Dueling Visions of Tomorrow's World

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It's unclear whether Big Agriculture, or small local farms, can save humanity from itself. Yet both groups sit on the sidelines yelling at each other without clear long-term strategies, suggesting that humanity is doomed unless the deniers are right.

By Rob Shewfelt

The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World as reviewed by Robert L. Shewfelt

In this engaging treatise Charles C. Mann puts his finger on the pulse of global debates occurring around the world. Anyone paying attention to the news is confronted with the challenges of world hunger, lack of potable water, the energy crisis, and climate change. Those of us who are neither fatalists nor deniers believe there must be solutions. Mann distils down the strategies to the visions of two men—one a Wizard who believes in salvation by technology and the other the Prophet who puts his faith in conservation.

The Wizard is Norman Borlaug (1914-2009), a founding member of the American Council on Science and Health, who brought us the Green Revolution. His dogged determination in shuttling back and forth between locations in Mexico produced hardier breeds of wheat. This knowledge was extended to rice breeding in India changing agriculture forever. These efforts by Borlaug, his devotees and agricultural scientists around the globe have reduced hunger from one in four around the world to one in ten. Technological advances have improved access to potable freshwater, decreased the cost of energy and helped mitigate adverse effects of climate change. But, has technology actually exacerbated these problems by contributing to rapid increases in population, thus increasing the demand for resources that cannot be replenished?

Enter the Prophet, William Vogt (1902-1968), whose vision permeates the green movement of today. His roadmap for saving the planet can be found in his book, The Road to Survival. Everything that we hear about the environmental movement today can be traced back directly to the vision he outlined in this manifesto. He served as secretary of The Conservation Foundation and national director of Planned Parenthood Foundation of America seeking always to do more with less. The basis of his argument is that land has a “carrying capacity” which cannot be exceeded without dire consequences. World population control was at the heart of Vogt’s message as more people meant more pollution and a greater demand for limited resources. Aggressive birth-control programs advocated, including forced sterilization aimed primarily at nonwhite foreign populations, are not positions that would be popular today. If we had followed these principles back at the time of his death when 3.6 million people inhabited the earth, we might not be facing the threats at our doorstep today. Has the time for conservation passed us by as we have become too comfortable in our stately mansions with modern conveniences and energy-hogging electronic devices?

In reading through the book, it is tempting to look for the prospect of finding common ground. The two protagonists, apparently found no commonality during their lifetimes even during a chance encounter in Mexico in the mid-1940s. The lack of overlap between these two perspectives is probably best illustrated with respect to renewable energy. Wizards dream in the form of Big Solar and Big Wind. Prophets seek small, confined and local solutions. The world is now populated by 7.7 billion humans headed to over 9 billion by 2050. It is unclear whether Big Agriculture or small, local farms can save humanity from itself. Yet both groups sit on the sidelines yelling at each other without clear long-term strategies suggesting that humanity is doomed unless the deniers are right.  

My sympathies as a food scientist lie with the Wizards. I embrace technological solutions to the problems that confront us. Unfortunately, Charles Mann does not provide us with the answers at the end of the book. What he does is to force us to view two very different versions of future reality and to think about the consequences of human activity. As I approach my 70th birthday, I see the cake that my generation has baked for those who follow. The Wizard and the Prophet is a book that should be read and contemplated by anyone under 50 as they could be facing an environmental apocalypse unless their generations can save mankind through technology or conservation. The deniers have won out over the doomsayers throughout my lifetime, but the fatalists only need to be right once and its GAME OVER.

Rob Shewfelt is a member of the Board of Scientific and Policy Advisors of the American Council on Science and Health and Professor Emeritus of Food Science and Technology of the University of Georgia. His research focused on post-harvest quality of fresh fruits and vegetables. He has authored or coauthored over 100 refereed journal articles and six books including "In Defense of Processed Food: It’s Not Nearly as Bad as You Think." He blogs weekly at ProcessedFoodSite.com.