The future of our planet depends on the approach we choose to solve problems. As Charles C. Mann illustrates in his latest book, The Wizard and The Prophet, there are two dominant visions: one, that of the wizard, tells us that the world is ours and thanks to technology and innovation we will always be able to save ourselves. The other, that of the prophet, tells us that the world is limited and we must reduce consumption now to avoid the risk of extinction.
The title of this article considers a very broad and multi-disciplinary question but when we talk about solutions to the question it poses, we often forget to think about the approach behind the answers. So, I would like to start the interview with a question about the two approaches explained in your latest book The Wizard and the Prophet. What are they about and how did you come up with them?
I have been writing about environmental issues for thirty years, and over time I have noticed that when it comes to food, water, energy and climate, ideas about what to do fall into two broad areas. This struck me, and I started wondering where these ideas came from.
There are those who think that we should continue to produce exponentially, relying on technology to solve our problems. As far as food is concerned, this approach means producing more and more food with super-efficient technologies, using genetically modified organisms, thinking of new ways to desalinate water and using nuclear energy instead of fossil fuels.
Then, there are those who say ‘no, that is the problem’. For them, that is, we are consuming too much and we need to reduce our consumption and our footprint on Earth.
People have been taking these positions for decades and the modern approaches are perfectly exemplified in the two characters of the book, two men who hardly anybody has heard of: Norman Borlaug (the wizard) and William Vogt (the prophet).
Thanks to his wheat research in Mexico during the 1950s, Borlaug is considered the father of the Green Revolution and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. He combined high-intensity fertilisers, high-tech breeding for plants and irrigation and advocated their spread around the world. This approach resulted in doubled, tripled, even quadrupled yields and had an enormous impact on the way people think about agriculture today.
The other approach also originated in Mexico in the 1940s, from William Vogt. He laid the intellectual foundations of the modern environmental movement and in 1948 he wrote the first book (Road to survival) of what I call the ‘We are going to hell’ section’. If you read it, you will find everything that is in Al Gore’s or Bill McKibben’s books, except for the scientific details that came later in history. The underlying idea is that the human enterprise is getting too big, and we need to reduce consumption to stay within the limits set by nature, otherwise the consequences will be disastrous.
If you think about it for a second, these two approaches are the opposite of each other. One says ‘produce more, more efficiently’ while the other says ‘you cannot do that, you have to find a way to reduce your impact.’ But above all, the clash between Vogtians and Borlaugians is heated because it is more about values than facts. Although the two experts rarely acknowledged it, their arguments were based on implicit moral and spiritual visions: concepts of the world and humankind’s place in it. For prophets the world is finite, and people must accept the limits posed by the environment. For wizards, on the other hand, the possibilities are inexhaustible, and humans must find clever ways to manage the planet. That is what I tried to trace in the book, the role of these two ideas in the way we deal with our environmental problems.”
When I was reading the book, I tried to think about who could represent these two approaches today. The wizard’s approach is embodied by Bill Gates and the prophet’s vision, where the focus is on planetary boundaries and community-led initiatives, by Greta Thunberg. This distinction well expresses the fact that we live in a very polarised (and polarising) world where you are asked to always be with or against something. Many times though, there are just different ways of doing things as we cannot predict how technologies that help us now, will affect us in the future: when industrial agriculture was born (with Borlaug), it was considered something miraculous that saved hundreds of millions of lives.
How do you think we can balance this polarisation and, as you do in the book, point out that there are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches?
I often think about it. An effective way would be to ask people where they want to go. Everyone talks about the disasters we are heading towards. Suppose we stop thinking about those disasters, and start thinking instead about what kind of world we would like to live in and what kind of future environment we would like to have. I often think that if we had a positive goal in mind, or if we just talked about it in the media, it would be much easier to envision the steps needed to get there. So, to answer your question I guess I say we would need a little more discussion about utopia.
Do you think we will see a mix of both approaches in the next thirty years?
Kim Stanley Robinson has just published a big science fiction book called The Ministry for the Future. It lays out an idea of how to get through the next fifty years: how to solve climate change, how to feed a growing population.
It is kind of a bleak vision, but it presents what Stanley Robinson thinks might be a plausible roadmap for the future. I find it really surprising how rarely you see this. Going back to the two approaches, I think that Vogt supporters imagine essentially a world government stepping in and setting a path for everyone to reduce their environmental footprint while Borlaug’s fans would like to see a lot more people packed into smart, efficient cities. On the one hand there is a strong belief in collective action, while on the other hand a super-empowered individual.
We keep celebrating Earth Day, World Environment Day and this feels as we are celebrating nature as a separate entity from us. In your book you write “In Road to Survival, – written by Vogt more than seventy years ago – environment meant not the external natural factors that affected humans, but the external natural factors that were affected by humans. And by environment he meant not a particular place or an ecosystem, but a global totality.” It seems to me that seventy years later, we are still struggling to understand this. Why?
Well, I think it is an approach really deeply rooted in Western culture and, to some extent, in Asian culture as well. It is the idea that we are somehow special, that we have these prerogatives and the world is this sort of brute matter that is out there for us and we can do what we want with it. Half the answer is in this belief, and the other half is that we have this idea that nature is out there and has its own integrity, separated from us. Together, these two things deepen the rift between us and ecosystems.
One of the things I have realised from travelling and researching for my books is that if you spend time with indigenous people, who come from a completely different cultural tradition, you can see a huge difference in their approach to the environment.
In all indigenous cultures, the idea prevails that we are an integral part of this planet and that our work as human beings is necessary to help create it. For these cultures, a place without people is incomplete, because we are an essential part of natural ecosystems. This is practically the opposite of the Western view, which puts humans at the centre of the planet.
Speaking of indigenous peoples, their knowledge in terms of agricultural techniques is often extraordinary. Ideas that we forgot in past decades and we are now rediscovering as “climate-smart agriculture”.
All environmental problems related to agriculture, such as groundwater draining, soil contamination and erosion come from ignorance and from that 19th-20th-century mentality. A view that considers the soil as a Petri dish in which you can just put the nutrients, plant the seeds and everything goes well. We know now that the system is much more complex than that and I think both approaches would recognise that, but at the same time find completely different ways of approaching the issue.
The wizard would say that we just need a technological solution, such as better fertilisers and pesticides and that in order not to destroy the microbiome, we can simply grow it in a lab and inject it into the soil. The prophet would argue the opposite, pointing out that the soil is a natural system, that we must therefore respect its integrity and act according to the processes within it. The same type of knowledge comes to drastically different conclusions about what one should do. That is essentially a moral argument.
Agriculture is an important part of your books as are viruses. You wrote that when Columbus landed in the Americas “it was not just a major event in human history, but in the history of biological life.” Could you explain this sentence?
Yes, it all starts with the so-called Columbian exchange, named after the great historian Alfred Crosby, whose work I have drawn on for my research. What Crosby understood, before anyone else did, was that what Columbus and then the Europeans did when they landed was that they recreated Pangaea. 200 million years ago the Earth consisted of one giant landmass, then geological forces broke it up and the Eastern hemisphere and the Western hemisphere were separated for tens of millions of years. This means that the ecosystems on the Eastern and Western hemispheres developed almost completely isolated from each other. Thus, when Europeans crossed the Atlantic, in addition to a big event in human history, there was also a major event in biological history because it brought together two completely different ecosystems, with a huge exchange of species between the continents.
That exchange is still continuing in this giant ecological tumult that we are still experiencing today and that obviously changed agriculture forever. But the very first thing that came over were microorganisms because they were easily transportable.
The result was a tremendous wave of disease, that had been developing in Europe, Asia and Africa for tens of thousands of years and within about 150 years arrived to the Americas. And the result was that between two-thirds and 90% of the original inhabitants of the Americas died. It is a horrifying catastrophe, the worst demographic catastrophe in the history of human race, that reminds us of the power of nature.
Globalisation started with Columbus landing in the Americas, and the subsequent spread of disease. Could it end with a virus, worse than SARS-CoV-2?
The great nightmare is that it develops a very lethal disease, a hemorrhagic fever like Ebola, and not only does it jump over the species barrier and goes from monkeys, or whatever its natural host is, to humans, but it then becomes airborne, like Covid-19. Add those two things together and it really is a terrible nightmare. We know of yellow fever, for example, which is a hemorrhagic disease that has a 70% mortality rate in adults, but luckily is not airborne.
We are talking about the possibility of a disease that could wipe out half of the human race. Especially if people do things like refusing to wear masks and protesting against basic public health measures.
In your book, you quote the great biologist Lynn Margulis, who liked to remind you that “more than 90% of the living matter on Earth consist of microorganisms (…) Compared to this power and diversity, pandas and polar bears are epiphenomena, interesting and fun, perhaps, but not actually significant”. You also write that you never have told her of your image of the two men but you imagine she would have replied that “Borlaug and Vogt might have wanted to stop us from destroying ourselves but they were kidding themselves. Neither conservation nor technology has anything to do with biological reality.” I know you believe in human creativity and the ability to change things. What gives you hope for the coming decades?
When I started writing about climate change, for instance, it was in the late 1980s and that is when most people apart from climate scientists began hearing about it. I remember the testimony of James Hansen, who first told Congress that there was this problem, called ‘global warming’, and that it was really an important issue to be addressed. One of the most amazing facts was that there was no political division on this issue, because nobody had picked a side yet, and so one of the Republican senators asked, ‘If this is true, what do we do?’ And James Hansen, who was and is one of the world’s experts on the subject, replied: ‘I have no idea what we are going to do about it’. At that time there was no technical solution, no real way to become truly energy efficient, no effective way to store energy.
So, one way of looking at the last thirty years is that we have developed a whole range of solutions, technologies, and ideas that we can use to tackle climate change. People always say we have not done anything and I always say: think about 1988, when 5% of the electricity use in the United States, and I think it was roughly the same in Europe, was for lighting. Now we have LEDs which use a fraction of that percentage.
I wrote an article in the 1990s about how batteries would always suck. I am very happy to say I was completely wrong. In the last ten years, the amount of power that can be stored for a dollar has almost doubled, it is absolutely incredible.
In agriculture we have developed innovative technologies such as drip irrigation, and we have a much better understanding of the soil microbiome. The trick to being confident is to recognise that this, and much more, has happened. Every effort to do good and to make these and other solutions widespread and accessible is progress and a step towards better societies.
And more good news is coming with the blockchain development and everything that is happening with the sharing economy. If implemented correctly, these solutions could really speed up efforts to make our societies more circular.
Right, but I believe we need to start from two main tasks for a better world. One is to make sure that everybody is fed, has adequate water supplies and access to electricity. 10% of the world population still does not have enough food, there are about 1.1 billion people living without electricity (or a reliable flow of it) and about 2 billion people who do not have accessible, clean and safe water supplies.
The second thing we need to address quickly is climate change. I think we could overcome all these challenges but we should start thinking and imagining what we want the world to look like in 30-50 years.
‘In wizards view the prophets’ emphasis on cutting back as intellectually dishonest, indifferent to the poor.” Western environmentalists can be naive in proposing solutions to global environmental issues because, as part of Western societies, we tend to look at our little slice of the pie, thinking it represents the majority. But if you put this in perspective and look at the numbers, you realise we are not that significant on the planet but we do have a big footprint from an emission perspective.
What we should really be focusing on is what is happening in Africa and some parts of Asia because it is where the population is booming, and all these new people will require electricity and food.
It is a staggering thought but according to many experts in thirty to fifty years Nigeria will have the same population as China. Consequently, anything that can be done there will have a wildly greater impact on the rest of the world than what you do in Italy or I do here in Massachusetts.
Are you working on a new book at the moment?
I hope to finish a book on the North American West this year. It is one of the most sensitive areas in the world to climate change and to a variety of social issues. What is going to happen there is reminiscent of the climatic conditions of 1200s, when it was much hotter and drier than it is now and the West was in the middle of an impetuous technological change: from the introduction of maize and completely new forms of agriculture (such as mixed permaculture) to new ways of channeling water. For example, the indigenous people who inhabited those regions, developed innovative water harvesting techniques and they were able to maintain a high population density even in places like Southern Arizona with 2 °C hotter than today. I think we should look at the ways in which those people adjusted to those changes and how they lived in their social systems with conditions that were not that different from what we are going to experience in the future.
One of the questions I will try to answer with this book will be: can we take those ideas and adapt them to our circumstances?