This book is an exemplary example of how research in environmental science and policy interweaves in areas crucially important to humanity’s future. It describes the efforts of two scientists concerned about the global impact of human population increases in the twentieth century and their opposing views and approaches to tackling “the problem.” The scientists are “the wizard,” Norman Borlaug, an agronomist and eventual Nobel Prize Winner, and “the prophet,” William Vogt, a conservationist and author of Road to Survival (1948), apparently a best-seller at the time. Mann’s book is an engrossing read as Borlaug and Vogt each made enormous contributions to addressing the global population crisis and associated issues such as poverty and starvation. Their work was very influential – Borlaug’s – taking a technological approach to increase grain and maize crop yields and food supplies in less developed countries (LDCs) and hence fighting off massive starvation in many countries mid-twentieth century with the latest agricultural science; and Vogt’s – enhancing an understanding of the natural environment to increase food availability and adopting various approaches to population control, again largely in LDCs (Vogt) where numbers were increasing rapidly. The opposing viewpoints of these two men, the technological “Green Revolution” approach versus the more nuanced ecological approach, fueled many debates about how to achieve environmental sustainability, the unjust and discriminatory distribution of wealth, and the future of humanity on an increasingly crowded planet. This debate continues and is increasingly urgent now that we have passed the eight billion mark. The practitioners in the science and policy worlds simply must keep up their joint work in such important areas critical to humanity’s future.
The environmental story weaved by Mann also introduces the pivotal contributions and viewpoints of Lynn Margulis, the famed American evolutionary biologist; Georgii Gause, the Russian microbiologist, author at age 24 of The Struggle for Existence (1934), a treatise on population dynamics; Aldo Leopold, author of the conservation classic The Sand County Almanac (1949); Fairfield Osborn, Our Plundered Planet (1948), a polemic about our eventual doom; Paul Erhlich, The Population Bomb (1968); Donella Meadow et al., The Limits to Growth (1972), a report to the Club of Rome; and Julian Huxley, the English scientific sage. Not surprisingly, some of the earlier books and their authors apparently influenced Rachel Carson while she prepared her masterpiece Silent Spring (1962) that helped launch the modern environmental movement.
Charles Mann’s book is a story of the complex interplay of state-of-the-art science and its policy implications and eventual applications. It illustrates the valuable lessons from knowing the history of earlier environmental researchers, their contributions, and the controversies around their approaches to solving critical problems. It is an important and engrossing environmental tale, a very human story, and it is highly recommended reading as winter wanes.
Mann, C. C. (2019). The wizard and the prophet. New York: Vintage Books, Penguin Random House. 640 p. ISBN 9780345802842 (paperback).
The wizard and the prophet / Charles C. Mann. (2021). [YouTube]. Long Now Foundation. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wOCDYe39-QU
Author: Peter G. Wells
A version of this review was first published in the Spring 2023 issue of The Canadian Society of Environmental Biologists Bulletin, 80(1), 17.