*The Wizard and the Prophet*

by on January 4, 2018 at 12:12 am in Books, Food and Drink, History, Science | Permalink

The author is Charles C. Mann, and the subtitle is Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World.  What a splendid book, this is, all rolled into one the reader receives two distinct biographies, a history of mid-20th century environmental science, a book on technological progress in agriculture, and one of the best overall frameworks for thinking about environmentalism.

Oh how many good sentences there are:

Until I visited post-Katrina New Orleans I did not realize that rebuilding a flooded modern city would involve disposing of several hundred thousand refrigerators.

Here is one fun bit:

So ineradicable was the elitist mark on conservation that for decades afterward many on the left scoffed at ecological issues as right-wing distractions.  As late as 1970, the radical Students for a Democratic Society protested the first Earth Day as Wall Street flimflam meant to divert public attention from class warfare and the Vietnam War; left-wing journalist I.F. Stone called the nationwide marches a “snow job.”

By the way, as for the subjects of the dual biographies:

The two people are William Vogt and Norman Borlaug.

Here is the framing of the book:

…the dispute between Wizards and Prophets has, if anything, become more vehement.  Wizards view the Prophets’ emphasis on cutting back as intellectually dishonest, indifferent to the poor, even racist (because most of the world’s hungry are non-Caucasian).  Following Vogt, they say, is a path toward regression, narrowness, and global poverty.  Prophets sneer that the Wizards’ faith in human resourcefulness is unthinking, scientifically ignorant, even driven by greed…Following Borlaug, they say, at best postpones an inevitable day of reckoning — it is a recipe for what activists have come to describe as “ecocide.”

Where along the Wizards-Prophets spectrum should one be?

This will end up as one of the very best books of this year.

1 Sandia January 4, 2018 at 12:42 am
2 Sandia January 4, 2018 at 12:54 am

Last sentence of above-linked obituary is interesting via a vis the book….

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3 clockwork_prior January 4, 2018 at 12:57 am

‘Where along the Wizards-Prophets spectrum should one be?’

Nowhere – it is a false distinction, as a public choice economist should know.

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4 bmcburney January 4, 2018 at 9:56 am

A false distinction? The distinction seems real enough and I don’t see how public choice theory makes it less so.

Where “should one be” on the spectrum?

Let’s examine the issue empirically. The “Wizards” have produced actual, tangible, changes in the real world which have saved and dramatically improved millions of lives. We routinely describe their work as producing “miracles”. The “Prophets” have produced nothing but predictions doom and, to date, every single one of those predictions has been utterly wrong. That an ersatz “debate” continues on the relative merits of the Vogt and Borlaug world views merely demonstrates how politics, especially left wing politics, provides subsidies for irrationally.

The Prophets can be as wrong during the next 50 years as they have been for the past 50 and still find a market. “Following Borlaug, they say, at best postpones an inevitable day of reckoning — it is a recipe for what activists have come to describe as ‘ecocide.’” Eventually, I suppose, a sweet meteor of death will arrive and the prophets will claim their “ecocide” victory. Until then, I don’t understand why they receive more credit than the other sad nut jobs raving that the world is about to end unless we repent and start acting the way they have decided we should act.

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5 stephan January 4, 2018 at 7:40 pm

+ 1

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6 Deek January 4, 2018 at 1:55 am

Why do Americans continue to use the outdated and discredited term Caucasian?

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7 Axa January 4, 2018 at 2:14 am

Which is the right term?

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8 Adrian Ratnapala January 4, 2018 at 2:31 am

Whitey.

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9 Crikey January 4, 2018 at 3:15 am

BoSCs — Bearers of Skin Cancer

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10 Floccina January 4, 2018 at 9:08 am

Because “caucer” works better than “eurer”.

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11 Enrique January 4, 2018 at 2:15 am

Can’t a prophet be a wizard, or vice versa?

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12 mkt42 January 4, 2018 at 2:16 am

Hmm, as with the article about sand, this is another re-run, we’d commented about this book (I guess it was still forthcoming at that point) a few months ago. From most of the descriptions it does not sound like it will be an informative book to people who are already familiar with in particular the Simon-Erhlich wager.

But Tyler says that it provides “one of the best overall frameworks for thinking about environmentalism”, and I was not aware of the class-based history of environmentalist debates that Tyler quotes.

On yet another hand that whole Wizards vs Prophets framing that Tyler describes does not sound innovative nor useful.

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13 Roger Sweeny January 4, 2018 at 12:17 pm

1. by Charles C. Mann
2. 640 pages

I’ll bet it will be pretty informative even for people familiar with Simon-Erhlich.

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14 rayward January 4, 2018 at 7:33 am

“Where along the Wizards-Prophets spectrum should one be?” Cowen’s question suggests that the book doesn’t paint one side or the other as evil or stupid, which is encouraging, but also seems to suggest that both Wizards and Prophets believe we can determine our (environmental) future. That seems hubristic. Has globalization made it more or less likely that we can determine our future? Is the future mostly determined by arbitrary events? Yesterday was an eventful day in the low country, as some areas experienced snow, a relatively benign experience, while other areas experienced an ice storm, not a benign experience. Unfortunately, my area experienced an ice storm, an event that has not occurred in my area for the roughly 35 years I have been visiting or residing in the area. We had a good snow once (at Christmas in 1989), but no ice storm. What in the world is happening! Some scientists believe the jet stream is weakening due to warming of the Arctic, allowing cold air to reach further to the south. Where was that colder air in September when we were slammed by Hurricane Irma? Readers farther to the north will have their experience with the weaker jet stream today and tomorrow. Good luck! You will need it, whether you are a Wizard or a Prophet.

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15 Floccina January 4, 2018 at 9:14 am

AGW = higher highs and higher lows, everything else is just weather.

What in the world is happening! Some scientists believe the jet stream is weakening due to warming of the Arctic, allowing cold air to reach further to the south. Where was that colder air in September when we were slammed by Hurricane Irma?

At this point that is just a guess, and why would one even make that guess after so few events when it just looks like weather?

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16 TMC January 4, 2018 at 12:42 pm

“What in the world is happening! ”

Sounds like pretty much the same thing that happened in 1989. Why you getting excited?

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17 Sandia January 4, 2018 at 8:22 am

Suppose four 30 yr old people were stranded on a large island with a 50 yr food supply. Is the strategy to slowly eat the food and have all four live to be 80, then die and becom extinct? Or is it to take some risk and reproduce and try to create ongoing food supplies, boats, clothing, shelter, etc? How many kids should they try to have? How should the price of food be set or should it be rationed? What are the odds that as the food supply dwindles war and/or cannibalism result?

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18 Sure January 4, 2018 at 8:34 am

Suppose the Prophets are right. We face a day of reckoning that we can only forestall but not eliminate.

Okay, so some of us start limiting our reproduction, our economic growth, and our technological advancement. When the day of reckoning comes who will dictate the response? Those left with the greatest numbers, economic clout, and best situated to militarily compel compliance – i.e. everyone who did not listen to the Prophets. Or those who pretended to listen to the prophets and just shirked all their commitments.

If every issue that mattered to the Prophets were put to a global vote, it would fail. Billions live in abject poverty while billions more would readily trade away the environment to live a better life. The only reason Prophets are influential is that the powerful nations in the world do not buy into global democracy.

I do not see this dynamic changing. We already see in the US and Western Europe where high fertility groups are acquiring increasing political power. We already see those individuals and companies who invest on Wizard principles acquiring more political power. We already see a breakneck sprint by every military in the world to increase their technological prowess. Those who opt for Prophet are going to, at least for a time, fall behind. I suspect then that the best chance of getting Prophet values to stick in the long haul is to keep the more Prophet oriented societies investing heavily in Wizards. Otherwise, Prophet seems like an inherently self-defeating choice.

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19 chuck martel January 4, 2018 at 10:11 am

We face a day of reckoning that we can only forestall but not eliminate.

Of course, but probably not today or tomorrow. Does anyone think that life as we know it, or even don’t know it, will be infinite? That a tiny aggregation of biological forms on an inconsequential planet orbiting a minor-league star will be around forever? When you’re dead, you’re dead and you won’t know what happens afterwards. And it won’t matter.

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20 Alistair January 4, 2018 at 12:17 pm

No idea about the ultimate finitude of life. I’ll leave the problem to future engineers and physicists. They might come up with something.

Even if they don’t, Doom Later is better than Doom Now. Unless you’re totally given over to Nihilistic despair.

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21 msgkings January 4, 2018 at 12:22 pm

This. We all have to deal with our inevitable death somehow, one way is to say ‘nothing matters we’re all gonna die’. That’s no way to live IMO.

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22 Alistair January 4, 2018 at 12:35 pm

> We all have to deal with our inevitable death somehow, one way is to say ‘nothing matters we’re all gonna die’. That’s no way to live IMO.

Indeed. Fear of death is inevitable, but to let that fear drive one to nihilism is a fallacy of presumption, a conceit of pride.

Courage!

23 OldCurmudgeon January 4, 2018 at 11:26 am

>our economic growth, and our technological advancement.
>i.e. everyone who did not listen to the Prophets.

And/or the ones who did listen and actually thought critically about the implications of the Prophet’s warnings. It’s hard to think of an ecological disaster scenario where it would be beneficial to start poorer and less technologically capable. It’s even more clear when one acknowledges that we have uncertainty about the exact order, form, location, extent, etc of those disasters.

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24 Floccina January 4, 2018 at 9:20 am

Where along the Wizards-Prophets spectrum should one be?

1. Assume that existing technology will spread.

2. Assume some conservative level of technological advance.

3. Keep in mind we are optimized for most output for least effort and so can move production up as scarcity pushes price up.

4. Keep in mind a clean environment helps us all.

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25 The Anti-Gnostic January 4, 2018 at 9:44 am
26 jseliger January 4, 2018 at 9:21 am

Where along the Wizards-Prophets spectrum should one be?

This feels like an easy one: few if any countries have really cut back, on a larger scale; the Prophet view fails in practice. I’m reminded of all the prophets I know who drive hybrid cars (and tell you about it) yet still take three flights a year, if not more. Prophets in the ’70s and ’80s hated nuclear and that just got us a lot more coal and now natural gas.

Practically, the answer is “pretty far towards Wizards.”

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27 JWatts January 4, 2018 at 9:41 am

” I’m reminded of all the prophets I know who drive hybrid cars (and tell you about it) yet still take three flights a year, if not more.”

Or Leonardo DiCaprio taking his private jet on a round trip from Cannes, France to NYC and then back to Cannes to pick up an environmental award.

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28 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ January 4, 2018 at 11:10 am

The hybrid driver, even with the three flights, was doing better than his fellow passengers .. but they hate it, and scold him back into a BMW.

That is our actual world.

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29 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ January 4, 2018 at 11:08 am

I feel sad and resigned on the “cutting back” thing. Done properly, it is all about greater happiness at a lower environmental footprint. But nobody really wants to back up that far, and think about alternate happy lives they might lead.

People follow patterns of life which preclude not just change, but even consideration of the opportunity.

So you know, preserve the golf course, close the community garden.

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30 cthulhu January 4, 2018 at 11:27 am

The prophet viewpoint condemns most if not all of the world population to a certain, painful, untimely death.

The wizard path has a nonzero probability of long, happy, prosperous lives for all.

Seems to me that we have a moral imperative to choose the wizard path.

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31 Anonymous January 4, 2018 at 11:38 am

I think many prophets ask the affluent to reduce their needs toward the global median.

But they can’t, because Leonardo DiCaprio is an actor, or some other stupid excuse.

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32 Alistair January 4, 2018 at 12:23 pm

But the prophet viewpoint has the advantage of signalling what a nice, conscientious, liberal one is….

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33 Brian Donohue January 4, 2018 at 12:44 pm

I dunno- sandwich boards are available across the political spectrum.

Prophets are sober and steely-eyed, wizards are silly dreamers not to be taken seriously. This seems like the big problem.

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34 Alistair January 4, 2018 at 12:52 pm

Ah, ok – I think this discussion is just following environmental doomsterism – that’s been dominated by the left for decades.

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35 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ January 4, 2018 at 1:08 pm

Can you step back and see how deeply dysfunctional that framing is?

In a fair assessment 99% of all people are neither prophets nor wizards, but they are *all* willing to point at someone else to justify their own inaction.

“If you rode a bicycle a bit more, you would probably be healthier and happier.”

“I can’t! Don’t you know Al Gore has a helicopter?”

36 Alistair January 4, 2018 at 2:19 pm

>> Can you step back and see how deeply dysfunctional that framing is? In a fair assessment 99% of all people are neither prophets nor wizards, but they are *all* willing to point at someone else to justify their own inaction.

No, I’ll stand by it. The large majority of all environmental prophets are left-wing is my claim. The majority of prophets in this book are environmental prophets is my claim. I make _no claim_ about the general population attitudes as you prescribe above.

Those are my claims. Dispute or affirm?

37 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ January 4, 2018 at 4:52 pm

You really don’t see how the two relate? On this page?

Prophets are bad, therefore the general population gets a free pass.

Also, very circular logic that environmental concerns are left wing. But that is the perception, and why the right wing environmentalists who are out there get such little traction.

38 Alistair January 5, 2018 at 11:27 am

ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ,

Inaction is correct not because the (environmental) prophets are bad (I make no claim on their moral content here). Inaction is correct because the (environmental) prophets are _wrong_.

My claims pertain to the subset of environmental prophets. Whom I claim are majority left wing. Whom I claim are the main subject of the book. I make no claim about the ideological inclination and accuracy of the general population of prophets here.

39 peri January 4, 2018 at 1:37 pm

The guy around the corner is terrific: he can plumb and do anything electrical, fix up the old car on blocks in his driveway, work magic on your chainsaw when it’s stuck, and with his own hands complete the ugliest garage conversion you’ve ever seen.

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40 kevin January 11, 2018 at 4:47 am

Wow, I’m really surprised at the denigration of Prophets expressed here!

It seems to me that we need to listen to the wisdom of both Prophets and Wizards. This might look like creating some incentives towards correcting the externalities (e.g. through a carbon tax) in order to help spur development of technology, simply by using the price signal of impending scarcity and internalizing the actual cost of carbon-intensive energy sources.

Use market forces goddammit to help make the change!!

And of course there is a role for the scientific community, commercial R&D, universities, perhaps DARPA funded prize challenges. There’s lots we can do as a society without just closing our eyes and saying that some ingenious solution will come along!!! And it doesn’t have to be heavy-handed big gov’t programs – c’mon we’re smarter than that!

…….aren’t we?

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