Wizards, Prophets, and Farmers

This week I finished reading Charles Mann’s The Wizard and the Prophet (published 2018) and I thought it might be a worthwhile topic for discussion. The book centers on the ideological struggle to understand the best way to feed and provision an immense and needy human population on a limited planet.

As a framing structure, Mann sets up two archetypical characters.

  • Wizards are those who see solutions to the world’s dire problems through innovation and the careful marshalling of resources for change. Humans are only limited by their imaginations.
  • Prophets are people who decry the evils around them, and chart a path toward goodness by way of renunciation of those evils. Humans need to recognize the boundaries set by natural systems, and can only do well by staying within those bounds.

Using more current terms, perhaps Mann could have titled the work “The Techno-optimist and the Doomer.”

The book includes biographical details on two exemplars of these camps: Norman Borlaug for the wizards and William Vogt for the prophets. Borlaug won the Nobel Prize for his seed breeding work, work that enabled much of the high-output/high-input, mechanized agriculture of the last seventy years. Vogt was an influential voice in the founding of the concept of environmentalism, sounding warning about humans polluting, depleting, destroying, and overcrowding our biome. As Mann sketches the lives of these two figures, he manages to connect them to many of the existentially urgent issues our world faces: food production, energy security, climate risk, material depletion, population limits, and so on.

This book is not a polemic for any one position. The author tries to allow both sides to put their best arguments forward without prejudice, and he generally succeeds in maintaining evenhandedness. It also is not a comprehensive look at any of the systemic challenges it covers, so if you wish to learn more about, say, nitrate pollution in groundwater due to the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, this book only touches on the issue before moving on. To gain deeper knowledge on any of its topics you would need to conduct further studies on your own. Thus the work isn’t guiding the reader toward any specific solution to any specific problem. Rather, it helps us understand our fellow humans, those horrible other people on the opposite side of some divisive issue.

I’m not intending to write a normal book review, making observations about the strengths or weaknesses of the narrative style or critiquing the author’s editorial choices. There are plenty of those sorts of reviews already. Rather, I see some value in just dwelling a while on the wizard versus prophet confrontation itself.

As someone working within organic and regenerative farming, and based on my circumstances as a small, diversified, non-commodity farmer, my ideological forebearers and contemporary peers are situated more within Mann’s prophetic group. And although I don’t think of myself as a polemicist, some of my more strident writings have addressed subjects traditionally associated with the prophets, such as arguing for the reasonableness of accepting our limitations in farming, or voicing concerns about the concentration of control within food production. So of the two, I’m probably more prophet than wizard. But I’ll admit that I’m not enthusiastic about being pigeonholed among the prophets.

In a system that forces us to choose between two polarized positions, both the wizards and the prophets begin to take on some troubling characteristics. I see two ugly defects resulting from the locked standoff between these forces:

  1. They tend toward totalitarianism, claiming to know what’s best for entire groups of people, even what might be best for the entire world (or the entire galaxy for some of the most futuristic thinkers). This absolutism limits the possibility for exploring new strategies. And this heavy-handedness, even if it objectively improves some aspect of their lives, alienates the people who are forced to deal with changes handed down to them, changes for which they might not be prepared.
  2. Both sides become so invested in their positions that they at times are willing to lie or to betray their own values to gain a perceived tactical advantage. Losses for the opponents become more important than a win for oneself. Institutionalized positions become impossibly locked in to their self-perpetuation.

While I agree with Mann’s thesis that the wizard/prophet split is a dominant organizational principle in the way ideologies are promulgated in our culture, I don’t believe that we need to accept that division. And I’m not advocating for some middle-of-the road-ism, either. Instead I’d prefer to find ways in which we can open up new areas of living outside of the single-dimensional continuum between the techno-optimists and the doomers. We surely can learn from them, but we need not accept their paradigms for our lives.

The interesting thing I’ve observed is that most farmers, at least the ones who have been at it for enough years to have experienced the ups and downs, aren’t nearly as doctrinally oriented as the wizards or the prophets. There’s something to be said for being a practitioner, for being the one who knows that today’s work and the labor of every other day this year must be done to make anything grow, and also being the one who knows that an innumerable host of vicissitudes may wipe all that work out at a moment’s notice. Farmers, whether they are tractor and pesticide row-croppers or organic artisanal market gardeners, learn to carry a mixed load of hope and despair, blended into a kind of equanimity. The socially amplified voices of wizards and prophets, the clamoring mob of investors, activists, do-gooders, and propagandists, are rarely the voices of people doing the work. They often claim to speak for farmers, but they are unlikely to understand them. And if they don’t understand those they claim to represent, then we should view their grand solutions with skepticism.

So can we keep growing? Are we hard up against immovable boundaries? Yes, and yes. I think there are opportunities for increasing abundance even while we are pressed up against more restrictive limits. I think there are opportunities for important growth within a collapsing system and strategic moments of collapse to be implemented within a rapidly growing system. I believe that as farmers we have the chance to do so much more within our landscapes than we currently imagine possible. The narratives of optimism and doom can each limit us if we let them.

I have no hope that I can solve any of the world’s problems. But I think I can become a better farmer, and that’s what I hope I can accomplish in some measure this year. We all depend on all of us to do better in whatever ways we can.

6 thoughts on “Wizards, Prophets, and Farmers”

  1. Kristin Stellingwerf

    Yes, yes and yes. This line especially rang true to me…
    “The socially amplified voices of wizards and prophets, the clamoring mob of investors, activists, do-gooders, and propagandists, are rarely the voices of people doing the work. They often claim to speak for farmers, but they are unlikely to understand them. And if they don’t understand those they claim to represent, then we should view their grand solutions with skepticism.”
    Thank you for “doing the work.” You are very much respected and appreciated in our home.

  2. Hi Dave. Temple Grandin talked about the difference between the different skills of the management “suits” and the hands-on workers different approaches to solving problems. She also sees a problem in American education because not enough career pathways are available to the people who think in pictures and can design and fix equipment.

    1. Grandin certainly brings plenty of insight to the topics she discusses. I think she’s a good example of a person who has found a way to be unaligned with either the wizards or the prophets of her industry.

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