Magazine | March 19, 2018, Issue

Seizing the Future

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)

A new Volvo ad sums up the theme of this book: “There are two types of people in the world: those who fear the future, and those who embrace it.” In Charles Mann’s new book, the Wizards are thinkers who push technological innovation to confront the world’s biggest challenges, while those who fear the future, the Prophets, devote themselves to (in Mann’s words) “decrying the consequences of our heedlessness” in advocating technological solutions, whether they seek to feed the planet’s faceless masses or to deal with climate change.

In Mann’s view, the clash between these two sets of visionaries is epitomized by two men whose legacies are still celebrated in their own circles but who are not so well known to the public. They also happen to be Americans. One is Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, who used new agricultural methods to save tens of millions from starvation. The other is William Vogt, one of the founding fathers of modern ecology and a fierce critic of the kind of optimism that motivates Wizards like Borlaug and others whose (in Mann’s paraphrase) “faith in human resourcefulness is unthinking, scientifically ignorant, even driven by greed (because remaining within ecological limits will cut into corporate profits).”

To Mann’s credit, he doesn’t automatically endorse the Prophets’ scorn for technological solutions to the world’s problems, or their disdain for capitalism. But there’s no denying that the author of The Wizard and the Prophet is something of a Prophet himself and wants to warn us of the unforeseen consequences of technological progress, even when its fiercest critics get proven wrong.

Wizard Norman Borlaug grew up in rural Iowa, the child of Norwegian immigrants who found in their tiny town of Saude, in Mann’s words, “a landscape at once chillingly vacant and full of promise.” Here is Mann’s description of the world into which Borlaug was born in 1914: “The new arrivals built cabins from logs chinked with mud; grew clover, wheat, maize, and oats; pastured a few milk cows; let their dogs run free. Half the area’s inhabitants were Norwegian; most of the rest were Czech — Bohemian, as people said then.” Lutheran Norwegian parents told their children not to date the Bohemians, who were Roman Catholics; while “in the Norwegian church, men sat on one side, women on the other. Ministers wore white ruffs and black satin stoles. Services were in Norwegian until the early 1920s. At Christmas the congregation placed a tree in the church entrance, lighted candles tied to the branches. After the service everyone unwrapped presents together.”

In this close-knit, austere world with no telephones, no radios, and no newspapers except the local paper from nearby Cresco, the only escape was education. Norm Borlaug applied himself to study with the same focus and energy that he brought to plowing a straight furrow or building a pig brooder; eventually those studies took him to the University of Minnesota, where he combined varsity wrestling with a passionate war on the stem-rust fungus that had wiped out half the grain crop in North America in 1916. That led Borlaug to become an expert in developing hybrid strains of plants that could outperform their parents by mixing their genetic inheritances. This project attracted the attention of the Rockefeller Foundation, and when Borlaug arrived in Mexico in 1944 to help boost crop yields, he was launched on a career that would ultimately transform agriculture in the Third World from a subsistence enterprise lurching from one natural disaster to another, with millions dying from malnutrition and hunger as a matter of course, into a world where Mexicans, Indians, Indonesians, and others could regularly feed themselves — the so-called Green Revolution.

Born in 1902, William Vogt grew up in an only slightly more prosperous household than Borlaug’s — on old Long Island, said Vogt, “before the automobiles, the airports, the mosquito control commissions, the shopping centers, the billboards, and the hot dog joints” arrived, when it was still a world of farms and fishing villages, as well as vast millionaire estates of the Great Gatsbys of the day.

Although Manhattan was only 20 miles away, Billy Vogt saw New York City only once a year, to see Santa Claus at one of the department stores. Mann writes, “The crowds in the stores frightened him — an early memory was of being mashed into the back of an elevator — and he returned with relief to his home.” Those experiences left Vogt with a lifelong fear of crowds and a longing for “the pleasures of solitude” of his boyhood home. If the mission of Borlaug’s life was to get families out of grinding poverty, Vogt’s was to halt the kind of urban and suburban sprawl that devoured his boyhood home and to resist Wizards like Borlaug, who saw technology as the path to progress. For Vogt, it was instead the path to planetary destruction.

Vogt’s career began literally with bird feces, when the Peruvian government hired him as an ornithological expert to explain to them why the birds whose poop underlay the country’s highly profitable guano industry were disappearing. Vogt’s conclusion was a game-changer: The reason was that the birds’ environment was being destroyed by warmer ocean waters, which were killing off the tiny plankton that was their primary source of food. Over the next decades, Vogt would expand his conclusion about the brittle relationship between species and their environment to include human beings: We live in a world where we cannot exceed our biological limitations any more than birds or whales or polar bears can; what we can do, that other species cannot, is destroy that world in our heedless quest for resources and profits.

The result was Vogt’s 1948 book Road to Survival, which, Mann notes, “became the blueprint for today’s environmental movement.” It offered to sympathetic readers two key concepts. The first was a new conception of environment, not as the natural factors that affect humans but as the factors (e.g., quality of air, water, and soil) that are affected by humans, usually negatively. For example, Vogt asserted that America’s founders were “one of the most destructive groups of human beings that have ever raped the earth,” turning the natural paradise they found in 1620 into “a shambles.”

The second was the concept of “carrying capacity”: the notion that there are only so many resources that nature can supply, and only so much humanity it can support. Margaret Sanger made Vogt national director of Planned Parenthood Federation of America after reading Road to Survival, because she, too, saw limiting population growth as an imperative.

Environments have limits that can’t be ignored or overcome, wrote Vogt, no matter how much technology we throw at them. The later term would be “sustainability.” It was a view reinforced by Eugene Odum’s Fundamentals of Ecology, published five years later, in 1953, which treated carrying capacity as if it were a scientific law, although, as Mann admits, “Vogt’s argument was intuitively powerful but intellectually shaky.”

That didn’t stop Vogt and Odum’s growing army of disciples, and soon the battle with the Wizards was on — over how to produce more food, with critics denouncing Borlaug’s Green Revolution for overthrowing traditional social structures and deploying toxic pesticides; how to expand the planet’s supply of drinkable water, with Wizards pushing such technologies as desalinization and Prophets urging water conservation; how to find enough energy, a fight that pitted such technologies as fracking against renewables; and, finally, how to deal with global warming and genetically modified organisms and foods (GMOs).

Who ultimately wins? Again, Mann’s sympathies are clearly with the Prophets, but he’s too good a journalist to deny that the Wizards generally wind up with the best of the argument, both on scientific grounds (as with GMOs) and on moral grounds (as with Borlaug’s Green Revolution). Borlaug himself, speaking to Mann shortly before his death in 2009, answered his critics this way: Where would the world be today if we had the same growth in population and affluence but none of the crop-yield increases his research helped to set in motion?

Where indeed. And where would the world, including the Prophets themselves, be if the Wizards hadn’t kept pushing the limits of what can be accomplished using technology to address seemingly intractable problems? It’s a question Al Gore should be asking every time he flies off in a private jet to the next climate-change conference. Such technological optimists as Matt Ridley and Steven Pinker may overstate their case — in Pinker’s case, to the breaking point — but in the end, the Volvo ad has it right: “The future is for the unafraid.” On balance, the Borlaugs look more impressive than the Vogts, despite Mann’s efforts to press the opposite case.

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