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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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This is largely parallel biographies of William Vogt and Norman Borlaug. Vogt is the prophet, warning us of looming catastrophe from a growing human population hitting planetary limits. Borlaug is the wizard, finding ways to make better use of planetary resources to feed a growing human population. These are leaders of two factions, often called doomers and cornucopians. Mann tells in this book many stories from the lives of the prophet and the wizard, and also of several other people involved with their work.

Use more or use less? This is probably the crucial issue of our time. I don't think Mann ever discusses e.g. Jared Diamond's book Collapse. He does mention in the introduction, as I recall, that other societies have crashed in the past from hitting resource limits. But this book doesn't look at historical cycles. It's just focused on the present predicament.

I am an old peak oil head - I worked with Ken Deffeyes in the 1970s. I was quite disappointed in the chapter on energy in this book. Certainly the notion that we will someday run out of petroleum, that is a problematic notion. Surely we will stop pumping petroleum out of the ground while there is still some left down there. There's conventional oil, there's tight oil, there are tar sands, gas condensates, ethanol, gas to liquid, coal to liquid, algae... modeling and forecasting require being somewhat precise about what is being modeled and forecast. Mann falls a bit short here. Similarly, looking at the book Limits to Growth... Mann tells how Ehrlich's Population Bomb was thrown together rather hastily. Limits to Growth doesn't look so hasty. If you look at the timelines of their forecasts, it's not clear that we have departed significantly from their trajectories. Mann dances around these details a bit too quickly.

Mann does touch on some of the deeper layers of the puzzle we're confronting. Sure, humans are just animals. But how many animals have figured out evolution by natural selection, for example? Are humans smarter than yeast? That's a classic doomer koan.

Mann points out that e.g. politics is really more the problem than technology. Even if we are smart enough to figure out how to manage the global situation, we don't really have the political organization needed to make it happen. It's not just that we have not implemented some necessary political strategy... really we have no idea what kind of political organization could possibly work. We seem to be collapsing into a political idiocracy as a first step into technical insufficiency.

There are lots of good stories here which very nicely sketch out the dilemma we're facing. Everybody should read this book. It doesn't even try to provide answers. It does a very good job of posing a key question: use more or use less? ( )
4 vote kukulaj | Nov 8, 2018 |
The best book I have read for a long time. Packed full of deeply interesting ideas and beautifully written. One the one hand, examines the ecological and conservation ideas championed and even originated by William Vogt, that we must live in harmony with the national world and respect the limits to carrying capacity of our environment. On the other, traces the history of the green revolution led by Norman Borlaug in the face of great difficulty, and the driving belief that science can enable us to live in a world with 10 billion people. Fascinating in particular about food, water, and our climate, and the possibility that we can address climate change before it wipes us out. Must re-read. ( )
  Matt_B | Oct 27, 2018 |
Two approaches to growing population and increased pressure on various resources: Wizards see innovation technological and scientific solutions, Prophets believe in restraint and cutting back. These two schools are represented by the agronomist Norman Borlaug, father of the green revolution (in particular the development of higher-yielding crops) and William Vogt, one of the founders of the environmentalist movement. A good book that contains a lot of what should be common scientific knowledge, however, it is fairly dense at times and one needs to really pay attention to get the material. Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to do that at the moment, perhaps another time. Recommended for those who have the ability to pay attention. ( )
  ohernaes | Apr 10, 2018 |
The Wizard and the Prophet is about two men with competing visions for the future. The first is a Wizard. He sees the solution in ever more technology (think GMOs and nuclear power). The other is a Prophet. He sees the problems of humanity arising from too much technology with the solution to work closer with nature (think organic farming and wind farms). These two visions define our world with real consequences of decisions made by people, companies and states.

The division began to emerge in the late 1940s with the publication of William Vought's Road to Survival. It is credited as the first modern environmental book and, prior to Silent Spring which it heavily influenced, was the most important book of its type. The Wizard in Mann's book is the father of the Green Revolution, Nobel Prize winner Norman Borlaug. He was chosen by Mann as an archetypal Wizard and there are some connections with Vought.

The book is a history of these two men and their work, and seeks to answer the question: which vision is right? Mann says he has long been a Wizard but with global warming and other natural limits looming he isn't so sure anymore. He wrote the book to work it out. There is a lot of thinking and consideration though he never comes firmly down on either side. The lasting value is the concept of Wizard and Prophet, but also a worthwhile history of Vought and Borlaugh. They are not household names but maybe should be better known. As a former Wizard myself, who later became a Prophet, the book questions assumptions and left me adrift. As someone who reads the Reddit forums Futurism and Environmentalism on occasion, it couldn't be a more perfect "Ah hah!" on the fundamental division over competing (and seemingly contradictory) views of the path forward. ( )
1 vote Stbalbach | Feb 28, 2018 |
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Presents two influential scientists, William Vogt (1902-1968), and Norman Borlaug (1914-2009), whose diametrically opposed views shaped modern understandings about the environment and related public policies.

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