give a false alarm, but that’s exactly what happened. In the middle of Petrov’s shift, the systems began blaring every alarm it was possible to blare, telling them that America’s new Hollywood President had done just what they’d feared. He launched a full-scale nuclear attack to wipe out the Soviet Union.

I’d say it’s a nightmare scenario, but no amount of killer clowns armed with chainsaws can do justice to this kind of horror. As far as the men in that bunker knew, their country and everyone they loved was about to die in a nuclear inferno. It was the policy of the USSR and the Red Army to respond to any nuclear attack with a devastating retaliation, as specified in the doctrine of mutual assured destruction.

It was Stanislav Petrov’s job/duty to inform the Soviet high command of the detection. Every bit of his military training demanded that he inform his superiors to retaliate, thereby destroying the United States and Western Europe in reign of nuclear fire. In a state of such heightened tensions, he might have been justified in doing so.

All it took was one call to his superiors. That would’ve been it. That would’ve ended the world, as we knew it. Try and think about that for a second. In that moment, the fate of the world and billions of lives lay on the shoulders of Stanislav Petrov. If he makes that call, then the world as we know it is over.

However, in that moment when he literally had the world on his shoulders, he didn’t make that call. In that moment, he made a decision that saved the world and its future. He did it by not following the protocol that he’d been trained to follow and by the Soviet Union, no less, who were not known for being understanding to disobedience.

Petrov, with his duty and the weight of the situation bearing down on him, believed it to be a false alarm. He had good reason for believing this. The systems were detecting only several missiles, which was pretty small, given the sheer size of America’s nuclear arsenal. If America’s Hollywood President really wanted to wipe out the Soviet Union, he definitely would’ve used more.

Even so, his training and his duty told him to inform his superiors. He only had 15 minutes to do so because that’s how long it took for a detectable missile to reach its target. That’s right. In the time it takes to watch an episode of “Robot Chicken,” Stanislav Petrov had to make a decision that would’ve determined the fate of this entire planet.

The fact that no nuclear bombs went off and billions of people didn’t die is proof that he made the right decision. It was later determined that the false alarms were caused by a rare alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds and the erratic orbits of the Soviet’s satellites.

It seems so trivial now, but keep in mind that these were tense times during the Cold War. It really didn’t take much to spook either America or the USSR. It could’ve easily become a perfect storm, of sorts, for accidental nuclear annihilation and nobody would’ve been left on this planet to admit they screwed up.

It’s because of Petrov’s decision that day, to not follow protocol and trust his instinct, that we avoided Armageddon. For that decision, Petrov received no metal, commendation, or recognition for his decision. He just got a pat on the back, which was the most anyone could hope for in the Soviet Union at that time.

This man literally saved the world in the most painfully literal sense, but was quickly forgotten. There were no parades, movies, or free tickets to a Madonna concert. Petrov just went back to living his life until he retired from the military.

It really wasn’t until 2004 that Petrov began getting recognized for his actions, that day. By then, though, the weight of that moment had lost its place in the public consciousness. The fact I have to write about it on this blog shows just how little awareness this man and that fateful day have in the annuls of history.

Well, in this year, that day became a lot more important because back in May, Stanislav Petrov passed away at age 77. It wasn’t widely reported. It didn’t even get mentioned on any of the major news outlets in America or Russia. This man who saved billions of lives isn’t even alive anymore to appreciate.

He lived a quiet, unremarkable life towards the end. He never considered himself a hero. He never even tried to put that label on himself. He was just the right man in the right place to make the right decision. In doing so, he saved billions of lives and preserved the future of this planet.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of the decision that this man made on that fateful day 35 years ago. Some may brag that they saved the world or are arrogant enough to think that they can. Stanislav Petrov didn’t need to brag because he did it. He saved this world and most people will never know what he did.

Now that he’s passed, let’s all take a moment to appreciate what this man did. By trusting his instinct and his humanity, not wanting to make the decision that would destroy this world, he proved just how heroic a person could be in the worst of circumstances.

From the bottom of my heart, and on behalf of all those who are alive because of the decision made that day, thank you Mr. Petrov. Thank you for doing the right thing in the worst of circumstances. This world is still spinning because of you. Rest in peace knowing you saved it.

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