Regulars and Shorts

Books: The Wizard and the Prophet

By Amy Brunvand

Two remarkable scientists and their dueling visions to shape tomorrow’s world.

Like so many of us, Charles Mann is trying not to succumb to despair over the environmental state of the world. He has just held his new baby daughter for the first time, but instead of dreaming about her happy future, the thought pops into his head, “When my daughter is my age, almost 10 billion people will be walking the earth. How is that going to work?”

How, indeed? There are two major ideas.

“Prophets” believe that in order to thrive people need to stop squandering the gifts of the Earth and learn how to live within ecological limits.

“Wizards,” on the other hand, think limits don’t matter because we can science our way out of problems.

A third, far less optimistic possibility is that human nature offers no alternative story. At some point our species will exceed the carrying capacity of our planet and suffer a population collapse.

Mann works his way through the implications of these ideas by examining the life work of two visionaries, each driven by his own moral calling.

Norman Borlaug (1914-2009), “the Wizard,” won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his role in founding the Green Revolution. Borlaug approached the problem of human hunger with a direct and obvious solution—bigger harvests. He developed new breeds of high-yield wheat and introduced industrialized agriculture in developing counties. The result was to ward off immediate famine.

But there were unintended consequences:  nitrogen and pesticide pollution, soil degradation, water mismanagement; small farmers were forced off the land and unfamiliar food was culturally disruptive. The Green Revolution fell under social criticism. But Borlaug responded, “Wouldn’t you rather have these for problems than the kind of hunger we had in 1968?”

William Vogt (1902-1968), “the Prophet,” was a fanatic birder and population-control advocate. His influential book, The Road to Survival (1948), describes the ecologic damage caused by human population beyond the land’s carrying capacity.

Vogt was involved in the early days of the Audubon Society, Planned Parenthood and World Wildlife Fund. Like Borlaug, Vogt developed his ideas around agricultural fertilizer. In the days before synthetic fertilizer, he was hired by a company in Peru that sold seabird guano. The company wanted to increase the supply, but Vogt concluded that it was not possible to inflate bird populations beyond carrying capacity. The best humans could do would be to preserve optimal ecological conditions for birds.

Adopting the viewpoints of Vogt (recognition of limits) vs. Borlaug (technological optimism), Mann argues with himself over the best approach to contemporary environmental wicked problems. Like a particularly skilled high school debater, he argues first the Prophet side and then the Wizard side, steadfastly refusing to pick a side: “On Monday, Wednesday and Friday, I think Vogt was correct.  On Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, I go for Borlaug and on Sunday, I don’t know.”

The approach may sound wishy-washy, but this fascinating book is anything but. The question of how to create a sustainable future for humankind is real and urgent and deserves nuanced consideration. True believers can change the world, but they can also be blinded by their own passions.

Ultimately, Mann’s shifting perspective offers a way to think through some very tough environmental problems.  “It is terrible to suppose that we could get so many other things right and get this one wrong,” Mann writes, “to have the imagination to see our potential end but not have the cultural resources to avoid it.”

Amy Brunvand is the University of Utah Marriott Library’s librarian for the university’s Office of Sustainability. She also writes CATALYST’s  EnviroNews column.

This article was originally published on May 31, 2018.