The pessimistic vs. optimistic approach on the environmental problem

“The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World” by Charles C. Mann

This is a story about William Vogt and Norman Borlaug. They are two relatively unknown people who have long passed away, but both are responsible for the creation of two contradictory intellectual blueprints that we all use today for understanding our environmental dilemmas and how to survive in it.

Vogt laid out the fundamental ideas for modern apocalyptic environmentalism, which believe that unless humans drastically reduces consumption its growing population and appetite will eventually overwhelm the planet’s ecosystem.

Borlaug, meanwhile, has become the emblem of the so-called “techno-optimism”, the believe that science and technology, if properly applied, can help us produce our way out of consumption problem. He was the primary figure in the research in the 1960s that created the “green revolution”, a mix of high-yielding crop varieties and agronomic techniques that raised grain harvest around the world.

While both men thought of themselves as environmentalists facing a planetary crisis, Vogt believes that affluence was the problem (i.e. economic over consumption), and by contrast according to Borlaug affluence is actually the solution (i.e. only by getting richer and more knowledgeable can we create the science that can solve our environmental problems).

One sees the problem from a pessimistic view, the other from an optimistic view. One is a prophet of doom and the other is a wizard unveiling technological advances.

Written in a novel-like style by Charles C. Mann, this book is the epic debate between the worldview of the prophet and the wizard, supported by perhaps the grandest scientific findings of the Earth and the history of its most vicious residents, the homo sapiens.

The book tells the background stories of these 2 men, the hopes and despairs, the luck encounters, opportunities not taken, the overlapping social circles that nearly made them physically meet, the many friendships gained along the way, and the long journey on how they eventually get to shape their worldview and earn the stage to tell it to the world.

And more significantly, it also tells the story about the many, many scientists that somewhat become the disciples of these 2 opposing categories, with all their backgrounds, the many experiments, their findings, what we do with the findings, and all the politics and vested interests by multiple sides.

All in all, the book doesn’t give us the easy solution for our climate change problem, if any solution at all. But instead, it points out the vast problems, presents the debates, and the complex human dynamism in the road to solve it. With this in mind, this book is a crucial puzzle piece to understand the big picture of the environmental catastrophe. Simply unmissable.