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For nearly two decades, Charles C. Mann has been troubled by a realization that struck him just after his daughter was born. He was walking outside the hospital on a freezing New England night when the thought stopped him mid stride: By the time she reached his age, there would be 10 billion people living on the planet. How the hell would that work?
Mann makes his living as a science writer and is best known for his bestselling histories of America around 1492. Ever since the night of his daughter’s birth, Mann has asked the scientists he interviewed if he could buy them a cup of coffee afterward in order to ask them his nagging question: What are we going to do as population rises?
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The responses he got fell into two broad categories depending on the person. The ones who thought technology would save us he dubbed “wizards.” Those who thought we were screwed unless we controlled population growth he called “prophets.”
After years of these interviews, woolgathering, and worldwide travel, Mann turned it all into his latest book, The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Groundbreaking Scientists and Their Conflicting Visions of the Future of Our Planet. We recently talked with Mann about the types of solutions preferred by wizards and prophets, and why he thinks this division means that no one ever changes their mind about nuclear power, renewable energy, or genetically modified food.
Well, I coined them as a sort of shorthand. A philosopher friend of mine said that there was a very clear way to describe these groups, one of them is a Schumpeterian–technophiliac–meliorist (laughs). But that didn’t seem all that clear to me, so I call them wizards, as in techno-wizards.
Demonstrate the differences
Wizards basically believe that science and technology, properly applied, can let us produce our way out of our dilemmas. Prophets believe that there are natural limits, and we transgress these limits at our peril.
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Their recommendations are kind of the opposite of each other. One is saying, “Be smart, make more, and that way everyone can win.” The other is saying, “Hunker down, conserve, obey the rules, otherwise everyone is going to lose.”
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For wizards the answer is basically to stick with the same system we have now but with cleaner energy. Ideally with nuclear power because it has the smallest footprint of any low-carbon source, but you could also have giant concentrated solar plants and that sort of thing.