Image: Maxpixel

Whether you identify with the wizards or prophets in journalist Charles C. Mann’s new book, the real lesson is that we’re all just students of the Earth.

Mann’s recently-released The Wizard and the Prophet places our current environmental plight within a timeline of recent history and the viewpoints of two pioneering scientists. It shows how the modern relationship between humans and nature has roots in these two men—William Vogt and Norman Borlaug—who tackled the problem of feeding a rapidly growing population in the middle of the 20th century in highly divergent ways. One thought human wizardry could solve all of our crises, while the other warned of our species’ overconsumption of resources and potential downfall. Applying these
paradigms, Mann looks forward, asking whether the world will be able to provide for the projected 10 billion people who will be alive 40 years from now.

The answer, believe it or not, is maybe. But for Mann, author of the popular history books 1491 and 1493, writing the book was more about asking the right questions than finding certainty. He told Earther that he wanted to “write a book about the environment that would engage people who don’t normally think about these things” and to “trace how ideas come to pass.”

Image: Ari Phillips

In the Trump-era, where environmental issues are more polarizing than any time in recent memory, Mann tries to navigate such divisive topics as energy, climate change, and GMOs without turning too many people with preconceived notions off before they get a real chance to engage with the material. Centering the book on the two compelling scientists allows him do just that, by humanizing the issues. For me, the narrative of these two men made the book worthwhile on its own. Borlaug is a Nobel Prize-winning agronomist who helped incite the Green Revolution through his painstakingly meticulous research of wheat cultivation in Mexico. He believed that the future of the world depends on science, and that “the road through humankind’s environmental difficulties lies through groves of scientifically guided productivity” as Mann puts it. Borlaug is a Wizard, and the wizards of today follow in his lineage by believing that even the most daunting problems, such as climate change and water scarcity, can be solved through technological prowess.

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New York Times’ columnist and climate change equivocator Bret Stephens grabbed onto Mann’s portrayal of Borlaug in a recent column to argue that “Borlaugians are environmentalists, too. They simply think the road to salvation lies not through making do with less, but rather through innovation and the conditions in which innovation tends to flourish.”

In the column, Stephens calls out author and environmentalist Bill McKibben for engaging in “apocalyptic environmentalism” where “only a radical transformation of modern society (usually combining dramatic changes in personal behavior along with a heavy dose of state intervention) can save us.”

Stephens considers McKibben a contemporary form of the second main character in Mann’s book, William Vogt, a charismatic ecologist and friend of Aldo Leopold who was deeply influenced by three years on a tiny Peruvian island where he studied early fertilizer, i.e. bird guano. Vogt “argued that affluence is not our greatest achievement but our biggest problem. If we continue taking more than the Earth can give, he said, the unavoidable result will be devastation on a global scale,” writes Mann.

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Former president George W. Bush presents a National Medal of Science in 2006 to Norman Borlaug for his work in creating disease resistant and high-yield wheat, providing a new quality food source for millions of people around the world. Image: White House photo by Eric Draper

In a review of the book in The New York Times, McKibben—yes, the same one Stephens attacks—commends Mann for raising big questions while critiquing his analytical framework for too starkly framing “the division between the technologically minded Wizards and the limits-embracing Prophets.”

There were many moments during reading where I also felt that some middle path, in which consumption is curbed and technology is harnessed to meet future challenges, was the obvious, or at least the most realistic, approach.

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Mann told Earther that he thinks of the two guys as two ends of a continuum, and that while “all models are wrong, some are useful.” He said his Wizard vs. Prophet model is useful because it represents different moral views of our relationship to nature.

“On the one hand, for Wizards nature is a bunch of chemicals, a toolbox, farmland is a like nutrient base, and it’s all one big lab experiment,” said Mann. “For Prophets, there are natural processes that set limits and we transgress them at our peril. Our job is to fix things within natural systems.”

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Rather than come away from the book with a firm belief in either wizardry or propheteering as a solution to keeping civilization humming well into this century and the next, Mann said he “became much more impressed with how little we know.”

“Having done all this, I’m more more skeptical that arguments are really driven by data,” he said. This is not an attack on any current science, but rather a cautionary tale regarding predictions, which for things like food production capacity and peak oil have been wrong far more often than they’ve been right.

As for climate change, which differs from food, water, and energy in that it’s not something we need but it is something we now have do deal with, Mann said he tried to “talk about the sheer weirdness of it” to avoid alienating people.

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“Generational justice is a really hard concept,” he said. “Those people don’t exist yet. The idea they have meaningful claims is hard to wrap your head around. It’s even hard to know what they’ll want.”

While they’ll probably want a healthy environment, I understand the sentiment. If there’s one thing that that past can teach us, it’s that the future’s hard to predict whether you’re a prophet or a wizard, or just a human.