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

Image of The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow's World
Release Date: 
January 23, 2018
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“The Wizard and the Prophet shows that even the ‘latest’ ideas on creation and energy have origins in the modern beginnings of the environmental movement.”

Charles C. Mann, many award winning author of 1491 and 1493, again sets out to uncover lost history that matters. As in his many other works, he asks in the broadest sense "what are those important events" of history and "hundreds of years from now, what will historians view as today's most significant development?"

The Wizard and the Prophet contrasts the ideologies of William Vogt and Norman Ernest Borlaug, "environmentalists facing a planetary crisis" that if we fail the "unavoidable result will be devastation on a global scale." Vogt (1902–1968) called for better management of dwindling resources. "Cut back! Cut back! was his mantra."

By contrast, Borlaug (1914–2009) worked for science to "produce our way out of our predicament." His Green Revolution "raised grain harvests around the world, helping to avert tens of millions of deaths from hunger." In opposition to Vogt's ideas of doing with less to find sustainability, Borlaug believed in a solution found "by getting richer, smarter, and more knowledgeable."

The subjects of this parallel biography had very different backgrounds. Borlaug came out of poverty on an Iowa farm and saw the dramatic change in food production in his route to "become an enduring symbol of technical prowess" but whom Vogt saw "as dangerous to human survival." Borlaug viewed Vogt "as blinkered when not duplicitous, effectively an enemy to human well-being."

Vogt, by contrast, came from Brooklyn and Long Island, suffered crippling polio, and had a love for animals and plants, especially birds, that went past obsession. Roger Tory Peterson dedicated his classic Field Guide to the Birds to the young self-taught ornithologist in 1933. Vogt fought voraciously against the destruction of wetlands in the effort to fight malaria.

The two men only met only once and briefly in Mexico in 1946 while trying to head off a national agricultural catastrophe. Months later "Vogt tries to get Borlaug shut down" and Mexico "adopted new soil and conservation laws."

Borlaug, however, had the rich backing of the Rockefeller Foundation while Vogt struggled for funding wherever he can find it to warn of the problems of fighting hunger with more food. He believed in efficient use management of the problems in our growing global crisis.

Vogt, by contrast, took what he learned in Long Island, Mexico, South America, and elsewhere that the biosphere needs to be protection from not management by humankind. His bestselling Road to Survival (1948) "became the blueprint for today's environmental movement."

Norman Borlaug, Ph. D., would eventually receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in saving an estimated billion people from hunger. He spent his childhood, not chasing butterflies as Vogt did, but as farm labor. This scientist "never wrote a manifesto" but "his work said: Be Smart, make more, share with everyone else."

Mann argues that logic dictates these approaches "could meet in the middle" but "it is less about facts than about values." He writes that "these views were founded on implicit moral and spiritual values" and "backtracking is not easy, the decision to go one way or another is hard to change."

The book introduces Lynn Margulis, Raymond Pearl, Robert Cushman Murphy, Aldo Leopold, Frederic Clements, Lothrop Stoddard, Madison Grant, and other people advocating from different backgrounds and disciplines solutions to the problems of ecology and population. They, like the two principle subjects of The Wizard and the Prophet, qualify as now forgotten but are worth remembering.

The author writes with clear engrossing story telling in nonetheless thoroughly documented carefully made arguments. Too many books now are colorful collections of facts strung together precariously but not here.

Mann in "describing two ways of thinking, two views of possible futures" summarizes the great debate that could make all of the difference for everyone. He writes tomorrow's great history of our present and near present.

The Wizard and the Prophet shows that even the "latest" ideas on creation and energy have origins in the modern beginnings of the environmental movement. This book begins and ends with the argument that humanity shares the planet with the only real significance that people can decide to destroy or not.

In many instances, however, Mann's choice of words needs serious editing. He writes, for example, of the smell of Peruvian guano as "reminiscent of bus-stop bathrooms" for an audience that increasingly knows nothing of bus stations or their restrooms. Vogt did not earn his doctorate but Mann has him failing to "win" it while Borlaug succeeded in "winning" his.

The Wizard and the Prophet does not provide "a detailed survey of our environmental dilemmas" because "the subjects are too big and complicated to fit in a single book." Mann poetically likens modern population problems to Plato's earth (agriculture), water, fire (energy), and air (climate change).

Yet for all of it, like Mann the public will "oscillate between the two stances," the arguments of Vogt, the prophet, and Borlaug, the wizard. As such, each way of thinking seems to work in earning public respect as if two sides of the same idea.