Media Center: ‘Wizard and the Prophet’ by Charles Mann

Media Center: ‘Wizard and the Prophet’ by Charles Mann

WHO: Charles C. Mann

Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World

WHEN: Published by Knopf January 23, 2018

WHERE: The author lives in Massachusetts.

WHY: “A fresh and stimulating look
at a crucial subject.

“Environmental issues are complicated, and we often find ourselves of two minds about how we should address them. Much-lauded journalist Mann, also the author of two best-selling history books, 1493 and 1491, pegs our divided outlooks to two seminal yet overlooked scientists whose opposing viewpoints underlie the two primary channels through which environmental thought and practices flow.
“William Vogt is the Prophet. A book-loving boy enchanted by then-bucolic Long Island, he came to perceive that all species, ours included, are ‘part of ecosystems ruled by biological law,’ and urged people to live within and preserve nature’s intricate balance and finite resources. The Wizard is Norman Borlaug. Raised on a subsistence Iowa family farm, he became a tenacious plant geneticist who launched the Green Revolution of the 1960s and steadfastly championed science as the way to meet our species’ needs.
“As Mann profiles, with verve and infectious fascination, both brilliant, questing men, he places their extraordinary adventures and achievements within a dynamically detailed, global scientific and geopolitical context and tracks their profound influence on our struggles over energy, fresh water, and agriculture as climate change accelerates and humankind surges toward the 10-billion mark. This unique, encompassing, clarifying, engrossing, inquisitive, and caring work of multifaceted research, synthesis, and analysis humanizes the challenges and contradictions of modern environmentalism and our struggle toward a viable future.”
–Donna Seaman, in a starred review for BOOKLIST

“A sweeping, provocative work of journalism,
history, science and philosophy.”

–Robin Chin Roemer, in a starred review for LIBRARY JOURNAL

An insightful, highly significant account that makes no predictions but lays out the critical environmental problems already upon us” –KIRKUS, a starred review

. . . . .

Begin with an image, a man alone on a tract of land near a city. The man is thirty years old and just beginning to discover his own ambi- tion. His name is Norman Borlaug, the Wizard of my title. His greatest advantage is a remarkable capacity for hard technical work. The land, on the periphery of Mexico City, is badly damaged; Borlaug has been assigned the task of coaxing something to grow on it. To most of the people whom Borlaug is likely to know, the task and place seem remote and inconsequential. Borlaug, the Wizard, will change that view.

It is April 1946, the perfervid months after the end of the Second World War. Most people in North America and Europe are wholly caught up in the shocking changes that follow the con ict—the onset of the atomic age, the beginning of the Cold War, the disintegration of colonial empires. Borlaug, the hardworking man, is not. Newspapers and radios are not readily available where he works. He spends his days staring at dying plants. Years later, some people will say that the work he began there was more important than any of the occurrences in the newspapers.

Now on this land appears a second man. This second man, the Prophet of my title, is twelve years older, light-haired and blue-eyed. He walks with a pronounced limp, the legacy of polio. His name is Wil- liam Vogt. He, too, is discovering the extent of his ambitions—maybe it would be better to say that he is at last admitting them.

Borlaug’s project is housed at a university in Chapingo, a settlement east of Mexico City. Built in a former hacienda, the university has been transformed from a private rural backwater into a crowded expression of the contemporary state, desperately sought after and grossly under- funded in the modern mode. Among its glories is a set of huge, bril- liantly colored murals by the celebrated Mexican painter Diego Rivera. Vogt is on his honeymoon; he and his wife visit the murals. But Vogt is also traveling in his of cial capacity, as the head of the Conservation Division of the Pan American Union. He is deeply interested in agricul- ture and its effects on the landscape.

At this time, Borlaug and three Mexican assistants are the only people working on the land. Vogt spends a big chunk of his daylong visit there. Inquisitive and gregarious, he surely walks to the sweating people in their dusty khakis and boots and asks what they are doing with this 160 acres of starveling wheat and maize at the edge of campus.* Vogt has no idea that this plain-faced man, lean and taciturn, will become an endur- ing international symbol of technical prowess and a way of thinking that Vogt will come to regard as dangerous to human survival. Borlaug does not guess that the visitor, this limping man with his wife in tow, will spark a movement that Borlaug will come to regard as blinkered, when not duplicitous, effectively an enemy to human well-being. From the evidence left behind, Vogt doesn’t say much during his visit. One imag- ines him watching and listening as Borlaug explains his ideas.

Jacket photo

Media Resources:
About the book and author | Author tour | Download the jacket | Download the author photo

Knopf. With 90 illustrations and 4 maps. 616 pages. $28.95 ISBN 978-0-307-96169-3

To interview the author, contact:
Jess Purcell | 212-572-2082 |