Books

Hamilton and Jefferson of the environmental movement

The most persuasive writers on the environment punctuate their big-picture theses with telling details that bring the relevant issues to life. Like Elizabeth Kolbert and Tim Flannery, Charles C. Mann is one of the masters of this art. With his two previous books, “1491” and “1493,” Mann’s incarnation as a science writer evolved into the science writer as historian.

Now, in “The Wizard and the Prophet,” 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.

The wizard is Norman Borlaug, a Nobel Prize-winning biologist whose experiments produced disease-resistant wheat varieties that powered the Green Revolution and saved millions from starvation. William Vogt is the lesser-known prophet, whose 1948 best-selling “The Road to Survival,” with its dire warning of future environmental disaster, helped kick-start the modern ecology movement.

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Borlaug’s credo hailed scientific and technological innovation as the route to salvation. Vogt’s denounced scientific hubris and excessive consumption and preached the necessity of limits. Unless we abided by Earth’s natural “carrying capacity,” we would perish. For one thinker, humanity reigned over nature; for the other, we were an integral part of nature’s interdependent web.

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An Iowa farm boy, Borlaug studied forestry at the University of Minnesota in the 1930s when forests were regarded “not as wild ecosystems” but as “factories for wood.” After earning a PhD in plant pathology, he ran a Rockefeller Foundation-funded program in Mexico aimed at increased yields that would feed the masses and pay a political bonus: halting the menace of communism in underdeveloped nations.

Intensifying Borlaug’s burden of back-breaking labor and countless trial-and-error was his decision to defy conventional wisdom and engage in “shuttle breeding.” By mating wheat stocks from different Mexican regions, he was able to produce hardy seed varieties capable of thriving in hot Third-World climates.

For Vogt, this approach, however well-meaning, ignored overarching questions about the fate of the Earth.

A college French major and an amateur ornithologist who never attended grad school, Vogt eventually was named editor of an Audubon Society magazine. His observations about declining bird populations, expressed in the pamphlet “Thirst on the Land,” anticipated the findings of Rachel Carson, but his abrasive personality got him fired from his job.

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Still, his reputation was strong enough that he was hired to track guano supplies as part of a study looking at the causes of the declining cormorant population on a Peruvian island. (His friends dubbed him “Don Guano.”) After World War II, he landed with the Pan American Union as head of their conservation programs. And in 1948, “Survival” made him a national, if controversial, figure. (His rants against capitalism did not go well in these Cold War years.) A vocal Malthusian — he argued that global population growth would overwhelm food supply — he served as national director of Planned Parenthood until run-ins with Margaret Sanger cost him yet another job. Unlike the more even-keeled Borlaug, he committed suicide, believing that he had failed.

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.

Borlaug and Vogt met briefly only once and had little regard for each other. And no wonder. Their views are mutually contradictory. Should we double down on fossil fuels, or power up on solar? Can we “clean” coal, or should we phase it out? Has nuclear power once again become a responsible choice?

Much of what Mann relates about these topics is hardly new, and he rarely takes sides. But he entices the reader with tales of scientific breakthroughs and eccentric thinkers. Of the aristocratic advocates of organic farming in Britain at the time, for example, he writes, “toffs were so heavily represented in the Soil Association . . . that its early meetings were like house parties at Downton Abbey.”

Aperçus like this sparkle amid sections on photosynthesis, the revolt against GMOs (genetically modified organisms), the development of super-rice varieties in the Philippines, and the Green Revolution’s unintended consequences (land concentration in fewer hands, river pollution, poisoned drinking water), and so on.

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One could argue that the book is overstuffed with material already well established in public debate. Still, it’s a stimulating, thoughtful, balanced overview of matters vital to us all. As the world, besieged by ever-more titanic storms and wildfires, threatens to explode into a terrifying new normal, books like this, intended for lay readers rather than policy wonks, are more necessary than ever.

THE WIZARD AND THE PROPHET:

Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World

By Charles C. Mann

Knopf, 616 pp., illustrated, $28.95

Dan Cryer is the author of “Being Alive and Having to Die: The Spiritual Odyssey of Forrest Church.”