Book Reviews - Spring 2018

A Planet in Peril

Can humanity engineer its way out of trouble?

By David Gessner | March 5, 2018
USDA NRCS Montana/ Flickr

The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World by Charles C. Mann; Knopf, 640 pp., $28.95

One of the pleasures of reading Charles C. Mann’s new book, The Wizard and the Prophet, is the simple pleasure of learning. Mann knows things about the world, lots of things, and if you spend time with him, you will come to know things, too. In this particular book, he introduces us to Norman Borlaug, an agricultural scientist who in 1970 won the Nobel Prize for fathering the Green Revolution that helped feed millions of people around the world, and William Vogt, who Mann claims is the “principal founder” of modern environmentalism. Mann writes about Borlaug and Vogt both as human beings and as symbols of ways of being in the world, particularly of ways of dealing with the coming crises of overpopulation, world hunger, water scarcity, and climate change.

Borlaug, the titular Wizard, is a busy scientific beaver, sure that we are unique among species (beavers included) and that we will be able to think our way out of the scary box we find ourselves in. And why shouldn’t he believe? Having grown up poor on a farm in Iowa during the Depression, he found a way, through diligent, obsessive experimentation, to wildly increase the yields of wheat in Mexico in the 1950s and ’60s, pioneering techniques that then spread to India and throughout the Third World. Having done that, he and his intellectual cadre came to believe that they could do anything, including finding techno-fixes for the problems that are sure to haunt our perilous future. That his agricultural solutions have led to a slew of new problems—including “the costs of overfertilization, habitat loss, watershed degradation, soil erosion and compaction, and pesticide and antibiotic overuse,” and not incidentally, “the destruction of rural communities”—are troubles Mann does not ignore.

In the other corner stands William Vogt, our Prophet. Theatrical, physically lame, combative but charming, he meandered in his career until the late 1930s, when he began studying the dung of cormorants off the coast of Peru. From the crowded lives of those birds, he forged his own vision of a crowded human future. Mann writes: “Ecology, he believed, provided a basic intellectual framework for understanding both birds on small islands and humans on big continents. It told him that both species were part of ecosystems ruled by biological law and shaped by their environment.” Just like the guano-dotted islands he studied, Earth had a “carrying capacity,” and it was clear to Vogt that we were well on our way to exceeding it. He collected these insights in his 1948 book, Road to Survival, which warned that humans were rapidly devouring vital resources and that our only hope of survival as a species was to get smaller, farm locally, and accept our limits. I admit that despite a lifetime of environmental reading, I had never heard of Vogt or his book, but Mann assures us that it inspired Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, and that it was the pivotal work in the rise of modern environmentalism. Here, as elsewhere, I suspect he overstates Vogt’s importance (compared to, say, Vogt’s buddy and mentor, and certified prophet, Aldo Leopold), but he does so for a purpose, stretching the man into a symbol to set against that of Borlaug.

This works pretty well as a way to view the last hundred years of our planet’s history (with occasional side trips much further back in time) and to project forward into the future. Half of the book provides dueling biographies of the two men that make for engrossing reading. Slightly less successful is the book’s second half, which veers away from our Wizard and Prophet and applies wizardly and prophetic fixes to what Mann sees as our great coming troubles: shortages of food, fresh water, and energy; climate change; and the driver of all these, population growth. What we get in this latter section is Mann unbound, as if we are at a dinner table with our esteemed Author at its head, slightly in his cups, regaling us with great tales and long tangents that often take us back to the beginning of history. I was reminded of John Muir’s belief that when “we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

Don’t get me wrong: I like being at the table, I like listening to him go off, and I like getting my history lessons. I also like, quite a lot, in this age of Fox News and MSNBC, the author’s ability to see and inhabit both sides, the opposite of advocacy, a kind of scientific version of negative capability.

Yet Mann is not entirely free of prejudice. Take his bias in favor of the tinkerers. Early on, Mann claims that he was once in the Prophet camp, but readers may have their doubts. Midway through the book, I came up with an alternate title: Wizards and Slightly-Different Kinds of Wizards. All the wind farms and genetically modified farms and organic farms start blurring together, and we go for many pages with barely a whiff of prophecy. In fact, the book is curiously lacking in actual prophets: not the kind who write best sellers about overpopulation, but real ones who use scorching language to pierce the core of the problem without necessarily turning around and telling us how to build the solution. No Thoreau, a little Muir and Marsh, a sentence on Carson, and Leopold as sidekick. Maybe Mann, despite his profession, isn’t that crazy about writers: he certainly seems to prefer the company of more practical folk. But writers often point the way. After all, what is Thoreau saying, poetically, a hundred years before Vogt, if not “do with less”?

Possibly the book’s deepest, most interesting voice, one that runs through the work like a leitmotif, belongs to the biologist Lynn Margulis, who might be the book’s real prophet. Margulis, who died in 2011, believed that “the greatest source of evolutionary creativity” is “the microworld of bacteria, fungi, and protists.”  Like the first essayist, Michel de Montaigne—and, interestingly, unlike Borlaug and Vogt—Margulis saw humans as just another animal. Where Borlaug believed that we could beat overpopulation by hacking the world, and Vogt thought we could restrain, even change, our aggressive, ambitious natures, Margulis saw us, dispassionately and scientifically, as creatures who would increase in numbers until, like the bacteria in her experiments, we reached “the edge of the petri dish,” and began to die. What then? “Eventually the line descends,” Mann writes, “and the population falls toward zero.”

You can sense that Mann wants to go in a similar, sober direction, and he tries to end on this note, though more as warning than prediction. But the first law of popular environmental writing is, Thou shalt end hopefully, no matter how dismal the overall vision, and Mann toes the line. Pointing out that we live in a world more peaceful and freer than ever before, he suggests that both Borlaug and Vogt’s lives demonstrate, despite their ultimate failures, that we can adapt and handle the ugly future. Maybe we will: as a father I’d really like that. But for now, Margulis’s vision is difficult to shake. It’s hard not to grow nervous as we move inexorably toward the edge of our petri dish.

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