Mann titled his talk “The Edge of the Petri Dish.” He explained, “If you drop
a couple protozoa in a Petri dish filled with nutrient goo, they will multiply
until they run out of resources or drown in their own wastes.” Humans in the
world Petri dish appear to be similarly doomed, judging by our exponential
increases in population, energy use, water use, income, and greenhouse gases.
How to save humanity? Opposing grand approaches emerged from two remarkable
scientists in the mid-20th century who fought each other their entire lives.
Their solutions were so persuasive that their impassioned argument continues 70
years later to dominate how we think about dealing with our still-exacerbating
exponential impacts .
Norman Borlaug, the one Mann calls “the Wizard,” was a farm kid trained as a
forester. In 1944 he found himself in impoverished Mexico with an impossible
task—solve the ancient fungal killer of wheat, rust. First he invented
high-volume crossbreeding, then shuttle breeding (between winter wheat and
spring wheat), and then semi-dwarf wheat. The resulting package of hybrid
seeds, synthetic fertilizer, and irrigation became the Green Revolution that
ended most of hunger throughout the world for the first time in history.
There were costs. The diversity of crops went down. Excess fertilizer became
a pollutant. Agriculture industrialized at increasing scale, and displaced
smallhold farmers fled to urban slums.
William Vogt, who Mann calls “the Prophet,” was a poor city kid who followed
his interest in birds to become an isolated researcher on the revolting guano
islands of Peru. He discovered that periodic massive bird die-offs on the
islands were caused by the El Niño cycle pushing the Humboldt Current with its
huge load of anchovetas away from the coast and starving the birds. The birds
were, Vogt declared, subject to an inescapable “carrying capacity.“ That
became the foundational idea of the environmental movement, later expressed in
terms such as “limits to growth,” “ecological overshoot,” and “planetary
boundaries.” Vogt spelled out the worldview in his powerful 1948 book, The
Road to Survival.
The Prophets-versus-Wizards debate keeps on raging—artisanal organic farming
versus factory-like mega-farms; distributed solar energy versus centralized
fossil fuel refineries and nuclear power plants; dealing with climate change by
planting a zillion trees versus geoengineering with aerosols in the
stratosphere. The question continues: How do we best manage our world Petri
dish? Restraint? Or innovation?
Can humanity change its behavior at planet scale? Mann ended by pointing out
that in 1800 slavery was universal in the world and had been throughout
history. Then it ended. How? Prophets say that morally committed
abolitionists did it. Wizards say that clever labor-saving machinery did it.
Maybe it was the combination.
—Stewart Brand s...@longnow.org <mailto:s...@longnow.org>
[The video and podcast versions of Mann’s talk are here
<http://longnow.org/seminars/02018/jan/22/wizard-and-prophet/> For a
linkable, illustrated version of this summary, go to Medium, here
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