Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Wizard and the Prophet: overstating the gap?

The author Charles Mann has written a book called The Wizard and the Prophet, about Norman Borlaug (1914–2009), who he calls the "wizard"  and William Vogt (1902–1968), an ecologist Mann calls the "prophet". Vogt, in turn, inspired the young Paul Ehrlich. (See for example, the highly critical artlcle called "The Post War Intellectual Roots of the Population Bomb" published in the Electronic Journal of Sustainable Development, which I criticised in 2009, for its libertarian funding (see PPS).

I have read two reviews of Mann's book (in Nature and in Science) and a short essay by the author in the Atlantic Monthly.

But none of these make clear that Borlaug (an agricultural scientist who was instrumental in developing the Green Revolution, which enabled much higher crop yields, albeit usually requiring more fertilizer and water) was, in my opinion, deeply concerned re population and limits. 

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech (1970) Borlaug said:

"It is true that the tide of the battle against  hunger has changed for the better during the past three years. But tides have a way of flowing and then ebbing again. We may be at high tide now, but ebb tide could soon set in if we become complacent and relax our efforts. For we are dealing with two opposing forces, the scientific power of food production and the biologic power of human reproduction. Man has made amazing progress recently in his potential mastery of these two contending powers. Science, invention, and technology have given him materials and methods for increasing his food supplies substantially and sometimes spectacularly, as I hope to prove tomorrow in my first address as a newly decorated and dedicated Nobel Laureate. Man also has acquired the means to reduce the rate of human reproduction effectively and humanely. He is using his powers for increasing the rate and amount of food production. But he is not yet using adequately his potential for decreasing the rate of human reproduction. The result is that the rate of population increase exceeds the rate of increase in food production in some areas" (italics added).

Toward the end of his life, in 1992, Borlaug co-signed the first World Scientists' Warning to Humanity, something Vogt would have approved of.

P.S.  Many articles and at least one other book are in this genre, comparing the highly optimistic “cornucopian” Julian Simon against both Paul Ehrlich and Norman Myers

P.P.S. The journal's website is difficult to follow, but the full text of Vol 1, issue 3 can be downloaded for free from Research Gate here. But even there you have to hunt a bit for it - you land on a page that says "Land Conflict and Genocide in Rwanda".

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