The prophets say we have to turn back, the wizards conjure new paths. In an effective mix of polemics and cultural history, this book shows that the environment is a product of the ideas we have about it.
Anders Dunker
Dunker is a Norwegian philosopher, and regular contributor.
Published date: September 27, 2018

The Wizard and the Prophet: Two remarkable scientists and their dueling visions to shape tomorrow’s world
Author: Charles C. Mann
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2018,

Science journalist and author Charles C. Mann is known for his books 1491 and 1493 about America before and after Columbus – described as a culturally engendered ecological transformation, full of unexpected connections. The mix of parasitology, demography, ecology and agronomy reappears in his new book, which is about the future as much as it is about the past.

«We all live within the absolute limitations of nature and must behave accordingly.»

Mann takes part in his own story and draws on his journalistic experience around the world, where agriculture and ecology have been central. He starts his book with a meeting with the legendary microbiologist Lynn Margulis, whom he met in his hometown as a youngster, and later meets as a lecturer at the university. With a distanced and scientific perspective on the situation of mankind, balanced, perhaps, by a warm admiration for microbiota, she showed her students a time-lapse film of bacteria multiplying around a piece of nutrition. Soon their number would accelerate, push to the edge of the petri dish, consume their last nutrition – and die. For Margulis the likeness to the situation of mankind was more than a loose analogy, but rather an undeniable consequence of the same laws of nature.

Prophetic sentinels

That we all live within the absolute limitations of nature and must behave accordingly is the central message of the «prophet» in Mann’s book, William Vogt, who in 1948 published his Road to Survival. Vogt’s warnings were followed by disquieting pamphlets and unapologetic admonitions, such as Osborn’s Our Plundered Planet, Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb and The Club of Rome’s The Limits To Growth.

Mann takes care to describe Vogt’s path from a hobby ornithologist to a famous environmentalist, and how he explored the subtle connections of ecology revealing the vulnerability of life. In Vogt’s youth, efforts to eradicate malaria led to marshes being drained all over the USA, including on his beloved Long Island, with fatal consequences

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