Monday, September 14, 2009

Bad arguments

An accusation of bad faith is a neat way of dodging an argument. It claims the moral high ground and avoids saying anything substantive. There was a perfect example today in the obituary of Norman Borlaug, the scientist behind the Green Revolution.
The long-term cost of depending on Borlaug's new varieties, said eminent critics such as ecologist Vandana Shiva in India, was reduced soil fertility, reduced genetic diversity, soil erosion and increased vulnerability to pests. Not only did Borlaug's "high-yielding" seeds demand expensive fertilisers, they also needed more water. Both were in short supply, and the revolution in plant breeding was said to have led to rural impoverishment, increased debt, social inequality and the displacement of vast numbers of peasant farmers.

Borlaug had a robust reply. He acknowledged that his Green revolution had not "transformed the world into Utopia", but added that western environmental lobbyists were often elitists. "They've never experienced the physical sensation of hunger," he said. "If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for 50 years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertiliser and irrigation canals, and be outraged that fashionable elitists were trying to deny them these things."

Ah, three sins in one. "Western" - obviously a crime, only partly offset by Shiva actually being Indian. "Elitist" - of course, especially if they are environmentalists and fashionable. Now for the killer - remote from reality, without compassion or experience, unlike him of course.

This neatly sidesteps the main claim of his critics, that the Green Revolution had a devastating impact on the rural poor and the landless in the developing world. Thus, whilst output rose, the technology favoured global commercial monopolies, adversely affected the distribution of wealth, and meant that poverty increased and systemic hunger grew alongside food surpluses. It is a serious criticism rooted in a different model of development economics, the real experiences of rural communities and anger at the dispossession, destitution and starvation of the poor. It is not a spurious indulgence of ignorant hippies.

Borlaug was a serious and important figure and I am not qualified to offer a judgement on the debate. However, I wince at the description of bluster as "robust". (Mind you that was as nothing compared to this mess, with which the Guardian, once again, surpassed itself).

For an overview of Shiva's views, here she is speaking in the United States earlier this year (with the occasional dubious rhetorical flourish of her own). It's worth fifty minutes of your time.


Anonymous said...

In a typical Guardian screw-up, they've taken a bit from an interview that Borlaug did with Reason magazine in (I think) 2000, shoved it next to Shiva's comments, which are presumably from much more recently and aren't directly related, and thus invented a link that really isn't there. So - through no fault of yours - Borlaug is made to look as if he thought Shiva was a westerner, when (for all I know) he may never even have heard of her, and certainly wasn't replying specifically to her. Whatever else he was, he wasn't stupid.

Anonymous said...

Correction: It wasn't Reason in 2000, but The Atlantic in 1997, in an article, "Forgotten Benefactor of Humanity", by Gregg Easterbrook. It's also typical of The Guardian's sloppy methods that they left out this sentence from the start of Borlaug's "robust reply" that wasn't a reply at all:
"Some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists."
That's a bit more nuanced than you or The Guardian gave him credit for.

The Plump said...

Thanks anonymous. Though Borlaug and Shiva were well known to each other, given their pre-eminence in opposite camps. Borlaug was also aware of the displacement of labourers in India and urged a process of industrialisation to provide employment.

You have two different models of development going head-to-head here. So there is, at least, an indirect relationship and it is not based on a meeting of minds. I have no doubts about Borlaug's personal sincerity and motivation.

My post is really about shabby argument, something that gets to me, and it was mainly directed at the Guardian for describing this variety as robust.

However, it is an argument Borlaug has reiterated elsewhere and the "my compassion is greater than yours" line doesn't impress - especially when the opposition argue that the real experience of people in the developing world was increasing, rather than diminishing hunger. The realities of rural social development is where there can be a productive exchange of views.

John said...

That's is why I love this blog: The clarity.

Thank you sir.

The Plump said...

That's is why I love this blog: The clarity.

Drat, I thought you wanted me for my body.

Peter Risdon said...

"This neatly sidesteps the main claim of his critics, that the Green Revolution had a devastating impact on the rural poor and the landless in the developing world."

You might not agree with him, but Borlaug was directly addressing these types of criticism. It's not the affluent who starve to death. India's grain production quadrupled, using Borlaug's techniques. What's preferable, starving to death or being relatively less affluent than the average?

And what sort of person could suggest, seriously, that it would be better if lots of poor people had died in agony?

The Plump said...

What's preferable, starving to death or being relatively less affluent than the average?

I think that you have missed the critics' point here. They are arguing that people actually did suffer chronic malnutrition as a result of the social impact of the Green Revolution. Hunger and starvation increased and was not alleviated by the use of HYVs. They say that people were plunged into utter destitution, unable to afford food crops that were more expensive to produce, not that they became relatively less affluent. People died. Distribution is as important as production. (This is why Shiva called one of her books, The Violence of the Green Revolution).

Besides, my point is that the use of terms like 'elitist' is simply a way of brushing aside very real issues without confronting them. (Especially as the main protests came from the developing world itself).

Peter Risdon said...

It would be tedious to link, because a google search produces nothing but testimony to the reduction of famine in India. Can you reference any evidence for the claim that hunger and starvation increased? The most I can find is that the Green Revolution didn't produce a utopia, some problems still exist - which I think we know anyway.

The Plump said...

Just one of many found by my quick Google search:


It is typical. Look too at the writings of Susan George

But much more fundamental than all of these was the fact that the destination of these new crops was never going to be the poor who needed them most. Rather, the produce of this modern agricultural revolution was bound for world, and particularly Western, markets. It was the export orientation of Third World economies that was ultimately to take food from the mouths of the hungry. The result was that whilst rice production in India rose dramatically, rice consumption actually fell.

Also, be careful of the use of the word famine. Famines are relatively rare events with a complex range of causations. The real problem is systemic malnutrition- hunger - which is persistent, and permanent.

Here's Vandana Shiva on the ecological impact in the Punjab.

One of the joys of Googling was to confirm anonymous' supposition about inadequate Guardian journalism. The Borlaug quote came from Wikipedia.

John said...

Hi Gadge--

I thought that went without saying.