The Green Revolution

The Green Revolution as Philanthropy

Editors’ Note: For readers who worried that HistPhil’s forum on the Green Revolution had ended, take heart! It’s still very much open, though we will be rolling out new posts at a slower pace in the weeks ahead. Here David Nally continues the forum with a post probing the philanthropic roots of the Revolution. 

The Green Revolution can be broadly defined as a great transformation in the organization of agriculture that took place during the early to mid twentieth century. The transformation was attendant upon the adoption of high-yielding varieties of major crops – especially wheat, maize and rice – and the application of scientific principles to their cultivation. While it is important to recognise that human beings have always organized themselves and adapted their environment to meet the needs of food production, the Green Revolution represents both a qualitative and quantitative intensification of those efforts. That is to say, the Green Revolution marks an effort to control, manage, and engineer biotic life in order to complement the new ideal of industrial living. Where did this model of agricultural change originate? And how did it achieve hegemonic status so quickly?

To understand the changes in agriculture we need to understand the great changes to production that followed in the wake of the industrial revolution: the regimentation of labour to suit the nascent factory system; the ‘scaling up’ of the business enterprise and, consequently, the cannibalisation of small artisanal workers; the full exploitation of mechanical and technical innovations to increase the speed and quantity of production; an acceptance of the norms of capitalism including the commercialisation of many social functions; faith in the utility of science, lay expertise and the inevitability of progress – these are just some of the great changes witnessed in cities like Chicago and Manchester and later globalised around the world.

American philanthropy has had no small role in what is seen as the ‘modernisation’ of agrarian practices. Along with sponsoring health and education, the Rockefeller Foundation has dedicated vast sums of money to tackling global poverty and hunger (Norman Borlaug, the plant scientist commonly lauded as the ‘spiritual father’ of the Green Revolution – he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize 1970 for his contributions to agricultural prosperity – was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation). Henry Ford, who, ironically, did so much to urbanise America, never ceased to preach the virtues of honest rural living, and later, in the 1950s and 1960s, the Ford Foundation sponsored programmes for agricultural reform with a particular focus on South Asia. Presently the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in close collaboration with the Rockefeller Foundation, is promoting an ‘Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa’ (AGRA). The ties between philanthropy and the Green Revolution model are strong, but what specifically does philanthropy bring to the table?

There are several points to briefly note. First and foremost is the suturing of market norms to the age-old practice of charitable giving. ‘Philanthrocapitalism’ is now a modish word but the practice is as old as philanthropy itself. Andrew Carnegie, for instance, told listeners that his aim was to transform private charity into ‘organised business’. Only then, he reasoned, would giving be made exact and therefore beneficent for the recipients.

John D. Rockefeller, with the aid of the enigmatic Baptist preacher and advisor Frederick Gates, slowly shifted his practice from ‘retail’ to ‘wholesale’ giving – just as he had relentlessly rationalised the oil business, his aim now was to make the process of ‘giving’ as brutally efficient as the process of ‘taking’. In practice this meant making fewer but bigger bets – ‘scaling up’ donations, backing causes that were more likely to succeed (‘catalysing’ other innovations – what Wickcliffe Rose, head of several Rockefeller philanthropies, once described as ‘making the peaks higher’).

Another guiding tenet of philanthropy – perhaps ‘the’ guiding tenet – was to tackle the ‘root cause’ of problems rather than work on mere ‘palliatives’. And since it was felt that farming was a backward practice desperately in need of discipline and professionalism, plans to modernise the farm almost inevitably involved the radical negation of existing practices and modes of living. In other words, to truly address chronic poverty in the countryside, the countryside itself would need to be broken up and remade: farms would be organised for maximum efficiency, machinery would be employed to increase production and reduce labour costs, better breeds of livestock would be raised, new improved seeds would be planted, fertiliser and irrigation techniques would be applied. The farmer too would be transformed from a lazy and conservative individual into a conscientious and thrifty entrepreneur.

To take one example, in the first half of the twentieth century, the Rockefeller-sponsored General Education Board used on-site ‘farm demonstrations’ to exhort southern farmers in the US to become actively involved in the modernisation of their daily activities. Targeted campaigns (‘clean-up week,’ ‘drink more milk’ promotions, etc.) were employed, ‘pilot programs’ (testing new seed varieties) were developed, and growing competitions (for the ‘best’ corn crop and so on) were inaugurated. The longstanding goal of putting the peasant in the market was supplemented by the new, more radical aim of putting the market in the peasant: self-study and continuous appraisal were encouraged – so farmers could measure their own improvement – and gradually new media technologies, including popular motion pictures, supplemented the use of radio, print and ‘mobile schools’ as a means of radiating change through the countryside.

The work of the GEB convinced leaders at the Rockefeller Foundation that for development plans to be successful they must embrace programmes of socio-cultural adjustment. The poor had to be roused from their stupor and inspired to try new seeds, fertilisers, technologies and growing practices. And what was trialed in the US South was later, as Tore Olsson correctly reminds us, extended to Mexico and South Asia under the aegis of the Cold War and the battle to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of poor peasants.

Ford, Rockefeller and Carnegie were restless innovators, constantly searching for new ways to conquer some observed hindrance and gain an advantage over their competitors. Science and technology were the tools of choice for remodelling their businesses, a preference that carried over into their philanthropies, where the enlightened expert – medics, engineers and economists were especially favoured – directed plans for the ‘uplift’ of rural communities.

The dominance of the scientific ethos represented a narrowing of the scope of farming problems (it also precipitated the move – at once figurative and literal – of farming out of the ‘field’ and into the ‘laboratory’). The fact that science presented itself as disinterested, value-free knowledge – or what James Ferguson would call an ‘anti-politics machine’ – made its intrusive feats of social engineering into an exercise in benevolent fellow-felling. Whereas one might question the motives of the grasping steel magnate it was much more difficult to challenge the army of facts wielded by philanthropic experts. In this sense governing through philanthropy was an insurance against the charge of political machinations. Reforming the farm was seen as a humanitarian act rather than an exercise in control and appropriation.

Finally, if more speculatively, the overweening confidence Carnegie, Ford and Rockefeller placed in their own plans to improve society might be seen as another significant feature of their philanthropy that would come to shape the Green Revolution. All three men exhibited what Rockefeller biographer Ron Chernow describes as an ‘overdeveloped sense of responsibility’. These men were not only confident in their plans to engineer society; they were also curiously impervious to criticism. Bound by conscience they set about doing what they felt was in the best interest of society. They stocked their foundations with men (and invariably all the senior staff were men) who reflected their core values – men, that is, who had a ‘puritan itch to save the world,’ to use Chernow’s felicitous phrase.

The failings of the Green Revolution are sufficiently well known: soil degradation associated with intensive resource use; the loss of agro-biodiversity as cash crops and monocultural production take precedence; the increase in land consolidation, labour displacement and social unrest as smaller producers make way for large-scale commercial enterprise; the elevation of scientific and technical solutions to agrarian problems often at the expense of local knowledges and vernacular farming practices.

These are just some of the litany of charges laid against the Green Revolution model of agricultural growth. However, the model shows no sign of waning; it too seems curiously impervious to criticism. Indeed, as noted above, the Bill &Melinda Gates Foundation, in close collaboration with the Rockefeller Foundation, are presently rolling out a ‘new’ Green Revolution for Africa (AGRA). The Gates’ describe themselves as ‘impatient optimists’ – optimists because they believe that the world can be made better; ‘impatient’ because ‘it’s not being made better fast enough [my emphasis]’. Thus the dominant concern is not whether the theory of social adjustment is right or wrong, but whether the process of transformation can be super-charged and rendered ‘catalytic’ for the sake of the poor. This ‘impatience’ for change is evident in the choice of language. The avatars of AGRA tend to picture development as a noble struggle against the deadening weight of tradition – thus they face ‘blockages,’ ‘constraints’ and ‘barriers’ that must be torn down – and they depict progress as a matter of ‘leveraging’ and ‘scaling up’ their ideas and activities. Such rhetoric depicts ‘poverty’ as a noun and ‘assistance’ as a verb. They are passive; we are active. They ‘lack’; we ‘impart’. The troubling desire to ‘save the world’ that launched the ‘first’ Green Revolution is still very much the cri de coeur of the new green revolutionaries.

-David Nally

David Nally is a senior lecturer in the Department of Geography and a Fellow of Jesus College at the University of Cambridge. He has research interests in the history of American philanthropy, the political economy of global agriculture (with a focus on the factors framing hunger), and the comparative study of European colonialism.

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