Sunday, April 23, 2023

Review of The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow's World by Charles C. Mann

This book review was written by Eugene Kernes   

Book can be found in: 
Genre = Science
Book Club Event = Book List (08/12/2023)
Intriguing Connections = 1) Biographies: Auto, Memoir, and Other Types

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“Prophets look at the world as finite, and people as constrained by their environment.  Wizards see possibilities as inexhaustible, and humans as wily managers of the planet.  One views growth and development as the lot and blessing of our species; others regard stability and preservation as our future and our goal.  Wizards regard Earth as a toolbox, its contents freely available for use; Prophets think of the natural world as embodying an overarching order that should not casually be disturbed.” – Charles C. Mann, Prologue, Page 16

“The basis for arguing for action on climate change is the belief that we have a moral responsibility to people in the future.  But this is asking one group of people to make wrenching changes to help a completely different set of people to whom they have no tangible connection.  Indeed, this other set of people doesn’t exist.  When one tries to make plans for nonexistent people, the result is an intellectual quagmire, because there is no way to know what those hypothetical future people will want.” – Charles C. Mann, Chapter 7: Air: Climate Change, Page 334

“The intensive fertilization mandated by the Green Revolution has heavily contributed to nitrogen problems on land and water.  Pesticides have wreaked havoc on agricultural ecosystems and sometimes poisoned sources of drinking water.  Poorly constructed and managed irrigation systems have drained aquifers.  Soils have become waterlogged or, worse, loaded with salts when irrigation water evaporated.  Possibly most worrisome, the energy costs of agriculture, mainly from making fertilizer, have soared.” – Charles C. Mann, Chapter 9: The Wizard, Page 464



A growing population requires more resources.  The problem is obtaining the resources, without destroying everything else.  With a higher population, there is increased competition for resources within the ecosystem.  Species that exhaust their resources, fall to catastrophe.  Humans are part of an ecosystem, with natural cycles that need to be maintained.  William Vogt and Norman Borlaug provided two different ways on how to use the environment, and resources.  Vogt represents the Prophets, who see resources as finite which constrains humans.  Borlaug represents the Wizards who see environmental opportunities through innovation to better manage the environment. 

Prophets focus on the resource constraints, asking for humans to use less resources to prevent exhausting them.  Wizards focus on resolving environmental problems with technical solutions.  Prophets seek small-scale production operations, while Wizards seek large-scale production methods to meet human needs.  The different views generate different policies on how to obtain food, water, energy, and clean up the pollution.  The paths conflict with each other, but there are options which incorporate those different visions.

Wizards and prophets have animosity towards each other.  Wizards do not support a retrogression of society that would follow Prophets plans.  Prophets do not support the ecocide that would follow Wizards plans.


How Do The Prophets Think About The Environment?

Agriculture got a boost from guano banks, as they contained nutrients that facilitate crop growth.   Early in the 20th century, guano-birds declined.  The policy was introduced was to make the surrounding areas as a sanctuary, to protect the bird’s feed.  It worked temporary, but the decline in birds continued.  A problem Vogt was assigned to resolve.

Vogt represents the Prophets, proclaiming environmental disaster without a reduction in consumption.  To not overwhelmed the ecosystems.  Prosperity has the problem of extracting more from the planet than it can give.  Using less resources is their solution, to eating lower down the food chain.  Eating less meat, means more space for food available for human consumption.  Putting less pressure on the ecosystem. 

A Malthus logic, that while human population grows geometrically, food supply grows arithmetically.  The population will outgrow its ability to supply enough food, causing a catastrophe.  Malthus saw checks on the population, but many of the checks are not popular.  Without voluntary checks to population growth, there will be violent reprisals. 

No species can overcome the ecological carrying capacity.  The problem with carrying capacity, is that it is hard to measure.  Carrying capacity came from shipping, which placed a limit on the cargo weight that a ship could transport.  A global carrying capacity is more complicated, in which the carrying capacity is potentially not static.  Hard to tell whether the carrying capacity is an ecological limit, or could be influenced by people.

The Prophets have an elitist tendency, and eugenics.  Excerpt governance of resource is no different to them then cleaning up the human gene pool. 


How Do The Wizards Think About The Environment?

Borlaug grew up on a farm, that became much more productive due to mechanization.  A tractor was more efficient than draft animals who needed more maintenance.  The changes allowed Henry Borlaug to go to school rather than work on the farm.

On a work assignment, Borlaug was able to crossbreed various seeds to make them rust-resistant and more productive.  Crossbreeding is always a temporary solution, because agricultural diseases mutate and overcome the resistant seeds.  

Borlaug represents the wizards, proclaiming that science and technology can overcome environmental dilemmas.  More prosperity comes from knowledge on how to develop high-yield crops.  Innovations have enabled higher-yielding crop, to produce more food using less space. 


How Do We Get Enough Food? 

Plants need nutrients in the soil to grow, especially nitrogen.  Within the soil, nitrogen is made by microorganisms breaking down organic matter.  Fertilizer generally adds nitrogen into the soil.  There is even a process to develop artificial nitrogen, chemical fertilizers.  Even a little bit of nitrogen can drastically increase agricultural outcome.  The problem with intensive fertilization are the pollution consequences on the land and water.

Animal feed can take the form of grazing or scraps, but industrial farms requires many pounds of feed to produce the meat. 

Wizards claims that the more productive the farms the better.  What matters to them is useable energy per acre.  Prophets see the ecological consequences of production such as soil erosion, habitat loss, watershed degradation, pesticide, and other risks. 


How Do We Get Enough Water?

Much of water is undrinkable.  A Wizard solution is to desalinate seawater.  But desalination has consequences for marine life, and produces pollution.  Prophets want operations for water capture, recycling, and better management. 


How Do We Get Enough Energy?

Human society has become dependent on an energy supply.  Civilization comes to a crash without an energy supply.  Various regions prospered when they discovered supplies of energy, such Pithole city, but then quickly collapsed when the energy has run out. 

Initially, wood was used as a fuel source.  Even grass and dung.  Regions that had run out of forest, used coal.  Regions with easy access to coal made a quicker transition.  The British used coal since the 13th century, which caused a lot of pollution.  The British did not have much access to other fuel sources.  Many have switched to oil when it became available, because oil is far more efficient than coal, as oil is more energy dense.

Food and water are a flow, a volume to be maintained. Fossil fuels are a stock, a fixed amount.  Flow resources could be interrupted.  While stock resources continuously declines.  Many nations feared running out of their stock of energy resources, causing them to go to war to obtain supplies.  But, new supplies of fuel are being found continuously.  With more fuel being found, the problem is abundance. 

Petroleum is not a uniform substance, but composed of various compounds.  There can be various rocks that prevent petroleum from seeping to the surface.  The amount of fuel that can be extracted depends on the processes used.  Especially if the price justifies the costs of extraction.  The amount of petroleum depends of technological developments.

Sunlight might be plentiful and free, but it is not a reliable energy source.  Those energy supplies are only useful on sunny days.  Windfarms are only useful during windy days.  The equipment itself is costly. 


How Do We Deal With Pollution?

Geological processes are unfathomable on the human scale.  There is a responsibility to consider the people of the future.  A hypothetical future people, with indeterminant values and wants.

There are far more damaging pollutants than carbon dioxide, such as methane.  Although methane stays in the atmosphere for a decade or two, carbon dioxide lasts in the atmosphere for centuries or millennia. 

Pollution has an aspect of property rights.  Pollution is no different than taking over someone else’s resources.

Renewable energy supplies are not yet economical reliable.  Another alternative is nuclear power.  Nuclear power plants are expensive to build but cheap to maintain.  Nuclear power does produce high-level waste.

Wealthy counties develop a tendency for environmental responsibility.  To make their energy use more efficient and less environmentally damaging.  The problem is that wealthy countries do not actually reduce the energy use, just export the environmental destruction to other regions. 

Claiming something as eco-friendly depends on the weights assigned to pollution or land use.  Spending money increases statistics about economic activity, but they have different outcomes.  What matters is not just how many people, but what they are doing.



The book provides detailed explanations on the claims made by the various perspectives.  Sometimes getting lost in the scientific details, which can make it more difficult to understand the implications of the details.  Which can make the book more difficult to read.  

Questions to Consider while Reading the Book

•What is the raison d’etre of the book?  For what purpose did the author write the book?  Why do people read this book?
•What are some limitations of the book?
•To whom would you suggest this book?
•What demands are there for resources?
•What is William Vogt’s history?
•How do Prophets think about the environment?
•What is Norman Borlaug’s history?
•How do Wizards think about the environment?
•How to use the land?
•How is fertilizer used?
•How to use the water?
•How to get energy?
•What are flow resources, and stock resources? 
•How to clean the pollution?  
•What is the Malthusian logic?
•What renewable energy sources?
•How do wealthy countries respond to the environment?
•What determines if something is considered eco-friendly?  
•What is NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard)?
•What are the planetary boundaries?  

Book Details
Publisher:             Borzoi Book [Penguin Random House]
Edition ISBN:      9780307961709
Pages to read:       495
Publication:          2018
1st Edition:           2018
Format:                 eBook 

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    4
Content          4
Overall          4