Illustration by Sarah Mazzetti

Are You a Wizard or a Prophet?

A new book argues that technology and environmentalism clash. But that’s not a useful way to think about the future.

The term “GMO” can be a Rorschach test. It makes some people see potential for plants that can grow in any ecosystem, resist drought and disease, and yield massive amounts of food and prosperity for all. Human innovation, this camp says, can get us out of any jam.

But many environmentalists see a racket that will give mega-corporations control over the world’s food supply and encourage thoughtless consumption. We are part of the Earth’s global ecosystem, the second group contends, we can’t “bio-hack” our way out of every problem.

In his latest book, The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World, journalist Charles C. Mann traces current incarnations of these world views to two 20th-century figures — agronomist Norman Borlaug and ecologist/activist William Vogt. Both men were unlikely scientists, and both have left their fingerprints all over environmental thought.

Vogt — the temperamental “prophet” — was the author of the incendiary best-seller Road to Survival, first published in 1948. He converted to “apocalyptic environmentalism” while working a data collection job for an international company that sold guano — bird poop — as fertilizer. After spending countless hours in a sweltering shack documenting the lives of guano birds, Vogt became convinced that all species, humans included, are subject to the same ecological limits. His writings popularized the idea of the “environment” as a single planet-spanning whole.

Meanwhile, Borlaug — the “wizard” — was busy breeding extra-bountiful wheat strains that were drought-proof, fungus-proof, and wind-proof and could grow in developing countries such as Mexico, India, and Pakistan. His work prevented the starvation of millions and garnered him a Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. As a leader of the original “Green Revolution,” Borlaug hoped to use science and technology to bring prosperity for all.

The Wizard and the Prophet juxtaposes the lives and ideas of these two men and weaves in stories featuring many of their contemporaries. Though much of the book focuses on the scientists’ successes and origin stories, Mann does touch on uglier aspects of their legacies: millions of forced sterilizations carried out in the name of “population control,” and widespread land grabs that left millions homeless after higher crop yields made formerly unprofitable land worth stealing. Neither man intended these outcomes, though Vogt did argue that having fewer people would be more sustainable.

Mann plays the role of impartial but helpful guide, punctuating the history with anecdotes featuring his neighbor, the eminent (and somewhat eccentric) biologist Lynn Margulis, who died in 2011. The book also includes an elementally themed interlude on how later “wizards” and “prophets” have addressed four of humanity’s biggest problems — food (earth), freshwater supply (water), energy (fire), and climate change (air). The result is an informative tapestry of conservation biology past and present.

The Wizard and the Prophet positions the “reduce, reuse, recycle, or die!” and “innovate and thrive!” mindsets as two ends of a spectrum. “Prophets” value community, conservation, and connection to the local land. “Wizards” typically innovate in service of a global marketplace. Mann argues that few people are deeply committed to both.

It’s hard to say which mindset is more characteristic of the current zeitgeist. But, Mann tells us, the people of his daughter’s generation (Gen Z and Millennials) will have to choose a path.

The question Mann poses — “wizard or prophet?” — reminds me of a scene from the Beatles’ movie A Hard Day’s Night, where an interviewer asks Ringo, “Are you a mod or a rocker?” (“Mods” and “rockers” were two camps in mid-’60s British counterculture. Mods favored bright colors, futuristic fashions, and boundary-pushing music. Rockers, in contrast, were all about motorcycles, leather, and throwbacks to rebels of the 1950s.)

Ringo replies, “I dunno. I guess I’m a mocker.”

And that’s more or less how I feel about the “wizard or prophet” question. (I guess I’m a prizard? Or a wophet?) Mann himself admits that he alternates between the two viewpoints on an almost daily basis. And I am not convinced that the two strategies are diametrically opposed. Wizards’ technical and infrastructural innovations often encourage rapid consumption, but they can also make it easier for prophets to live within “natural” ecological limits. And, in turn, prophets’ work on understanding local communities and ecosystem dynamics are necessary for maximizing the benefits of wizards’ breakthroughs.

The wizard/prophet dynamic is useful for classifying historical figures and understanding the motives of conservationists and ecosystem engineers, but I’m not sure how well it holds as a description of the choices ahead. Instead, the next generation may have to reconcile the two paths.