It has been a while since I suggested a book on this blog owing to my having read a lot of turds and a lot of fiction. However, I have recently finished a book that I think would give anyone with an environmental bit grist for the thinking mill: Charles C. Mann’s The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World.
The book is a narrative using Norman Borlaug, the “wizard,” and William Vogt, “the prophet,” as the central characters in a century long development of visions for how we must develop in the face of social, economic, and environmental challenges both natural and manmade.
Norman Borlaug is probably the more well-known of the two having won a Nobel Prize for his work advancing the basic components of what would come to be known as the “green revolution.” In Iowa Borlaug is a state hero. Heck, he is memorialized in the National Statuary Hall Collection with a bronze statue. It oh so immodestly states on the statue’s base, “THE MAN WHO SAVED A BILLION LIVES.” Humble indeed. I guess when you have a Nobel Prize, Congressional Gold Medal, and Presidential Medal of Freedom you can say these kinds of things.
William Vogt, although lesser known, is equally influential in that his ideas and many of the people he influenced have come to define what we consider to be modern environmentalism. Vogt’s thinking about the intrinsic value of nature, as opposed to those like Gifford Pinchot who viewed nature as something to extract value from, get a the core of the attempts at conservation in the Twenty First Century.
More important than the biographies of the two men is the concept that each represents a pole in a battle for the vision of how we are to live on this planet. As it states in the title these are presented as a wizard camp and a prophet camp. Each camp’s vision for how we interact and thrive on this planet is based on a foundational philosophy. The wizards put their faith in our ability to invent or innovate our way to a more prosperous and sustainable future. The prophets put their faith in the inherent superiority of nature and seek to have humans adapt to fit.
Think about this as a continuum with each camp on the opposite ends. At the extreme ends of the continuum exist the viewpoint that their particular world view is correct and the other is fundamentally wrong. Now, in reality no one is entirely on one end or the other save for people we would label as cranks, eccentrics, or worse. People exist on some spot along this continuum and understanding their placement goes a long way to understanding their views on the environment.
This is a particularly interesting construct to utilize in a world where we are facing the impacts of human caused climate change. Some people will advocate that modern science is the only way to adapt. Other people will pontificate that a major change in lifestyle is the only solution to humanity’s predicament. Real change will come from some blending of the two, but in a polarize world that might not be so easy.
The other interesting idea that pops up in the book as an anecdote is that organisms have an instinctual or biologically deterministic drive to expand or grow until collapse. Perhaps whatever camp we fall into is merely window dressing prior to a general calamity brought about by deep seated biological signals. Interesting.