After reading a couple of his history books
I decided author Charles C. Mann was a must read. It took awhile, but
here's another one, covering much more recent history and associated
The "Wizard" is Norman Borlaug, Nobel Peace Prize winner, often dubbed
the father of the "Green Revolution", the strides in agricultural
production that (essentially) ended famine as a major world problem in
the span of just a few decades. The "Prophet", on the other hand, is
William Vogt: today he's obscure, but Mann makes the convincing case
that he's the forefather of most of the threads of the modern environmental
It's—really!—a fascinating story. Borlaug grew up in rural Iowa, about
75 miles east of where my own parents grew up, at about the same time.
Vogt, on the other hand, grew up in then-rural Long Island, where he
enjoyed observing the local flora and fauna. Both grew up to be
scientists, each enduring massive hardships in painstaking research in
foreign lands: Borlaug attempting to develop strains of wheat that could
be grown in Mexico; Vogt attempting to discover what was going wrong
with the (at the time) lucrative guano-producing islands off the coast of Peru.
Broadly speaking, though, Borlaug and Vogt are just standins for their
general attitudes and approaches toward humanity and the environment.
Painting with a very broad brush:
The "prophets" tend to be pessimistic, look for (and usually find) doom
around every corner; favor "soft" approaches to supplies of food, air,
water, and energy; preach a lot about "limits" and "sustainability".
"Wizards" are the flip side: optimistic, technocratic, always (and
usually finding) scientific workarounds to obstacles, and look to
centralized "hard" solutions to resource supplies.
Mann is an ideal reporter on this, for many reasons. He's a fantastic
writer, who can (and does) make details of guano production and wheat
cultivation riveting. He's also well-versed in technical issues. You
won't want to miss his discussion of
(aka "Ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase")
the most important enzyme you've never heard of. It acts as a catalyst
for photosynthesis, so, yeah, without it there would be no you and me.
It evolved once, 3.5 billion years ago. The reaction it catalyzes
is agonizingly slow; just slugging along at 2-3 per second. It's also
(in Mann's word) inept; the reaction is "supposed" to use
CO2, but rubisco often grabs onto O2 instead,
which is useless, photosynthesis-wise.
And yet, nature hasn't produced anything better in 3.5 billion years.
I can't decide whether this is a point for or against
"intelligent design". Yes, rubisco is slow and stupid, but if it were
any smarter or faster, … again, we wouldn't be here. We might have
life, Jim, but not as we know it.
Mann only missteps once, as near as I can tell, on technical issues.
when he discusses semiconductors (pp 284-285). Doping silicon with a scattering of
other elements cause a surplus (or deficit) of free electrons, but Mann
claims this causes the crystal to become negatively/positively charged.
I don't think so. Quibble.
Mann is also good because he's relentlessly agnostic on the issues that
bitterly divide Wizards and Prophets. (Specifically: "On Monday, Wednesday, and
Friday, I think Vogt was correct. On Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, I
go for Borlaug. And on Sunday, I don't know.") He is relentlessly both
fair to, and skeptical of, both sides, and that makes his insights all
the more credible.
What Mann can't bring himself to say explicitly: the weight of the
evidence so far swings the scales in favor of the Wizards. Time
and again, he rattles off the failed predictions and disastrous policy
the Prophets. (E.g., Paul Ehrlich's "population bomb" that fizzled.)
To be fair, the Wizards' record isn't spotless either. And both sides
tend to be more than a little, um, pushy in implementing their policies.
Both sides are enthusiastic top-down social engineers.
For folks interested in the University Near Here, Mann relates his
discussion with UNH's Dennis Meadows, who was on the Limits to
Growth team back in the day, a dedicated Prophet. Dennis got a
little exasperated at Mann's queries. Heh. I remember that Dennis got a little
exasperaated with me at times, on technical issues. No matter, I
remember him fondly.