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The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable…

The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling… (2018)

by Charles C. Mann

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2041093,570 (4.19)5
Two influential scientists, William Vogt (1902-1968), and Norman Borlaug (1914-2009), and their approaches to environmental problems.



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While it occasionally dragged, and this subject matter isn't quite as powerful to me as it used to be, this was still a pretty darn good book. I will always be a huge fan of Norman Borlaug, one of the greatest Americans ever born. We are at a crossroads right now, as the world grapples with a coming food crisis. This book lays out some of the history of this long debate, and tells us about the key figures that have been shaping it. A valuable service. Sometimes it's hard to tell when it wants to talk to about the present and when it wants to talk about the past, and overall I didn't get as much from the book as I thought I might. So while the reading experience wasn't great (the audiobook narrator was also, not great) I still think it's a powerful read worth checking out. ( )
  MaxAndBradley | May 27, 2020 |
Historically, this book is probably unparalleled. It's an incredible history of agriculture in the 20th century, of humanity, of governments, and of some ideas.

It poses big questions about philosophies of what it is to be part of the human tribe, of what tradeoffs are worth it between cultural imperialism, ending hunger, and how those questions were answered by governments, made up of flawed people, at the dawn of the IMF and the UN.

It's worth reading closely and taking notes.

But it doesn't try to answer many of these questions, or characterize particular answers. It presents holes in the two philosophies of which the titular men are avatars. But it doesn't adjudicate between them so much. In as much as it answers the question, I think, it does so in the last few pages of the book, where Borlaug asks the author whether he's been to places where people were starving and dying in the streets. No, the author says. Exactly.

One thing that sucks is that every review I've read of this book are vapid and worthless. I have no idea where you'd even begin to criticize it as research, because it's a huge synthesis of so much work (the bibliography is 55 pages long). But in a paragraph describing the discovery of the structure of DNA, the author fails to mention Rosalind Franklin or Raymond Gosling, which at this point is weird in a book so heavily concerned with the history of agriculture. It stood out like a sore thumb, and made me wonder what else it was missing, or intentionally editing out.

But really, this book is fucking important and you need to read it to understand how we got to where we are. Its subjects apply to every human person. ( )
  jtth | May 4, 2020 |
I recommend as a detailed, balanced history of the modern environmental movement and the counter-argument from the technologists ("Wizard") who keep giving us all that modern stuff that the environmentalists ("Prophet") bemoan.

I like Charles C Mann’s style, which is brutally focused on truth, always skeptical of every point of view. He could pass the ideological Turing Test as somebody able to articulate all points of view so well that each adherent thinks he’s one of theirs.

The overall story is a history of environmentalism told as two competing visions for the future: the Prophet, who thinks humanity’s attempts to control nature are doomed and counter-productive, and the Wizard who thinks we have no choice but to apply science and technology to improve things. The Prophet is exemplified by early environmental alarmist William Vogt, the Wizard by Nobel Prizewinner Norman Borlaug, who helped develop the wheat the started the Green Revolution.

The chapters are divided into Earth (food), Water, Fire (energy), Air (climate change), a clever division that lets the book explore the details of various aspects of the environmentalists’ look at the natural world.

Key quote: (p406) “How many people is an important question, but it is less important than What are those people doing?”
( )
  richardSprague | Mar 22, 2020 |
Charles Mann seeks to examine the solutions offered by two opposing scientists, William Vogt and Norman Borlaug,
on how to provide food, water, and shelter for the projected 10 billion people on earth in the year 2050
without wrecking the earth. Or is it too late?

His approach is enlightening, challenging, and very influential as he explores the controversies facing
the fallout from the Wizard's Green Revolution and the Prophet's Organic no over fertilization,
no toxic lingering pesticides, no dangerous dams or detrimental irrigation systems, and, for sure, no GMOs.

Extensive background history provides information on how the Wizard's tech strategies definitely worked
to save lives, but did nothing toward preventing increasing and deadly overpopulation.
Had this been addressed, involving both religions and extensive free and routine birth control efforts,
all the Green Revolution soil, water, and air destruction could have been avoided.

Worldwide government reliance on quick and easy, though costly in many directions, tech solutions
has created disastrous environmental problems. Many of these could and still can be avoided
by following the Prophet.

Given the current state of the climate, rising sea levels, increasing carbon dioxide, wars, starvation,
the stupidity of our leaders, border disputes, and lack of compassion for other people,
the Wizard, and now Charles C. Mann would likely agree.

His balanced approach, while once welcomed,
can no longer defend or support The Green Revolution.

"...consumption driven by capitalism and rising human numbers is the ultimate cause of most
of the world's ecological problems, and only dramatic reductions in human fertility and economic activity
will prevent a worldwide clarity." Page 87. ( )
  m.belljackson | Feb 23, 2020 |
As I said to my friend Richard (who had highly recommended this book to me)....."It's a very thick book". Well it is pretty thick....some 474 pages of text and 135 additional pages of notes and citations. But it IS quite fascinating. I found a kind of deja vu feeling as I read the early part of the book about Norman Borlaug because I was posted to Mexico in 1972-74 and had some significant contacts with people ...plant breeders and agronomists at CIMMYT ....the institution where Borlaug made his name breeding dwarf wheats. I also vividly remember a conversation that I had with a high level official in the Ministry of Agriculture about Mexico's future food supply. ......At that time Mexico's economy was growing very rapidly....I think at about 3.7% pa but it's population was also growing at 3.5% pa so that Mexico was hardly growing economically at all. And I commented to the official (a fellow Agronomist) that it should be possible to double Mexicos's agricultural output with the new wheats etc but how long could they keep doing this.? They really had to get the population under control. We both agreed that maybe it could be done once ...maybe twice but there was clearly going to be some ceiling. (I guess we were both influenced by our experience of virtually any biological phenomena that there was a point at which increases (eg., of yield) tailed off and then declined). Anyway, he agreed with me.
Yet here we are, just on 50 years later, and Mexico's population has reached around 128 million and they are still feeding them and they have become more prosperous and better educated. ...The wizards ..in the form of the plant breeders and the agronomists have done well.
I also recall, that I attended Spanish Language training in Cuernavaca about the same time (1972) and a visitor (an alumni) came to the school and gave a little seminar about her work in Guatemala. The gist of what she said was that under normal circumstances a women in Guatemala would have 20 pregnancies in her lifetime but only one or two would survive...and through their work (as medical missionaries) they were now getting 8-10 children surviving. One of my fellow students, unkindly, pointed out to her that her work was contributing to overpopulation ...and there would be a future crisis from a shortage of food and other resources. The woman seemed quite nonplussed by this attitude....surely it was self obvious that it was good to save kid's lives. I guess my fellow student was one of the "Prophets" ..and the Missionary and Borlaugh and my Plant breeder friends at CIMMYT were clearly in the Wizard camp.
Where was I with my thinking at that time? Hmm...hard to say. I'd moved from being an Agronomist to working in international trade because in the late 60's ....we had gluts of wheat and wool and other agricultural commodities and the Australian Government was adopting tactics to reduce output. And that was not why I had become an agronomist. I was also deeply influenced by the 1968 book....The Population Bomb by the Ehrlichs....and remember (or think, I remember) a key phrase in the book being that the world's population would reach saturation point by 1984......and, in hindsight......maybe it actually did and we've been over consuming ever since. But basically I was somewhat more like a prophet though with a great appreciation of what science could add to agricultural output. And I was very well aware that the average yields reached for any crop were way way below the highest yields that could be attained in the right conditions.
So where is Charles Mann, the author, coming from in his book? He basically has a thesis that there are two kinds of though playing out in the world. On the one hand there are the prophets (and his achytpe Prophet is William Vogt..who mantra was ...more or less...reduce consumption (and population) or we are all doomed because we are going to over consume our resources). On the other hand there are the techno-scientist-economist types who have faith in the ability of humankind to overcome problems such as food shortages and the archetype here is Norman Borlaug...the plant breeder/agronomist.
Mann gives us a lot of (quite fascinating) autobiographical detail about his two main protagonists so that we can see, more or less, how they developed their contrasting outlooks on the world.
In the prologue...Mann makes the observation that "the clash between Vogtians and Borlaugians is heated because it is less about facts than about values." and "although the two men rarely acknowledged it, their arguments were founded on implicit moral and spiritual visions: concepts of the world and humankind's place in it"......"Prophets look at the world as finite, and people as constrained by their environment. Wizards see possibilities as inexhaustible , and humans as wily managers of the planet". Obviously both can't be right. Though it think the time frame needs to be clarified. Certainly, within the time frame of hybrid wheats and artificial nitrogenous fertiliser....say 150 years the wily managers have demonstrated that technology has been able to overcome a lot of, potentially, massive barriers . And, the wizards have confounded the prophets time and time again: grain, oil supplies, human carrying capacity of the land...and so on. Does this mean that they are right? Well 150 years is a relatively short time frame to judge such things. I would be more convinced if the wizards had been proved right over, say, a 500 year period. But that is unlikely to happen. And it does seem possible that humankind might just be able to stabilise its numbers at around 10-12 billion. And maybe even reduce the total. If this is the case, then i have more hope. Still 12 billion people will consume a lot of resources and generate a lot of waste. Yes we can re-use the waste but I'd be a lot more confident about the wizard's perspective if we had half that number of people....say 5 Billion.
These observations really gel with me because that is exactly the attitudes that I have experienced during my work and my lifetime.
What I find scary about the Wizard's approach is that it is essentially a religious attitude: a faith based belief. Economists, for some reason seem especially prone to Wizard thinking.....maybe through some of the economic history that has been written...essentially saying that people used to believe resources were finite....like Malthus....and see how wrong Malthus got things. However, I actually went back and read Malthus for myself and found him very persuasive. The basic argument is that resources are essentially finite and population's ability to increase is exponential so at some stage the UK was going to run out of resources for its population and they would have to be curbed by wars or emigration (or, I think, disease ..but not sure he said this). In the case of the UK the population growth rates were curbed by massive emigration, world wars, and more recently contraceptives. Malthus didn't predict the contributions that science could make and his time projections consequently were overstated but essentially the arguments are still correct.
In 1985 I travelled into the heart of Sarawak via the mighty Rajang River, and climbed Mt Kinabalu in Sabah and was overwhelmed by the wonderful wilderness and the people who made it their home. At the same time when I flew over the same wilderness, the raw slices of land that had been clear-felled and the slashes of timber roads through the wilderness were all too obvious. Progress was coming; it was inevitable and it would be good for the country.....at least that was the view of the wizards. It has left me sad. Sad for a lost ecosystem that has continued to be cleared, burned, planted to a monoculture oil palm or fast growing trees for harvestable timber. (Not even sure that these trees would even do that job).
Is there a clash of values? I once wrote a Master's thesis about values and it seems to me that values are some sort of second order desire. They are something like the desires that we (after some deep thinking) would desire to have. So you might have a simple (first order) desire to have a donut but you believe (the deep-thinking part) that it will be bad for your health so your second order desire (the VALUE) would be that you did-not desire to desire to eat a donut. So how might this apply to our Prophets and Wizards? Well, I guess that they all have the desire that people will live happy, fulfilled, lives upon the earth; that they will have adequate food, shelter, education, etc., to lead a comfortable life. Though there are arguments around the margins of whether we should be living a high consuming -western style of life or a more prophet-like "back-to-nature" kind of life..where we have a few hens and harvest our own vegetables and live off the grid. So the end desire is basically the same in both cases but there is definitely a clash of the BELIEF systems about the right way to get to this end. And, Perhaps, there is less concern from the Wizards about collateral damage to the planet's ecosystems.
I was rather struck by the balance that Mann manages to achieve in the book. He puts the case for both perspectives really well. ( )
1 vote booktsunami | Jan 31, 2020 |
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