A dual biography of two significant figures who “had little regard” for each other’s work but “were largely responsible for the creation of the basic intellectual blueprints that institutions around the world use today for understanding our environmental dilemmas.”
A thick book featuring two scientists unknown to most readers is a tough sell, but bestselling journalist and historian Mann (1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, 2011, etc.), a correspondent for the Atlantic, Science, and Wired, turns in his usual masterful performance. Nobel Prize–winning agronomist Norman Borlaug (1914-2009) developed high-yield wheat varieties and championed agricultural techniques that led to the “Green Revolution,” vastly increasing world food production. Ornithologist William Vogt (1902-1968) studied the relationship between resources and population and wrote the 1948 bestseller Road to Survival, a founding document of modern environmentalism in which the author maintains that current trends will lead to overpopulation and mass hunger. Borlaug and Vogt represent two sides of a centurylong dispute between what Mann calls “wizards,” who believe that science will allow humans to continue prospering, and “prophets,” who predict disaster unless we accept that our planet’s resources are limited. Beginning with admiring biographies, the author moves on to the environmental challenges the two men symbolize. Agriculture will require a second green revolution by 2050 to feed an estimated 10 billion inhabitants. Only 1 percent of Earth’s water is fresh and accessible; three-quarters goes to agriculture, and shortages are already alarming. More than 1.2 billion people still lack electricity; whether to produce more or use less energy bitterly divides both sides. Neither denies that human activities are wreaking havoc with Earth’s climate. Mann’s most spectacular accomplishment is to take no sides. Readers will thrill to the wizards’ astounding advances and believe the prophets’ gloomy forecasts, and they will also discover that technological miracles produce nasty side effects and that self-sacrifice, as prophets urge, has proven contrary to human nature.
An insightful, highly significant account that makes no predictions but lays out the critical environmental problems already upon us.