Wizards And Prophets
Oppdatert: april 24
Are you a wizard or a prophet? Charles C. Mann argues that you inevitably fall into one of these categories when you tally up your thoughts and ideas concerning the environment and how to save it. His excellent book goes deep and wide into the history of the environmental movement and lays out how two distinct branches of thought have permeated the discourse and are still doing so today.
He uses two relatively unknown, but equally influential figures to personify this dichotomy. On the one hand, you have the ecologist and ornithologist William Vogt, whose 1948 book “Road to Survival” has since influenced a lot of the ideas surrounding conservation and population control. His “prophetic” ideas circle around the premise that food supply will not be able to keep up with growing human populations, and that degradation of nature for ever increasing resource extraction will eventually spell humanity's demise. On the other hand, you find the highly revered American agronomist Norman Borlaug, whose research on how to grow high-yield, disease-resistant wheat is said to have saved an enormous amount of people from starvation. On this side of the argument, you find the techno-optimists who believe that a “wizardly” approach to the human endeavor will mitigate the consequences of our exploitative relationship with our natural surroundings.
The book looks not only at these two characters, but use them as a starting point for elaborate discussions about other influential people, organizations and political movements that came before and after Vogt and Borlaug. It's an elegantly constructed narrative that shows how the paths of the wizards and the prophets have collided and diverged throughout the twentieth century and beyond. But more than being a purely historical tale about environmentalism, it also speaks to something deeper. Something that characterizes almost all fields of human inquiry; the propensity for polarization.
As with other politically charged subjects, on environmental issues, people tend to fall towards the left or the right on the political spectrum, and it seems as though you will most likely find prophets on the left and wizards on the right. Often times in stark opposition, but not always. The problem, however, is that they all to seldom come together in the center where constructive dialogue can happen. In many ways it feels like Mann with this book is trying to set the stage for this dialogue to take place. It is liberating to read such a measured account of the environmental conundrums we face and have faced. And it is impressive that it is achieved without falling into ideological sinkholes along the way. The description of the battle between wizards and prophets is a brilliant way to embody the polarized discourse we currently have, and the book offers great insight into past and present environmental battlegrounds.
In my view, the consequence of the aforementioned polarization is that you have two sides engaged in a perpetual tug of war where each side gains and loses ground in accordance with whatever policies they get to implement. By the next election, given a political shift, such changes may be rolled back and the other side reverses the progress and the tug of war continues. Therefore significant political change is hardly ever made, at least in the short term. If neither side is willing to loosen the grip and compromise in the middle then both parties will pull and pull until the rope eventually snaps and everyone loses. And the losers will not only be the ones holding the rope. Because the rope they are pulling on is also the thing that's holding civilization together. The rope is a functioning biosphere and it can only take so much strain before it starts to tear.
The main takeaway from Manns book for me is this. There seems to be an agreement that the world ultimately has finite resources and that we should try not to overuse and cause too much pollution. But the devil is in the details, and the battle is concerned with what means to what end. More often than not the extremes on both sides are allowed to set the agenda. Whether it is claimed that the world will end in a decade because of climate inaction, or that we should burn even more fossil fuels because co2 is simply food for plants and causes no harm whatsoever. These are the polar opposites that are pulling most aggressively on the rope, taking everyone on their side further from the center. We are in dire need of more people in the middle. Pragmatists that can hold the rope together and relieve the tension by drawing on resources from both sides. No one is absolutely right or absolutely wrong, and more compromises need to be made between people on either side of the spectrum in order to keep society together. Charles C. Mann seems to be one of those people capable of relieving some of this tension, and his book is a testament to that.