You may have read that Dr. Norman Borlaug passed away over the weekend. He was an incredible scientist, and gave modern agriculture (and society) the core of technologies that allowed it to grow into what it is today. This afternoon, I was emailed this message from the Breakthrough Institute, to who's newsletter I subscribe. I thought that this email demonstrated a number of key errors and assumptions that business leaders make about what sustainability means, and I thought it might be useful to publish my reply here, as well as on their site. I would love to hear reactions, or additional suggestions in the comments. Below is my response email.


Thanks for the kind words for Dr. Borlaug's work. Certainly, there is little doubt that he is a hero when you tally all the human lives that the green revolution bettered, and weigh them against the consequences of changing our direction of development toward modern assisted, monocultural agriculture. And it is at the very least, naive for the environmental movement to demonize modern technology (on the internet, and in offset printed books, no less!)

But the real issue that your email -- and frankly, the entire platform that you and Ted stand on -- neglect to mention that while individual technologies never remain standard for very long, they tend to build on one another.
Dr. Borlaug originally set forward a method of farming using synthetic compounds which greatly improved yields, and minimized labor inputs. That might, in and of itself, have had few negative impacts on the world biosphere. However, we set our global sights on developing future technologies which evolved from that first concept. We are now living among Norman's great, great, grandchildren; farms which lose billions of pounds of soil every year, breed resistant bacteria and viruses, and are implicated in cultural collapse from the Midwest to Maharashtra.

More troubling than this, however, is the reluctance of big agriculture to deviate from this path (See Monsanto's recent New Yorker Ad; They aren't thinking "Use new technologies on small, local farms."). The truth is, the path, not the technology, is unsustainable. Literally, it is impossible to continue propping up a massive global food system by using up limited resources like soil and fossil fuels, or inputting persistently toxic chemicals like chlorophosphates. And, since the path is what we are really talking about here -- Dr. Borlaug is called "The Father of the Green Revolution" because he birthed a movement, a persistent way of thinking that manifested itself in a train of technological developments -- then I think "Unsustainable" is rightly applied, whether the people saying it are grateful or ungrateful for their situation.

Gratitude and awareness are not mutually exclusive, as you seem to imply ("So often environmental books demonize our high-technology lifestyles as "unsustainable" without any expression of gratitude..."), and should never be divorced from one another. In fact, it is the appreciation of what we have now that makes me work to find ways to promise it to my children, and to theirs. Only when someone acknowledges that something is precious, do they wish to sustain it.

Michael, you, Ted, and The Breakthrough Institute have traded heavily on the backwardness of the environmental movement in your rise to prominence, and it seems like this is another example of it. After being on the mailing list since 2003, I have seen lots of great promotion of projects to increase wind power, boost recycling, empower R&D in green technologies, and other worthy causes. But I can't help wondering, just as the Environmental movement is weak, because it complains (on which I couldn't agree with you more), isn't Breakaway doomed because it is only working toward "more better stuff, right now" without a comprehensive plan for what an endpoint might be?

If I'm wrong, and there is a goal in mind, then I (and I'm sure many other subscribers) would love to hear it. However, if that goal isn't to be able to provide for human comfort for this generation, and subsequent generations, without putting our offspring through trials we're not comfortable with (which, I hate to tell you, is what many environmentalists think of as "Sustainability"), then Breakthrough is less interesting than I (And probably Time Magazine) thought.

Thanks again for the reminder of Dr. Borlaug, and his hopeful, if as yet unfulfilled, wish for the world.



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