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Finding the middle ground between competing conservation strategies

September 1, 2018

Today Million Trees strays off its well-worn path of informing readers of specific projects in the San Francisco Bay Area that destroy our urban forest and spray our public lands with herbicides.  Under the guidance of Charles C. Mann’s latest book, The Wizard and the Prophet (1), we’ll take a detour into the philosophical tenets of conservation.  There are competing visions of the future of humans on Earth and they are instrumental in producing different conservation strategies.

We begin by introducing Charles C. Mann because his previous books are essential to our understanding of ecology.  His 1491 informed us that the New World “discovered” by Columbus was not the pristine landscape that modern-day native plant advocates are attempting to re-create.  Rather it was a land that had been radically altered by indigenous people who had lived in the Western Hemisphere for over 10,000 years.  The landscape had been extensively gardened for food production.  The large animals had been hunted to extinction.  The landscape in the West and Midwest was dominated by open grassland because it had been regularly burned, preventing natural succession to shrubs and trees.

Native Americans setting grass fire, painting by Frederic Remington, 1908

Early explorers carried diseases to the New World to which they were immune, but the native people were not.  By the time settlers arrived two hundred years after early explorers, most of the native people had died of the diseases introduced by the explorers.  Populations of bison and other grazing animals exploded when those who hunted them were killed by disease.  The grazing animals maintained the open grassland that had been created by the fires of the hunters.  Archaeological research has only recently revealed the extent of native populations throughout the New World.

Charles Mann’s second book, 1493, reported the global exchange of plants and animals between the New and the Old Worlds that fundamentally altered both worlds.  The extent and long history of that exchange makes it impossible for us to see those introduced plants, animals, objects as foreigners who “don’t belong here.”

Different visions of the future

Million Trees is indebted to Charles Mann for the books that are the foundation of our cosmopolitan viewpoint of the world.  Mann’s new book, The Wizard and The Prophet is equally important because it helps us understand the interminable debate about conservation.  There is a dark view of the future of the environment that predicts nothing but doom and gloom.  Extinctions dominate their predictions of the future and humans are seen as the destroyers of nature.  The more optimistic view of conservation predicts that the Earth will survive the changes made by humans because humans are capable of innovating to avoid the doom predicted by the pessimists.

Mann describes these contrasting views through the lives of two 20th Century men whom he calls the prophet and the wizard.  The prophet is William Vogt, who believed that the growing population of humans threatened the future of the Earth.  The wizard is Norman Borlaug, who won the Nobel Prize in 1970 for developing more productive agricultural crops, collectively called the “Green Revolution.”

The prophet believed that the resources needed to sustain life on Earth are finite and the human population was quickly reaching the point at which sources of food, energy, and water would soon be exhausted, threatening all life with extinction.  The wizard devoted his life to expanding food resources to feed the growing human population.  These viewpoints are inherently contradictory because making more food available enables more people to survive and increase human populations.  Vogt tried to cut off the sources of funding for the agricultural projects of Borlaug.

Different conservation methods:  Food

Mann applies these different viewpoints to each major resource issue to explain why the pros and cons of different approaches to conservation are debated, beginning with food production.  The Green Revolution occurred in the 1960s when subsistence crops such as wheat, corn, and rice were improved using breeding techniques.  Borlaug developed a variety of wheat that was both resistant to stem rust, its most persistent enemy, and produced more wheat for harvest.  Working in a desperately poor part of Mexico, with inadequate resources, Borlaug spent 15 years combining thousands of different varieties of wheat to find the winning combination.  His work was done prior to our knowledge of DNA and molecular analysis, so it was a process of trial and error.  It is a heart-wrenching story of brute labor in extreme conditions.  The story is important to our understanding of genetic modification because it reminds us that genetic modification is as old as agriculture itself, although it was called “breeding” until we learned what we now know about DNA.

File:Wheat yields in Least Developed Countries.svg

Mann visits some of the many modern methods of genetic engineering, such as the attempt to “revise” photosynthesis to enable plants to store more carbon, use less water, and tolerate higher temperatures.   These projects are controversial with the public, who are deeply suspicious of all genetic engineering.  In 1999, about one-quarter of Americans considered genetically modified organisms unsafe.  Sixteen years later, 57% of Americans said GMOs are dangerous.

The debate about the value or risks of GMOs is an example of the competing visions of conservation.  The prophets see risk and the wizards see opportunities.  Surely, there ARE risks, but do they outweigh opportunities?  That is the middle ground in the debate.  Mann departs from his neutral stance to take a position on GMOs.  He quotes many scientific sources in support of his opinion that there is far more opportunity than risk in genetic engineering.  My personal opinion is that GMOs are being unfairly judged because of the development of seeds that enable the indiscriminate use of pesticides.  The pesticides are damaging the environment, not the genetically modified seeds.


Update:  I sent this article to Charles Mann to thank him for his work and invite him to correct any errors I may have made.  He has offered this “tiny clarification:”

I was actually trying to do something very slightly different. The argument about GMOs is frequently posed in terms of health risks–are they safe to eat? In my view, the evidence to date is overwhelming that there is no particular reason to think that GMO crops pose more dangers to human health than crops developed by conventional breeding. At the same time, there are a host of reasons to think that the now-conventional industrial-style agriculture brought to us by the Green Revolution has problems: fertilizer runoff, soil depletion, the destruction of rural communities, etc. GMOs are often said by advocates of industrial ag to be the only way to keep this system going so that we can feed everyone in the world of 10 billion. If you already think that industrial ag is a big problem, then of course you would oppose a technology that is supposed to keep it going. That seems to me a better, more fruitful ground to argue.”  Charles C. Mann

I agree that “industrial ag is a big problem,” and I am grateful for this clarification.


Different conservation methods:  Water

The availability of adequate water is a limitation for agriculture that provides another example of competing approaches to conservation.  The wizards want dams to control available water and maximize its use for agriculture by storing water during rainy periods and using it during dry periods.  They also want desalination plants to convert salt water to fresh water.  97.5% of all water on Earth is salt water.  It is not useful for agriculture and it is not drinking water for humans.

Prophets want to tear down existing dams to make more water available for non-human inhabitants of the Earth.  They also object to desalination plants because they kill marine life, discharge pollutants, and use a lot of energy.  Water conservation is the preferred solution to water shortages according to prophets.

Hetch Hetchy canyon was dammed nearly 100 years ago. The dam is the primary source of water for the City of San Francisco and many surrounding communities. The dam generates the electricity that runs San Francisco’s transportation system without using fossil fuels. Sierra Club and other environmental organizations have sued several times to tear down the dam.   Inklein English Wikipedia photo

Different conservation methods:  Energy

Energy is required for every human enterprise:  heat, cooking, transportation, light, industrial production, etc.  Wood was the primary source of energy for thousands of years until coal began to be used in China around 3,400 B.C.  Although coal is still used, petroleum began to replace it as the primary source of fuel in the 19th century.  The supply of coal and petroleum was considered finite until recently.  Thanks to the wizards, extraction methods have been continuously developed such that the supply is now considered effectively infinite as long as increasingly more destructive methods are used, such as fracking and strip mining.

The prophets want to replace fossil fuels as the primary source of energy because of concerns about climate change and pollution.  Although they are supportive of developing renewable sources of energy, they often object to specific projects with side-effects.  They object to wind turbines because they sometimes kill birds.  They object to large solar farms because they displace wildlife.  Their preferred approach to energy is conservation.  They want us to learn to live with less energy.

The wizards focus on improving existing sources of energy with fewer impacts on the environment.  They envision a massive energy grid that can store and share the power generated by renewable sources so that energy is available to everyone at all times whether the wind blows or the sun shines.  The prophets object to such big projects.  They want energy to be produced locally and available locally.  The Sierra Club is opposed to a California Assembly bill that would create a regional power grid.

Different conservation methods:  Climate Change

All of these issues come together when climate change is debated.  Wizards are working on geo-engineering approaches to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, such as burying carbon in the ground.  Their public policy approaches to the issue are also complex and on a large scale, such as cap-and-trade systems to create a profit-motive for reducing carbon emissions. 

Prophets are unwilling to take the risks associated with geo-engineering strategies and they are skeptical that cap-and-trade will be more than a means of avoiding the sacrifices needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  The Sierra Club was instrumental in preventing the State of Washington from passing a revenue-neutral cap-and-trade law.  The Sierra Club also opposed the recent renewal of California’s cap-and-trade law.  Market-based approaches to reducing greenhouse gas emissions may not be the strongest policy tools, but they are the only tools available in the US because there is not sufficient political support for stronger policies.  Only 11 states have been able to enact market-based laws, such as cap-and-trade.  Sierra Club policies are often far removed from political realities.

Unintended consequences

Charles Mann does his best to avoid choosing a side in these debates and on the whole he succeeds.  He wants readers to understand that for every conservation method there is a cost and he dutifully tells us about the horrifying consequences of rigidly following one path rather the other.

Vogt, the prophet, firmly believed that the Earth and its human inhabitants would only survive if humans would voluntarily adopt public policies that would limit the growth of human population.  This goal was not popularized until The Population Bomb was written by Paul Ehrlich and published by the Sierra Club in 1968.  Mandatory population control became the official public policy in Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, Indonesia, and especially India.  In the 1970s and 80s millions of women were sterilized in India, often against their will.  In China the one-child policy adopted in 1980 forced tens of millions of abortions, many of which killed mothers.  Birth control was forced on women in Egypt, Tunisia, Pakistan, South Korea and the Philippines.

There is constant pressure within the Sierra Club to adopt an anti-immigration policy.  The Club had such a policy until 1996 and there have been several attempts since to reinstate that policy.  I digress to express my personal opinion that immigration is not a legitimate environmental issue because the environment is global.  The migration of people from Central America to North America does not fundamentally alter the impact on the environment.  If migrants have better access to birth control and education for women in North America, the size of their families would likely decrease.

The Sierra Club, like most mainstream environmental organizations, is firmly in the camp of the prophets.  They cast humans as the enemy of nature and their policies reflect their misanthropy.  They oppose every housing development project and all recreational access to public lands in California.

The Green Revolution and the way of the wizard carries its own baggage.  The new crops and the resources needed to produce them were not equitably distributed in the places where they were needed the most.  The richest farmers and biggest land owners in both India and Mexico were the primary beneficiaries of the improved agricultural methods.  But it wasn’t just inequitable distribution that did the most damage.  The poorest farmers owned the most marginal land.  Improved crops made their land more valuable.  It was suddenly worthwhile for land owners to dispossess their tenant farmers. The poorest farmers became the poorest homeless people in the huge cities of India and Mexico.

The Green Revolution also greatly increased the use of synthetic fertilizers that have caused nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from agricultural runoff.  And pesticides were another tool of the Green Revolution with their own suite of negative environmental consequences.

Both cases illustrate the important role that governments play in environmental policy.  Neither the extreme application of population control methods nor the inequitable distribution of agricultural resources were inevitable.  In the hands of competent, democratic government both methods had the potential to improve the well-being of humans without damaging the environment.

The Middle Ground:  All of the Above

I see Mann’s book about competing conservation strategies as an endorsement of the middle ground.  My own strong commitment to the middle ground probably influences my reaction to Mann’s book.  The concept of “population control” is as unappealing to me as some of the geo-engineering projects being developed to address climate change.

“Population control” is antithetical to a free society.  The middle ground is universal and free access to birth control, early sex education, and educating women in developing countries.  Educating women is the most effective method of reducing birth rates.

2014 UN Human Development Index. Human Development Index map. Darker is higher. Countries with a higher HDI usually have a lower birth rate, known as the fertility-income paradox.

The risks of geo-engineering solutions to climate change are too great to pursue without careful scientific analysis to fully understand the risks before they are implemented on a large scale.  Likewise, I am opposed to building new nuclear power plants until and unless we have a safe method of disposing of the nuclear waste generated by those plants.

Ironically, the middle ground is in some sense, the most aggressive conservation strategy because it is ALL OF THE ABOVE.  The consequences of climate change are too dire to choose one path and abandon the other.  We must carefully go down every path available.  We must do what we can to limit the increase in human population—within the constraints of a free society—and we must aggressively pursue the technological innovations that are needed to protect the environment from the activities of humans.  We must develop new sources of energy that do not emit greenhouse gas emissions as well as reduce our use of limited resources, such as water and energy.

I conclude with an important caveat.  This article does not do justice to Mann’s brilliant book.  I have only scratched the surface of Mann’s complex and deeply informed book.  Charles Mann made a presentation to the Long Now Foundation in San Francisco shortly after the publication of his book.  A video of his presentation is available HERE.  The video will help bridge the gap between this brief summary and reading Mann’s important book.


  1. Charles C. Mann, The Wizard and The Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World, Alfred Knopf, 2018
5 Comments leave one →
  1. mycophile permalink
    September 1, 2018 3:55 pm

    Mostly all very well put.
    I’ll add one thing now in quick passing:
    Giving women greater access to fresh, nutritious, food grown from locally-adapted seed lines also lowers the birth rates. (OK, the locally-adapted seed part was not a variable in any of the studies pertaining to this that I have ever read, but my frontal lobe, executive functioning, logical sequencing tells me it must be true.)

    • September 2, 2018 5:48 am

      Thanks, Mycos. I’m not familiar with those studies. Can you provide references so I can use them in the future?

  2. Mary Fraser permalink
    September 3, 2018 8:43 am

    Hi, I read your post but not the underlying books. I do have an issue with your characterization of what genetic modification is.
    There is a distinct difference between the genetic modification that happens when Monsanto creates new, patent-able life (described as GMO’s) and when plants are bred or interbred to create new varieties. When Monsanto does it with plants (creating Roundup ready crops), they use genetic material from other species besides plants.(generally bacteria). This crosses the species barrier, which is something that Nature never does. It creates a new form of life (hence patent-able) that has never existed in Nature before. To accomplish this breaking of species barriers, they actually use significant physical force, shooting the genetic material into the cell. The new genetic material is shot into the DNA of the existing plant life. This physically breaks and disrupts the DNA and makes it unstable. When this new life form is used as food, it can set up an allergic reaction in the body as the body recognizes it as a foreign (unknown) life form and the bodies defense mechanism is activated. Hence the explosion in life threatening food allergies in children.
    When plants are interbred to create new varieties, no breaking of the species barrier occurs. It is plant life breeding with plant life.This is a very fundamental difference.
    The confusion of plant breeding with genetic modification is one of the public relations techniques that Monsanto uses in its attempt to confuse the public.
    One of the best explanations of this confusion is detailed in Michael Pollan’s book” The Botany of Desire.” Jeffrey Smith also explains it well in his books.I was also educated about the DNA consequences in conversations with Dr. Don Huber, professor emeritus, Purdue Univ. His expertise in is plant pathology and bio-chemical warfare. I believe that he will be at the Soil Not Oil conference this Sept. and has always been very accessible.
    The new GMO technology that has developed using CRISPR technology can control where on the DNA the new genetic material is placed but the problem of breaking the species barrier still exists as is the problems of creating new forms of life never before seen in Nature. And the latest studies of CRISPR technology is showing serious harm.
    It is the hubris of man, deciding that they know better than Nature, that is wrecking havoc on our planet. It is truly quite frightening to know that the technology now exists where college students can create new forms of life and recreate existing forms of life in their dorm rooms because the DNA code for Ebola is on the Internet.
    There are multiple studies of the transgenerational harm of DDT. What will be wrought from transgenerational effects of unknown forms of life?

    • September 3, 2018 2:17 pm

      Welcome back to the Bay Area, Mary. Thanks for this interesting information. I hope David Quammen’s new book (“Tangled Tree”) about horizontal gene transfer will shed some light on this thorny issue. It’s next in line to read.

  3. Peggy permalink
    September 3, 2018 11:56 am

    VERY interesting article!
    And thanks for the video

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