A book review: The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles C. Mann (2018)
Summary: The book describes the lives and perspectives of two American researchers as archetypes of different ways to view the future. Those who believe in a future through growth and technology (what we would later call “techno-optimism”): the Wizards; and those who believe in a future through preservation and management (“conservationism”): the Prophets. It summarises their lives and what their stories can tell us about different views on issues such as food, water, climate change and energy.
The well-known journalist Charles Mann (who previously wrote books about pre-columbus America, which I would like to read now) sets out to bring to the surface two underlying currents of environmental movements in his newest book.
He picked two American scientists to serve as archetypes for his story of Wizards (believers in human ingenuiety) and Prophets (believers in biological inevitability).
Those two people are the Prophet William Vogt , a nowadays relatively unknown bird watcher and ecologist and the Wizard Norman Borlaug, Nobel peace prize winning agronomist and enabler of the Green Revolution (pictured here).
The difference between the two opposing world views are summarised beautifully by Mann: “Prophets look at the world as finite, and people as constrained by their environment. Wizards see possibilities as inexhaustible, and humans as wily managers of the planet. One views growth and development as the lot and blessing of our species; others regard stability and preservation as our future and our goal.
Wizards regard Earth as a toolbox, its contents freely available for use; Prophets think of the natural world as embodying an overarching order that should not casually be disturbed.”
Firstly we are introduced to both main characters in short biographies leading up to the one occasion where they actually met. Then follows a deep dive into the four main pillars, “elements”, to exemplify the two opposing world views as possible solutions to the issues.
In Earth: Food, Mann beautifully summarises the development of industrial agriculture from Liebig and the Haber-Bosch process (unfortunately leaving out much of the herbicide part with Monsanto & co.) and the origins of the American organic agriculture movement around J.I. Rodale, Sir Albert Howard and others. ( for explorations on a similar topic, see my article on urine)
He then explains in simple terms how photosynthesis works in plants to get to the some archetypical solutions for a hungrier future: Genetic engineering for C4 rice (Wizard) and organic, perennial agriculture around trees and tubers (Prophet).
In the water chapter the book explores industrial agriculture’s reliance on irrigation and the impressive Israeli irrigation schemes diverting water for agriculture and subsequently creating tensions with the local neighbours. He mentions the “soft path” and the “hard path” as examples of the application of wizard and prophet thinking in the water sector. The “soft path” focussing on water conservation through decentralisation, efficiency and education.
Whereas “hard path” advocates are trying to improve availability of water through desalination plants, massive, centralised treatment and distribution infrastructure, obviously an engineering playground.
It was interesting to learn about different irrigation schemes in California and Israel and the origins of Veolia, one of the biggest private water utilities and environmental companies in the world.
In this chapter Mann focusses on the development of the oil industry, the origins in the USA and subsequent predicitions of global decline in oil production which have been continuously proven wrong due to the onset of new technologies.
He also explains a few of the origins of solar power, with french school teacher Augustin Mouchon and his mirror-steam engine setup to Muller and Pearson who developed the doped silicon photovoltaics cell for space application.
Here the narrative gets a little bit wobbly because Mann focuses more on central vs decentral. The continued exploration and ability to exploit oil fields with new technology and massive solar farms is the Wizards path and the decentralised solar PV cell and insulated home is the Prophets path. Even though the production of solar cells requires huge scale centralised facilities to achieve the low prices we currently enjoy. Also, individual oil fired heating systems would be quite decentralised.
The focus on electricity rather than energy required for heating (only 25% of energy consumption is used by electricity in Europe, the rest are other fuels) is unfortunately a bit flawed. Still, I enjoyed the challenge to my long held belief in imminent Peak Oil and I highly recommend this chapter for people with similar “prophetic” inclinations.
Here, Mann patiently explains the science behind carbon dioxide and global warming, I appreciated keeping the sceptic view on climate change in the appendix. The thorough, yet entertaining deep-dive had a few new facts and background information even for me and was thoroughly enjoyable.
He cleverly reaches into a few ethical dilemmas related to problems of future generations and whether we should assume to know what they will want. He illustrates this with the example of Manhattan, which the original inhabitants, the Lenape, would have surely wanted to keep in its natural state. They couldn’t know that it would develop into New York City, one of the great cultural icons of America.
The author also talked about discount rate and how it can’t be applied to faraway problems and then goes on to explore the wizardly and prophet paths. Carbon Capture and Storage and Geoengineering for Wizards and reforesting for Prophets. (see my article on the role of soil and water in climate change)
Revolution and Population
In the last two chapters we learn about both protagonists careers after their (not so fateful) meeting in Mexico. Borlaug went on to develop rust-resistant, heavy yielding and short stalked wheat, enabling the Green Revolution, first in Mexico, then in India.
Especially the story on the first shipments of his wheat strains to India during the famine in the 1960s was riveting and unbelievably exciting. Borlaug’s wheat saved millions from starvation and he eventually received the noble peace prize for his achievement.
Vogt became increasingly worried about population as a root cause of environmental problems. This comes from his experience in ecology and the concept of “carrying capacity”. He was too much of an activist for many of his jobs. He wrote the influential book “Road to survival” and eventually joined the Planned Parenthood federation to promote his ideas of population control to avoid disaster.
With the successes of the Green Revolution his theories became increasingly obscure and he commited suicide in 1968, shortly before the “Limits to Growth” report would initiate a worldwide environmental movement bearing his mark.
What I took away from it
Both main characters excelled in a field unrelated to their studied profession because they were given a chance by a friend.
Learning about a different perspective (and quite convincing too!) about some of my longest held beliefs about Peak Oil and carrying capacity.
Lots of thrilling new vocabulary like saponaceous or deracinated.
The founding days of the UNESCO are much more fascinating than I expected, with Julian Huxley playing a prominent role.
A very understandable summary of why carbon emissions create global warming.
What surprised me the most
The racist origins of population policies and proximity of environmental and fascist ideas in WW II.
Photo credit Norman Borlaug