To Respect the Earth’s Limits — or Push Them? – Bill McKibben – The New York Times

William Vogt in 1950 Credit Denver Post, via Getty Images

By Bill McKibben   Jan. 31, 2018

Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World
By Charles C. Mann
640 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $28.95.

In “The Wizard and the Prophet” Charles C. Mann tries something tricky: to illuminate contemporary debates about the environment by examining the lives and philosophies of two men, long dead and mostly forgotten thinkers who had competing visions for the Earth’s future. It’s an ambitious sort of book, one that, to be completely successful, requires two things. One is a command of sprawling detail, with the ability to see parallels among events across time and distance and to explain the complex with ease. The second is an analytical device that takes all those parts and molds them into something novel and useful.

On the first count, Mann succeeds magnificently. William Vogt and (particularly) Norman Borlaug are brought to splendid, quirky life. Vogt, mostly unread these days, is a writer whose 1948 book, “Road to Survival,” Mann credits with helping birth modern environmentalism with its sense that humans should respect natural limits — he is the title’s “Prophet.” Borlaug is the Nobel-winning Midwest agronomist whose patiently bred strains of wheat kicked off the Green Revolution, and is here Mann’s “Wizard,” imbued with a technological worldview that seeks always to overcome Earth’s limits. One can argue with the choices — the “limits” argument might have been better served if personified by the more profound Aldo Leopold or Rachel Carson — but not with the results of his historical research, which provides one charming (and telling) anecdote after another.

The biologist Dr. Norman Borlaug, holding up stalks of his specifically crossbred wheat. Credit Art Rickerby/The LIFE Picture Collection, via Getty Images

Vogt, for instance, turns out to be the man who figured out how to get Roger Tory Peterson’s pioneering bird guide published. His own love of birds got Vogt a job on the Chincha islands off Peru, where he was supposed to advise the company that owned cormorants on how to get them to increase production of the valuable fertilizer guano. Instead, after careful study of the way that the periodic El Niño warmings drove fluctuations in the cormorant population, he ended up advising the owners to leave well enough alone — they could not “augment the increment of excrement,” but instead should “help conserve the balance between species continually sought by nature.”

This notion of balance, of limits that should not be pushed, would undergird the increasingly shrill alarms Vogt issued in his books and articles, and from various insecure perches in the global conservation hierarchy, where his disdain for economic growth cost him one post after another. He committed suicide in 1968, thinking his cause lost, just as Paul Ehrlich published “The Population Bomb,” Earth Day drew millions into the streets in 1970 and a groundbreaking 1972 report, “The Limits to Growth,” firmly established the argument he’d helped pioneer.

Borlaug’s story is more epic, even in its condensed form. A classic product of the Midwest land-grant colleges that are one of America’s greatest successes, he found his way to a dusty plant-breeding station in a desolate part of Mexico, where he figured out how to breed wheat that combined high yields with resistance to the ancient plague of stem rust. The new varieties made full use of fertilizers and other inputs — harvests soared first in South America and then, crucially, in India. (The story of getting the seed to the subcontinent, amid wars between India, China and Pakistan, is a fine Cold War saga.) What followed were honors, and also questions — the Green Revolution did raise yields, at least for a while, but it also wrecked much of peasant agriculture, driving poor people to the big cities and polluting farmlands with pesticides.

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