A review of The Wizard and The Prophet
Charles C. Mann has written consecutive bestsellers of popular history writ large. His 1491 surveyed the civilizations of the pre-Columbian Americas, while 1493 looked at how post-Columbian America has affected the whole world.
The Wizard and the Prophet at first glance shows Mann at work on a smaller canvas, comparing the life’s work of two American scientists in the mid-20th century.
Though Norman Borlaug and William Vogt both studied agricultural resources their career trajectories could hardly have been more different. Mann uses the contrast as a framework for a sweeping discussion of the biggest environmental questions facing our generations.
In the process he transforms Borlaug into “The Wizard” and Vogt into “The Prophet’’, superheroes who have, in Mann’s telling, guided the two major currents in environmental thinking ever since. Thus “The Wizard” and “The Prophet” are tapped for analyses of subjects which, for all we know, neither Borlaug nor Vogt actually thought about.
Always lurking in the background are the questions with which Mann opens the book: is it possible to feed, clothe, and shelter 10 billion people on this planet, or are we moving towards inevitable environmental collapse?
The real Norman Borlaug was born to a poor Iowa farm family and he yearned to escape the backbreaking work in the fields. After earning a degree in plant pathology he found himself immersed in even more tedious manual labour in a dusty, eroded, wind-blown patch of dirt outside Mexico City. His goal was to find a variety of wheat that would resist the blight known as rust.
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