Overpopulation and the Green Revolution

The Green Revolution saved many from starvation, but its father, Norman Borlaug, knew it was only half the answer. The other? Slowing population growth.

  • Norman Borlaug, in 1964, scoring wheat plants for rust resistance.
    Photo by Flickr/CIMMYT
  • Father Bill Wasson and the boys of Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos in 1956.
    Photo by Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos

In August 1954, 29-year-old Bill Wasson was reassured that God existed. Raised in a devout, charitable Catholic family in Phoenix, Arizona, he’d never had cause to doubt—until, while preparing to be a missionary, the Benedictines expelled him during his final year of seminary. Emergency surgery to remove half of his thyroid, they ruled, had left him too weak for the priesthood.

Crushed, he’d returned home. His family convinced their sorely depressed son to enter graduate school. He earned a master’s degree in law and sociology, but remained underweight and moody. A Mexican vacation almost turned disastrous when he relapsed, until a Mexico City doctor determined that he’d been unwittingly overdosing himself with his daily thyroid medication. Suddenly Wasson felt better than he had in years. Grateful to have found a physician he trusted, he stayed and took a position teaching psychology and criminology at the University of the Americas.

Still, he mourned his lost dream to be a priest to the needy. He finally went to a psychoanalyst, who was also a Catholic priest. “You’re not crazy,” he told Wasson. Instead of psychotherapy, he prescribed a meeting with the new bishop of Cuernavaca, an hour south of Mexico City. In his first year, 1953, Bishop Sergio Mendez Arceo had already scandalized wealthy parishioners, and endeared himself to the poor, by adding street mariachis to the cathedral’s Sunday Mass. After two hours of grilling the gangly, fair-haired American, he told Wasson to get ready. “In four months, I’m ordaining you.”

He gave him Tepetates, the Cuernavaca marketplace church. Wasson loved it. He turned half his quarters into a free clinic and soup kitchen. When a thief who’d been pilfering the poor box turned out to be a homeless orphan, he refused to let the police jail him. “He’s not a criminal,” Wasson said. “He’s just hungry.”

Instead, he took the boy in. The next day came a knock on his door. It was the police, with eight more orphans from their lockup. “Since you think they’re just innocent waifs, you can have these, too.”

Wasson scrambled fast. By that night, he’d found a vacant beer warehouse they could all sleep in. The word soon got around: a gringo priest was taking in abandoned boys. Within a month, he had 30. Within three months, 83. He was amazed that there were so many out there. He wanted to find them all.

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