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

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

William Vogt in 1950

for a variety of bird species. Vogt would campaign and protest but ended up as a resentful and embittered witness without an audience: Man’s interests come first, forget about the birds!

He had his breakthrough while investigating the ecology of cormorant colonies on Peruvian islands. These bird colonies provided the agricultural market with valuable fertilizers in the form of guano, which consists of bird excrement, until over-fishing in the ocean around the cormorant colonies contributed to the breakdown of the bird population. His eye for such obvious and also more intricate connections, helped Vogt in turning his message around: Even Man’s basic interests will sooner or later be harmed by over-exploitation and blindness to the connections of nature.

«Even Man’s basic interests will sooner or later be harmed by over-exploitation and blindness to the connections of nature.»

Vogt sums up his prophetic vision in the ingenious concept of «carrying capacity», originally a shipping metaphor. As Malthus had predicted, populations grow steeply doubling at certain intervals, but agricultural productivity rises only moderately. Vogt’s proposals for change, namely «live humbly», «avoid insecticides», «eat lower on the food chain», may seem reasonable enough, but to most they seem impossible to implement on a big scale. «The ship is too big to turn fast», Mann states laconically.

Wizardry and illusions

We haven’t as yet let the prophets scare us into moderation, population control, and a general state of exception, partly because we have listened to other voices – especially from the wizards among us. The other character in Mann’s double portrait is Norman Borlaug, the man behind The Green Revolution, by some considered to have saved a billion people from starvation.

This Jesus-like miracle – where bread is multiplied – was created by prosaic, if also ingenious means: a determined and intricate cross-breeding of wheat and other cereals, which when employed together with chemical fertilizers made the agricultural productivity sky-rocket. The fact that the quadrupling of the world population in the 20th century didn’t cause mass starvation is widely considered a consequence of agrotechnological «wizardry». This scientific miracle also becomes the prototypical example for anyone wanting to denounce doomsayers and even their message: that growth is subject to definite limitations. «Science will figure something out», the wizard’s cohorts say with a somewhat forced optimism, and they put their faith in tomorrow’s technological interventions and innovations which will surely make us win the game by changing the rules.

The biologist Dr. Norman Borlaug, holding up stalks of his specifically crossbred wheat.

Vogt’s prophetic followers point out that such magic solutions actually are illusions: we will be overtaken by the limitations of nature, and with double force, since techno-fixes create further problems and press nature beyond its critical boundaries in irreversible ways. Over-fertilizing, for instance, exterminates earthworms who are essential to the productivity of the soil, thus creating a need for further fertilization, impoverishing the soil even more. Critics like Vandana Shiva have described this predicament as an example of the side-effects of medicines, in that we are not realising that the cure has become the disease. Typical wizards like Borlaug would reply: We might be in a sick situation, but precisely for this reason it is too late to talk about pre-emptive measures and what is healthy. Surgical interventions and drastic measures are required if we shall prevail as we approach 10 billon hungry mouths on the planet.

Irreconcilable directions

So who is right? The author is in doubt to the point of despair, but his agitated mixture of worry and curiosity becomes the book’s impetus. With a wide array of detailed examples, historical reviews, facts and considerations, Mann tries to mediate between positions that seem deeply opposed.

Charles C. Mann

But can’t we simply employ a mixed strategy? Ecological caution plus inventive technological solutions? Mann tells the story of neighbouring farms in California – one grows a wide choice of ecological greens, while the other grows genetically modified corn in monocultures, mechanically harvested. The two land-owners are friends, have their different ways of farming, sell to different markets, each reasoning on a different basis. Yet, on a bigger scale the diverging strategies clash: the «land», to be shared by the progressive wizards as well as the prophets critical of growth, is the Earth itself – a shared territory if there ever was one. They pull in opposite directions in a tug of war, which is moral, political, and scientific at the same time.

«With a wide array of detailed examples, historical reviews and facts, Mann tries to mediate between positions that seem deeply opposed.»

«Wizards» promoting genetic modification, chemical fertilizers or even geo-engineering, see mankind as an exception from nature that can outsmart the circumstances and change the game to his own benefit. In this way limiting growth makes less sense, and we are also constantly given new means to continue the expansion of mankind. For the «prophets» the situation is different: we must understand that we are absolutely not an exception, but, like the bacteria in the petri dish, will grow until we destroy the basis for our own existence.

The analogy is imperfect, of course: we differ from the bacteria in having consciousness and knowledge enabling us to predict the future. We can correct ourselves before the collapse occurs. The prophets, too, hope that we can become an exception to the laws of nature – by counting them in. Outside our mental resources we have access to natural resources which – in contrast to the nutrition given to the bacteria – can replenish themselves if we plant and harvest in compliance with the needs of nature. Seen from this perspective the soil is the real wizard, whereas Man is just the sorcerer’s careless apprentice.

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