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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Wizard and the Prophet

Air Date: Week of

A “guano island” off the coast of southern Peru, where birds are covering rocks with guano, which is collected and used as fertilizer. William Vogt was assigned to increase the amount of guano could be sold by the Peruvian government. (Photo: Dbrgn, Flickr, CC by SA 2.0)

Some believe technological innovation holds the key to solving environmental problems, while others look to nature for answers. In his new book, “The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World,” Charles C. Mann explores the origins of “apocalyptic environmentalism” and techno-optimism through the lives of agronomist Norman Borlaug, a.k.a. the “Wizard,” and ecologist William Vogt, a.k.a. the “Prophet.” Charles C. Mann spoke with Host Steve Curwood at a Living on Earth Good Reads event in Boston.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Jenni Doering.

CURWOOD: And I’m Steve Curwood.

When it comes to solving the problem of climate change, two common solutions are in seeming opposition. One set of proposals sees technology as a major answer, using approaches such as carbon-free energy production and geoengineering to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Another view looks to shaping human civilization with conservation and community building to decrease consumption and lighten the burden on the planet’s climate systems. After World War Two concerns about feeding a rising world population led to work by Norman Borlaug to launch a green revolution using intensive farming as a technical solution. At about the same time ecologist William Vogt studied traditional societies to develop ways to feed people based on conservation concepts and respect for naturally occurring processes. In his book, the Wizard and the Prophet author Charles C. Mann discusses energy consumption, environmental sustainability, and food security through the life stories of these two amazing twentieth-century scientists. He joined me at the Good Reads on Earth Live Event at UMass Boston.


CURWOOD: So let me get this dilemma, this dichotomy right. On the one side, do you have what you termed the Wizard Norman Borlaug coming up with these amazing ideas, except that the Wizard's alchemy, at the end of the day kind of bites us, and then Vogt who's supposed to be a prophet? But he's saying is bad news. So the guy with the hope that doesn't work. And the guy who is the son of the philosopher, the theoretician saying, well, it won't work. I mean, it leaves us with, what are we going to do?

MANN: Well, this has to do I think, fundamentally with people's values. And that's one of the central arguments of the book is that, that the choices that people make, you know, obviously, they're informed by science and facts, but ultimately, it comes down to a vision of what kind of world you want to live in. And Borlaug, who had worked his entire childhood, just like a dog on a farm thought of agriculture as this drudgery that you should spare as many people as possible, and he envisioned essentially a world of, you know, a glittering world of high tech cities surrounded by vast areas of undisturbed land, and then ringed by these little, super intense areas of agriculture ideally done by robots. And, you know, that's a vision in which you're trying to maximize human individual potential. Vogt saw that as a nightmare and said, no, we need to have more inhabited countryside where people live closer to the earth, where there are these kinds of giant cities or cesspools of corruption, we need to have neighborhood control over things. We need to have things done at a much, much smaller scale so that people can interact with the earth. And this really goes back to people like Jefferson and Hamilton or Rousseau and Voltaire. I mean, these are ancient philosophical arguments that we've, you know, put on modern disguises. But in the end, a great deal of the dispute within the environmental movement are just from just that these basic value fights.

CURWOOD: Well I think the spoiler alert for people who get to read your book is that there is some optimism in here. Yeah, even though we're at this rather dark spot because it sounds like you go tech, and you have a bad outcome and I think people through the Luddite spear at Vogt Right?

MANN: Right, right, right. Which is not actually fair because what their prophets are talking about is no technology, but a different kind of technology. And I, you know, give the example in the book of a farm that I spent some time on in Northwestern Illinois, which is a remarkable thing it grows 1000 different crop varieties, and its complexity mimics that of a natural ecosystem. But it takes an enormous amount of knowledge to do that. And they do things like have solar power greenhouses, and when I was the last visiting there, they were experimenting with monitoring the crops by the drone so that there's a real embrace of technology. But it's a kind of a decentralized you know, whole earth catalog type of technology rather than massive nuclear power plants and centralized facilities that produce genetically modified seeds and all the rest of that kind of stuff.

CURWOOD: Now, this is a very well researched book and I'm guessing that in a way, you really got to know, Norman Borlaug and William Vogt it at a fairly deep level. What were your personal takeaways from each of these men?

Norman Borlaug worked in the Sonora Desert creating high-yield disease-resistant wheat varieties. He shaped what we now know as the Green Revolution. (Photo: Texas A&M Agrilife, Flickr, CC BY=NC-ND 2.0)

MANN: Well, I wouldn't want to be married to either one of them.

You know, and this wasn't because they were bad people or anything, but they're both pretty obsessed. And Borlaug's wife, at one point estimated that in the first I don't know, I can't remember if it was 40 or 50 years of their marriage they were married for a very long time, that he spent four years at home. And this was because he was out in the field working, you know and working with poor farmers. He was a very, very genuinely decent, modest person, but he's also quite limited. He went to college and he didn't take any kind of economics. He didn't take sociology, and didn't take history, and I am afraid that's reflected in this. It never occurred to him that one of the byproducts of what they were doing would be if you can produce more food from the same amount of land, which is what his goal was, it would make that land more valuable. Eventually, it would become worth stealing and that's just what happened all over the world in the wake of the Green Revolution. The land became more valuable and with the active assistance of governments, poor people were pushed off the land and it was, you know, consolidated and taken, taken over and, you know, had some extremely detrimental effects. We ended up with these giant mega cities, you know, like Mexico City or Sao Paulo or Jakarta, you name them, where the peripheries and slums are entirely composed of people who have been pushed off the land. And you know, this was just not something that Borlaug who was you know, focused on the right in front of him the type of guy could really grasp.

CURWOOD: And reading parts of this in your book, it reminded me of what happened as really kind of the end of the Dark Ages in Europe begins and you move towards enlightenment in the Renaissance or whatever you want to call it. And especially in the UK, you see something known as enclosures, suddenly, you have to put up boundaries around the productive places. In your view, what is this human impulse to put the borders around these things that produce literally the food that we're able to survive with?

MANN: I think it's a combination of different things. I mean, you know, smallholders are usually living quite precarious lives, and they're very understandably anxious about, you know, not being ripped off. And they don't have the room in a certain way to be wildly generous because they're feeding their families. And the same thing is true with corporations. Agriculture is a low margin business mostly. And so you know, the economic system that we have set up, which is Based on cheap food means that all the people who produce it from the top to the bottom are, you know, feeling pressed down, they can't increase prices. And the result is that you have people fighting for every last nickel. And this has meant cheap food for people in the cities, which was the official, you know, that was the explicit purpose. But it's also meant a lot of misery in the countryside. And indirectly, I think it's led to the situation we have now and many of the developed world where the only people that can really afford to invest in these things are people can really pile up pieces of land. So this is all part of this process of dispossession and this is the sort of thing that Vogt said hey, this is terrible.

CURWOOD: Yeah. So talk to me more about your takeaway from William Vogt. Well, Vogt was another other records. You don't want to be married to him either.

MANN: No. In fact, he was a very lonely voice and was not easy to be a pioneering environmentalist in the 1940s and 1950s. This is the time when The US has just won the war. And we need to have science out there. We need to get these people off the land and, you know, have productive workers and all this. And here is Vogt who wasn't trained as a scientist, he was a mad ornithologist. I should also say that he got polio when he was 13. And so he spent most of his life in pain. So he was a very gutsy guy. And he befriended some of the great ornithologists of the 20th century, people like Ernst Meier at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where he lived. And when, you know, Broadway collapsed in the wake of the Great Depression, they got him a job. Ultimately, they got him sent to Peru, where he was supposed to try and preserve these birds that produce guano, bird excrement that was at the time one of the main sources of fertilizer and one of the main sources for Peru's income. In there he had a vision that there's only a certain amount of things that you can do to live. That there are these limits, and that the islands that we were supposed to increase the number of birds were supposed to augment the increment of excrement as he put it. There are only so many birds that could support it. And that that is a truth not just for a bunch of islands in Peru, but it is true for the world. And we humans are bumping up against that. And as to quote Paul Ehrlich, who was directly inspired by the Vogt, nature bats last. And so he wrote in 1948, the first modern world going to hell book, and all the great environmental books after that Silent Spring, Ehrlich's book, the limits to growth that Al Gore's books, they stemmed directly from him. And this is the sort of Central insight of the modern environmental movement, which is this extraordinarily powerful set of insights.

CURWOOD: Throughout this book, they're very careful Charles to maintain a neutral position, so nobody's listening. You can tell me Which side do you lean towards who's right?

MANN: I'm gonna duck your question, but least I'm gonna admit it. I'm trying to be a reporter. And even though I'm sure that most reporters, you know, Republicans or Democrats, they try to keep that out of their reporting. And the second reason, which I think is an even better one is whenever port I'm telling you, I think this is what's going on. I think I have some authority in the sense that I've researched it and, you know, this is I found out, I've talked to people. But then I start saying, what do I want? And then I'm just another guy, you know, with an opinion. And the real point of the book just takes somebody like, I hope my daughter who's now in college, and say, here are the tools you can use to form your own opinions about which way we should go in the world.

Charles C. Mann spoke to Steve Curwood at a Good Reads on Earth event at the University of Massachusetts Boston. (Photo: Jay Feinstein, Living on Earth)

CURWOOD: Alright, so you, you're taking the journalist, observer approach to all this you do throughout the market on a number of really interesting stories along these lines. But which one of these stories really grabbed you? Which one had, you know the resonance?

MANN: Well, I certainly started out as a prophet When I was 12, I read the population bomb. And it scared the pants off me. And I was really freaked out about it because that book and especially the first edition says straight up that, you know, hundreds of millions of people are going to die of famine in the next I think he said in the next 15 years, and I was 12. So that would mean before I was 27. And he laid out a very powerful and passionate case that completely convinced me. And I went to college, and I took environmental studies, and we heard much the same thing. And I was completely convinced. And then when I got to be 27, or soon thereafter, I realized that in fact, that hadn't happened, that hundreds of millions of people had not died. And it was largely because of innovations in science and technology. And I then went to work for Science as a reporter there I became a pretty committed guy and I said, Oh, everything that's was wrong science, science will save us and then I came to question that. So in a way this book was my attempt to try and resolve the matter for myself. And where I came to the conclusion, ultimately, is that if you really put the pedal to the metal ended either solution, you could think of it this way, they either both would work in their own terms, or they both represent equal leaps into the dark. And that really matters when you're choosing among them, what kind of world you want to live in. And that would be a very useful discussion for us to have, what is this future that we're trying to save?

CURWOOD: And your answer is?

MANN: Well, I don't think I can choose that for anybody. But in certain ways, I would like to combine part of both of them. So I guess part of my future would be that I was writing this book to try and get two people who hadn't talked to each other for 30 years to try to do so.

CURWOOD: So how do you get two sides to talk with each other when one side for perhaps lack of a better word has the perspective of a Wizard, and the other side has the perspective of a Prophet, the kind of prophet that says, this is not going to go so well.

MANN: I don't know if you can do this for everybody. But I think the most success I've had is when I say, Look, I don't want to change your opinion. I just want you to take the other side seriously. Take their arguments, seriously, you don't have to agree with them, but have a conversation on that basis. And that remarkably often does not happen. It's so easy to impugn bad motives on these sides and everybody does this, you know, I don't really want to engage with it so I'll say they're a corporate shill. I don't really want to say this or I'll say they're just, you know, tree huggers who want to return us to the stone age and all that sort of stuff. And I can't tell you how many times I've heard that kind of stuff. So I would think that just actually having a serious conversation would be a big step.

CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you, Charles man for taking this time with us today. Your new book is called The Wizard and the Prophet, two remarkable scientists and their dueling visions to shape tomorrow's world. Thank you so much for taking the time.

MANN: It was really a pleasure.



TED | “Charles C. Mann”

Pacific Standard | “Two Competing Accounts ”


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