Wizard and prophets

"Are you here for a drink," said the girl at Mr. Mofongo, a trendy and crowded bar next to the academy building in Groningen. “Of course," I said with a big smile on my face. "Follow me please", she replied. We followed her to a slightly quieter corner in the building and ordered a glass of specialty beer. My brother-in-law, Henk and I had been at an evening lecture by the American writer and journalist Charles C. Mann.

Mann came to talk about his latest book “The Wizard and the Prophet. Charles Mann is a journalist with the New York Times and has written several books, including '1491 'and '1493' about the development of America before 1491 and the development of the same continent after the arrival of Columbus in 1492. His lecture ended much earlier than expected. Mann talked very fast and therefore after half an hour he was ready for questions. At half past eight we were back on the street slightly bewildered and with a copy of the book signed by Mann. Before going home and process all the information at a normal pace by reading the book, we decided to evaluate the evening and go for a drink.
 
In his book, Mann describes the development of two worldviews, that of the prophet and that of the wizard. The prophets are the followers of William Vogt, one of the founders of the environmental movement, who believed that our growing prosperity leads to environmental disasters and that we must reduce and refrain from economic growth. The wizards are the followers of Norman Borlaug who promoted a more productive agriculture through innovative technology. He believes that we can anticipate problems and increasing prosperity through technological innovation. William Vogt, born in 1902, actually developed the underlying ideas for the current environmental movement. He was convinced that humanity was destroying the planet due to population growth and consumption. Borlaug, born in 1914, was more optimistic and became the symbol of what is now called techno-optimism or eco-modernism. He believed that progress brings us new technology that enables us to overcome the problems that economic and population growth entails. For instance the genetic modification of crops, through which yields can be increased or the use of pesticides can be reduced. We can conclude that they had completely opposite ideas.
 
The question Mann asks himself in the book is: who is right? Mann does not want to choose, he leaves that to the reader. Also during the half hour discussion, he did not clarify his point of view. I expected him to say that both views make a valid point and you have to determine for each situation, which approach is the best or maybe combine both. Both views represent opposing values ‚Äč‚Äčthat are eager to fight each other, as we see in the current and highly polarizing environmental and climate debate. The key, in my opinion, is that neither is right or wrong. If you allow yourself to take a step back, you can see that they can complement and even reinforce each other, like Yin and Yang. Can one really exist without the other? When both camps understand that they need each other, progress will be faster, or does that make me a progress optimist?


After finishing two beers each my brother- in-law and I asked for the check. The man behind the bar looked surprised: “everything is being paid for by the committee”. We explained that we weren’t part of the group and I handed him a twenty-euro note, but he wouldn't accept it. “They won't notice it, it's okay” he said, smiling. That was an unexpected windfall and a nice conclusion of the evening.

Sytze Keuning (keuning@bioclearearth.nl)

Published in the journal Bodem.