The Wizard and the Prophet

How to save humanity? Opposing grand approaches emerged from two remarkable scientists in the mid-20th century who fought each other their entire lives.

Their solutions were so persuasive that their impassioned argument continues 70 years later to dominate how we think about dealing with the still-exacerbating exponential impacts.

Norman Borlaug, the one Mann calls “the Wizard,” was a farm kid trained as a forester. In 1944 he found himself in impoverished Mexico with an impossible task—solve the ancient fungal killer of wheat, rust. First he invented high-volume crossbreeding, then shuttle breeding (between winter wheat and spring wheat), and then semi-dwarf wheat. The resulting package of hybrid seeds, synthetic fertilizer, and irrigation became the Green Revolution that ended most of hunger throughout the world for the first time in history.

There were costs. The diversity of crops went down. Excess fertilizer became a pollutant. Agriculture industrialized at increasing scale, and displaced smallhold farmers fled to urban slums.

William Vogt, who Mann calls “the Prophet,” was a poor city kid who followed his interest in birds to become an isolated researcher on the revolting guano islands of Peru. He discovered that periodic massive bird die-offs on the islands were caused by the El Niño cycle pushing the Humboldt Current with its huge load of anchovetas away from the coast and starving the birds. The birds were, Vogt declared, subject to an inescapable “carrying capacity.“ That became the foundational idea of the environmental movement, later expressed in terms such as “limits to growth,” “ecological overshoot,” and “planetary boundaries.” Vogt spelled out the worldview in his powerful 1948 book, The Road to Survival.

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