Book review – The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Conflicting Visions of the Future of Our Planet

If I asked you to propose solutions to some of the world’s problems and future challenges, things such as overpopulation, food production, hunger, soil erosion, resource depletion, energy production etc., what ideas would you put forth? Most likely, your proposals would build on the intellectual legacy of two men you have never heard of. Allow American journalist and writer Charles C. Mann to introduce you to ecologist William Vogt, father of the environmental movement, and Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning plant breeder Norman Borlaug, instigator of the agricultural Green Revolution.

Mann has written a big, chunky book that is a biography of these two men. By scouring archives of correspondence and written material left by both men, and through interviews with people who knew them, he gives a detailed and deeply researched picture of their lives and careers, and how these came to shape the way they think.

Both men saw the same problems facing the world in the 1930s and 40s, but championed opposite solutions. William Vogt, the titular prophet, saw doom and gloom in our future if we didn’t rapidly curb consumption and population growth. His 1948 book The Road to Survival laid the blueprint for the familiar brand of apocalyptic environmentalism that was later espoused by Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb and the Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth (Limits to Growth: The 30-year Update is a relevant sequel to that work), and he is the godfather of the idea of sustainable development. Norman Borlaug, the titular wizard, meanwhile saw opportunities and was a fierce believer in the power of science and technology to make a difference. His work to improve wheat varieties through systematic cross-breeding and careful use of agronomic techniques launched the green revolution that greatly increased global wheat harvests and staved off famine. Though both men are no longer alive, their legacy lives on, and their disciples still argue amongst each other, perhaps more bitterly than ever.

“Vogt […] saw doom and gloom in our future [while] Borlaug […] was a fierce believer in the power of science and technology to make a difference”

Next to a dual biography, Mann also spends a significant part of The Wizard and the Prophet looking at four great environmental challenges, asking how Vogtians and Borlaugians have dealt with them, or propose to do so. There is food, where the two views clash in organic agriculture vs. biotechnology such as GMOs. There is freshwater, where low-tech solutions such as reducing water consumption, recycling rainwater, and drip irrigation are pitched against high-tech solutions such as large-scale desalination plants, dams, and pipelines. There is energy, where renewables such as solar and wind energy face off against nuclear and fossil fuels (though interestingly, there is also a conflict between small, distributed forms of solar and wind power versus large centralised wind and solar farms). And then there is climate change, where Vogtians champion renewables to stabilise carbon dioxyde levels, and the planting of forests to reduce it, while Borlaugians champion high-tech solutions to combat it, such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) and geoengineering (see Morton’s The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World for a readable introduction).

So, Vogtian or Borlaugian, prophet or wizard, which are you? The answer is likely to be a bit of both. As Mann also points out, these two men represent ends of a continuous scale. Personally, for example, I am sceptical of some of the claims put forth by the organic agriculture movement and am an unabashed cheerleader of genetic modification. I intend to read Conventional and Organic Farming: A Comprehensive Review through the Lens of Agricultural Science to back myself up with more data, Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food offers a rapprochement of sorts, while my review of Seeds of Science: Why We Got It So Wrong on GMOs pretty much sums up my views on that topic. But where climate change is concerned, geoengineering sounds like a bridge too far to me.

“But I feel we are missing part of the picture here […] what of overpopulation?”

But I feel we are missing part of the picture here. And so does Mann. What of the mother-of-all-problems: overpopulation? Vogt had outspoken views on fertility reduction and birth control but Borlaug remained mute on the topic if I am to believe Mann. There is a third school of thought, a more misanthropic and nihilistic view that is common amongst biologists and that I strongly sympathise with. Mann speaks to that charming rebel Lynn Margulis, who plainly says that humans are destined to wipe themselves out, as all successful species must, Vogtian or Borlaugian fixes notwithstanding. Until we learn to control our population numbers, she likens us to bacteria in a petri-dish, our biology urging us to procreate until we have used up all available resources.

The idea of the world being one of finite resources seems utterly logical to me. Forget peak oil, how about peak everything? I have found Bardi’s Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth is Plundering the Planet and Abraham’s The Elements of Power: Gadgets, Guns, and the Struggle for a Sustainable Future in the Rare Metal Age enlightening in that respect. Here Mann disappoints me, the only point in the book where he does, as he struggles to understand this. It is easy to comprehend Dennis Meadow’s exasperation on page 405 at Mann’s suggestion that rich nations could somehow buy their way out of such problems. Similarly, his assertions on page 404 that population growth in developed countries has not always been accompanied by eco-catastrophe completely overlooks the central thesis that Bowyer made in The Irresponsible Pursuit of Paradise: namely that we have merely shifted the burden of resource extraction to developing countries.

“There is a third […] more misanthropic and nihilistic view […] common amongst biologists”

With The Wizard and the Prophet, Mann has really gone to town, combining a deeply-researched biography of two influential figures with how their intellectual legacy is being applied today. The book sprawls richly, occasionally meandering into obscure details, but never losing sight of the driving narrative. Mann has unearthed some remarkable period photographs to illustrate the book with, although a timeline is unfortunately lacking.

Can we yield the best of both Vogt and Borlaug’s thinking, while controlling and ultimately reducing our population numbers? If you came here looking for salvation, this is not the book for you. Mann has purposefully not made this book a blueprint for tomorrow. If, however, you want to understand how and why today’s discussions around environmental problems and the future of humanity are shaped the way they are, this book is a must-read.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own however.

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Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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5 comments

  1. This is an excellent review. From afar it sounds like a primary difference between the two points of view is the value placed on human life. Where the Vogtian sees an insurmountable obstacle that must be met by reducing human consumption (and by extension human reproduction and luxury), the Borlaugian, putting human life above all else, refuses to see that as an acceptable compromise and strives to pull a technocratic solution out of the ether. I can see the former strategy as more practical in the short term, whereas the latter strategy makes for the stuff of heroes.

    Am I mistaken?

    Like

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