Lauren R. Stevens: Controlling Nature, and ourselves

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WILLIAMSTOWN — A college student who had heard Charles Mann speak at Williams this spring said she was frustrated: "He didn't tell us which way was better." Mann's brilliant and engaging book, "The Wizard and the Prophet: Two remarkable scientists and their dueling visions to shape tomorrow's world," Alfred A. Knopf, 2018, explores the roots of environmentalism and two ways of approaching climate change.

The issue has dogged Mann in his talks and book reviews. He responds that he wanted to lay out the information and let readers make up their own minds, that he wanted to be fair and that he wasn't sure himself.

Norman Borlaug came up with ways of vastly improving the yield of crops, known as the Green Revolution, which staved off starvation in Mexico, India and other places. He and his ilk are the wizards, those who hope to solve the world's problems through technology.

William Vogt came up with the concept of carrying capacity, that resources are finite and that we must cut back on our profligate use of them if we are to survive. He is a prophet, foretelling a dismal fate for humanity unless we make do with less.

The title of the book says nothing about climate change but that crisis propels it. Will the wizards' technology save us or must we eliminate fossil fuels and reduce the standard of living to which we are accustomed and to which many in the world aspire?

Another scientist haunts the book, a Connecticut Valley neighbor of the author, the late Lynn Margulis. A biologist and a Darwinist, she believed that all successful species ultimately destroy themselves. Human beings are no different. A conclusion then would be that we are simply following our prescribed route . . . to annihilation.

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And this in turn, Mann writes, smacks us up against the bedrock question: are we in control of nature or are we part of nature, controlled by it? The compelling image in the book is the petri dish, the experimental platter on which various microorganisms multiply until they reach the edge of the dish, exhausting their food supply; then they crash.

From a Margulis' point of view neither the wizards nor the prophets can save us. But the book doesn't focus on her. Why not?

Because Mann, that is his name after all, doesn't want to leave us there. He may not indicate which path is better, man's power of invention or man's ability to control himself, but Mann finds evidence that human beings have altered their lives for the better in startling ways.

The book has an apparently anticlimactic appendix citing authorities that there are no safety risks from eating genetically modified food. Still people disbelieve the scientific consensus. The discussion should move on whether or not industrial agriculture is the way to go.

So we should move the discussion beyond the scientific consensus concerning largely man-made climate change to whether humans have the ability to alter their evolution. He finds some evidence that we might, for instance the sudden swerve of the world against slavery in the 19th century; the clear, unprecedented, present movement toward women's equality; and the arrangements at the end of World War II (threatened now) that have led to the most peaceful period in human existence.

Overall the book advocates a skeptical attitude that nevertheless doesn't give up hope.

Anyway, that's how it looks from the White Oaks.

A writer and environmentalist, Lauren R. Stevens is a regular Eagle contributor.


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