This month we read The Wizard And The Prophet by Charles C. Mann.
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Like many great books, this one works on multiple levels. On a first level, it’s a story of two men: Norman Borlaugh and William Vogt with different visions of the world that resonate in our present-day discussions about the world and our future. On a second level it’s about two different ideologies: Wizards and Prophets. Wizards believe in technological and overcoming our problems via innovation. Prophets argue this is foolhardy–we need to cut back immediately to save ourselves from disaster.
On a third level, however, this book is really about ideas. How ideologies come to form, how they attract allies and coalesce around certain judgements of the world. For this reason, I think this book is a window into understanding the most powerful force that shapes our lives.
Some excerpts from the discussion above:
Ideas matter. They are why we fight wars. They are the foundation of our society. They tell us who we are, what things mean, and what we should do. And yet we still know so little about them. Why do some people believe some ideas and not others? Why do some ideas become universally acknowledged while others are ignored even though they may have the same weight of truth to them? This book is really a case study about the understand of ideas.
The case for the “Wizard” view of the world:
First on the value system is that human suffering matters. That alleviating human suffering (such as hunger) is very important even if it has some environmental consequences. The earth is there to provide for human needs and to neglect those is a kind of wrong, according to Borlaugh. Human welfare takes a front seat in the world of the wizard. Secondly, is the belief in technology helping the problem — that we can engineer our way out of some of our issues. If we can study the problem long enough we can find solutions to it. Look at The Green Revolution as an example of how this is successful. Another side belief is that technology is easier to change than human nature.
Next, the “Prophets”:
They believe that the world in which we exist is not here for our benefit. It has it’s own ecosystem and value. They believe that we should leave some part of nature alone; we shouldn’t extract every last bit from the environment, and indeed, technology can make it worse. The problem, they say, is that technology is accelerating this problem, not helping it. The other part is a certain kind of technological humility as opposed to the optimism of the “wizards”.
On what is ultimately most valuable:
The Wizards see the environment as being subservient to human needs, so if we can extract more resources without harming our future supply and continue to sustain the human selves then this is the most important. Whereas many environmentalists, many people who fall under the Prophet philosophy believe that the ecosystems itself has it’s own intrinsic value which deserves protection even if it has no effect on human life.
So why does any of this matter? Well, if you want to find out how reality actually works, then the coalescing of ideas is important to understand. You should probably start to question more things that happen to agree with other things you believe.
These two men have had a very profound impact on our lives but remain largely unknown. At the very least to read about these two men and the impact they had. It’s important, as well, to hear both sides of the story. I really like a book like this and think it’s important for an understanding of how world views come together.