The new Charles C. Mann book, *The Wizard and the Prophet*

by on June 22, 2017 at 12:01 am in Books, Food and Drink, History, Science | Permalink

I am of course excited about this, as his 1491 and 1493 are two of my favorite books:

The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World

Here is the Amazon summary:

In forty years, Earth’s population will reach ten billion. Can our world support that? What kind of world will it be? Those answering these questions generally fall into two deeply divided groups–Wizards and Prophets, as Charles Mann calls them in this balanced, authoritative, nonpolemical new book. The Prophets, he explains, follow William Vogt, a founding environmentalist who believed that in using more than our planet has to give, our prosperity will lead us to ruin. Cut back! was his mantra. Otherwise everyone will lose! The Wizards are the heirs of Norman Borlaug, whose research, in effect, wrangled the world in service to our species to produce modern high-yield crops that then saved millions from starvation. Innovate! was Borlaug’s cry. Only in that way can everyone win! Mann delves into these diverging viewpoints to assess the four great challenges humanity faces–food, water, energy, climate change–grounding each in historical context and weighing the options for the future. With our civilization on the line, the author’s insightful analysis is an essential addition to the urgent conversation about how our children will fare on an increasingly crowded Earth.

I pre-ordered mine but a moment ago.

1 Some Guy June 22, 2017 at 12:03 am

He would make a great guest on Conversations with Tyler!

2 Hoosier June 22, 2017 at 9:18 am

Was just about to type the same!!

3 Jeff R June 22, 2017 at 9:55 am

+1

4 Steve Sailer June 22, 2017 at 12:16 am

Most of the world is headed for replacement or lower fertility rates, with an occasional exception like backward Afghanistan.

The main exception at present is sub-Saharan Africa. Around 2012, the UN discovered to its dismay that many African governments had been undercounting both population and births. Therefore, fertility in Africa was actually much higher than the UN had assumed in its previous forecasts and was falling much more slowly than expected. The UN’s latest forecast (2015) is that the sub-Saharan population will octuple from a half billion in 1990 to four billion in 2100.

Unfortunately, during the decades when the world stopped worrying about African overpopulation an attitude grew up that it would be racist to recommend to Africans that they take responsibility for doing what the rest of the world has largely done and control their fertility.

5 Moo cow June 22, 2017 at 12:44 am

Maybe if we allowed contraception, family planning and abortion services with our aid dollars.

Somebody doesnt want to slow that population growth. And it’s not Nancy Pelosi. Heh.

6 Frogg June 22, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Maybe if we allowed contraception, family planning and abortion services with our aid dollars.”

Fake news, it’s only the third that anyone has a problem with. And it’s entirely within one’s rights to say X is a problem without endorsing every possible solution to it, why don’t we just not send any food the next time there’s a famine?

7 prior_test2 June 22, 2017 at 3:26 am

Old news possibly (depending on the current administration’s own future policy decisions), but most definitely not fake – ‘The policy originally enacted from 1984 to 1993 spoke to abortion only, not family planning in general. However, in 2001, the policy was re-implemented and expanded to cover all voluntary family planning activities, and critics began to refer to it as the “global gag rule.” These critics argue that the policy not only reduces the overall funding provided to particular NGOs, it closes off their access to USAID-supplied condoms and other forms of contraception. This, they argue, negatively impacts the ability of these NGOs to distribute birth control, leading to a downturn in contraceptive use and from there to an increase in the rates of unintended pregnancies and abortion. A study of nations in sub-Saharan Africa suggests that unintended pregnancies increased and abortions approximately doubled while the policy was in effect. Critics also argue that the ban promotes restrictions on free speech as well as restrictions on accurate medical information. The European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development presented a petition to the United States Congress signed by 233 members condemning the policy. The forum has stated that the policy “undermines internationally agreed consensus and goals.”‘ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mexico_City_policy

8 Jan June 22, 2017 at 5:46 am

Wrong. They are holding up aid money to a wide range of health services orgs that provide a lots of services if they think the orgs may perform abortions or even tell women about other orgs that do provide abortion.

When this happened under Bush, it did not achieve its goal. “Millions of women went without contraception they wanted and, in many cases, had already been using. Rates of unintended pregnancy rose in some of the world’s poorest populations. So did abortion rates, as they usually do when women have no way to prevent pregnancy.”

http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2017/05/15/donald_trump_holds_8_8_billion_in_global_health_aid_hostage_under_expanded.html

9 chuck martel June 22, 2017 at 8:32 am

Abortions aren’t “health services”. Aside from that, the primary raison d’etre of all living organisms is procreation. Successful living organisms reproduce. Humans that can’t be bothered to reproduce or find the process economically inimical to their own standard of living will eventually go out of existence.

10 Thiago Ribeiro June 22, 2017 at 8:51 am

“Aside from that, the primary raison d’etre of all living organisms is procreation.”
So (faithful) Catholic priests are failed living organisms?

11 Ray Lopez June 22, 2017 at 12:44 am

Unfortunately? An attitude grew up? You’re a man ahead of your time Sailer. The 1950s. Google Capricorn Africa Society and see my post on the diamond dealers trust network.

12 Troll Me June 22, 2017 at 7:52 am

It was reported at https://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2017/06/economist-explains-6 that Nigeria population growth estimates (mainly driven by Nigeria numbers) are vastly overestimated. This is mostly due to inflated population estimates in Nigeria. They were inflated at regional levels (in the 2006 census) because population levels determined the levels of funding.

As for “taking responsibility”, it may be worth asking if the abstinence only approach advocated by a former president could be expected to have the result of lower population growth that many people assume would be better for future wellbeing on the continent.

And, recall, you’re preaching about taking responsibility when they are just doing what people have always done, from a situation of no information about the broader and/or long-run effects.

There are many approaches to promoting reduced fertility in a rapidly growing poor country. Perhaps you’d have an interest to promote improved access to education of girls, a small basic pension (to improve security in a fewer-children situation), incorporation of proper sex education in schooling inclusive of knowledge of contraceptive options as compared to abstinence-only approaches, etc.?

13 Axa June 22, 2017 at 8:25 am

@Steve: Africa population was estimated by the UN at 631 million by 1990, multiplied by 8 is 5.048 billion. Pseudoscience people loves to use words as “octuple” even if the numbers don’t add. Perhaps you should reread the 2015 UN report http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/publications/world-population-prospects-2015-revision.html

14 Anonymous June 22, 2017 at 4:38 pm

He said sub-Saharan Africa, dumbass.

15 Chip June 22, 2017 at 10:23 am

African birth rates are falling, albeit slowly.

The issue is that death rates are falling much more quickly as new medicine and technology reach more people.

So unlike most of the responses here that lament a lack of western aid (ie, condoms), the underlying reason for the rapid population growth is growing western aid.

16 Troll Me June 23, 2017 at 11:41 am

Western aid is not growing (generally speaking), especially on a per capita basis.

However, Jeffrey Sachs thinks they could solve every major identified problem if we could chip in 0.7% of GDP, but 0.2-0.3% is seen by some as too much already.

17 Jason Bayz June 22, 2017 at 12:19 am

“In forty years, Earth’s population will reach ten billion. Can our world support that? What kind of world will it be? Those answering these questions generally fall into two deeply divided groups–Wizards and Prophets, as Charles Mann calls them in this balanced, authoritative, nonpolemical new book. The Prophets, he explains, follow William Vogt, a founding environmentalist who believed that in using more than our planet has to give, our prosperity will lead us to ruin. Cut back! was his mantra. Otherwise everyone will lose! The Wizards are the heirs of Norman Borlaug, whose research, in effect, wrangled the world in service to our species to produce modern high-yield crops that then saved millions from starvation. Innovate! was Borlaug’s cry.”

The framing is wrong. “We can’t count on innovating – cut back” vs “we’ll innovate our way out of this” is a false choice. We could easily support 10 billion people, with current technology, no innovation required, simply by increasing crop yields, which are nowhere near their theoretical maximums in the West, let alone the third world. The only big challenge will be getting the food to the areas of Africa which may prove unable to feed themselves.(All Africa would need to get to in terms of agriculture is roughly the level of India to feed it’s projected 3-4 billion people.) If parts of it can’t, some kind of Cura Annonae will be required.

18 Alistair June 22, 2017 at 5:13 am

Agreed. It’s not difficult to do the basic sums on current arable/pasture area and yields and reach optimistic conclusions. Once you allow for convergence in African and Asian yields, continued yield improvements, or even (gasp!) bringing land back into cultivation, then you start to realise the “Prophets” get their money by shaking down the credulous.

19 Floccina July 3, 2017 at 2:34 pm

+1

20 Ray Lopez June 22, 2017 at 12:48 am

You’re quite right we haven’t reached a Malthusian dilemma yet, but you underestimate the developed countries public distrust of science, aka the anti-GMO movement. An interesting link here was the one that described how the average Westerner views science, stuff they can’t understand they tend to run away with and speculate (e.g., GMO genes will not get digested by your body, but turn you into a GMO yourself, aka ‘you are what you eat’–seriously, these Luddites think like that).

21 Ray Lopez June 22, 2017 at 12:49 am

reply was meant for @Jason Bayz

22 Alistair June 22, 2017 at 5:15 am

Yeah. And remember; these attitudes come overwhelmingly from the “I f**king love science” and “reality based” community. Along with opposition to nuclear power. The irony is hilarious.

I assume, like the good hypocrites they are, they would simply change their tune if faced with real hunger. They can only afford to be such poseurs because food is such a minority of their expenditures.

23 Troll Me June 22, 2017 at 8:09 am

The main concerns I’ve heard relating to GMO is that the genes will spread into wild plants and end up having some crazy effect that no one guessed about and so didn’t check about.

People who worry about unknown unknowns are neither crazy nor anti-science, unless they are.

24 Butler T. Reynolds June 22, 2017 at 9:53 am

“People who worry about unknown unknowns are neither crazy nor anti-science, unless they are.”

Or they’re Amish.

25 JWatts June 22, 2017 at 3:25 pm

“People who worry about unknown unknowns are neither crazy nor anti-science, unless they are.”

Translation: People on my side who disagree with the most likely conclusion are deep thinkers, whereas people on the other side are just crazy.

26 Troll Me June 22, 2017 at 7:23 pm

No, just that there are people which are two or three of those things including the first, but the first does not necessarily imply either of the second two.

27 Mark Thorson June 22, 2017 at 1:26 am

I don’t think the problem is either global climate change or overpopulation. We’ll adapt to either one if it’s gradual. Maybe an epidemic here or a famine there, but there will always be an equilibrium which won’t be too bad if we approach it slowly enough. If you practice replacement-level birth control (China demonstrated that’s possible at scale over time) you get a nicer equilibrium than the crowded miserable equilibrium you get if you allow Nature to take its course. An S-shaped curve with a maximum slope of 1C average temperature rise per generation or 1 foot of sea level rise is a big deal but not a destroyer of major civilizations. (Sorry about that, Maldives.)

The problem is the sudden crisis. For example, if a small rise in average temperature causes sudden large methane releases that in turn cause a higher rise and even larger methane releases — a positive feedback loop that rapidly and profoundly changes climate. If we have to deal with 10C or 10 meters change over 1 year, there will be mass disaster similar to a large meteor strike. Our major civilizations and governments would survive, but most of the people won’t.

There’ve been unusually strong earthquake swarms under Yellowstone in the past few days. If the worst-case Yellowstone caldera explosion occurs, we’ll feel pretty dumb for fretting about small stuff while ignoring the big one.

28 Alistair June 22, 2017 at 5:16 am

No, Global Warming will be blamed for the eruption.

29 Brian Donohue June 22, 2017 at 10:05 am

+1.

30 Edward Burke June 22, 2017 at 1:46 am

How many people are reading TC’s alert to this title in Phoenix, Arizona, today?

Certainly, Mann seems to have discounted the very latest warnings from the astrophysical community that a NEO with our name on it could slam into the wrong ocean or continent at any moment, any hour, any day, week, month, year, decade, or century.

31 Martin Adolfo Valdez Quintero June 22, 2017 at 2:33 am

Saludos de.Mexicali, México, a 50C.
122 in retard units

32 x June 22, 2017 at 10:42 am
33 JWatts June 22, 2017 at 3:29 pm

“Saludos de.Mexicali, México, a 50C. 122 in retard units”

When did this happen? And please use Metric time and not any kind of retarded units.

34 JWatts June 22, 2017 at 3:33 pm

It’s always amused me that people using a partial Metric standard look down on another people using another standard. It’s similar to a partially mixed race person looking down on someone who’s fully of one race.

If you aren’t measuring time in Seconds, then you aren’t using the Metric standard.

35 Crikey June 22, 2017 at 3:57 am

A population of 10+ billion in 40 years is not at all unreasonable at all looking at current trends. But I’m not convinced we’ll get there. I am expecting Nigeria and other high population, high fertility rate, countries to show a rapid decline in fertility, similar to what has been seen in India and Pakistan, and I don’t expect birth rates in developed countries to recover. So while not unlikely, 10+ billion by 2057 is not a done deal. All we can really be sure of is we can’t be sure.

36 chuck martel June 22, 2017 at 6:24 am

Two factors are being ignored, gravity and time. Our own human experience of time is so infinitesimal that we can’t comprehend the eons of the past or those of the future. Over this unimaginable stretch of time the particles that make up the highest peaks on earth will eventually be carried to the depths of the world’s oceans, a place they’ve been before. Aside from that, a casual glance at the moon reveals the damage wrought by smaller objects traveling through space and impacting larger ones. It’s inevitable that such encounters will occur in the future as they have in the past. Human presence on earth is temporary.

37 Evans_KY June 22, 2017 at 6:32 am

Every scientist should learn the lesson of Paul Ehrlich and the Green Revolution. Will we adapt to survive this time? With misinformation and pigheadedness so rampant I am less than sure.

38 Butler T. Reynolds June 22, 2017 at 7:13 am

I look around at the innovations that have made my life better and think that we’re living in the world of the Wizards. Then I consider my low flow toilets and shower heads….

39 Jeff R June 22, 2017 at 10:04 am

Aye, those are truly a crime against humanity, I say.

40 The Engineer June 22, 2017 at 8:21 am

“Mann delves into these diverging viewpoints to assess the four great challenges humanity faces–food, water, energy, climate change”

Four great challenges?!? Is food a challenge? It isn’t right now, and if you do projections, it doesn’t seem like it will be.

Energy? The world is awash in hydrocarbons. Crude oil and natural gas are currently over-supplied in global markets.

Water? Arguably, if you have cheap energy, you have water. We know how to clean water, heck we even know how to strip it out of the air if necessary.

Which gets us to… climate change. It is only if we are concerned about climate change, which puts those cheap hydrocarbons off limits, that we really have a problem.

Arguably, with the rise from ~150 ppm CO2 to 400 ppm CO2 in our atmosphere, which has resulted in ~1°C rise in average global temperatures (and is partially responsible for increasing agricultural yields so far), we have almost nothing to worry about.

Which puts all the fear mongering about climate change into perspective.

41 Mark Bahner June 22, 2017 at 12:55 pm

“‘Mann delves into these diverging viewpoints to assess the four great challenges humanity faces–food, water, energy, climate change’. Four great challenges?!?”

Yes, what about: 1) nuclear war, 2) malign AI, 3) biological war, and 4) nuclear war (again)? I was listening to Fresh Air last night about the book, “Raven Rock…” Scary stuff!

42 Alistair June 22, 2017 at 1:27 pm

I can think of a dozen better candidates for “great challenges” ranging from AI to heat death of the universe. None of these 4 feature.

43 Mark Bahner June 22, 2017 at 10:24 pm

“None of these 4 feature.”

None of *my* four, or none of the original four? I sure don’t rank “heat death of the universe” anywhere near as high as nuclear war.

Apparently, a few days ago, the U.S. had a fighter jet get within 5 feet of a plane containing the Defense Secretary of Russia. In the immortal words of Fred Thompson as Admiral Painter in “The Hunt for Red October”:

“This business will get out of control. It will get out of control and we’ll be lucky to live through it.”

44 Alistair June 23, 2017 at 3:35 am

None of original 4. Sorry.

45 Alistair June 23, 2017 at 3:56 am

But large scale nuclear war is also unlikely to be a civilisation or survival scale threat.

46 Alistair June 22, 2017 at 1:25 pm

And +1.

The choice of the “4 Great Challenges” tell you only about the political pre-occupations and scientific/engineering ignorance of the people concerned with them.

47 Li Zhi June 22, 2017 at 8:29 am

As an interested but not invested observer, I find it remarkable that the consensus here is clearly that a 10 billion population is sustainable. I argue that our four great challenges are: ignorance, sexual pleasure, aggression, and -here it comes- complacency. I’d also argue that these are parts of fundamental biological human nature and can only be marginally modified by social mechanisms. As to whether our current growth curve will turn out to be ballistic or an “S-curve” over the next 200-300 years, I’m guessing parabolic. I mean, people are discussing impact events and not antibiotic resistance, for gosh sakes. I have met the enemy.

48 Mark Bahner June 22, 2017 at 12:51 pm

“…I find it remarkable that the consensus here is clearly that a 10 billion population is sustainable.”

What factor(s) would cause it to be unsustainable?

49 JWatts June 22, 2017 at 3:37 pm

“I mean, people are discussing impact events and not antibiotic resistance, for gosh sakes. I have met the enemy.”

Antibiotic resistance is hardly a threat to civilization.

50 Andreas Moser June 22, 2017 at 9:13 am

I also greatly enjoyed “1493” – https://andreasmoser.blog/2014/09/20/1493/ -, but I wouldn’t pre-order a book solely based on the name of the author and an interesting subject. I’ll wait for a few reviews or an interview with the author about it.

51 Mark Thorson June 22, 2017 at 9:20 am

This is why The Great Complacency didn’t sell very well.

52 Slugger June 22, 2017 at 10:00 am

Life on earth is not uniform. I predict that most people will be about as comfortable as they are now. Some will be better off. Some will be worse off. Your job is to position yourself and those you care for to get into the better off camp.
Huge events such as asteroid collisions, Yellowstone mega volcano eruptions, or encounters with aliens using ftl vessels to reach Earth are not going to happen. Alabama, Florida, Michigan, and USC will be in the hunt for the national championship in NCAA football. Good looking people will continue to advance despite absence of great intelligence. The President of the US will be a tall person who shows no interest in opera or chess. The people in responsible positions will be very concerned about the fitness of the younger generation to take over.

53 Dallas Weaver Ph.D. June 24, 2017 at 1:46 pm

It is not a question of innovation (all that is required for 10 billion is here or close enough to easily see being on the way), it is a question of allowing innovation to be utilized (ie political/social/legal regulations).

To answer the food/meat issue for another 5 billion people (3 billion on the way + 2 billion that want to eat more meat) we can just shift our meat production from cows, pigs and chickens to aquaculture animals like fish/shrimp/shellfish etc. Converting “feed stuffs” like soybeans, corn, etc. into the meat using warm-blooded animals that waste energy keeping warm and spend a lot of growth energy on bones and tendon necessary to stand up on land is about 3 times less efficient (per unit of useful meat) than fish. It takes 1 kg of feed to produce a kg of live salmon with a 65+% meat yield.

Just the shift to aquaculture (effectively regulated out of existence in the US, but growing at 9%+ per year world wide outside our regulatory insanity) alone would handle most of the food issue and the normal increase in crop yield would handle the smaller carbohydrate issue without increasing land area.

City water usage can be handled by allowing “toilet to tap” water treatment (now illegal in most areas of the US).

To handle the CO2 issue, fracking technology could be allowed in the rest of the world (now effectively banned in most of the world) comined with solar power/wind and better batteries and a lot more of them.

It is ironic that the doomsayers are often the environmental activist that block solutions to the problems they rant about. They are forcing their self-fulfilling policy onto society.

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