Two hundred years ago, a huge intellectual battle raged among Europe’s intelligentsia. Their contention concerned the direction of time’s arrow. Where was civilization heading towards — Utopia or the abyss?
BOOM AND BUST
On the one side of the argument were perfectionists such as the French philosopher and mathematician, Nicolas de Concordet. He believed that enlightenment and science were accelerating mankind towards eternal bliss.
Opposing them were Thomas Robert Malthus and his ilk, who preached a Malthusian theory of doom. Prosperity was a curse in disguise, Malthus warned, since population increases geometrically, doubling and tripling every generation, while food supply only increases arithmetically by a few percent a year. Because of this, he pontificated, population explosion would result in “epidemics, pestilence and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and ten thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow, levels the population with the food of the world.”
According to this way of thinking, mankind was doomed to eternal cycles of boom and bust.
Both theories were flawed. Nowadays, with the benefit of hindsight, we can smile at the perfectionists who thought that secular enlightenment and science would lead to Utopia. Holocaust, atom bombs, Communism, and a hundred other evils have long disabused mankind of that naïve notion.
As for Malthus’s boom and bust thesis, even in his day people condemned it as “the crudest, most barbarous theory that ever existed, a system of despair which struck down all those beautiful phrases about love thy neighbor and world citizenship.”
In one of his deroshos, Rav Avrohom Pam explained that Malthus’s mistake was to leave Hashem out of the equation.
He discusses how Miriam insisted her father have children despite Pharaoh’s evil decree to kill every male child, and how Yeshayahu Hanovi warned King Chizkiyahu that he must marry and have children (Melachim II 20:1), even though Chizkiyahu knew through Divine inspiration that any children born to him would be wicked.
“Of what concern to you are the secrets ofHashem?” Yeshayahu adjured him. “Do what you are commanded to do, and the Holy One will do what He considers good.” (Berachos 10a).
In the end, fulfilling Hashem’s will led to success. Amram returned to his family and fathered Moshe Rabeinu, and even though Chizkiyahu’s son Menashe was incredibly evil, Menashe’s son, King Yoshiyahu, became so righteous that the verse states of him (Melachim II 23:25), “Before him there was never a king like him who returned to Hashem with all his heart and all his soul, and all his wealth…” He was Klal Yisroel’s last hope of staving off the Churban and every year we mourn his death in the Kinos of Tisha B’Av. Also, Menashe’s teshuvah before he died was accepted by Hashem.
The same principal applies to population increase, Rav Pam said. It is not our job to worry about the feeding of future generations because “Hashem sits and sustains [everything] from the horns of re’emim to the eggs of lice” (Shabbos 107b).
FATHER OF CHEMICAL WARFARE
Indeed, it is amazing to examine the past century’s history and see how Hashem granted mankind wisdom to multiply food production many times over. The first harbinger of this “Green Revolution” was the unlikely hero Fritz Haber, an assimilated German Jew who discovered how to extract nitrogen, a vital component of artificial fertilizer, from the air in 5668/1908. The industrial version of this process is described as “the most important technical invention of the Twentieth Century.”
Until then, the main sources of fertilizer were gigantic deposits of bird guano (droppings), much of them in a 220 mile five feet deep strip along the coast of Chile. From then on, worked out, exhausted fields could be speedily fertilized and produce never-ending cycles of new crops.
However, Haber’s artificial nitrates are a typical example of how science is a mixed blessing. His artificial nitrates became a vital component of Germany’s explosives after the British navy cut off Germany from the Chile supply.
Also, together with about five future Nobel prize laureates, the rabidly patriotic Haber helped Germany develop poison gas, which his first wife described as “an abomination of science and a sign of barbarism,” and to this day he is remembered as the “father of chemical warfare.”
Haber had warned the German leadership to use gas warfare only if it was certain that Germany would win. As the end of the war drew near, Haber became concerned that he might be executed as a war criminal and began growing a beard in preparation of quietly disappearing.
How surprised he was when the world not only ignored his contribution to gas warfare after the wall but even applauded his winning of the Nobel Prize for the invention of artificial fertilizer!
Justice caught up to him at last. With the rise of Nazism, he received a rude reminder that that despite having converted to Christianity he was Jewish after all. He fled his beloved Fatherland for which he had given his soul and died in Switzerland in 5694/1934. Less than a decade later Germany was using another of his inventions, the insecticide Zyklon B, to kill millions of his fellow Jews.
THE BATTLE TO FEED HUMANITY
By the 1960s, many experts were claiming that artificial fertilizer was not enough and made dire predictions that billions were soon to die in gigantic famines. As one author warned, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over… In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” By 5740/1980, he claimed, the average life expectancy in the US would be a meager 42 years.
However, Hashem had prepared a cure in advance. A dramatic “Green Revolution” began in 5705/1945, when US agronomist (plant expert) Norman Ernest Borlaug used irrigation, fertilization, and genetics to drastically increase crop yields in Mexico, Pakistan, India, and Africa.
Borlaug’s first project was in Mexico, which originally imported half its wheat but became selfsufficient by 5716/1956. Five years later when India was in danger of mass famines, Borlaug helped develop a “miracle rice” that produced ten times the yield of traditional crops. India became a major rice exporter and its famines are a specter of the past, even though as late as 5728/1968, one author had claimed that, “India couldn’t possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980.”
One of Borlaug’s major techniques was to “mix and match” dozens of varieties of the same plant. For example, when he discovered that fast growing HYVs (high yield varieties)
tend to bend over under the load of their bumper crops, he interbred them with dwarf varieties with shorter, thicker stems.
Through such techniques, he and others more than doubled the production of cereals in developing nations between 5721/1961 and 5745/1985, saving billions of people from starvation. Nowadays, the same hectare of land that produced 750 kilos in 5710/1950 produces a whopping 2,600 kilos. In consequence, despite the world population doubling between 5720/1960 and 5760/2000, the calories available per person increased by 23%.
Of course, the Green Revolution is not without its downside that includes lowered plant diversity, increased pesticide use that leads to eradication of animals and plants, and highly intensive water use that dries out aquifers, rivers and lakes. Another major problem is the runoff of fertilizer nitrates that make their way to the oceans and create gigantic “dead zones.” In the Gulf of Mexico, for example, thousands of square miles become devoid of all plant and animal life every year when nitrates encourage the blossoming of huge algae clouds that burn up all available oxygen.
Due to such shortcomings, even Borlaug admits that his efforts have been “a change in the right direction, but it has not transformed the world into a Utopia.”
Because of such concerns, environmental groups opposed helping increase food production in Africa to which Borlaug retorted, “If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things.”
One extreme defender of Borlaug’s approach was Professor Julian Simon who argued in his book The Ultimate Resource that population is the “ultimate resource” as it spurs man to discover new resources and better use of what he has. As he writes, “There is no reason to believe that at any given moment in the future the available quantity of any natural resource or service at present prices will be much smaller than it is now, or non-existent.”
During 5740/1980, to prove his point he made a famous bet with an environmentalist that five specified metals, tin, nickel, tungsten, chromium, and copper, would be cheaper a decade later. After the ten years passed his opinion was vindicated. The price of each metal had dropped due to improved technology and alternative materials. Copper prices, for example, had dropped due to the introduction of fiber optic cables for communications. It is only fair to mention that Simon later lost a similar bet that the price of pine timber would decrease.
Although the fight between environmentalists and modern technology is far beyond the scope of this article, of one thing we can be sure. One way or another, so long as Hashem wants the world to continue in its natural course, He will continue sustaining every creature from the horns of Re’emim to the eggs of lice.