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Magicians and prophets about the future of nature

The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow's World
Forfatter: Charles C. Mann
Forlag: Alfred A. Knopf (USA)
In an effective mix of polemics and history of ideas, this book shows how the environmental situation is a product of the ideas we have about it.


Science journalist Charles C. Mann is best known for the two books 1491 og 1493, which is about America before and after Columbus – portrayed as a culturally created ecological transformation full of unexpected contexts. The mix of parasitology, demographics, ecology and agronomy goes again in the new book – which is about the future as well as history.

Man takes part in his own history and draws on his business as a reporter worldwide, where agriculture and ecology have been at the center. The book opens with a meeting with the legendary microbiologist Lynn Margulis, who appeared in his own neighborhood of youth and whom he later meets as a lecturer at the university. With a distant scientific look at humanity's situation – perhaps balanced by a warm love for the microbiota – she showed a quick film of bacteria in a petri dish where they multiply around a lump of nourishment. Soon the bacterial population shoots tremendous momentum, rods to the edge of the bowl, devours the last food – and dies. For Margulis, the comparison with the human situation was not a loose analogy, but an indispensable implication of the same laws of nature.

Prophetic border guards

That we live under the absolute constraints of nature and must adjust accordingly is the main message of the "Prophet" in the book, William Vogt, who in 1948 published his Road to Survival. Vogt's warnings were accompanied by alarming martial arts and gentle thunder tales, such as Osborn's Our Plundered Planet, Honestly The Population Bomb and the Roma Club Limits to Growth. What experiences are behind the calling of the environmental prophets?

Man takes part in his own history and draws on his business as a reporter worldwide, where agriculture and ecology have been at the center.

Mann goes on to describe Vogt's path from hobby ornithologist to environmentalist, and his exploration of the subtle connections of ecology that reveal the vulnerability of life. In Vogt's youth, the fight against malaria led to the dehydration of wetlands throughout the United States, including on his beloved Long Island, with fatal consequences for bird life. Vogt campaigned and protested, but stood as a bewildered witness without an audience: Human interests came first – forget the birds! The breakthrough came when he examined the ecology of Peruvian cormorant colonies, which "delivered" guano fertilizer – which literally sold like minced manure on the world market – until overfishing in the sea around the cormorant colonies cracked the bird population. The gaze for such obvious and also more intricate connections helped Vogt to turn the message around: Human interests are also affected sooner or later by predation and blindness to nature's connections.

Vogt sums up his prophetic vision in the ingenious concept of "sustainability", which was originally taken from shipping. As Malthus pointed out, the population is growing in doubles, while productivity in agriculture is rising in a slower curve. Vogt's prophetic exhortations: "Live more modestly", "Avoid pesticides", "Eat lower on the food chain" – may be perceived as necessary, but seem to many impossible to carry out on a large scale. The ship is too big to turn quickly, Mann states laconically.

Magic and illusions

When we have not yet let the prophets intimidate us into moderation, population control and state of emergency, it is largely because we have listened to other voices – especially from the "wizards" among us. The other figure in Mann's double portrait is the Nobel Prize winner Norman Borlaug, the man behind the green revolution, which has been credited with rescuing one billion people from starvation.

The author's heated mixture of worry and curiosity becomes the driving force in the book.

The Jesus-like miracle where the bread is multiplied, Borlaug created by rather prosaic means: a purposeful and intricate cross-breeding of wheat and other cereals, which combined with artificial fertilizer made agricultural production skyrocket. When the quadrupling of the world population in the 20th century did not lead to widespread famine, it is largely due to agronomic "magic". This scientific miracle also becomes the crowning example for all those who want to write off doomsday prophets and the very message that growth has its natural limits. "Science will find another solution to that," said the magician's followers with a slightly forced optimism, trusting that tomorrow's technological interventions and innovations would let us win the game by changing the rules.

Vogt's prophetic followers point out that such magic solutions are really illusions: We will be overtaken by the limitations of nature, and with double force, since techno-solutions create new problems and push nature beyond its limits in increasingly irreversible ways. Over-fertilization, for example, eradicates earthworms, which help the soil's performance – and thus creates a need for even more fertilizer, which further depletes the soil. The technocratic encroachment on nature of the Green Revolution today includes both genetic engineering and a wealth of chemical pesticides. Critics such as Vandana Shiva have described it as medicating against the side effects of medication – without realizing that the cure has become the disease. To this, typical wizards will answer like Borlaug: Well, we are in a sick situation, but that is precisely why it is too late to talk about preventive measures and what is are – surgery and horse cures are needed if we are to succeed when we soon become 10 billion on the planet.

Incompatible directions

So who is right? The author himself doubts to despair, and his heated mixture of worry and curiosity becomes the driving force in the book: With a wealth of thorough examples, historical reviews of facts and considerations, he tries to mediate between positions that seem deeply incompatible.

But can we not mix strategies? Ecological care plus inventive efficiencies? Mann describes neighboring farms in California where one grows a wide range of organic foods, while the other grows genetically modified corn in monoculture and harvests mechanically. The two landowners are friends, operate in their own way and for different reasons – and each sells to their own market. On a larger scale, however, the contradiction is a conflict: the "reason" to be shared by progressive wizards and growth-critical prophets is the earth itself – a common territory. They draw on different futures and mirror each other's arguments – in a tug of war that is moral, political and scientific at the same time.

"Wizards" who are in favor of genetic modification, fertilizers and geoengineering see man as an exception from nature who can outwit the circumstances and change the game to his own advantage. In this way, there is less reason to limit growth – and we are constantly getting new funds to continue human expansion. For the "prophets" the situation is different: We must understand that we just not is an exception from nature, but as the bacteria in the petri dish will grow until we destroy our own livelihood.

Of course, the analogy is imperfect: unlike bacteria, we have the awareness and knowledge to predict the future. We can correct ourselves before the collapse takes place. The Prophet also hopes that we can be an exception to the laws of nature – by understanding them. In addition to our mental resources, we have access to natural resources that – in contrast to the bacterial feed in the laboratory experiment – can be renewed if we cultivate the soil on nature's terms. Seen from such a perspective, it is the earth itself that engages in real sorcery – while man is rather the sorcerer's unruly apprentice.

Anders Dunker
Philosopher. Regular literary critic in Ny Tid. Translator.

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