From the author of 1491 and 1493 comes an incisive portrait of the two little-known twentieth-century scientists, Norman Borlaug and William Vogt, whose diametrically opposed views shaped our ideas about the environment.
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.