Mann once again produces a highly readable, historical tome … At the beginning of their careers, neither Vogt nor Borlaug set out to save the world or even make much of a mark, and a big pleasure in Mann’s book is the unfolding of their eventual passions and destinies … Mann assembles a compendium of earthly woes, organized by the elements to which they relate. Earth is where we still face food shortages, water is the elixir of life in too-short supply, fire is the way we transform fossil fuels to power our ravening ways, and air is the realm of that most devilish beast, climate change … Mann poses the wizard and the prophet as dichotomous endpoints. His narrative device helps us to consider highly complex problems that don’t fit neatly into separate categories, and we aren’t stuck between them. In fact, Borlaug and Vogt were in sync on the elephant in every room.
To represent the two sides, Mr. Mann traces the lives and thought of two significant figures. The captain of Team Prophet is William Vogt, a now forgotten ecologist whom the author credits with launching the worldwide environmental movement with his 1948 manifesto Road to Survival...Facing off against Vogt for the Wizards is a more famous scientist, Norman Borlaug, the leading pioneer of the Green Revolution, for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 … Mr. Mann is a good referee of the contest, which seesaws back and forth, and his book is a treasure house of knowledge about the triumphs and failures of both sides … The purpose of Mr. Mann’s indispensable book is not to declare a winner, but—with luck—to help us find the right mixture of Prophets and Wizards in the future.
It’s an ambitious sort of book, one that, to be completely successful, requires two things. One is a command of sprawling detail, with the ability to see parallels among events across time and distance and to explain the complex with ease. The second is an analytical device that takes all those parts and molds them into something novel and useful. On the first count, Mann succeeds magnificently. William Vogt and (particularly) Norman Borlaug are brought to splendid, quirky life ... Mann’s storytelling skills are unmatched — the sprightly tempo with which this book unfolds, each question answered as it comes to mind, makes for pure pleasure reading. But you may find yourself troubled a little along the way by the analytical framework he’s imposed on the material, the division between the technologically minded Wizards and the limits-embracing Prophets. His distinction works pretty well when he applies it to food (GMOs vs. organics) and water (dams and desalination vs. drip irrigation) but it starts to break down when we reach climate and energy, perhaps the planet’s central problems.
Mann takes on the most challenging question of our time: how to juggle dealing with climate change while feeding the world and promoting prosperity. His focus starts narrowly, on two mid-20th century scientists with opposing points of view, before widening into their conflicting legacies for care of the planet … Mann’s vivid accounts of these two men are, far and away, the most interesting sections of this book. Yet his virtues as a writer extend to his coverage of the four elements that will make or break our fate: food, fresh water, energy, and climate change. He is remarkably even-handed in discussing the merits of rival viewpoints, and his gift for explaining science shines on every page … It’s a stimulating, thoughtful, balanced overview of matters vital to us all.
Mann is a compelling and forensic analyst of big tipping points in human affairs ... Mann is commendably even-handed in his treatment of the genius and frailties of both Vogt and Borlaug. But as their stories play out, his irritation grows with Vogt’s belief that almost every problem is at root about human numbers. He grows disgusted, too, at the prophet’s policy prescriptions.
A thick book featuring two scientists unknown to most readers is a tough sell, but bestselling journalist and historian Mann...turns in his usual masterful performance … Beginning with admiring biographies, the author moves on to the environmental challenges the two men symbolize … Mann’s most spectacular accomplishment is to take no sides. Readers will thrill to the wizards’ astounding advances and believe the prophets’ gloomy forecasts, and they will also discover that technological miracles produce nasty side effects and that self-sacrifice, as prophets urge, has proven contrary to human nature.
Mann clearly illustrates two opposing outlooks for dealing with major problems facing humankind, using two 20th-century scientists as exemplars. Mann straightforwardly states that this book does not provide ‘a blueprint for tomorrow.’ Rather, it’s an account of difficulties facing humans and ways to approach them … Neither ideology, he points out, is assured to bring humankind success. Without taking sides, Mann delivers a fine examination of two possible paths to a livable future.