Book that explores the biggest issue of our age

The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles Mann, author of the fascinating 1491 (what Elizabeth Warren’s ancestors were up to before Europeans arrived to trash these continents), explores what I think is the biggest issue of our age: can the human population continue to expand without (a) the Earth being transformed into an unpleasant habitat, and (b) humans themselves suffering a Malthusian reduction to a subsistence standard of living.

Mann frames the issue:

The two people were William Vogt and Norman Borlaug. Vogt, born in 1902, laid out the basic ideas for the modern environmental movement. In particular, he founded what the Hampshire College demographer Betsy Hartmann has called “apocalyptic environmentalism”—the belief that unless humankind drastically reduces consumption its growing numbers and appetite will overwhelm the planet’s ecosystems. In best-selling books and powerful speeches, Vogt argued that affluence is not our greatest achievement but our biggest problem. Our prosperity is temporary, he said, because it is based on taking more from Earth than it can give.

Borlaug, born twelve years later, has become the emblem of what has been termed “techno-optimism” or “cornucopianism”—the view that science and technology, properly applied, can help us produce our way out of our predicament. Exemplifying this idea, Borlaug was the primary figure in the research that in the 1960s created the “Green Revolution,” the combination of high-yielding crop varieties and agronomic techniques that raised grain harvests around the world, helping to avert tens of millions of deaths from hunger.

Prophets look at the world as finite, and people as constrained by their environment. Wizards see possibilities as inexhaustible, and humans as wily managers of the planet. One views growth and development as the lot and blessing of our species; others regard stability and preservation as our future and our goal. Wizards regard Earth as a toolbox, its contents freely available for use; Prophets think of the natural world as embodying an overarching order that should not casually be disturbed.

Mann reminds us that the default scientific assumption is that Vogt is correct:

Biologists tell us that all species, if given the chance, overreach, overreproduce, overconsume. Inevitably, they encounter a wall, always to catastrophic effect, and usually sooner rather than later.

Yet, on the other hand, we’ve already apparently cheated what seemed like biological limits. World population has the proverbial Silicon Valley hockey stick growth and yet people are living better than ever, all around the world (except here in the U.S., according to my Facebook friends, since the Trumpenfuhrer arrived at the Reichstag!). Mann cites estimates that humans currently consume 25-50% of the Earth’s “primary production”

Convinced by politicians that STEM is the path to a glamorous and satisfying career? Here’s a description of Vogt’s 1938 job studying birds:

As a new employee of the Compañía Administradora del Guano, Vogt based his operations on the Chincha Islands, three granitic outposts thirteen miles off the southwest coast of Peru. Named, unexcitingly, North, South, and Central Chincha, they were each less than a mile across, ringed by hundred-foot cliffs, and completely covered in heaps of bird excrement—treeless, gray-white barrens of guano. Atop the guano, shrieking and flapping, were millions of Guanay cormorants, packed together three nests to the square yard, sharp beaks guarding eggs that sat in small guano craters lined by molted feathers. The birds’ wings rustled and thrummed; multiplied by the million, the sound was a vibration in the skull. Fleas, ticks, and biting flies were everywhere. So was the stench of guano. By noon the light was so bright that Vogt’s photographic light meter “often could not measure it.” Vogt’s head and neck were constantly sunburned; later his ears developed precancerous growths. Vogt worked, ate, and slept in the bird guardians’ barracks on North Chincha, remaining offshore for weeks on end (he was also given an apartment in the nearby shore town of Pisco). His quarters on the island were almost without furniture, covered with guano dust, alive with flies and roaches. Birds mated, fought, and raised their offspring on the roof overhead, leaving so much guano that the building had to be shoveled off periodically to avoid collapse.

Vogt’s opinion was that World War II in the Pacific could be explained by “population pressure” in Japan, and that both World Wars in Europe were explained by competition over resources. He was worried about population growth elsewhere:

Vogt, for instance, was loudly scornful of the “unchecked spawning” and “untrammeled copulation” of “backward populations”—people in India, he sneered, breed with “the irresponsibility of codfish.”

The book proves that every American has an idea for a movie (about soil!) and confirms the history in Real World Divorce:

Marjorie instead went home to California, where she apparently met Vogt, fourteen years her senior, who was futilely trying to convince Walt Disney to make an animated movie about soil. It seems evident that they began a relationship. Juana had spent much of the previous two years alone in Latin America, trolling the embassy circuit for Nazi gossip. In June 1945 the couple rendezvoused in California. The marriage collapsed. Two months later Juana went to Reno, Nevada, to obtain one of the city’s famous quick divorces. Early in 1946 Marjorie also went to Reno, and for the same reason. Marjorie filed for divorce from Devereux, appeared before the court, received her decree, and married Bill on the same day: April 4, 1946.

With the help of the new young wife, Vogt pushes Road to Survival in 1948, coinciding with Fairfield Osborn’s Our Plundered Planet. Thinking around environmentalism hasn’t significantly changed in the ensuing 70 years:

Vogt and Osborn were also the first to bring to a wide public a belief that would become a foundation of environmental thought: consumption driven by capitalism and rising human numbers is the ultimate cause of most of the world’s ecological problems, and only dramatic reductions in human fertility and economic activity will prevent a worldwide calamity.

The Earth has a carrying capacity. Humans will breed until this carrying capacity is exceeded. Then wars and famine will break out.

Norman Borlaug also demonstrates what a comfortable career science can be…

Many years later, after he won the Nobel Prize, Norman Borlaug would look back on his first days in Mexico with incredulity. He was supposed to breed disease-resistant wheat in Mexico’s central highlands. Only after he arrived, in September 1944, did he grasp how unsuited he was for the task—almost as unqualified in his own way as Vogt had been when he set sail for Peru. He had never published an article in a peer-reviewed, professional journal. He had never worked with wheat or, for that matter, bred plants of any sort. In recent years he had not even been doing botanical research—since winning his Ph.D., he had spent his time testing chemicals and materials for industry. He had never been outside the United States and couldn’t speak Spanish. The work facilities were equally unprepossessing. Borlaug’s “laboratory” was a windowless tarpaper shack on 160 acres of dry, scrubby land on the campus of the Autonomous University of Chapingo. (“Autonomous” refers to the university’s legal authority to set its curriculum without government interference; Chapingo was the name of the village outside Mexico City where it was located.) And although Borlaug was sponsored by the wealthy Rockefeller Foundation, it could not provide him with scientific tools or machinery; during the Second World War, such equipment was reserved for the military.

Mann points out that being a science writer is a lot more fun than being a scientist: “A prerequisite for a successful scientific career is an enthusiastic willingness to pore through the minutiae of subjects that 99.9 percent of Earth’s population find screamingly dull.”

After decades of poverty and 80-hour work weeks, the Green Revolution ensues. Combine with the Haber-Bosch process for synthesizing ammonia to use in fertilizer (Mann says that 1 percent of the world’s industrial energy goes for this) and we can have unlimited food, right?

Maybe not. “Norman Borlaug: humanitarian hero or menace to society?” (Guardian, 2014):

“Few people at the time considered the profound social and ecological changes that the revolution heralded among peasant farmers. The long-term cost of depending on Borlaug’s new varieties, said eminent critics such as ecologist Vandana Shiva in India, was reduced soil fertility, reduced genetic diversity, soil erosion and increased vulnerability to pests.

Not only did Borlaug’s ‘high-yielding’ seeds demand expensive fertilisers, they also needed more water. Both were in short supply, and the revolution in plant breeding was said to have led to rural impoverishment, increased debt, social inequality and the displacement of vast numbers of peasant farmers,” he wrote.

The political journalist Alexander Cockburn was even less complimentary: “Aside from Kissinger, probably the biggest killer of all to have got the peace prize was Norman Borlaug, whose ‘green revolution’ wheat strains led to the death of peasants by the million.”

Mann does not cover these criticisms of Borlaug’s work. Even with Mann’s 100-percent positive perspective on the frankengrains, he admits that the only way to feed an increased human population with the latest tech comes at the cost of destroying animals in the ocean:

Hard on the heels of the gains were the losses. About 40 percent of the fertilizer applied in the last sixty years wasn’t assimilated by plants; instead, it washed away into rivers or seeped into the air in the form of nitrous oxide. Fertilizer flushed into rivers, lakes, and oceans is still fertilizer: it boosts the growth of algae, weeds, and other aquatic organisms. When these die, they rain to the ocean floor, where they are consumed by microbes. So rapidly do the microbes grow on the increased food supply that their respiration drains the oxygen from the lower depths, killing off most life. Where agricultural runoff flows, dead zones flourish. Nitrogen from Middle Western farms flows down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico every summer, creating an oxygen desert that in 2016 covered almost 7,000 square miles. The next year a still larger dead zone—23,000 square miles—was mapped in the Bay of Bengal.

How about organics? Maybe that is the answer:

[Organic farming promoter Jerome] Rodale died in 1971—bizarrely, on a television talk show, suffering a heart attack minutes after declaring “I never felt better in my life!” and offering the host his special asparagus boiled in urine.

The Gates Foundation will enable the Earth to support 50 billion people by engineering rice that accomplishes C4 photosynthesis:

Barely 3 percent of the flowering plants are C4, but they are responsible for about a quarter of all the photosynthesis on land. The impact of C4 is evident to anyone who has looked at a recently mowed lawn. Within a few days of mowing, the crabgrass in the lawn springs up, towering over the rest of the lawn (typically bluegrass or fescue in cool areas). Fast-growing crabgrass is C4; lawn grass is ordinary photosynthesis. The same is true for wheat and maize. Plant them on the same day in the same place and soon the maize will overshadow the wheat—maize is C4, wheat is not. In addition to growing faster, C4 plants also need less water and fertilizer, because they don’t waste water on reactions that lead to excess oxygen, and because they don’t have to make as much rubisco.

One of these in-between species is maize: its main leaves are C4, whereas the leaves around the cob are a mix of C4 and ordinary photosynthesis. If two forms of photosynthesis can be encoded from the same genome, they cannot be that far apart. Which in turn implies that people equipped with the tools of molecular biology might be able to transform one into another. In the botanical equivalent of a moonshot, an international consortium of almost a hundred agricultural scientists is working to convert rice into a C4 plant—a rice that could grow faster, require less water and fertilizer, withstand higher temperatures, and produce more grain. Funded largely by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the C4 Rice Consortium is the world’s biggest genetic-engineering project.

But actually, if people learned to love cassava then we wouldn’t need these eggheads:

In optimal conditions, cassava farmers have pulled 160,000 pounds per acre from the ground—more than fifty times the average for wheat. The comparison is unfair, because cassava tubers contain more water than wheat kernels. But even when this is taken into account, cassava produces many more calories per acre than wheat. “I don’t know why this alternative is not considered,” Botoni said. “It seems easier than breeding entirely new species.”*

What about a glass of water to wash down that cassava? Mann says that supplying water to the world’s cities will be the next big challenge for the wizards. Desalination is working in Israel, but it is a more successful country than most and it the process degrades the nearby ocean environment.

Mann devotes a chapter to fossil fuels. He stresses the benefits that humans have realized from burning coal and oil:

“The average person in the world of 1800 was no better off than the average person of 100,000 B.C.,” writes the economic historian Gregory Clark of the University of California at Davis. “Indeed in 1800 the bulk of the world’s population was poorer than their distant ancestors.” The Industrial Revolution, driven by fossil fuels, changed that, possibly until the end of days.

[See The Son Also Rises, an interesting book by Professor Clark.]

Fears about fossil fuels are as old as the fuels themselves:

One of the first and most enduring products of the age of fossil fuels was the fear that the age would rapidly end. … peak oil helped establish a set of wholly mistaken beliefs about natural systems—beliefs that have repeatedly impeded environmental progress. It laid out a narrative that has led activists astray for years. Far too often, we have been told that the future will be wracked by crises of energy scarcity, when the problems our children will face will be due to its abundance.

President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 invited all forty-six U.S. governors to the White House to decry the “imminent exhaustion” of fossil fuels and other natural resources—“the weightiest problem now before the nation.” Afterward Roosevelt asked the U.S. Geological Survey to assay domestic oil reserves, the first such analysis ever undertaken. Its conclusions, released in 1909, were emphatic: if the nation continued “the present rate of increase in production,” a “marked decline” would begin “within a very few years.” Output would hit zero about 1935—a prophecy the survey repeated, annual report after annual report, for almost twenty years.

Geophysicist Marion King Hubbert was one of the most prominent “peak oil” doomsayers. He actually worked for Shell and the company let him run around saying that the oil age was ending soon, but in 1964 he moved to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Jimmy Carter, was a Hubbertian. Soon after his inauguration, he gave a nationwide address warning that the planet’s petroleum could be gone “by the end of the next decade”—i.e., by 1989. Hubbert himself thought the disaster would occur a bit later, in about 1995.

Carter was so passionate about Hubbert, Mann says, that he forced the resignation of the USGS boss, Vincent McKelvey, who wasn’t sold on the running-out-of-oil theory.

The book contains a history of solar power, noting that Augustin-Bernard Mouchot was the first person to run a steam engine with solar energy (1866 in France). British engineers and scientists, notable Willoughby Smith and William Grylls Adams, noticed by 1876 that it was possible to make electricity with a selenium-cell, i.e., this was the birth of the modern solar cell (though the behavior wasn’t explained until 1905, by Albert Einstein, working in Switzerland). (Of course, today we realize that Green Energy science and engineering challenges can be tackled only by Americans!)

What about global warming? Maybe we can feed everyone if we kill all of the land and sea animals and are willing to live at Venusian temperatures? Mann provides a comprehensive introduction to the history of theories regarding atmospheric CO2. The earliest greenhouse theorist seems to have been John Tyndall, originally Irish, but working as a professor in London. The idea that CO2 plays a role in the atmospheric greenhouse is dated to 1890s Sweden by Mann:

Few thought airborne carbon dioxide to be of any interest. Among those few, though, were two Swedish scientists, Arvid Högbom and Svante Arrhenius. Both born in 1857, they both studied at the University of Uppsala. In 1891 both joined the Stockholm Högskola, a private think tank that later became the University of Stockholm. … Learning of Högbom’s work, Arrhenius wondered if his carbon dioxide data could explain the ice ages. Could the glaciation have been set off by lower carbon dioxide levels?

He began his “tedious calculations” on Christmas Eve of 1894. He had just married his laboratory assistant; she left him, pregnant with their child, while he was still bent over his desk, and went to live alone on a remote island. Tens of thousands of calculations later, Arrhenius finished in December 1895. “It is unbelievable that so trifling a matter has cost me a full year,” he complained to a friend. He didn’t mention his wife.

Arrhenius estimated that doubling carbon dioxide levels would increase Earth’s average temperature by as much as 11°F, enough to turn most of the planet into a desert.

(A sexual relationship with a male scientist was apparently as unsatisfying in 1895 as it is today!)

The CO2 deniers circa 1900-1955 thought that water vapor was the only important greenhouse atmospheric constituent. The best minds of the 1970s expected a pollution-induced ice age, not global warming:

Two scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, S. Ichtiaque Rasool and Stephen H. Schneider, tried to resolve the conflict by adding aerosols into the models used for carbon dioxide. A third NASA researcher, James E. Hansen, had developed a model to study the cloudbanks of Venus. Rasool and Schneider adapted Hansen’s model to examine the smogbanks of Earth. In 1971 they published their conclusion in the journal Science: doubling atmospheric carbon dioxide levels would have little impact, but a sustained air-pollution increase would “trigger an ice age.” Rasool went further in The Washington Post. If pollution kept increasing, he told a startled reporter, the next ice age could arrive in “five to ten” years—the glaciers would begin growing by 1981. Coming as the environmental movement rose into public view, the image of humanity literally blocking the sun with its filth was apocalyptic yet accessible—and, for the next few years, irresistible. “Brace Yourself for Another Ice Age,” advised Science Digest. “What’s Happening to Our Climate?” asked National Geographic; it quoted two scientists warning that if pollution didn’t stop, “continental snow cover would soon advance to the Equator.” Newsweek invoked “A Cooling World.” The futurist Lowell Ponte published The Cooling (1976), which predicted that freezing temperatures would destroy the Soviet grain harvest, setting off World War III. “There will be megadeaths,” intoned George F. Will in The Washington Post, as he described projections of a global drop of “two or three degrees by the end of the century.”

(Scientists today now say that their forebears were dead wrong. Putting coal soot into the air actually traps heat from the sun and warms the planet. Coal soot on glaciers reduces their ability to reflect heat back into space.)

Suppose that we were convinced that scientists had finally gotten their crystal balls properly aligned. Should we try to arrest climate change today with our feeble technology in order to benefit yet-to-be-born humans (and owners of valuable coastal property!)?

How much concern should we have for future generations? The harder one looks at the problem, the more confusing it seems. “The problems of climate change,” says the New York University philosopher Dale Jamieson, “swamp the machinery of morality.” (“A perfect moral storm,” says Stephen M. Gardiner, another philosopher.) The basis for arguing for action on climate change is the belief that we have a moral responsibility to people in the future. But this is asking one group of people to make wrenching changes to help a completely different set of people to whom they have no tangible connection. Indeed, this other set of people doesn’t exist. When one tries to make plans for nonexistent people, the result is an intellectual quagmire, because there is no way to know what those hypothetical future people will want. Today we live in a world where almost everywhere slavery is illegal, women can vote and own property, and overt obeisance to social class is frowned upon. Most decision-makers who lived three hundred years ago would have regarded these developments with horror. Had they grasped that the future could be like this, they would have sought to prevent it.

Mann then goes through the carbon capture versus photovoltaic arguments. He trots out the familiar argument that nuclear power is cheap, safe, good for the environment, and consumes little land. France is cited as an example of how this can be done properly. But he doesn’t grapple with the fact that if nuclear power actually were economically efficient in the U.S. then utilities should be constructing new plants.

He talks about creating artificial volcanoes to spew sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere and thereby reflect more of the sun’s light. This could be done with a fleet of 14 Boeing 747s for $1-3 billion per year. An alternative to spraying our sulfuric acid from cargo jets is planting trees in the Sahara and the Outback. (The trees in turn tend to trap water.) He doesn’t give a cost range for this idea.

What about moderating human population growth and therefore pressure on both the Earth and the “wizards”? Mann provides a history of the Pill that is interesting. Planned Parenthood and Vogt (a man in a senior role at Planned Parenthood!) were skeptical of the work being done by Gregory Pincus, whose work towards the commercial Pill was ultimately primarily funded by MIT grad and philanthropist Katherine McCormick (smart enough to marry a rich heir and then use the money earned by the father-in-law to become a “women’s rights activist”!).

Vogt killed himself in 1968, aged 66 and in poor health. It is sad to think that this father of environmentalism died at pretty close to the nadir for American air and water quality. Richard Nixon set up the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, for example. Catalytic converters hit the mass market in 1975.

The book is sprawling, but never dull, and it is full of interesting perspectives. Mann does not offer the simple solutions of a TED talk, an Economist article, or a NYT opinion piece. He realizes that differently situated people around the planet are going to come to different conclusions about what (if anything) should be done.

More: read The Wizard and the Prophet.

3 thoughts on “Book that explores the biggest issue of our age

  1. That whole thing about rubisco was pretty mind-blowing for me. Evolved once, 3.5 billion years ago. As enzymes go, it’s slow and stupid. (Often grabs onto O2 molecules instead of CO2.) And yet, we’re here because of it.

  2. Fritz Haber did humanity a great disservice by inventing the industrial process for fixing nitrogen to make ammonia. (Borlaug’s green revolution depends on Haber’s fixed nitrogen, so Haber is the ultimate villain.)

    That invention has led to the birth of billions of people who would otherwise not have been born and whose existence now imperils the planet. And the invention will allow billions more to be born, further imperiling all of our futures for centuries to come. An ammonia tax might be more effective than a carbon tax for saving the planet for future generations of people (not to mention endangered animals).

    Why should Haber have won a Nobel Prize for enabling more people to be born than the planet can accommodate? Do unconceived people have a right to be born? Are they harmed by not being born? Think of all the ways that the planet would be better off today with three billion people instead of seven.

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