Fred Pearce is an environment journalist based in the United Kingdom.
William Vogt was a prophet of doom. Seventy years ago, the ornithologist from Upstate New York first laid out the narrative of modern apocalyptic environmentalism with a brutal clarity that made him for a while a household name. The planet had a fixed "carrying capacity," he wrote in his best-selling 1948 book, "Road to Survival." We were exceeding that capacity. Our soils were failing; food production was faltering. We were on a "march to destruction" in which "three-quarters of the human race will be wiped out." He called for coercive population control and equally tough curbs on capitalism.
His contemporary Norman Borlaug of Iowa was, by contrast, a can-do guy, a wizard at plant breeding. As Vogt preached environmental hellfire, Borlaug initiated what became known as the Green Revolution, developing high-yielding varieties of crops that have fed a world whose population has more than doubled since. For Borlaug, such scientific advances made nonsense of any notion of a fixed carrying capacity for the planet. But we had to innovate or die.
In "The Wizard and the Prophet," Charles C. Mann tells their stories and dissects their competing narratives of our future. Mann is a compelling and forensic analyst of big tipping points in human affairs. Most famously, he wrote "1491" and its successor "1493," charting the original sin of Europeans arriving in America but also the folly of regarding what came before as some kind of Garden of Eden.
Here Mann looks forward, unpacking the polar opposites of extreme pessimism and optimism about the future that permeate modern society, through the lives of two of their earliest and most compelling advocates.
We learn much along the way about the postwar world in which the two men lived. How Borlaug's painstaking work — breeding, cross-breeding and cross-breeding again for the Rockefeller Foundation in Mexico — was driven in part by an American fear that developing-world poverty would be an incubator for communism. And how Vogt's pessimism reverberated as a rebuke to the globalization of the American Dream. Mann recognizes from the start that "the clash between the Vogtians and the Borlaugians is heated because it is less about facts than about values."
Today, most of the big environmental debates are about climate change. But for much of the 20th century, the great existential question was whether we could feed a fast-rising global population. Today we discuss too much carbon in the atmosphere; back then it was too little nitrogen in the soil. Nitrogen underpinned the lives of Mann's two subjects, both initially unremarkable journeymen in American science.
Vogt spent his early working years on Pacific islands that were covered in the nitrogen-rich excreta of seabirds. The islands were being mined for nitrogen to fertilize European fields. Vogt researched why bird numbers were declining — and diminishing the supply of the valuable product. He blamed fishers' over-exploitation of the offshore fish stocks that the birds relied on. And with the help of his mentor, the ecologist Aldo Leopold, he drew some big lessons about the folly of humanity interfering with the balance of nature.
Borlaug had little time for such abstractions. He saw beyond guano. Science, he said, could transform humanity's ability to feed itself by producing artificial nitrogen, synthesized from the air in factories, using the recently discovered Haber-Bosch process. Borlaug's genius was to discover, and breed into regular crops, the genes that responded best to nitrogen. By doing so, he almost overnight tripled grain yields on millions of farms from Mexico to India.
Annoyingly for Mann, Vogt and Borlaug met only occasionally and held no great public debates. Vogt did drop by Borlaug's agricultural research station in Mexico once. Mann reports that he was "aghast" that Borlaug was trying to get more food from soil that was, to his mind, already exhausted.
What Mann calls the "dueling visions" of the two men has deep roots. More than a century before, the English cleric and demographic doomsayer Robert Malthus squared off against the scientific optimism of philosopher William Godwin as the Industrial Revolution got going. A generation after Vogt and Borlaug, the same roles were played by ecologist Paul Ehrlich and economist Julian Simon.
Today the argument continues. Vogt's ideas about the planet's carrying capacity have been rebranded — first as "limits to growth" and more recently as "planetary boundaries." The source of optimism has moved from the New Deal to neoliberal economics. But the name-calling hasn't changed much. One side is derided as Luddites and accused of trying to stop the poor from gaining the wealth already accessed by the rich. The others are Panglossians, ransacking the planet's resources in pursuit of profit.
Mann is commendably even-handed in his treatment of the genius and frailties of both Vogt and Borlaug. "I oscillate between the two stances," he writes at the start.
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. Medical advances had gone too far, Vogt insisted. As Vogt wrote in "Road to Survival": "The greatest tragedy China could suffer at the present time would be a reduction in her death rate." Foreign aid — even food during famines — only made things worse.
Mann concedes that Vogt was not directly responsible for India's 1970s forced-sterilization program or China's one-child policy, "but his intellectual guilt is heavy." Mann also finds Borlaug blind to the failings of his Green Revolution: its pollution, its insatiable water demands and the perverse effects of increased food production in deeply unequal societies. High-yield crop varieties made agricultural land more valuable. So the rich seized it, evicting sharecroppers. And as harvests grew, prices fell, leaving many small farmers poorer than before. Even so, Mann can only agree with Barlaug that the Green Revolution's critics have no convincing explanation for how they would have fed the world without it.
Vogt took his own life in 1968, believing that his ideas had come to naught. Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize two years later and lived for another four decades until his death at the age of 95. It was time enough to see that his breakthroughs had prevented Vogt's nightmares from coming true — at least for now.
By Charles C. Mann
Knopf. 616 pp. $28.95