Charles Mann’s book, The Wizard and the Prophet, is a remarkable biography of two men who each believed he had the best way for the world to avoid a “wrenching global catastrophe” in the next century:
- Agronomist Norman Borlaug, The Wizard, believed that science and technology, properly applied, can help humankind produce enough of what the world’s population needs to survive.
- Ornithologist William Vogt, The Prophet, believed that humankind must drastically reduce consumption to avoid overwhelming the planet’s ecosystems and becoming extinct.
Cataloguing in excruciating detail the pioneering work and influential writing of Borlaug and Vogt, Mann mostly paints their efforts with great contrast, pitting the scientists and their followers against one another: “Prophets look at the world as finite, and people as constrained by their environment,” Mann says. “Wizards see possibilities as inexhaustible, and humans as wily managers of the planet.”
But he also admits, “Wizards and Prophets are less two ideal categories than two ends of a continuum. In theory, they could meet in the middle. One could cut back here à la Vogt and expand over there, Borlaug-style.” When Mann offhandedly allowed, “Some people believe in doing just that,” I thought, Wait, what? Umm…yeah! ¿Por qué no los dos? Why not both? How does maximizing access to food, water, energy and air conflict with being responsible about using them?
In his quest, perhaps, to sharpen the debate by focusing on the priorities of each man’s efforts and the needlessly partisan passion of their followers, Mann colors their work as mutually exclusive and impulsively casts aside the suggestion that they could complement and enhance one another. He says, “People who back Borlaug and embrace genetically modified, hyper-productive wheat and rice won’t follow Vogt and dump their steaks and chops for low-impact veggie burgers.” Huh?
Biologist Lynn Margulis, to whom Mann refers at numerous points in the book, insisted that it is the fate of every successful species—including humans—to wipe itself out. And so she believed, according to Mann, that both Borlaug and Vogt were wrong to think they could stop us from destroying ourselves.
But Mann ultimately clings to the hope that, whatever approach or combination of approaches wins out, the human species will be able to maintain its success indefinitely. He insists that “Wizards and Prophets…both assume…that human beings are special creatures who can escape the fate of other successful species.”
Mann hopefully cites recent progress in freeing slaves, empowering women and reducing violence and asks, “Is it really impossible to believe that we wouldn’t use [our] talents and…resources to draw back before the abyss?”
Having insisted that The Wizard and the Prophet is “a book about the future that makes no predictions,” he ends with a vague fear. “It is terrible to suppose that we could get so many other things right,” he says, “and get this one wrong.”