The tragedy of innovation: how brilliant ideas are criminalised

The Increment of Man

“This push for a so-called “green revolution” or “gene revolution” is being done once again under the guise of solving hunger in Africa. Chemical-intensive agriculture is, however, already known to be outmoded. We have seen how fertilisers have killed the soil, creating erosion, vulnerable plants and loss of water from the soil. We have seen how pesticides and herbicides have harmed our environment and made us sick.”

African civil society organisations at the World Social Forum in Nairobi, 2007

Read Farming Solutions, a joint initiative of Oxfam and Greenpeace, and we discover who is behind this savage and deliberate policy of poisoning life on earth and destroying the environment. It is global organisations like the World Bank, and large corporations like Monsanto, McDonalds and Walmart.

Human beings are pathetic, ignorant and helpless creatures lying on our spindly backs, our limbs flailing in the air as the corporations lined against us tread our ambitions into dust.

How did it go so wrong? When did hindsight become an excoriation of past genius and a call to denigrate all that we invented?

The Green Revolution

Norman Borlaug, the father of the “green revolution”, winner of the Nobel peace prize, is an outspoken advocate of the use of synthetic fertilisers to increase crop yields. He points out, in the Economist, that global cereal production tripled between 1950 and 2000, but the amount of land used increased by only 10%. Using traditional techniques such as crop rotation, compost and manure to supply the soil with nitrogen and other minerals would have required a tripling of the area under cultivation. The more intensively you farm, Mr Borlaug contends, the more room you have left for rainforest.

In the 1960s India hadn’t yet recovered from the Bengal Famine which left 3 million dead. Indian farmers in the 1960s produced only 12 million tons of wheat annually; significantly less than their population required. In 1965 M.S. Swaminathan, C. Subramaniam and B. P. Pal, along with Dr Borlaug introduced the use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides to the subcontinent. Today India is a net exporter producing some 200 million tons of grain a year. So pesticides and fertilisers have side-effects? Let’s fix it. But let’s not go back to an age of famine to do so.

I was with a group of tourists visiting an impoverished part of South Africa. Said one American woman, “I love that you’re all so in touch with the environment. We Americans poison our soil. Our food has so many toxic chemicals. I envy you.” The mixed bag of Europeans and Americans all nodded their agreement. For the record: life expectancy in the US, EU and Japan is around 77 – 80 years; it is 33 in Zambia, 37 in Zimbabwe and 47 in South Africa.

It may interest you to know that the AVERAGE age in the US, at around 37 years, is the life-span of the average Zimbabwean. Do you have any idea how fatuous and insulting a comment like, “You’re so much better off than us, our society is poisoning itself,” comes across?

The response to revealed shortfalls in technology seems terribly self-destructive. “Yes, OK, pesticides have dramatically improved food yields but think – when I’m 80 – the toxicity of the pesticides will cause me trembles. Let’s scrap pesticide use and go back to crop rotation.” Or: “Fine, so airline travel has dramatically changed the world and allowed cultural mixing and tourism which improves international knowledge and relations as well as creating jobs for hundreds of millions of people. The engines are not totally efficient and release tons of carbon dioxide and results in global warming. Let’s scrap air travel.”

Revealed Shortfalls

I’d like to hear similar sentiments expressed about antibiotics: “Yes, antibiotics have extended human life, but they have also created multi-drug resistant bacteria. I think we should get rid of antibiotics and go back to a wet poultice.” Or even: “Fine, so the collaboration of Microsoft and Intel dramatically reduced the cost of computing and did actually put a computer on every desktop. But now we’re dependent on them. I think we should scrap computers and go back to our trusty old Abacus.”

I note that, once Europe and the US had managed to wipe out their malaria problem with DDT just after WWII they “suddenly” discovered that it had toxic side-effects and banned its production and distribution in other parts of the world. I wonder how many Africans would give up two years of life and die at 75 from DDT accumulated-after-effects rather than die at 37 from malaria?

And don’t blame my idiot president if he uses the same argument: “AIDS drugs are toxic and have untold side-effects. We cannot impose them on people.” So our life-span is dramatically reduced because of AIDS, which will kill you, rather than extended by medication which possibly, maybe, almost won’t, not-sure, might, we-don’t-know, harm you. Sounds a lot like US and EU concerns about genetically modified crops as well.

As with any development, innovation is a series of incremental steps. An exercise in optimisation. The first pesticide producers were stopping the plagues of insects that destroyed crops and plunged communities into famine. That still happens in parts of Africa when locust swarms blot out the sun. Modern innovations have produced poisons that degrade hours after being sprayed and so cannot enter the human food chain. As side effects are identified new iterations are developed that improve the product. Only if the negative side-effects outweigh the benefits, and there is no prospect of correcting the problem, is a line of inquiry abandoned.

The Increments of Innovation

Innovators improve their innovations. So the fantastic industrial revolution which created the machines we use on a daily basis produced machines which aren’t totally efficient? Who knew. Are they more efficient now than they were 100 years ago? Yes, they are.

The same is true of market-led capitalism, large-scale industrialisation, patent regulations, copyright, democracy and every other innovation that society has come to depend on. No-one ever claimed there was one answer, it is ultimately correct and we are in Nirvana. Every single one of these is an idea and needs enhancement and development. Just because it wasn’t perfect when first formulated doesn’t mean it wasn’t better than what it replaced. Or that it cannot be improved upon with time and initiative. Proclaiming that the people who rely on it are being criminally negligent and are purposefully trying to kill others is just plain stupid.

I can imagine the average doomsayer standing on a sandy beach at the dawn of Earth history and talking to the new life-forms developing there: “You’re going to die anyway, why bother.”

Because everything that lives, everything that breathes, yearns to improve itself. When you fear advancing and favour retreat you have ceased that great wondering and imagining that is the beauty of life.

4 replies »

  1. Fascinating post, Gavin. Much to think about. Currently I’m mulling two views that seem to be at war in my thinking as I ponder this excellent, excellent essay:

    1) Gavin’s right – much of what the US and EU say and do about Africa is colored by a sort of “Disney-fied” notion of Africa as “the last good place” where the simple life is still lived by the majority of inhabitants – and that is a good thing that should somehow be preserved. The “mistakes” of the developed world could be avoided in Africa – so we must act in ways to help them avoid those “mistakes.” It’s clearly a patronizing attitude that keeps Africa from progressing and treats it as if it’s the “red-headed step-child” of world commerce.

    2) Gavin’s wrong – We in the US and EU have learned a great deal about the “costs of progress” – our attempts to help Africa are informed by that knowledge – and by our willingness to help Africa succeed in ways that are sustainable and environmentally positive. Our help can make Africa be economically and environmentally healthy….

    But that life expectancy data belies the second approach as perhaps disingenuous, doesn’t it? As if the US and EU could see Africa as a sort of “lab” or even as a utopian experiment – instead of as a full and fair member of the world economic and social community…so it circles back upon itself….

    Wonder of any of those trying to “help” Africa are thinking – and re-thinking – as I am…?

  2. Well, I shall have to read this a number of times because I’m conflicted on everything.

    1. Who will close Pandora’s Box?
    2. I do not want to go back to the Year Zero.
    3. When will the journey launch humanity into space?

    I lean towards Jim’s No.2 train of thought but some African speakers look to China…

    As far as life expectancy is concerned my step-mother is a Nurse and works with many of our elderly who spend the last 15 to 20 years in and out of hospital – or confined to a bed in hospital.

    Our NHS hospitals are failing and broke…and are the mainstay for the elderly.

    70 to 95 is great…so long as you can still have some sort of life.

  3. “But 37 to 70 would be awesome.”

    40 to 65 totally awesome. 😉

    65 to 70 you may have to pay the price of 18 to 40.