By Chet Yarbrough
The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World
By: Charles C. Mann
Narrated by : Bronson Pinchot
Charles C. Mann (Author, journalist, contributing editor fo Science, The Atlantic Monthly, and Wired.)
“The Wizard and the Prophet” is a cogent analysis of an environmental fork in the road. Charles Mann chooses two twentieth century scientists to represent this fork in the road. One road is to limit economic growth by conserving the environment. The other advocates economic growth by using technology to ameliorate environmental resource diminution and degradation. Both Mann’s scientists are advocating preservation of human life.
Mann’s detailed history of the two representatives of conservation and amelioration of natural resources are, at times, tedious and unrewarding. The prophet Mann chooses is William Vogt. He is a prophet because he predicts environmental catastrophe from humanity’s overuse of natural resources. The wizard is Norman Borlaug who uses science to improve agricultural production.
Vogt is famous for writing the best-seller “Road to Survival”. Borlaug is famous for culturing a wheat variety that saves millions of people from starvation.
Mann recalls Borlaug’s research and seed hybridization that hugely increases wheat productivity in Mexico and throughout the farming world.
In listening to “The Wizard and the Prophet”, the fundamental difference between these two protagonists is Vogt believes less is more while Borlaug believes more is better because it improves the quality of life for current generations. Both agree nature seeks balance, but one chooses conservation through science while the other chooses technological innovation.
In their differences of opinion, Mann suggest both men believe nature’s balance can only be achieved by an either/or, not a common, proposition. To Vogt, balance of nature requires living within one’s environment without upsetting nature’s balance. Mann explains how Vogt and others explain human overpopulation is a principle cause of nature’s imbalance. Mann recalls Vogt’s history of telling nation-state leaders that humans should not deplete natural resources or interrupt natural process because imbalance of nature threatens human existence. In contrast, Borlaug, believes nature’s balance can be maintained through technology. The inference from Borlaug is that nature will rebalance on its own if resources are depleted or natural processes are interrupted. Borlaug argues use of resources benefits people who will have a better life, while innovation can and will re-balance nature’s depletion and process.
What Mann shows as weaknesses in both visions of the environment is that nature’s balance is a moving target. Neither conservation nor technology assures humanity’s future. Mann recounts experimental speculation that reaches back to the 4th century BC. All living species follow an “S curve”. (It’s not an “S” but that is what it is called.) A new species begins at the bottom, achieves a certain level of success, slows down, and begins recovery, declines again, and then disappears. Presuming humanity follows other animal species that have disappeared over the centuries, so will humans.
Human life has always been ephemeral. Improving children’s lives today at least improves living standards for one more generation. Each generation should focus on the best lives for the next generation. Nature will always be in control of humanity’s destiny in this and other universes.
Mann chooses not to take sides, but it seems clear that whatever the wizards of science can find that improves the lives of today’s generation (wherever humans are on that “S” curve) is better than Vogt’s argument for conservation by any means necessary.
Be a pessimist if you must, be an optimist if you can, or be a realist, and know where we are is who we are.