Are we a special species? That remains to be seen. Two different views to save ourselves from destruction.
Do we succeed in preserving a livable planet when we are with ten billion people? Can we thus save ourselves from destruction? In The Wizard and the Prophet, the American author Charles C. Mann outlines two completely different views on how we can achieve this. Very interesting to read and not to miss if you want to know where all different opinions come from.
The prophet from the title is ecologist William Vogt (1902-1968), the founder of the 'apocalyptic environmental protection', the idea that we must drastically reduce our consumption to avoid global calamity and our own demise. If we exceed the capacity of the ecosystems on which we depend, this will ultimately lead to the collapse of those ecosystems. With his ideas, Vogt is on the basis of the modern environmental movement.
The American agriculturalist Norman Borlaug(1914-2009) is a model for the wizard and the accompanying techno-optimism. Borlaug's research forms the basis of the so-called Green Revolution, which through a combination of improved crops, better fertilization, irrigation and pest control has increased grain harvesting worldwide spectacularly.
The two men represent two radically different views on environmental issues. According to the 'prophets', there is no other option than to change course drastically and to live on a smaller footing. The 'wizards' see the solution in science and technology. In our thinking about sustainability and the environment, according to Mann, we are all on a continuum with both visions at the ends of that spectrum.
What determines whether people prefer the vision of the wizards or the prophets?
It's all about underlying values. People are mainly talking about practical aspects. For example, they are against nuclear energy because of the waste problem.
But it is also a deep-rooted aversion to large scale and concentration of power. The discussion between wizards and prophets is one about the good life and what it means to be human. Wizards think much of individual freedom and have nothing against large scale and globalization. As a rule, the prophets are more focused on the local community and prefer small scale.
A modern nuclear power plant
The aversion to large-scale is mainly due to the idea that what is too big, such as huge, centralized power plants, is inherently anti-democratic. That the people who are in charge are out of touch with the people working for them. The financial crisis of 2008, in which bankers played with the lives of people, shows that this fear is not entirely unfounded.
The differences between the two visions become very clear in the discussion about the optimal agricultural system. This discussion mainly concerns the role of agriculture in society.
Wizards want to free people from hard labor in the field so that they can move to the city to become richer, more productive citizens. Prophets find that terrible. They see agriculture as a fundamental human activity with a long tradition. They want farmers to be paid better and work under better conditions, not that they almost all disappear. Since these are ethical issues, it is not easy to determine who is right.
The book is mainly written with a young audience in mind. When Mann was in high school in the 1970s, nearly half of the people on earth were malnourished. His daughter, born in 1998, has no idea about that. Many people are not aware of some great achievements since then and only see the problems of today. He wants us to understand how we got here and what's at stake.
Many people are quoted in the book. One of them is Ted Nordhaus, one of the driving forces behind eco-modernism, that wants to offer a techno-optimistic alternative to the classic environmental movement. He says:
The modernization causes problems, but they are usually not as big as the problems they solve.
Although Ted is a good friend of Charles C. Mann, he thinks what he says is a gamble. Prophets will say: "Yes, we have solved problems, but in a way that will lead to disasters in the longer term." People like Ted Nordhaus think that everything will settle down and that we will be able to solve our problems with technology. To a prophet, that seems like madness, as if you want to put out a fire by pouring some gasoline on it.
Of course, you can also state that the conviction that we will succeed in living more frugally is just a kind of faith as well. This time not in technology, but in the feasibility of our behavior.
Both visions are therefore a gamble, without guarantee of success.
Wizards want industrial agriculture and as many people as possible into the city. Prophets find that a terrible idea.
Wizards will point to technological achievements such as the Green Revolution of Borlaug. Can prophets say something against it that may be even more reasonable?
In 1800, not so long ago, there was no place where slavery was illegal. An estimated two-thirds of the people were then unfree. Today, slavery is nowhere legal. However, there are still an estimated 27 million slaves. A huge number, but a pittance of what it once was. Women did not take part in public life, could not study, divorce or often did not even own property. We still have a lot to do, bearing in mind #metoo, but there has also been a lot of improvement in that area.
So you could say that changing our lifestyle is easier. Slavery was a fundamental human use. Archaeologists have not found any civilization where women were in charge. We have all changed that.
Prophets and their misanthropic worldview: man is a plague and the world would be better off without us.
Mann thinks this is a downside of the prophets, a consequence of a vision of nature as something pure, of which man is not a part. There is also a Christian element in it: the man who helps to destroy the garden of Eden. The only way to keep nature pure is to keep people out. One of the bad consequences of this is the creation of nature parks worldwide by kicking people out. The establishment of the American Yosemite National Park was almost accompanied by a genocide.
Also wizards are often blind to the implications of their vision. The Green Revolution has increased the gap between rich and poor in various places. Millions of farmers worldwide have lost their land. Both views have led to human rights violations, each in a totally different way.
Decisions to make: Building or closing nuclear power plants? Whether or not GMOs? Living more frugally or not? Should we have wizards or prophets as political leaders?
Charles C. Mann thinks that different places and people require different solutions. There are, for example, historical and cultural reasons why people in Japan look at nuclear energy differently than in India. He would prefer leaders who are genuinely interested in what their citizens want, who are able to reduce the arguments of experts to their essence, and see which solutions best suit the wishes of their people.
One more addition, and a vision that I found fascinating. According to biologist Lynn Margulis, who also appears in the book, all of it does not matter. Margulis thinks that we cannot ignore the biological law that a successful species destroys itself in the absence of competition, such as bacteria that can grow indefinitely in a petri dish until they hit the edge.
You could say: unless of course you are a species who realize that there is an edge. But it is not because we realize that we will act accordingly.
Both parties have their reasons for being concerned about this vision. If you are a wizard who thinks that we need nuclear energy to stop global warming, then you have to watch with astonishment to the dwindling support for nuclear energy.
If you see the solution in decentralized solar and wind energy, then you can complain that governments do too little to roll it out quickly enough and on a sufficiently large scale. Someone like Margulis would say: "well, duuuh. You see, we are doomed!"
Our achievements from the past are a reason to hope that we are a special species. But whether that’s correct, remains to be seen.
The Wizard and the Prophet - Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow's World. Charles C. Mann. Knopf Publishing Group.
Scientific journalist Charles C. Mann discusses his book, "The Wizard and the Prophet", at Politics and Prose on 2/1/18.