A fascinating, flawed look at limits

A review of The Wizard and The Prophet

Also published at Resilience.org.

Charles C. Mann has written consecutive bestsellers of popular history writ large. His 1491 surveyed the civilizations of the pre-Columbian Americas, while 1493 looked at how post-Columbian America has affected the whole world.

The Wizard and the Prophet, by Charles C. Mann, 2018, 616 pages

The Wizard and the Prophet at first glance shows Mann at work on a smaller canvas, comparing the life’s work of two American scientists in the mid-20th century.

Though Norman Borlaug and William Vogt both studied agricultural resources their career trajectories could hardly have been more different. Mann uses the contrast as a framework for a sweeping discussion of the biggest environmental questions facing our generations.

In the process he transforms Borlaug into “The Wizard” and Vogt into “The Prophet’’, superheroes who have, in Mann’s telling, guided the two major currents in environmental thinking ever since. Thus “The Wizard” and “The Prophet” are tapped for analyses of subjects which, for all we know, neither Borlaug nor Vogt actually thought about.

Always lurking in the background are the questions with which Mann opens the book: is it possible to feed, clothe, and shelter 10 billion people on this planet, or are we moving towards inevitable environmental collapse?

The real Norman Borlaug was born to a poor Iowa farm family and he yearned to escape the backbreaking work in the fields. After earning a degree in plant pathology he found himself immersed in even more tedious manual labour in a dusty, eroded, wind-blown patch of dirt outside Mexico City. His goal was to find a variety of wheat that would resist the blight known as rust.

Borlaug planted eight thousand wheat varieties the first season and came up with exactly four rust-resistant varieties. But he eventually developed strains of “dwarf” wheat that not only resisted rust, but which did not blow over in the wind and which responded well to artificial fertilizers. This development became known as the “Green Revolution”, and earned Borlaug a Nobel Peace Prize. He continued to work nearly up to his death in 2009 at the age of ninety-five, with advocacy for genetic engineering a theme of his later writings.

William Vogt was publicly lionized long before Borlaug came to fame, yet he too did his key research in an unglamorous setting: the guano-caked islands off Peru’s coast. For half a century the nitrogen-rich excrement of Guanay cormorants had been a key resource for world agriculture. Peru’s government wanted to know: why did the population of cormorants sometimes crash, and could they safeguard the marvellous output of fertilizer?

While Borlaug’s work rewarded a rigorous focus on detail, Vogt approached his task with the wide-angle lens of ecology. He tied cormorant populations to the ups and downs of the anchovetas which fed the birds; the plankton which fed the anchovetas; and the alternately warm or cold ocean currents of El Niño or La Niña which fed or starved the plankton. The maximum numbers of cormorants as well as their periodic crashes, Vogt reported, were set by nature’s own limits, and it would be foolhardy to push against those limits.

Vogt extended this message of limits in his 1948 book Road to Survival. He believed too much consumption is ecologically disastrous, and this consumption is based on both population growth and the quest for continuing economic growth. Road to Survival was a runaway best-seller.

Trending to infinity

Mann’s story-telling skills shine when he’s narrating the life and times of Borlaug, Vogt and the colourful characters they worked with. When The Wizard and the Prophet embarks on a 200-page tour of today’s many global ecology challenges, Mann’s discursions are fascinating but the quality is uneven.

An overview of world agriculture contrasts the Green Revolution with small-scale “organic” approaches. Yet Mann winds up that chapter without posing an obvious question. The artificial fertilizers required by Green Revolution crops are based on an energy-intensive process with natural gas as a feedstock, but can we be confident we have affordable resources to maintain, let alone double, current fertilizer production?

Through most of the book Mann recognizes the value in Vogt’s arguments for limits as well as Borlaug’s success in at least temporarily pushing those limits. That even-handedness is gone in his chapter on energy supply. Responding to the fear that fossil fuel resources might soon run short, Mann espouses Cornucopianism with an enthusiasm that would make a tar-sands tycoon blush.

In Mann’s reading of history the mere thought of “peak oil” has produced such infelicities as 75 years of war and tyranny in the Middle East. Though in some mere physical sense fossil fuel reserves must be limited, Mann argues, they are economically infinite – and economics trumps physics. That may be “counterintuitive”, he admits, “but more than a century of experience has shown it to be true.” If a trend lasts 100 years, apparently, we should feel confident it will be sustained for all time.

His chapter on climate change has more grounding in science and reason, but is badly dated. He relies on the 2014 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a necessarily conservative consensus review of thousands of reports published in prior years, which gave a likely range of global temperature increases from 1.5° to 4.5° Celsius.

Mann uses the IPCC’s temperature range and probability estimates to conclude “Very roughly speaking, this translates into a one-out-of-six chance that nothing much will happen – and a one-out-of-six chance of complete disaster.” When Stewart Brand used a similar one-in-six analogy in his 2009 book Whole Earth Discipline it was somewhat plausible. But since that time, measured global warming has been consistently outrunning the IPCCs cautious projections, many climatologists warn that we’ve already passed any chance of keeping global warming to less than 2°C, and the possible outcomes now run along a spectrum of biospheric  and civilizational catastrophes.

Vogt’s 1948 Road to Survival was a bestseller, but by the mid-1960s he found it hard to get a hearing in major media. Borlaug’s 1970 Nobel Prize was the first of a series of accolades that continued for the next 40 years. (Photo of statue in US Capitol building by Architect of the Capitol)

While Borlaug was influential to the end of his long life Vogt’s career flamed out early. In the 1950s he turned to population control as the single overriding issue, leading to a stormy tenure  at the helm of Planned Parenthood. Publishers and book buyers lost interest in his writings and he slid into despair. In 1968 – two years before Borlaug won his Nobel Prize – Vogt was gone, dead by his own hand.

Had he lived another fifty years to see 7 billion people trying to secure a subsistence on a planet already suffering from climate change, it’s hard to imagine that he would have regained hope.


Photos at top: Norman Borlaug in Mexico, 1964, photo from Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maíz y Trigo. William Vogt, 1940, promotional photo from Compañia Administradora del Guano

what goes up

When you live beside a wide-open lake, you can’t really tell yourself “It’s a dry cold.” Even on Tuesday morning, with the temperature at –17°C, plenty of moisture rose from the warm waters and condensed on any handy object – tiny dust particles in the air, for example, or leaves and stems in the waterfront marsh.

Reed – February 13, 2018 (click images for larger views)

In the most sheltered areas the frost formed feathery trees more than a centimeter long, but in windswept areas the frost was reduced to tiny glittering crystals.

Steppes – February 13


Summer Red – February 13

On warm afternoons strengthening rays of sunshine patiently worked through the thick coatings of ice over driftwood logs.

Window – February 12

One at a time drops of water formed at the ends of the icicles, pausing before splashing to the pebbles.

Counting Time – February 12


Snowy Geese – February 10

And sometimes the clouds of vapor over the lake come right back down as wet snow. That doesn’t seem to bother our resident geese at all.

Blue Light – February 10


Photo at top: Shadow – February 12 (click here for larger view)

The climate revolution: a manual for head, hands and heart

Also published at Resilience.org.

How many people in North America and Europe have known for at least 15 years that climate change is dangerous, that it is caused mostly by our burning of fossil fuels, and that we must drastically reduce our fossil fuel consumption?

That would be most of us.

And how many of us have drastically reduced our fossil fuel consumption?

Not so many of us.

Mostly, our actions proclaim “We’ll cut back our fossil fuel use when everybody else does … or when the government forces us … or when hell freezes over – whichever comes last!”

Physicist and climatologist Peter Kalmus found the gulf between his beliefs and his lifestyle to be deeply unsatisfying, and he set out to heal that rift.

The result, he says, has been a dramatically richer life for him and his family.

His book Being The Change (New Society Publishers, 2017) outlines the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of his family’s reduction of their fossil fuel consumption by 90% in just a few years. His discussion ranges from climate science to economics, from bicycling to beekeeping, from community networks to meditation, in a deeply inspiring narrative.

Waves of gravity

Kalmus didn’t begin his scientific career in climatology. With a PhD in astrophysics, his speciality was gravitational waves and his day job was working through the data that would, in 2016, confirm Einstein’s prediction of gravitational waves.

But he was also learning about the onrushing catastrophe of climate change, and as a young parent he was deeply worried for the world his children would inherit. Motivated by a desire to work on problems closer to home, he switched his professional focus, taking a new job at NASA studying the role of clouds in global warming.

Kalmus describes Being the Change as a book for the head, the hands and the heart. Wearing his scientist hat, he lucidly lays out the science of climate change. These chapters don’t require more than a high-school science background to understand, but even those who have read many books and articles on the subject are likely to learn something. For those who have read little or nothing on this subject, a good beginning would be to read Kalmus’ chapters on climate science three or four times over – he packs a lot of information into 50 pages.

His sobering conclusion is that we have already stalled too long to have any reasonable chance of keeping global warming below 2°C. Within two or three decades, the mean global temperature will be higher than in any record-warmth year in human experience so far. That new climate era will last centuries, challenging the resiliency of not only human civilization but global biodiversity.

The key uncertainty, he says, is the temperature at which global warming will peak. None of us alive today will be here to experience that peak, but our actions this generation will have a major influence on that peak. A higher peak will cause a spike in the rate of species extinctions, and if and when global warming slows or stops, it will take far longer for biodiversity to recover.

“A good overarching goal for today’s civilization would be to minimize global warming and its concomitant biodiversity loss for the sake of the next few hundred thousand human generations.” (Being the Change, page 69)

Fear of not flying

Climate science gives us clear warning of the disaster we are bequeathing our descendants if we don’t change our way of life, fast. Kalmus concludes, “it’s critical we begin saying that burning fossil fuels is causing real harm and needs to stop. It’s even more important to begin living this message.” (Being the Change, page 120 – italics mine)

A second major focus of the book is “hands-on” – the many ways people can change their own lives to join the movement away from fossil fuels. Kalmus relates his personal experiences here, but he also provides valuable suggestions to help others estimate their consumption of fossil fuels and reduce that consumption in meaningful ways.

Kalmus found that one category of fossil fuel consumption outweighed all others in his life: long-distance travel by air. Much of this consumption happened in traveling to distant conferences where delegates would warn of the dangers of climate change. Kalmus’ decision to stop taking these flights led to a more satisfying life, he says – though this was a rejection of one of the signature privileges of a global elite.

“The act of flying is an exercise of privilege. Globally, only about 5% of humans have ever flown.” (Being the Change, page 151)

Even the average American spends relatively little time in the air. Kalmus writes that “The average American emits about 1,000 kg CO2 per year from flying, which is roughly equivalent to one 4,000-mile round-trip between Los Angeles and Chicago.” But in 2010, Kalmus’ carbon emissions due to flying were 16 times that average – and so it was obvious where he had to make the first change to align his lifestyle with his knowledge.

Kalmus’ graph of his greenhouse gas emissions for 2010 – 2014. Source: Being the Change, page 144. (click graph for larger view)

For the average American, Kalmus says, the “largest climate impact is from driving.” He largely eliminated those CO2 emissions from his life too, through routine bicycling, driving a car that he converted to run on used vegetable oil, and taking a bus or trains for occasional long-distance trips.

Each person’s CO2 emission profile, and therefore their opportunities for emission reductions, will be different.

But Kalmus hopes others will share his experience in one key respect – a greater peace with their own lives and their own surroundings.

“I think most people are afraid of a low-energy lifestyle because we equate quality of life with quantity of energy use,” he says. “My experience has been the opposite: low-energy living is more fun and satisfying.”

Reading about his new-found love of gardening and beekeeping, and the strength of the local community bonds he and his family have developed, it’s easy to understand the richness of this low-energy lifestyle.

He also makes clear that he doesn’t believe that purely individual actions are sufficient to halt the fossil-fuel juggernaut. In the realm of public policy, he pens an excellent advocacy for his preferred fiscal approach to reducing national and international CO2 emissions – Carbon Fee And Dividend (CFAD). He also discusses his work with one group working on the CFAD option, the Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

Finding a lifestyle that matches his principles brings joy and a significant measure of peace of mind. At the same time, finding peace of mind is key in giving him the energy to embark on all those personal changes. That brings us to a third major focus of Being the Change: meditation.

“As part of my daily work, I look directly at the truth of global warming, and what it’s doing to the inhabitants of the Earth. Meditation gives me the strength and the courage to keep interacting with this truth, as it is – not only to cope, but to be happy and as effective as possible in enacting positive change.” (Being the Change, page 203)

As one who has never been attracted to the practice of meditation, Kalmus’ story here left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, his discussions of dissolving the ego and escaping all wants were, for this reader, just about the only parts of the book that weren’t wholly convincing. On the other hand his life story so far is truly moving, and if he says meditation has been central to that journey then I can only celebrate the strength and peace that meditation gives him. More than that, his book has made me ask whether I want to introduce meditation into my own life in a concerted way; better late, perhaps, than never.

Science and love

Peter Kalmus has written a profound book about the science of global warming, and a profound book about love:

“These two seemingly disparate things – reducing my own fossil fuel use and increasing my ability to love – are actually intimately interconnected.”

In the process he grapples with three of the most troublesome questions facing the environmental movement. Can we convince people it’s essential to eliminate fossil fuel use, when our own lifestyles say that fossil fuel use is no problem? Can we convince people that a high-energy lifestyle is unnecessary and destructive, when we act as if our lives depend on that lifestyle? Can we be happily productive agents of change, while we are caught up in the high-energy whirl of consumptive capitalism? It’s hard to answer those questions except with “No, no and no.” And yet Kalmus’ personal message is deeply positive and deeply hopeful:

“On my own path, as I continue to reduce, I’m actually experiencing increasing abundance. It’s a good path.”


Photo at top: Peter Kalmus, photo by Alice Goldsmith, courtesy of New Society Publishers