The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles C. Mann

The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow's World
by Charles C. Mann
Knopf, 2018

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The figure that hangs over Charles Mann's new book The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow's World is both inevitable and terrifying: 10 billion. That's the charitable, conservative estimate of how many humans will inhabit the Earth by the year 2050 – ten billion humans, an almost literally unimaginable figure for a species that's not only an apex predator but an apex predator that preys on other apex predators. Ten billion humans. Among other logistical nightmares, ten billion mouths to feed.

That figure of ten billion mouths to feed implicitly but loudly demands some kind of answer, and when it comes to the question of feeding a species population that's reached such alarming runaway proportions, there are really only two kinds of answers: eat smarter, or eat better. This is the fundamental dividing line between the two unlikely protagonists of Mann's book.

On the one hand there's William Vogt, born in 1902, who, according to Mann, laid out the basic ideas for the modern environmental movement and urged a humbler, more sustainable relationship between humans and the rest of the food chain. “In best-selling books and powerful speeches,” Mann writes, “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.”

On the other hand there's Norman Borlaug, born in 1914, who advocated what Mann refers to as techno-optimism, the view that biological and agricultural science, if harnessed correctly, can rise to even so unthinkable a challenge as ten billion mouths to feed.  “Only by getting richer, smarter, and more knowledgeable can humankind create the science that will resolve our environmental dilemmas,” Mann writes. “Innovate! Innovate was Borlaug's cry. Only in that way can everyone win!”

Mann braids the twin narratives of these two philosophies – and the lives of the men who espoused them – into what will surely be one of the least likely enthralling reads of the year. This author has a long string of popular histories to his name, but even so: the feat of taking the lives and careers of two early-20th-century agronomists and making out of such dusty matter a book that's not only interesting but fascinating must surely rank as some sort of wizardry in its own right. And yet this is exactly what Mann does throughout, bringing Vogt and Borlaug (and their extensive supporting casts) to life and making the science that defined and propelled their lives seem not only comprehensible but immediately relevant – because the deeper questions on which Vogt and Borlaug have never been more important to a 21st century not only wracked with hunger but also afflicted with staggering wealth inequality.

As Mann makes clear, two paths diverge before such a 21st century:

Ultimately, though it is a vision of the human place in nature. Hard-path supporters see technology placing humanity in charge: we can move H2O molecules wherever we want to satisfy our wishes. Soft-path people think this level of control is illusory – cooperation and adjustment, not command and control, is the way to live.

The Wizard and the Prophet is thoroughly impressive performance, despite the fact that it's in large part devoted to the subject of industrial wheat production. Any reader who's going to be one of those 10 billion in 2050 – or whose children are – should read this book.

Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is