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Two Competing Accounts of How to Save the World

An interview with Charles C. Mann about the roots of modern environmentalism and the fate of the human species.
A wind farm near the town of Canakkale, in northwestern Turkey.

A wind farm near the town of Canakkale in northwestern Turkey.

Here's the thing about successful species: Eventually, they all wipe themselves out. Take pretty much any single-celled protozoan, put it in a petri dish with some nutrient goo, and watch as the drive to reproduce propels the microorganism to consume and replicate its way through its supply of both food and space in just days. Frenzied growth, followed by catastrophic collapse. This biological law scales up, for the petri dish is to the protozoan what the Earth is to the human.

A wildly successful species if there ever was one, humans are expected to number 10 billion by mid-century, and our collapse appears to be in sight: Feeding the ever-growing number of people on the planet is hard enough, without having to adapt to a rapidly changing climate at the same time. The question is, can humans overcome the laws of biology? Can we change our behavior now to ensure our continued survival the future? To put it simply, are humans special?

In his latest book, The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow's World, science writer Charles C. Mann introduces two men who believed that the answer was yes—and whose radically divergent views on what strategies would save humanity still inform environmental action today.

Norman Borlaug, the "wizard" in Mann's title, was born on a modest Iowa farm in 1914. He was spared a life of labor by a technological innovation, the Ford Motor Company's Model F tractor. The 20-horsepower machine allowed Borlaug's father to sell his horses and cattle, sow land that had previously been dedicated to grazing, and turn a profit on crop production, all of which freed Borlaug to focus on his education rather than chores. Fittingly, Borlaug's creed was that innovations in science and technology would allow humans to overcome our limits. With his work developing high-yield crop varieties and agricultural techniques, the Nobel-prize winning biologist ushered in the "Green Revolution," drastically increasing harvests around the globe beginning in the mid-20th century, and saving hundreds of millions of lives in the years since.

On the other hand, William Vogt—the "prophet"— believed that self-control, not science, would save us. Vogt, born in 1902, watched his Long Island village transform from forests and meadows into a seemingly endless expanse of middle-class homes, and came to believe that humans were dangerously close to reaching the carrying capacity of the Earth. With no formal scientific training, Vogt transformed his passion for the environment into a prosperous career in conservation. His writings, including 1948's The Road to Survival, which linked overpopulation with environmental ills, helped lay the groundwork for the modern environmental movement.

The Wizard and the Prophet doesn't takes sides, but walks the reader through what both "dueling" scientists and their disciples would argue are the best solutions for the greatest threats facings humanity today: access to food, fresh water, and energy, and, of course, managing climate change. No matter which path we choose, it will radically transform human society as we know it today. Pacific Standard spoke with Mann about wizards, prophets, and whether or not such a transformation is possible at all.


What issues do you feel best capture the opposing philosophies of wizards and prophets?

One is the fight over GMOs—genetically modified organisms—especially for agriculture. Norman Borlaug, in the last years of his life, was an enthusiastic endorser of GMOs as something that would create hyper-productive plants that would allow us to produce enormous amounts of food on relatively little land, and would fit neatly into the kind of industrial agriculture where you have giant swaths of countryside covered with a single crop. The prophets, or environmentalists, hate this because they see it as propping up a system that is, by its very nature, destructive. It's kind of like saying that you're solving the problems of a fire by throwing gasoline on it. Although there's been a lot of fighting—which is, in my opinion, not very useful—about whether they're safe or not, the sort of fundamental idea about whether this is a system we should be continuing on with or radically reforming, I think, is at the heart of it.

The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow's World.

The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow's World.

This seems like one of those rare cases where both sides have merit. You mention in the book that you oscillate between these two viewpoints on an almost daily basis. Why is it so hard to find middle ground?

On the surface, these are debates about pragmatic issues—like what is the best way to solve this problem—but at the bottom, they're really debates about values, and it's hard for people to talk about that. It's much easier to talk about the practical stuff because it doesn't make you sound like a loon. So the debates that you hear are rarely about what they're actually about. They're about these different images of people and their role in nature. So to Borlaugians (a terrible name, isn't that? It sounds like one of the species in Star Trek—"Captain, we have to go see the Borlaugian ambassador"; that's enough reason to call them wizards), the wizards essentially see the world as a toolkit, with these parts in it that people can use however they want to. The prophets, the Vogtians (another species name for Star Trek) are the people who see us as inherently part of a system, as part of an ecological community that we shouldn't transgress because the community has a value in and of itself, and we shouldn't mess around with them because we will never know enough to do a good job.

One of the rare similarities between Vogt and Borlaug is that both tended to overlook how the work of social scientists related to their own. How did this affect their work and their legacies?

Both Borlaug and Vogt thought of themselves as embodying a point of view dictated by science. In Borlaug's case, that would be the science of genetics, and to a lesser extent field biology. And for Vogt it was ecology. Neither of them really had much time for economists, sociologists, psychologists—all the people who study human beings. In both cases it came up and bit them in the ass. In Vogt's case, because he's a biologist, he said that population, which is this measurable thing, is the fundamental problem, as opposed to consumption, which is a matter of economics and history and culture. When he focused on absolute numbers, it [inspired] this wave of population control programs that focused on numbers, and which ended up committing just terrible human rights abuses all throughout India and China and much of the rest of Asia and Africa and Latin America. In addition to being ineffective, it permanently made the subject of population control very, very difficult to talk about, because there were so many horror shows associated with it.

For Borlaug, he had no idea that when you started to make land more productive, that that would have economic consequences. It would make the land more valuable, and if you're dealing with very poor people, it makes their land worth stealing, and that's exactly what happened. So something that was done for entirely praiseworthy motives—increasing the yields of poor farmers—often ended up having terrible personal consequences for those poor farmers. [Borlaug] never really understood this.

You mention in the book that you interviewed Borlaug before his death.

Borlaug kept working to the end of his life, totally admirably. He was working in Africa on problems of African agriculture, and I was talking to him about this for an article I did; afterwards I told him I'd recently read a paper by an economist that estimated that the work he'd done had saved 600 million people from starvation. I asked the sort of sports reporter question: "How does that make you feel when you hear that?" Borlaug answered, "Well look, those numbers are exaggerated, and it wasn't just me, it was a whole team of people," and so forth; he was quite modest. So I said: "Look, suppose these guys are off by an order of magnitude, and you are only responsible for saving 60 million lives. What about that?" There was this long pause, and he said: "You know what? It feels pretty good."

Borlaug's legacy is more tangible (as you said, economists have estimated the number of lives his work saved), but Vogt's influence is harder to quantify. How would you describe his contributions to environmentalism?

Prior to Vogt, there was no such idea as "the environment." Environment had meant a designated area, a forest or a meadow or what have you, and was usually talked about in terms of its impact on people. You had people who talk about how the coastal environment of the Mediterranean produces this kind of person, and the hot tropics produce that kind of person. That goes right up into the 20th century, geographers in their texts in the '20s and '30s writing about how the hot environment of the tropics produces lazy people. It slides rather naturally into some racist discussions that I think you can probably imagine. Vogt and his cohort turned it around, and said the environment is something that people act on, rather than acting on people. They start to come up with the idea of "the environment" meaning the entire world, and with this idea of "save the environment."

Charles C. Mann.

Charles C. Mann.

Until you come up with a name for something, it's impossible really to act on it. Naming this was already huge, and then they give the blueprint, which is this idea of carrying capacity. Carrying capacity originally meant how much can a ship hold, the physical quantity. Then Aldo Leopold, who was this very important conservation biologist and ecologist and who was Vogt's closest friend for a long time, got the idea that a meadow or a mountain could have a carrying capacity—that a certain number of deer could live in this area and no more. Vogt took that idea and applied it to the entire world. He stretched it like taffy, and he said the Earth can only produce a certain amount; if we go over that, we're in trouble. This is the foundational idea of the environmental movement, which is: We're using too much, we're consuming too much, we're burning everything up, and it's going to have very, very bad consequences.

A not insignificant number of modern prophets are pushing back against large-scale renewable energy projects. You note in the book, for example, a zoologist who argues that wind farms are "a far greater threat to wildlife than climate change." Do you think environmentalists today are shooting themselves in the foot when they pursue an all-or-nothing approach?

That's interesting. Yes and no. Yes in that it's really hard to imagine how we transition away from fossil fuels, given the kind of economy we have and the infrastructure we already have, without these sort of big centralized facilities. You guys in the West know all about these giant, concentrated solar power facilities. In Nevada, for example, they have these huge fields of mirrors and a big tower full of molten salt. The mirrors beam some light on it and melt the salt, and the super-hot melted salt drives a turbine and provides power. These certainly take out large swaths of the environment, and there are some environmentalists in fact who are so alarmed by the land requirements of big solar and big wind that they're against it for that reason.

But there's a deeper reason that I'm not nearly as sure about, and that is these people who are against it kind of see these enormous enterprises as being so outside the human scale, that there is something inherently wrong with them. They very much want an existence that's much more grounded, much more community-oriented, and not dealing with giant centralized facilities, which then become nodes for political power. That kind of rebellion against scale, I think most of us can understand that. You go down to San Diego and see that huge desalination plant they have there, and now imagine the entire coast lined with those things. It's kind of an inhuman picture. It might be technologically the very best way to go, but I think it's something that most people would be repelled by—or feel at least a little anxiety about. So in that way, the impulse, I think, is very easy to understand.

Are you optimistic that humans will be able to overcome these challenges?

There's a framing question in the book, sort of a Greek chorus if you like, provided by the late biologist Lynn Margulis, who lived in my town. She basically thought that both wizards and prophets are kidding themselves. The reason is that we're a successful species, and the laws of biology are that successful species wipe themselves out. When the protozoa are in the petri dish multiplying like crazy, they don't see the edge of the petri dish approaching and say, "Oh wow, we better calm down here." They just go right to the edge of the petri dish, they hit the wall, and then they all die. And [Lynn] said that's the way life is, that's the way living creatures are, and to think that people are somehow special and profoundly different from protozoa is ridiculous and completely contrary to the spirit of biology, which is that all species are the same with regard to these fundamental natural processes. So both Vogt and Borlaug are basically making the bet that people like Margulis are wrong.

So what evidence is there that people are special? One of the things that I pointed to is that, in the last few hundred years, we have abolished slavery. It's very difficult for us now to understand how foundationally important slavery was as an institution. It may have been the earliest human institution of all. The earliest legal codes in the Middle East, like the code of Hammurabi, they're all about what you can do with your slaves: under what circumstances you can buy them and sell them, how you have to treat them and so forth. Yet in a couple centuries we just pretty much wiped it out, and even though slavery certainly still does exist today, nowhere is it an accepted part of society. Another huge transformation that's taken place is the condition of women. Imagine 1800, there's no place in the world where women are allowed to go to college, there's no place in the world where women are allowed to own property, or to be independent agents, to do any of these things that we now see as completely basic. Things are really different now, obviously we're in the moment of #metoo, which suggests they're not as different as we would like them to be, but the women in my life live an incomparably different life than what was the case in 1800, as do I, and we're all the richer for it. The suppression of women is maybe even earlier than slavery—I mean, these are fundamental parts of human life, and we have changed them. By contrast, climate change, that seems easy to me, and it would be really disappointing if we muffed that one.

This interview has been edited and condensed.