America’s Debate between Scientific Innovation and Caution

Journalist Charles C. Mann has a gift for explaining the complicated scientific issues of our era in straightforward language. He does not oversimplify, avoids jargon, and explains the ethical as well as the technical problems these issues raise.

In The Wizard and the Prophet, Mann traces the history of two familiar yet competing frames of mind. The first, that of the “wizards,” approaches big problems, such as how to feed the world, with a mixture of high-tech devices and lots of confidence. The second, that of the “prophets,” warns against hubris, emphasizes the limits of a fragile planet, and advocates restraint and modesty. Two figures from mid-20th century America represent these two approaches and the book is, in part, a dual biography.

Norman Borlaug (1914-2009) was an agronomist who pioneered the “Green Revolution.” Raised on a farm in rural Iowa, he later specialized in cross-breeding wheat plants in Mexico, looking for ways to fight a particularly harmful fungus, raise crop yields, and improve the grain-to-stalk ratio in each plant. Years of conscientious work in hard conditions paid off, and in the 1950s Borlaug had the satisfaction of witnessing enormous increases in harvests, first in Mexico and later in many other hungry areas of the world. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

William Vogt (1902-1968) was an ornithologist, as willing as Borlaug to endure hardships, which in his case included several years on the guano islands off the coast of Chile, studying bird-population dynamics. The Long Island native’s 1948 book, Road to Survival, was a surprise bestseller, the first in a long line of disaster forecasts aimed at a humanity that was breeding too fast, consuming too much, and (as he saw it) digging its own grave. In the 1950s Vogt worked for Planned Parenthood, where he lamented, and tried to forestall, the population explosion.

The two men met only once, in Mexico, neither finding the other particularly noteworthy.

Each man had admirers and disciples, and clear descendants of each can be found today, at work in a variety of disciplines on which the future of humanity might well depend. Mann investigates food production, energy policy, population, and climate change, comparing the characteristic approaches to these problems of Borlaug-style wizards and Vogt-style prophets. Calm, lucid, and impartial in exposition, Mann explains the internal logic of both positions, but then subjects each to a rigorous and skeptical cross-examination.

Inventions Can Be Abused, and Warnings Misused

Borlaug’s work with wheat and corn, later emulated by other scientists with rice and other crops, transformed chronically underfed parts of the world like India in the 1940s into food exporters by the 1990s and helped millions more people survive than ever before. On the other hand, he failed to foresee the way corrupt authorities would pervert his intentions, enabling elites in many of these countries to seize the best land, expel the vulnerable, enrich themselves, and widen the gulf between rich and poor.

Vogt’s well-intentioned warnings against overpopulation, meanwhile, fathered coercive population policies (above all in China) that led to forced sterilization and forced abortion for millions of women. His insistence that mankind was running out of natural resources also contributed to unnecessary, and otherwise indefensible, policies such as President Carter’s decision to favor dirty coal technology, under the belief that the world’s oil supply was almost exhausted.

The book profiles many of the researchers whose discoveries increased the wizards’ confidence. Among them were Fritz Haber (1868-1934), who worked out how to create artificial fertilizers, which greatly enhanced farm productivity wherever they were used. Another was Warren Weaver (1894-1978), director of the Natural Sciences Division of the Rockefeller Foundation and coiner of the term “molecular biology.” Fifteen of the 18 molecular biologists who won Nobel Prizes in the 1950s and 1960s were funded on his recommendation.

We also meet the prophetic skeptics who pointed to the downside of the wizards’ efforts. Among them were J.I. Rodale (1898-1971), founder of Prevention magazine and Organic Farming and Gardening, which deplored the Green Revolution advocates’ reductionist approach to agriculture. Rodale helped create the “organic” food counter-movement and noted the unwanted side effects of intensive fertilizer use. Another, an activist and writer familiar to today’s newspaper readers, is Jeremy Rifkin (born 1945), the scourge of multinational corporations who spread doubts about the safety of genetically modified foods, and who has contributed to their being rejected in many parts of the world.

Dams and Downsides

In a long passage on water management, Mann again shows the two mentalities at work: one that favors massive dam-building, irrigation and hydro-electric projects, the other that favors micro-irrigation and worries about the draining of aquifers, the salination of freshwater wetlands, and, potentially, a crash brought on by short-sightedness and greed. Here again his method, very enjoyable, is to single out representative individuals who personify one or the other approach.

His water “wizard” is Walter Clay Lowdermilk (1888-1974) who, during the 1930s, was impressed by Zionist settlers’ ability to turn the arid lands of British-Mandate Palestine into farmland through careful manipulation of the area’s very limited water resources. This land, over-farmed, abused, and neglected for centuries, began to be productive once again. Lowdermilk’s book Palestine: Land of Promise (1944) was the blueprint for David Ben-Gurion and the first generation of Israeli politicians, who built a great canal, the Israeli National Water Carrier, to distribute freshwater from the Sea of Galilee to dry land further south, making it highly productive. Israel also pioneered with waste-water recycling (encouraged by a British writer, Ebenezer Howard) and with salt-water desalination.

Wizards and prophets disagree about energy, as they do over food and population. All but the most obtuse recognize that coal pollution is a major environmental hazard. Wizards view it as a price worth paying in rapidly industrializing countries like China and India, whose people now have access to electricity for the first time, and whose longevity, nutrition, and health have all improved. Wizards now favor moving on to nuclear power, whose efficiency and low carbon footprint make it, in their view, the logical next step. Prophets detest coal and nuclear equally: in their view both are menaces, the first with its smoke, the second with its dizzying costs, seemingly insoluble  waste-disposal problem, and threat to human-scale, local control.

In one of many engrossing digressions, Mann also shows that for a century and a half, almost since the oil industry began, anxious writers have been declaring that there is hardly any oil left, and that we will soon be forced to give up all the conveniences of our petroleum-fueled world. Time after time they have been shown to be wrong, while known reserves have steadily increased, along with improvements in recovery technology. No wonder the pioneers of solar power have struggled to find a sympathetic audience.

One of them was a Portuguese priest, so tall that he was nicknamed “Father Himalaya.” His 1904 solar engine, the Pyrheliophoro, could melt iron and achieve temperatures of 7,000 degrees Fahrenheit, but he couldn’t turn his invention into a profitable business. Today solar arrays and wind-power farms are showing encouraging signs of success—the technology keeps improving and the price keeps coming down. But they require a lot of land and are also vulnerable to the reproach of gigantism.

No Simple Answers

Mann next surveys the climate-change debate. Explaining the work of the scientists who first recognized the role of carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, he goes on to show how the steady increase of CO2 in the atmosphere has been matched by rising temperatures, rising sea levels, and melting Antarctic ice. Even scientists who can agree on what is happening, however, rarely agree on how severe future problems will be. Even after several decades of climate modeling with increasingly sophisticated computers, there is no consensus on how steep the temperature rise will be over the next century.

Neither is there any simple answer to the question: How many of our resources should we divert to benefit future populations who are not yet alive, whose climate problems we cannot hope to pinpoint accurately? Economists “discount” future benefits, and it’s difficult to believe that any political action taken now will have its intended effects decades down the road. To illustrate the extraordinary complexity of these issues, and the difficulty of charting or measuring them, the mathematician Edward Lorenz told a conference in 1972 that the beat of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil could conceivably set in motion a train of events that might end with a tornado in Texas.  The intricacy of the chain of events leading from the one to the other, however, was far beyond our power to calculate or predict.

Everyone favors increasing efficiency in our use of energy and looking for better ways of producing it. Wizards go much further; many of them promote “geoengineering” in response to rising temperatures. This could mean spraying microscopic droplets of sulfuric acid in the upper atmosphere to counteract the greenhouse effect, or it could mean transforming today’s deserts into vast irrigated plantations of carbon-sequestering trees. Technologists and agronomists in the lineage of Borlaug feel sure it can be done. Those in the lineage of Vogt consider it sheer madness; for them, wind, water, and solar power, along with far more restraint in energy usage, are the only acceptable solutions. Unfortunately, these preferences rest on what is irregular in nature: the sun’s shining, the wind’s blowing, and the rivers’ flowing.

What makes this book so enjoyable is not only the sheer volume of wisdom and insight it contains, but the author’s determination to hear out both sides rather than stack the deck in favor of wizards or prophets. Everyone in these disputes wants to better the human condition; attacking motives gets us nowhere. But there is little consensus on what the world ought to look like and how we ought to live. There’s even less agreement on how it ought to look 50 or 100  years down the road.

Borlaug and Vogt were stung by the harshness of their critics and found it hard to believe that intelligent people could look at the world, and think about the future, in such different ways.  There’s no doubt that I come down on the Borlaug side, and have a lot of faith in big science, big technology, and the reality of material progress. I was therefore chastened to discover just how many powerful arguments the Vogtians, at their best, can level against my hopes. Like all good books, The Wizard and the Prophet forces you to think uncomfortable thoughts and to admit your own fallibility.