Wizards and Prophets Face Off to Save the Planet

By Nathanael Johnson (@savortooth on Twitter), Grist’s senior writer and the author of two books. Originally published at Grist

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?

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.

Q. You coined the terms “wizards and prophets” to describe two types of people. Can you define these labels?

A. 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 Schumpeteriantechnophiliacmeliorist (laughs). But that didn’t seem all that clear to me, so I call them wizards, as in techno-wizards. 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.

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.”

Q. Innovation versus restraint.

A. Right. And both of them have really strong arguments.

Q. The wizard you chose to focus on was the agronomist Norman Borlaug. Why him?

A. I kept hearing his name from wizards, people who said we’re going to have to use science and technology, we’re going to have to be like Norman Borlaug. He’s the main figure behind what’s been called the Green Revolution — the combination of hybrid seeds, high intensity fertilizer, and irrigation that boosted grain yields in the ’70s and ’80s.

Q. Your prophet is the ecologist William Vogt, and you make a good case that he really cued up the modern environmental movement.

A. Vogt popularized the idea of “carrying capacity.” That is a term you get hit with if you ever take Ecology 101: It’s the idea that environments can only produce so much and if you go over that limit bad things happen. He took it from an arcane scientific idea — used to figure out how many deer can survive in a meadow — and stretched it to cover the entire world. Nowadays we use terms like planetary boundaries or ecological limits, but it’s basically the same thing. I think that’s the foundational idea of the environmental movement: An awareness of limits and a fear that we are exceeding them.

Q. I’d like to throw out three different problems and have you generalize about how wizards and prophets might solve them. Let’s start with energy. How do we keep the lights on?

A. 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.

The prophets dislike nuclear on prudential grounds. You know, it’s too expensive, there’s a waste problem, there’s a risk of accidental meltdown. On a deeper level, they just don’t like the idea of giant corporate structures controlling something as powerful as energy. They are deeply attracted to this idea of self-reliant, smaller scale, more democratic communities in control of their own energy. I have to say this is something that’s really appealing to me. I’m talking to you from a small town with a house with a big solar array on the roof.

Q. OK, next problem: How do we feed ourselves?

A. Aha, there again, wizards basically don’t see anything wrong with industrial agriculture. Yes, there are some problems, but they can be fixed. For instance, farmers could apply fertilizer better and not send so much into lakes and oceans. Again, keep doing what we have been doing but make it cleaner. That almost always leads you right to GMOs — the idea is we might make crops much more productive and reduce our footprint.

It’s not crazy if you accept the way industrial agriculture is the way to go. I talk in the book about the C4 rice initiative at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, which aims to make photosynthesis work better in rice. The reason rice crops need most of their fertilizer is to make this enzyme called rubisco that plays a key role in photosynthesis. So the idea is if you had more efficient photosynthesis you would have less rubisco, less nitrogen, less fertilizer, less pollution, and a bigger harvest, and everybody would be a winner. And that’s the wizard theme.

Q. And the prophets? How would they fix food?

A. They see industrial agriculture as the problem, so propping it up is, for them, like trying to put out a fire by pouring on gasoline. They see it causing environmental degradation, from the dead zones at river mouths to the destruction of soils. They would like to see a radically different form of agriculture, one that doesn’t depopulate the countryside, one that mimics natural ecosystems, and grows lots of types of crops. There are some limits on how much production you can squeeze out of grains, and trees and tubers can produce vastly more. So if you put all those elements together on farms you would be able to produce more, more sustainably. It would require more work so you would have more jobs and more vital rural communities, and lots of good things would come from that — at least this is how the prophets see it.

Q. OK, next up is geoengineering. How do we cool the planet down?

A. I think this is a really important subject and one that doesn’t get enough attention. So far I’ve been pretty factual but here I’d like to give you my opinion: Even though we’ve made great progress on carbon emissions, I think it may not be fast enough. So what do you do? That’s where geoengineering comes in. Wizards and prophets have different forms of it.

Wizards typically favor something like solar radiation management, which is essentially sprinkling tiny reflective spheres in the upper atmosphere to bounce back a little of the sunlight, just enough to buy us more time. It would actually be cheap and efficient; it’s kind of horrible to put it that way because nobody in their right mind would be enthusiastic about it. You just need a couple of airplanes sprinkling stuff up there, and it could be done for a couple billion dollars a year. So in a country like Indonesia, which is at risk of losing significant territory to sea rise, and has something like 60 billionaires — you could imagine it right? An individual billionaire might just choose to do this. Prophets see this as crazy, as fighting pollution with pollution.

So the other way to do it, the prophet’s way, is to use those natural carbon-eating devices known as trees. There are large blank spots on the map that don’t have much vegetation — the Sahara, the Australian outback — but they were covered with vegetation in the past. You could reforest them with drought-tolerant trees, proceeding from the edges with desalination plants along the coasts providing water. You could take a significant bite out of the carbon load in the air. A lot of reforestation has been done in the last 20 years in the Sahel, just beyond the Sahara where there’s more rain, and it looks pretty nice.

Q. Why are these such big fights? It seems like we’d want to try all of these solutions.

A. These arguments are often framed pragmatically, but they are really about values. Prophets, for example, don’t like nuclear power and often will say, correctly, “Oh we don’t like it, it costs so much.” But even if circumstances changed and nuclear costs went down, it’s not the case that prophets would then say, “Great! Let’s go for nuclear power.” Because it represents a way of life they don’t want, one in which big machines deliver energy and people live in big cities. It seems to them to be a recipe for atomized anomie.

The wizards look at distributed solar and wind and say, correctly, “There are all these problems with storage and shuffling the power around.” But even if we solved the storage problem the wizards wouldn’t embrace distributed renewables because they see it as something that ties people down to their communities and requires a whole network of social obligations and doesn’t maximize individual liberty. Some people value liberty and some people value community — it’s an ancient fight. There’s no law of physics that says you can’t have both — that you can’t use a mix of solutions. But it’s hard because these value questions are at the bottom.

Q. Can we transcend those values? My smartest sources often seem like they are able to toggle back and forth between prophetic and wizardly thinking.

A. I suspect that the reason your go-to people can switch back and forth is that they’ve thought about it and realized that the facile “this just will never work” arguments are often wrong. And they’re researchers so they are trying to tell you what they’ve figured out empirically.

What’s striking to me is how long these arguments have gone on without most people seeming to blend them in the middle. Its seems perfectly logical to have both, but that’s not what seems to happen.

Q. I started out very much a prophet, but eventually got a little frustrated because as a prophet you are preaching in the wilderness and it feels like nothing ever changes. Meanwhile, the wizards are out there building things.

A. That’s an occupational hazard for prophets. But in fact they have changed a great deal. Just the existence of Grist suggests that they are not really alone in the wilderness. The prophets often don’t see how much progress they have made, but it’s really striking to me.

Q. It seems to me that we’re living in the wizard’s world, but we are guided more and more by the prophet’s politics.

A. It’s true that Borlaug won out in the beginning, but now even the people working on that huge C4 rice photosynthesis initiative will start by talking about how it’s good for the environment.

At some level the prophets are obviously right: The Earth is finite. There is some carrying capacity. The question is, is the carrying capacity so large that it’s irrelevant?

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    1. efschumacher

      I am in this camp: thre are enough greedy or desperate or plainly apocalyptic people with sufficient aggregate power to make sure we (humans) will not manage our way out of the big crunch. There is going to be a population crash, we dont know when or what will be the actual trigger. It will be followed by a long period of the traditional form of thuggist government. I don’t hold out hope that we will all link hands and jump into a better future.

      1. Old Jake

        Both prophets and wizards are inevitably wrong, at least at times if not completely. The consequences of the wizards being wrong seem to me to be much more impacting than the those of the prophets being wrong.

        One a related note: I think, erschumacher, that you are being somewhat optimistic. Assuming, that is, that you (we) see survival of the species by any means as being a positive outcome.

  1. kimyo

    borlaug is responsible for more human suffering than any other human being on earth.

    Three Hidden Ways Wheat Makes You Fat

    The first major difference of this dwarf wheat is that it contains very high levels of a super starch called amylopectin A. This is how we get big fluffy Wonder Bread and Cinnabons.

    Here’s the downside. Two slices of whole wheat bread now raise your blood sugar more than two tablespoons of table sugar.

    There is no difference between whole wheat and white flour here. The biggest scam perpetrated on the unsuspecting public is the inclusion of “whole grains” in many processed foods full of sugar and wheat giving the food a virtuous glow. The best way to avoid foods that are bad for you is to stay away from foods with health claims on the label. They are usually hiding something bad.

    In people with diabetes, both white and whole grain bread raises blood sugar levels 70 to 120 mg/dl over starting levels. We know that foods with a high glycemic index make people store belly fat, trigger hidden fires of inflammation in the body, and give you a fatty liver leading the whole cascade of obesity, pre-diabetes and diabetes.

    The second way gluten causes inflammation is through a low-grade autoimmune reaction to gluten. Your immune system creates low-level antibodies to gluten but doesn’t create full blown celiac disease. In fact 7% of the population, 21 million, has these anti-gliadin antibodies. These antibodies were also found in 18% of people with autism and 20% of those with schizophrenia.

    A major study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, hidden gluten sensitivity (elevated antibodies without full blown celiac disease) was shown to increase risk of death by 35 to 75 percent, mostly by causing heart disease and cancer.(4) Just by this mechanism alone over 20 million Americans are at risk for heart attack, obesity, cancer and death.

    1. jrs

      I know there is plenty of criticism of Borlaugh out there but “it makes you fat” strikes me as very weak criticism even if it was true, if the problem is producing enough food for human survival.

          1. kimyo

            why are there just two options?

            why not design a system which provides you with a third: a belly full of nutritious food?

            wouldn’t that be preferable?

            if optimizing our health is the goal, the supermarket of the future will not contain any low-fat/low-salt/low-cholesterol/’healthy’ whole grain products.

            if the goal is to maximize the industrial production of ‘food’ (aka empty calories, bereft of nutritional value) then it’s borlaug for the win.

    2. Amfortas the Hippie

      Mesquite is an underutilised resource.
      it can be easily coppiced for sustainable firewood, and the beans are super nutritious, and are good for diabetics according to every scienc-ey source I’ve come across.
      Here’s the hastily found introductory version:

      there’s almost no gluten, so forget rising/air bubbles unless you mix it with other flour(I like the buckwheat we grow as a cover crop).
      Extremely high in fiber…as we unscientifically discovered when we first added it to our diet(everyone fighting urgently over the one bathroom(!?)), but this effect settles down rapidly.
      pancakes, fry bread, cornbread…a sort of wine/mead like substance, an injectable marinade that makes meat cooked by those too lazy to do a fire taste like they’ve been slaving over a pit….
      since the advent of volunteer firefighting, mesquites have spread everywhere in Texas, and farmers/ranchers/my mom hate the stuff….this is yet another subjects of my continuing evengelism,lol.
      …and bees love the flowers/catkins, and make a honey from it that is divine.

    3. Harold

      Two slices of whole wheat bread now raise your blood sugar more than two tablespoons of table sugar.
      Calories in two slices of bread: 138
      Calories in two tablespoons of sugar: 96

      Flour is very calorie dense. That’s why it was the staple food of the Roman army.

      1. kimyo

        stand outside of a whole foods and ask 100 people ‘which is healthier – 2 slices of whole wheat bread or 2 tablespoons of white sugar?’ how many times will you get ‘they’re equally bad’?

        i believe that’s the point dr hyman is trying to make.

        if you’re provisioning roman troops (cannon fodder), then dense, empty calories are the ticket. if you’re feeding schoolkids, then eggs, fish, beef and vegetables will provide the best results.

        1. Harold

          Bread is not empty calories. Sugar is empty calories. However calories are important especially for people doing heavy physical labor. Not that I would recommend a diet solely of bread. Roman soldiers did used to riot when given meat, though. (I don’t like bread myself, except when fresh baked.)

        2. vlade

          They are NOT equally bad by a country mile.

          Try living on one or the other for a month, and we’ll see. You’d be dead if you’d eat sugar only for six months (well, you’d not eat it for six months, as you’d be likely dead within 6 weeks), but there’s a non-trivial (if very small) chance you’d survive it on bread (the chance is smaller if you’d eat what the anglo-saxon countries call bread these days, more if you’d eat what was called bread few hundreds of years ago)

          Please stop putting out this nonsense. The value of this blog is that people put out good facts, not things that are trivial to refute.

  2. PlutoniumKun

    Intersting discussion. I’d put myself on the Prophet side, but with a bit of a Wizard in me as I’m a techno nerd and I’m fascinated with the things we can do with smartly applied technology (because of course technology is only as useful as its practical real world application allows). As a teenager I feasted on Omni magazine which was full of Wizard solutions for the world, with the occasional bit of Prophet thrown in, and I think it had a deep effect on me.

    I think the only true solution will mix both. The problems are too intense and deep for a ‘lets all go live more modestly’ approach’. It would be lovely if we could, but the dynamics of human economy (and this includes socialist or anarchist as well as capitalist economies) always seems to drive towards more energy use. Just look at how much more efficient pc’s and smart phones have driven massively power hungry data units.

    One key issue though, and I don’t think most Prophets have really appreciated this, is that while a Prophet approach could have worked very well, say, 30 years ago, when there was still time to reverse our power hungry economies and growing populations with quite modest solutions (carbon taxes, investing in womens development in poorer countries), its simply too late now. Even the most radical population control measures (bar genocide) will not substantially reduce population levels in the crucial next half century. Even the most radical of energy saving strategies will not cut CO2 emissions quickly enough to allow us to mitigate harm. We need technology and we need radical applications of it, and we need it fast, which means we must grab solutions that are at least 90% proven – i.e. solar power, not fusion, sensible mixed use agriculture, not pure permaculture or silviculture systems, etc.

    1. JohnnyGL

      This link from the geoengineering question above sounds a lot like wizard techniques applied to prophet ideas.

      Here’s the paper:

      From the Guardian article…
      “Under the scheme, planted fields of fast growing trees such as eucalyptus would cover the deserts of the Sahara and Australian outback, watered by seawater treated by a string of coastal desalination plants and channelled through a vast irrigation network. The new blanket of tree cover would bring its own weather system and rainfall, while soaking up carbon dioxide from the world’s atmosphere. The team’s calculations suggest the forested deserts could draw down around 8bn tonnes of carbon a year, about the same as emitted from fossil fuels and deforestation today. Sounds expensive? The researchers say it could be more economic than planned global investment in carbon capture and storage technology (CCS).”

      1. c_heale

        Eucalypts have fire as part of their growth cycle. To me it sounds like techno-utopian nonsense. If it was so easy to grow trees in the Sahara, the locals would have done it already (funny how the people who live there are assumed to be so dumb they wouldn’t have thought of planting trees – maybe this links in with the article on the rural/urban divide on NC today). It’s possible salinization of the soil would be a problem.

        1. Toto

          it sounds like techno utopian nonsense but is it? Senegal has already planted 50,000 acres of trees as part of the great green wall project, whereas Niger has managed to “re-green” 12 million acres of formerly dusty desert land. Maybe the eucalyptus idea is just taking notes from these existing, successful, local plans?

        2. visitor

          Eucalyptus trees represent 30% of the total forest cover in Portugal. They have been massively planted in the past 40 years — as raw material for paper production.

          At the same time, forest fires have been growing in number and intensity, reaching unprecedented dimensions last year. Criticisms against the all-eucalyptus policy have been growing, since eucalyptus trees are simultaneously very flammable and very resistant to fire — their bark flares up, separates from the trunk, and then carries out flames further away. Those characteristics that, in their region of origin (Australia), allow them to expand their territory through bush fires, are unwanted in other countries.

          Besides, eucalyptus suck water through deep roots (potentially to the detriment of other plants) and provide no fodder for the local fauna (outside Australia that is).

          Those schemes for huge monocultures of non-local plants come straight from the industrial-agroforestry wizard camp; they are the kind of ideas that will most probably result in poor outcomes.

          1. The Rev Kev

            Glad someone brought that up In fact, vaporized eucalyptus oil produced by the tree naturally can cause these trees to literally explode. Near Sydney are a range of mountains called the Blue Mountains. They are that colour because the eucalyptus trees pumping out these oils into the air shift the light spectrum to the blue end so you can imagine how much oil must be suspended in the air surrounding these trees.

      2. John k

        But we can’t even stop destroying the Amazon… a century from now the scheme will be to desalinate to get the water to plant trees in the Amazon desert.
        I agree we need to do everything at once, solar, nukes, wind, free birth control to all, educate women, especially in countries with high birth rates, plant trees, consume less, drive less, etc etc.
        Not much happening. What we’ll do instead is build dams around coastal cities as the water rises, following the New Orleans example of stronger higher dams after each flood. Bipartisan infra!

      3. JTMcPhee

        Percival Lowell (is that right?) was convinced he saw vast networks of canals on Mars, not so long ago… inducing hosts of speculation and great science fiction…

        Old elephant joke: How to catch an elephant: go up in a tree by the water hole with a binocular, a tweezer and a milk bottle. Wait until the elephants come down to drink. Look at them through the wrong end of the binocular, pick one up with the tweezer, and drop it in the milk bottle.

        Tech has a method for everything.

    2. lyman alpha blob

      Agree that a mix is probably best – I don’t really want to go back to pre-industrial times. The main problem with technology is that as a species we don’t seem to have the intelligence to use it wisely.

      We have the technology to produce enormous amounts of food and yet throw half of it away. We don’t need new tech to feed more people – we need to stop being so wasteful.

      Our computer systems are another example. Clearly I enjoy my computer or you wouldn’t be reading this. But how much power is generated in order to run the servers so companies and the government can hoover up every piece of electronic communication and save it in perpetuity? Is it really necessary for someone 100 years from now to now that I once clicked on a certain link? To me, most of the data analytics currently being done only for purposes of marketing more crap at people is sheer madness.

      There’s a happy medium between wizardry and prophecy but I’m not sanguine that we as a species will find it.

  3. ebbflows


    Best short hand phrase I’ve seen, especially since this group has a propensity to engage in phraseology from a market based bias e.g. all solutions have to have a profit incentive.

    This is evidenced by Norman Borlaug works and those that expanded their market share by his world view. This is not unlike do gooders in India supplying water bores without proper environmental impact studies, arsenic poisoning.

    The prophets on the other hand are probably closer to the solution but unfortunately contra to the currant dominate profit driven – market share incentives. I mean we already know how executives in the sugar based market view their priorities and why.

    1. jrs

      Yea even if Wizard solutions could work it seems they are very unlikely to be made to work without even more consequences, in a short term profit driven economy. There may be countries mature enough to attempt them though (who knows it could even be China). At least the prophets get that the economic system is driving our problems.

      1. ebbflows

        Non germinating seeds requiring annual restock, diminishing verities, reduced randomness, supply bottle necks susceptible to shocks, mono culture that has unwanted side effects, that’s the short list.

        Then we get this –

        My family was active in AZ during the early 70s in the satellite city development and can confirm it was more of a Salton Sea than anything to do with Lambert’s views on the use of – Smart – in conjunction with anything someone else is selling.

  4. bassmule

    The Wizards are still kicking the can down the road. Ultimately, we cannot make the planet any bigger than it already is.

  5. Ignacio

    I am a very small prophet, Hahahahahaha! Nevertheless I do my job in my tiny environment. And it works!
    For instance, I have rented a thermographic camera and i am visiting my friends to show them how we loose energy in our homes, and what can we do to reduce losses. By the way we all learn how mean were home builders focused on benefits, using cheap but inadequate construction elements, cheating the existing regulation and, particularly during the housing bubble, trying to obtain the maximum number of “useful square meters” per construction with tricks that reduced thermal isolation below reasonable levels. A lot of energy waste if we consider how many houses were buildt during the bubble.

    After these visits we all have learnt important lessons on energy usage and on how important is proper regulation, how “markets” cheat those and how we end paying the bill and having less comfort at home.

    1. JTMcPhee

      Thank you, Ignacio, for your enthusiasm and efforts! Have you, and the people you have helped educate, figured out some next steps? Such as means for retrofitting defective structures to reduce energy use, loss and waste, and organizing to demand honest regulatory government action and defeat the cheaters? Maybe figuring out how to build and live in cooperative housing, rather than detached structures, with so much more loss-generating external surface area per resident?

      How about solar hot water and space heating, and even cooling? All kinds of inexpensive designs to choose from, any search on “designs for solar water heater” will produce an almost bewildering array, with lots of prophets offering their approaches. A couple of links:, and for do-it-yourselfers, The first article notes that the CHINESE are very big into residential solar water and space heating, and the Israeli government, among others, requires solar water heating in new construction. Note that solar heat can also be used for cooling via absorption and desiccation processes. Here’s a report on one water-and-space-heat installation:

      Now, if there’s enough PEX and plywood and double-glaze polycarbonate to go around, maybe we can really change the world a bit!

      1. JTMcPhee

        Also, I can’t find a link right now, but there was an engineer who went around his neighborhood, I think in Germany, Austria or the Netherlands, and talked a bunch of neighbors into going in on a collective project to build solar water heaters for each of their houses. They settled on a design, did group purchases of the materials, and set up a shop where everyone contributed to the fabrication and then installation of the collectors, tanks, pumps, plumbing and wiring. That effort has become a bit of a model for other similar groups.

        And it’s not like solar heat collection is anything new, and earlier versions of our own Imperial government were involved in sort of global efforts to spread the use of the approach. (I almost said “technology,” oops.)

      2. Amfortas the Hippie

        solar hot water can be stupidly easy.
        years ago, before we had kids, the water heater went out. We were dirt poor, at the time, and i wanted to hold out til we had enough$$ for a tankless water heater(very rare and hard to come by back then). so i threw a 100′ water hose on the roof, with a little valve at the end, and viola! hot, hot water.
        we used that for almost a year.
        cloudy days, it was big stock pots on either the woodstove or the fire outside, depending on season.
        a side effect of this method was an ingrained aversion to waste.

      3. Ignacio

        Thank you JTMcPhee.

        Really figuring it out which are the best renewable options for residential buildings is one of my most important worries. The construction code in Spain indicates that for new buildings, solar thermal is mandatory. The problem I find with solar thermal is that you cannot meet your heating needs in winter without having excess energy in summer. Typically the instalations are sized to provide some percentage of total heating demand in winter (sanitary water and home heating). I am triying to find renewable sources that provide 100% of electricity OR 100% heating demand. Yet, the greatest difficulty is to convince, lets say, 100 homeowners in a building to invest in any particular installation (or some kind of refurbishment). I like very much the approach of the german engineer that you mention in your next entry.

        1. JTMcPhee

          I have only scratched around a bit in non-PV solar. I see that there is absorption technology for COOLING mentioned in the links I gave, running off excess heat collected from “oversized” collectors, diverted to heat exchangers to run absorption refrigeration, an old technology that might have less non-Green impact. So maybe a systems approach might produce even larger benefits, at the cost of some extra up-front investment, beyond base summer need? Does Spain provide any financial support or beneficial tax deductions for new or re-fitted solar collectors of any kind? Our local large US utilities and petroleum interests lobby pretty hard and successfully against such carcilerias. But Germany, at 52 degrees north, has provided such, I believe.

          1. Ignacio

            Yeps! More or less the same in Spain. No financial support for solar. Solar is the enemy. Some support for geothermal and other systems to recover energy.

        2. Yves Smith Post author

          What about geothermal wells? Water under a house even in places like Poland winds up being pretty much 50 degrees all year round. You use it for cooling in the summer and to heat in the winter, as in you have to heat a lot less to crank the temperature up from where the stored water gets you.

          1. JTMcPhee

            One part of a good idea, maybe, but: A million houses circulating a couple of thousand gallons of Fossil or hydro-cycle water to maintain human-preferred temperature differentials inside and out — what possible effects could that have on the local area? I’m no engineer or physicist, but all those nice houses transferring heat into the ground, what effect would that have over time on the complexities that lie beneath? So many questions, so inconvenient for “market- and engineering-based ‘solutions’ to the pressing problems of maintaining the middle class lifestyle”… or tweaking things so we can go on much as before, because, as I learned in Evidence class in law school, “the presumption of continuity is one of the strongest presumptions in the law…”

            Who pays for the well-digging, particularly into rock, the casings and piping and pumps and heat exchangers and all? MMT maybe? Lots of good ideas, needing to be strung together in sensible order and studied for possible worsening of conditions and unintended consequences before implementation… Not that such is how government or business is actually conducted, except maybe in exceptional locales…

            1. vlade

              Depends on the area. But ground-water heat pumps are some of the most efficient ways of both heating and cooling houses, and, in general, tend to be pretty well balanced over time. If anything, you tend to loose heat from the ground (which may or may not be a problem, see below).

              There is no need for deep digging, what you need is a large enough heath exchanger. Which may well mean a large loop 2m underground (or even less, depends on soil etc.). Of course, this may mean that if you drop a degree C overtime (and we’re talking decades here), it will affect the ecosystem, because the drop is mostly in the top layer of the soil, not rock.

              There are other different problems with it, but compared to other solutions its still very efficient – and there’s no good solution that would work everywhere for everyone TBH.

  6. David

    It’s interesting that, except for one reference at the beginning, controlling population growth is ignored. Nuclear power is a very small issue by comparison. So who’s going to start that conversation, telling people they can’t have as many children as they want? Mention population control in Africa, for example, and you can get accused of promoting genocide.
    Any bright ideas?

    1. J Sterling

      It’s the most common reason for my ending a conversation with a conservationist. I’ll express a sympathy for their position and an interest in their activities, and ask how they are working toward bringing the birth rate (130m a year, steady for the whole of this century and no sign of reducing) down to the natural death rate (50m a year, slowly rising as past generations grow to old age, expected to hit 70m by 2050). If they say things like “oh, it’s stopping naturally!” or “you’re a genocidal racist!” I’m like bye, nice talking to you.

      The UN admits the birth rate is not coming down naturally, and the world population looks set to stabilise at 130m a year times 85 years equals 11 billion.

      Western countries’ populations are rising because of migration, and if national-level conservationists tell me it’s bad and wrong to talk about the effect of immigration on the environment, I similarly walk away. If they care so little for the environment that they’re willing to unsee reality to suit their liberal beliefs, they’ve no right to ask me to reconsider my positions. Because maybe I too care about the environment, but not enough to change my ways, huh?

      1. JohnnyGL

        I’ll agree that there’s an under-stated environmental component to the immigration question.

        I’ll disagree with the urgency of population control efforts. Please see my comment below. It just doesn’t solve the problem.

        I’d be a lot more optimistic if carbon emissions were on a path like that 1st chart in my link below….but they’re not and THAT is the problem (not population growth).

        Yes, I know absolute vs. rate-of-growth means we’re still adding tons of people, but again, we’re still moving rapidly in the right direction on population growth. We’re NOT moving in the right direction on lots of other fronts.

        1. John k

          No one thing solves the problem. And there’s not just one problem.
          More people mean less fish, monkeys, apes, lions, plant diversity, more soils destruction, to say nothing about global warming. It’s not just that the earth capacity for humans is finite, the capacity is declining every day as our pop increases every day.
          Some food is wasted? Maybe half in some places, Like India? Sure, and there will always be waste, just like there will always be corruption.
          Adding one more person increases co2 output more than you can possibly save by driving less or whatever.

      2. none

        The UN admits the birth rate is not coming down naturally, and the world population looks set to stabilise at 130m a year times 85 years equals 11 billion.

        I don’t even understand how that stabilization is supposed to happen, unless you’re saying the natural death rate is supposed to shoot up. Otherwise you’re looking at one of exponential growth, nuclear war, antibiotic resistant pandemic, or something else awful. I don’t see how conversations with the technophile-wizard side avoid going the same way, unless they start talking about Dyson spheres and other science fiction. Some problems simply don’t have solutions.

        1. Comradefrana

          “I don’t even understand how that stabilization is supposed to happen, unless you’re saying the natural death rate is supposed to shoot up.”

          Pretty much that. More old people basically. 3 billion at 60+ in 2100 versus 1 billion now.

          1. Harold

            Population loss is slow because even if people have less children, it takes a long time for the old people to die. It’s probably better that way, if you think about it. Better a slow decline than a rapid crash, I mean.

        2. J Sterling

          Today, the 85 year olds who are dying of old age are those who were born when the birth rate was 50 million a year. So they’re now dying at the rate of 50 million a year. Fortunately, the birth rate is not going up exponentially, so eventually the 85 year olds should start dying 85 years after the birth rate was 130 million a year, while the birth rate continues to be 130 million a year. Now it’s a steady state, you’re born, live 85 years, and die. 130 million a year times 85 years is 11 billion.

          Which goes to show that a non-exponentially rising birth rate is nowhere near good enough. It needs to be coming down.

        3. Lois

          Honestly that is people really don’t like to talk about, we keep on this path and the “natural” death rate is going to go way up! And not just waiting for old people to die. Disease, famine, etc.

      3. Lyle

        Actually long term the population is already set to decline. Note that the big issue here is the reduction of total fertility (children per woman over a life time) has declined from 5 in 1950 world wide to 2.5 today. The population growth rate has fallen from 2 % in 1950 to about 1.2% today and is predicted to fall to near zero in 2099. and for the total fertility rate The essential element is to look at population on a world wide basis. The site also shows that the time it takes for total fertility to fall from 6 to 3 has fallen from 95 years in the UK (1815-1910) to 10 years in Iran (1986 to 1996). Partly this is because a much higher percentage of children reach adulthood than 120 years ago. Apparently the main issue is to give women more education so they realize there are other things to do with their life than have children. (Then add free birth control with long lasting IUD devices) .
        Births peak in 2040 and fall somewhat afterwords.
        Consider Mexico where the total fertility rate is now 2.22 falling from 6 in 1970. (On a political note this implies that there will not be a lot of mexicans who come to the us in the future as there will not be the old surplus population. Thus the way may be built but there may be no one to stop. IMHO help build the wall at the Mexico/Central America border (its also a lot shorter there))

        1. J Sterling

          Actually, that’s just thing people say, “actually”. As I pointed out, the UN admits that’s not happening in reality.

          Total Fertility Ratio is voodoo and superstition, and will be exposed as such by and by.

      4. Oregoncharles

        “130m a year times 85 years equals 11 billion.” This, and the similar number mentioned in the article, is an example of simple projection becoming irresponsible. The population will not reach 10 billion; if it did, most of them would be living in dire misery and the population would already be falling. Stocks are already collapsing everywhere, from the atmosphere’s absorptive ability to ocean fish, with soil and trees in between.

        Even TRYING to reach 10 billion would further damage the resource base and make things worse. Just as a matter of logic, blindly projecting trends into the future is a way of ignoring most of what’s going on. Diminishing returns do exist, as do hard limits like the size of the earth, the amount of water, and so on. One of those limits is the level of efficiency social organizations are capable of.

        The population collapse hasn’t started yet, so it’s possible to imagine a soft landing that focuses on ameliorative measures, such as making contraception universally available – over the dead bodies of several major world religions, all with a history of dire violence. That situation reiterates endlessly: the real barriers are social and political, much more than technical.

        It’s global cooking writ large: we have to ameliorate the effects already in the pipeline at the same time we try to bend the curve. I wish us luck.

        1. J Sterling

          Even a steady state population of 10 billion would require a reduction in annual births to 117 million, a reduction that isn’t happening. To achieve an eventual steady state of 8 billion needs a long slow decline (people age so slowly) and eventually no more than 94 million births p.a. The equilibrium of 3 billion that many believe is the only one the planet could sustain long term together with the rest of the natural world of species, would require less than 35 million births p.a. globally. If we don’t achieve this, then the four horsemen will achieve it for us, by curtailing our 85 years drastically. 130 million births per annum combined with 9 billion population? No problem! Just don’t expect to live longer than 70 years.

          And really, getting extropian about it, why should we be satisfied with 85 years? Why not 100 years of healthy life? Combine that with 3 billion on the planet and you must keep the number of annual births down to no more than 30 million a year (not much less than the 35 million I mentioned previously, because 100 is not much more than 85)

          I truly believe one of the major blockers to getting the birth rate down is labor employers, who want large quantities of poor young men. They don’t care that poor young men and women become old sick men and women, and eventually die after a short and miserable life.

      5. steelhead23

        I would vote for the first politician of either party (or none) who sees global population growth, not the resulting immigration problem, as an existential issue and proposes policies to address the issue, such as: free contraceptive services (along with free healthcare in general, one would hope), changes in the tax code to discourage large families (such as limiting child dependent deductions to 2 children), support for international programs that help to reduce the birth rate, such as educating girls, support for research on population growth and, open reference to the issue in government publications

    2. Dirk77

      You might mention how many species have been annihilated by humans already and how many more will be if population is not controlled. And that ignores that all those plants, animals, and organisms enable them as humans to live on the planet in the first place. If you come late to a slaughter, your proper response should not be to feel hurt and resentful because you had no chance to join in.

    3. Chris

      There is a school of thought that suggests two reasons for large families in less developed countries:

      a) Absence of social welfare for the elderly (you need kids to look after you when you’re old)

      b) Inadequate education, particularly for girls, about how babies are made, and how to stop that happening (as well as easy, affordable access to the necessaries)

  7. JohnnyGL

    I was just reading Mann’s article in the Atlantic yesterday! Nice timing!

    I found it incredibly frustrating that he skipped over the use of rotational grazing and holistic management to restore grasslands, soak up carbon into the soil, improve fertility and produce a lot of meat for human consumption. This guy Sheldon Frith has one of the better sites with detailed information.

    1. Oregoncharles

      Yes, I’ve written about this here before. Good to have readily available links. It’s one of the few readily available win-wins, since it promotes soil fertility at the same time. Thanks.

  8. JohnnyGL

    Also, Mann chooses to leave money and power out of the equation.

    It’s quite clear that wizards and their often crazy ideas have too much money to indulge in poorly considered ventures. They also control media, academia, and most governments.

    If the prophets had a fraction of their resources and/or PR apparatus, they’d be doing better by light-years!

    1. Brooklin Bridge

      If the prophets had a fraction of their resources and/or PR apparatus, they’d be doing better by light-years!

      An interesting point but it may well be that the prophets are effective precisely because they don’t have the resources, and thus the mentality, of the wizards.. Big money sucks.

      1. JohnnyGL

        “Money is like manure….if you pile it up in one place, it stinks. But, if you spread it around, it makes things grow.”

        I forget where I read that but loved it, immediately.

  9. JohnM

    Seems wrong to mention william vogt and leave untouched the subject of population control. Are the wizards and prophets equally misguided for focusing on the issue of supply and ignoring demand? As Garrett Hardin asked a generation ago, is it the goal of mankind to turn the entire productive capacity of the planet into human biomass?

    1. JohnnyGL

      You really think the urgent task is to solve a problem that is well on its way to being solved organically? This sort of thing is a distraction.

      The first chart shows what an exceptional blip the 20th century was. We’re rapidly reverting to mean.

      If everyone stops having kids tomorrow, there’s still several USA-sized population chunks in Africa, India, and China that have every right to demand a better life for themselves.

      The urgent task is to re-define what it means to ‘live comfortably’ in a way that doesn’t involve massive amounts of energy consumption or produce huge amounts of toxic waste.

      1. Cafephilos

        I agree completely. The battle for population growth is largely won, but due to demographic momentum (people live 70-90 years) it takes a while for population growth to translate into population size.

        What the wizards and prophets need to accomplish is to help us survive the coming population peak (10-11 billion) with as little permanent damage to the ecosystem as possible.

      2. Lee

        If everyone stops having kids tomorrow, there’s still several USA-sized population chunks in Africa, India, and China that have every right to demand a better life for themselves.

        Alas, whatever their rights may or may not be, the avenues of conquest, genocide, primitive accumulation and super exploitation that accidents of history and geography made available to Europeans in their colonial projects, are no longer an option. These frontiers are closed. Ecologically speaking, the niches are occupied and the current occupants will resist displacement. Here’s hoping their are better roads to the better life.

  10. Brooklin Bridge

    This is rather a facile categorization. As a model, It creates more fuzziness than clarification. The prophets, for example, can easily be described as fostering more independent thinking than community and the wizards as doing the opposite; that is, fostering a pyramid like dependence on technology under the rigid control of the few that requires highly conventional thinking communities within the pyramid’s stratification. Bezos and Musk and so on may be cowboys, but they are intrinsically part of a highly, even pathologically, rigid organization.

    In reality, intellectual inquiry and the various forms it has taken (and been used to promote) are very much part of both the wizard and prophet attitudes but also part of a much larger political and economic whole which is necessary to bear in mind when trying to examine the parts.

  11. The Rev Kev

    I know that this guy means well but I do not think that the way that he has slanted his take on overpopulation is particularly useful or even helpful. Seen in this particular context, it would be all to easy for the Republicans to adopt the muscular credo of the Wizards (technology will save us) versus the Democrats adopting that of the prudential Prophets (we must be socially responsible). Then that would turn the whole question of overpopulation question into a typical Washington bun fight to be gridlocked.
    I think that there are other more important things to examine. Like, should we even think about shooting for a population of 10 billion on a planet that can only really support 2-3 billion? An argument to have Australia with a population of 100,000,000 got shot out the the sky here as soon as it was mentioned as people immediately recognized what that would inevitably mean – future slums of tens of millions here. As well, the current population of the world is 7.6 billion. Has anybody calculated the resources required to keep alive another 2.4 billion people? Especially when climate change is starting to throw all long term planning out the window?
    And living in a Wizard’s world guided by Prophet’s politics is meaningless as well. I don’t care so much about the reasons why stuff is decided but I actually care about what is actually done and in a Wizard’s world, that is not a sustainable option. You can’t be “Be smart, make more” in a world of rapidly diminishing resources. Just to put the boot in one final time, the article talks about solutions which depend on a society doing all the big projects and the heavy lifting. That is how we ended up with a society where we have blocks of houses with water, power, sewerage and telephone going to each and every house. There is no consideration that future homes may be much more self-sustaining individual units which decreases the demands to have all these big project done.

    1. sgt_doom

      This discussion reminds me of my opinion on Marxist economist (self-described, I wouldn’t necessarily refer to him as such) Richard Wolfe, whom I believe sounds intelligent 50% of the time, and the other 50% he remarks on sounds purely idiotic!

    2. Oregoncharles

      My thought exactly: Not going to happen, a really bad thing if it did.

      It’s a blind projection of current rates, as if nothing will intervene to change those rates – the death rate, for one. The US death rate is already rising, and that’s a 1st-world country. Does anyone actually think there’s no connection between natural limits and the wars and refugee flows?

  12. Tom_Doak

    I was hoping he was going to get to a question about water, but he didn’t.

    The more I read about the world, the more water the water supply becomes the focus. All of the ‘wizard’ solutions seem to rely on fertilizer and high-tech construction and other things that take tremendous amounts of water (and energy) to produce. And even the ‘prophet’ solution for global warming was desalinization plants on a continental scale for Australia, which brings with it giant energy requirements.

    My gut tells me that water has got to be a big part of the carrying capacity equation – perhaps the limiting factor.

    1. California Bob

      Was going to add this to the conversation, but you beat me to it. Well said. This is playing out in a microcosm in California, where water has always been the real ‘gold’ and we are, of course, facing a very real crisis. I think water will become the material proxy for the ‘wizards vs. prophets’ arguments.

      1. jrs

        Playing out slowly in California but more immediately and urgently in Cape Town, South Africa, where there is no water in the pipes anymore.

      2. Amfortas the Hippie

        aye. as a matter of course, and without much thought, we waste water profligately.
        after years of experimentation, i built this house to not waste a drop…composting toilet=no water wasted(and no aerisolized manure every time you flush)…every drain is a graywater line going to a line of fruit trees, or subsurface into one of the permanent garden beds. The only issue is choice of soap…most commercial soaps use sodium hydroxide, which means you are salting your own fields, over time. there are a few commercially available soaps/detergents that use potassium hydroxide instead, and we use these. also, if you make yer own soap(which I don’t, but know folks who do), you can use wood ash and rainwater to leach potassium hydroxide for use in soap making.
        these technics could be scaled up, probably…but it would entail infrastructure replacement, and I’m unsure how it would work in Houston or New York, let alone Nairobi or Lagos.
        I tried and failed to lobby the city/county a few years ago when they were looking for grant money to replace the ancient sewer “plant” that serves town, to go instead with a methane digester system(for which there were even more generous grants).
        My calculations, if i included the manure from the 3 feedlots, indicated that all the city electric(wells, pumps, streetlights, etc) and about half of the electrical of the poor side of town, could be met with these efforts.
        But it was a mental bridge too far,lol…”shitgas” is an uncomfortable topic, it seems.

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      Yes, Australian physicists had modeled that in the early 2000s. Potable water is our most scarce resource. The world starts hitting supply constraints in 2050. And I don’t think they modeled for how fast climate change is taking hold, which means more arid areas….

  13. TG

    A very interesting post. A couple of points.

    1. “Prophet” is inaccurate. Malthus and Mills and Keynes and MaYinchu etc. prophesied nothing, but only described how the world actually works, right now. When people all have six kids each at an early age, generation after generation, unless there is an open frontier then very soon the resulting exponential growth rapidly burns up all productive capacity – however high or low that is – and the average person is reduced to subsistence. That is why it is an iron law of development that essentially all rich countries first start with a low fertility rate, and if everything else goes right, they can slowly accumulate per-capita wealth. The misery in places like Bangladesh and Pakistan and Yemen etc. are not predictions, they are real, now. More people does not automatically cause more wealth production. Period.

    2. We don’t need to worry about running out of food. However many people there will be, they will have enough to eat. The question is whether most of them will be crushed into bare subsistence or not. And it should be noted that, for the rich, this would be a good thing, because their profits and power would be maximized. And that’s what this ‘debate’ is really all about. The ‘Wizards’ are simply providing cover for policies that will, sooner or later, take us back to the libertarian paradise of the dark ages, where labor is cheap and resources dear.

    1. JTMcPhee

      It bears an occasional re-watch of “Soylent Green,” with attention to the setting and back story… lots more to how the all-eating Soylent Corp helped bring the vestiges of autophagous humanity to that endpoint where the dernier cri is that wonderful meme, “Soylent Green is PEOPLE!”

    2. John k

      Hear, hear.
      And the topic is mostly off the table because of the god given right of people everywhere to have six, or twelve, and nobody even asks whether the bearer can afford what she has, much less a few more.
      Only China got off the poverty train to nowhere… yes, they have the worlds worst demographic young/old, but at least they have the resources to deal with it. Imagine if they had 2 billion…

      You make a good point that oligarchs want ever more people, no matter it destroys the future. Kind of like Exxon denying their own GW research.

  14. Brooklin Bridge

    Sending a decked out electric vehicle to Mars, oops, I mean the asteroid belt beyond Mars (that was the plan, that was the plan – I swear it!) is an awfully tempting way to summarize the good services of the Liberty (for the few) loving Wizards. Riding a nuke missile down from the bomb bay while waving a cowboy hat as if it were a bull out of the pen is another.

    Phew! Glad there’s somebody solving these problems..

  15. Quanka

    Soil guy again.

    Let’s reiterate this point — (native) grasses have a huge role to play in carbon capture. Grass is SUPERIOR TO TREES when it comes to capturing carbon and driving/transferring that carbon into the soil to be used by microorganisms. Trees simply store it in their trunks.

    Love the article. But repeat after me: Tress will not save us from CO2, we have to better understand the role that grasses, microorganisms and soil more generally play in the climate cycle. In fact, if we try to be wizards and force trees to grow where they can’t … we are only going to make the CO2 problem worse.

    Also: restoring healthy native grasslands has been proven to benefit the water cycle as well. Love the comments about water, grasses and water go hand in hand.

    1. gardenbreads

      This is an excellent point. Solutions are local and appropriate ecologies depend on local conditions. I do plant trees as woodland not forest, with mixed plantings and grass/forbs/sedges as appropriate. Where I live woodlands absorb 8x the water as grasslands and prevent flooding and erosion, are quite productive and provide summer shade. Other places grasslands or savanna are better suited to retaining and building soil and sequestering carbon. But one often reads global pronouncements that we must plant a billion trees willy nilly.

  16. Jamie

    Wizards and prophets! Catchy angle, just the thing for selling lots of books.

    But the most interesting bit in this piece is the bit about underlying values. I’m not sure I can accept Mann’s description of the value conflict at face value. It leaves one with a lot of questions. Where do these different value systems come from? Do people really have different values or only different value priorities? Do they even have different value priorities? What causes people to change their values or value priorities?

    All the conservatives I know also value community, but they seem to get their community needs met in nuclear family and religious settings, or at the golf club and with their drinking buddies. All the liberals I know also value individuality and independence. They get their community needs met by communities of choice. There certainly seems to be a dichotomy of values, but I would describe it as those who, for whatever reason, don’t like the world as they found it and chose to fight established systems and those who like the world as they found it and choose to live within and conserve those systems. But it seems to me every one, on both “sides”, values both individuality and community.

    I think the constant description and repetition of the “value conflict” is polarizing by design. If it were part of the solution instead of part of the problem, then people who mention it would go on to discuss the questions it raises and how we could work at reconciling the conflict at the value level instead of fighting it out at the policy level. Why don’t they do this?

    It seems to me that people either like or don’t like established systems based pretty much on their very early childhood experiences of either being supported by or threatened by those systems. Its not quite as simple as children of wealthy parents being supported and children of poor parents being threatened. One has to wonder why some people accept rigid structures imposed on them and some resist. It is too facile to say simply they have different values. The value system itself is what is often rigidly imposed. And this goes equally for the right and the left.

    1. jrs

      Mostly correct but of course current experience does matter. Regardless of early childhood experience, being or not being supported by those systems in adolescence, early adulthood, and adulthood also matters. It’s why you got unemployed college grads joining Occupy. However supported they may have been to make it that far, when they couldn’t find work or work using their training it breeds rebellion. Of course those who had it more difficult in childhood will strongly correlate to those who have it more difficult in adulthood and they will see the need for a kinder system, having been nothing but the system’s victims. But it isn’t perfect correlation, external circumstances in the here and now whatever one’s age matter.

      1. JTMcPhee

        And of course the fly in the latte is that mst everyone wants MOAR and still MOAR, all the time, and quite a few achieve that billionaire level where their “successful” avarice exceeds even their disorienting wants, so they can be completely careless about waste and arrogance. And those folks create their own self- and class-perpetuating reality, immune to consequence. Know any squillionaires who fall into the Prophet category? And please, nobody cite Steve Jobs…

    2. Oregoncharles

      Some of that is inherent, or at least very deep-seated, personality differences. Evolution designed us to try all available paths.

  17. tomk

    A few remarks on this topic. Population is not the issue, it’s how the humans choose to live and use the planet. Many of the positive steps that need to be taken to deal with the environmental problems are very labor intensive and could dovetail nicely with the reduced demands for human labor in the workplace due to automation. What we need is strong public policies that promote such things as small scale agriculture (Victory Gardens in the war against planetary destruction) and energy efficient buildings and discourage things like financial bloat and the health insurance industry. I can’t help but think that the bureaucrats, traders, and other paper shufflers wouldn’t be happier tending their gardens, cleaning the streets, and caring for those that need care, doing things that really need doing.

    One under discussed element of the current state of the world is the devaluation of manual labor in the education system. It takes tremendous knowledge and intelligence to be a welder, carpenter, or farmer. Schools need to intensify their efforts to support all the paths that a person might take,

    1. John Wright

      If I’m understanding your “population is not the issue” you are advocating not worrying about population because a massive change in human behavior can accommodate the human population on this planet.

      I suspect humans are very much like other lifeforms in trying, as a group, to extract as much from the environment until a limit is placed on them by nature.

      Perhaps the modern philosopher Dogbert (of Dilbert Comic Strip) has a reasonable understanding of how humans will respond to diminished resources, be they climate, water, oil, food.

      Dogbert stated “Change is good, you go first.”

      The resistance to massive change in human behavior will be tremendous.

      I believe population is an issue that will receive more attention as resources are diminished in quantity and quality….

      1. tomk

        It doesn’t seem useful to try to focus public policy on population control when a small percentage of the world’s population is responsible for the bulk of the resource use. We need to focus on responsible (wizardry) and sustainable (prophecy) use of resources, and even distribution.

        People are easily influenced, and changes in behavior will manifest as reality continues to hit. Cooperation and compassion are every bit as human as fear and greed. As conscious beings we choose.

  18. John

    Carrying capacity was mentioned, but not biological overshoot and lag times in biological systems. EROEI is another one. I would also be interested in moe discussion of Fukishima’s small footprint.
    For some further weekend reading, folks may want to review the material at I guess that puts me in the prophet camp but I would note that prophets have generally open to miracles. His real title should have been ” Humans: Smarter than Yeast?” Think about algae blooms and wine making.

  19. RWood

    The wizards take the ball to the 25-yard line:

    Among other advantages, this new technology makes it possible to recover approximately 80% or 90% of all treated water. Besides, it makes the most of the maximum energy supplied by panels when exposed to sunlight, and its availability is also high, as it enables treated water accumulation for periods in which renewable sources do not provide enough energy.
    Stand-alone system to produce drinking water by means of solar energy
    The researchers gained their results by modelling how changing only the radiative properties of agricultural land and high population areas across North America, Europe and Asia would impact average temperatures, extreme temperatures and precipitation.
    The results showed small impacts on average temperatures, little change in precipitation — except in Asia — but significant reductions in extreme temperatures.
    How to reduce heat extremes by 2-3 degrees Celsius

  20. Jeremy Grimm

    Choose the way of Wizards or way of Prophets or blend them — ‘time is of the essence’. The world changes fast and faster.

    Climate changes. But stop all CO2 and methane additions to our atmosphere and pull out their excesses — this moment — and we still face a rough ride into the future. Pulling the the heat already absorbed into the Oceans is an even greater challenge than controlling CO2 and methane. And so far neither Wizards or Prophets have demonstrated much impact on either. Geoengineering deserves a category of its own. We can engineer what we don’t understand and in the process realize the Neoliberal dreams for extracting great wealth from Climate Disruption which Phillip Mirowski argues is the endgame for the Neoliberal project: denial — followed by cap-and-trade Market solutions designed for profit and failure — culminating in “Space Mirrors” and other geoengineering gimmicks. [And no billionare born and bred would put their hard-earned money into a project without a return with substantial interest from public coffers.]

    The post also touches on food production and energy production while introducing a sub-theme of centralization of “solutions” versus their distribution further distinguishing the two camps. Wizards imagine wondrous technical and scientific breakthroughs just around the corner will lower down the god repairing our tragedy. The Prophets imagine a simpler life of return to a mythic golden age of happy villages with ‘little homes on the prairie’. These are dreams of smoke.

    Humankind and Human Society is deeply flawed. We are ruled by psychopaths and sociopaths. Our cultures value the traits of these aberrant personalities. Even if we might halt Climate Disruption and put things right — even if we could produce food, water, housing … amenities like medical care, toys … for unlimited population growth — how well would our society share that production? I see a different future than that of Wizards or Prophets. We approach a collapse so rapid and so complete it is better described as an implosion. I call it the Great Imp.

  21. RWood

    And this insight on the title:

    If things have a soul, there follows that you can speak to them. To people, you can talk and they talk back to you. Animals won’t talk back to you but they may listen. You can talk to plants, streams, and rocks; who knows? They might be listening. You may well try to convince the sky to produce some rain when you need it. Praying, dancing, offering sacrifices. That’s the origin of what we call “religion”, that’s a very, very old way of understanding the universe. The universe has a soul. It is a soul. It is a definition of God (or of the Gods).
    But there is also another way of seeing the universe: it is to assume that it is a sort of a machine. A machine is not something you talk to; it is something you act upon. And if you act in the right way, it will react predictably and as expected. So, you may pray to get the benevolence of the soul of a great forest tree, but you may also chop it down with an axe. Predictably, the tree will fall after a sufficient number of chops. You can do the same with an enemy: if you hit his head with a battle axe, the results will be predictable. If you know the functioning of the machine, then you can make it behave as you want to. This is the origin of magic; that some also call “craft”. Finding the rules that things follow gives you power on them. It is the origin of modern science.

      1. JTMcPhee

        Dominion, vs Stewardship. “The Holly Bibble, God’s inerrant and immutable Word, says…”

        Depends, of course, on the translation and which among hundreds of “versions” one embraces as Truth…

  22. Jef

    Wizards and prophets. There is a third category that is where the majority live and is growing.

    The “Don’t know-Don’t care” group. They might trot out a talking point from one or the other of the two groups but when it comes to how they live they stick to the mantra.

    In truth it is all about the biosphere aka habitat for life. It looks like the Wizards nearly dismiss the biosphere off hand or else consider it something that they just need to adjust the dials on a bit and everything will be fine. The Prophets mostly seem to want to choose a single element or two as a pet project ignoring the whole.

    There are hundreds, thousands of interesting and somewhat beneficial projects most of which create as much of a problem as they solve. The real telling thing is that Earth and in particular the Biosphere with all of its flora and fauna would heal and even thrive if we could only just do LESS! Like 80% less.

  23. Expat

    Given the world’s current population and the incredible amounts of waste in the developed world (not to mention so many obese people eating all the pies), there is a ready case for arguing that 10 billion would be easy to feed. But 10 billion well-fed leads to 15 billion in a short time. And so on.

    Food is one thing. What about water? Or energy? Or any other resource? We can increase crop production again through hydroponics or aeroponics but we don’t have enough gasoline, plastic, steel, rare earth metals, etc. to give everyone a modern lifestyle.

    The inevitable conclusion is that unlimited, or nearly so,population implies mere survival. This idea leads to accusations of selection, eugenics, racism, and, of course, Nazis. “How dare the developed countries tell the 3rd world they can’t have more people and all the toys we have!”. I have no moral answers, only my amoral economic opinions.

    1. John k

      More pop leads first to mere survival. Rising oceans shifts millions inland, to migration, and wars for food, water, fuel. Think India, Pakistan. Or Africa moving to Europe.
      100k years to peak humans. Maybe much quicker route to what is sustainable in a hot, depleted world.
      One reg contributor on the old Oil Drum used the handle ‘are humans smarter than yeast’?
      No evidence yet for the affirmative.

      1. Expat

        “Peak” as in numbers, I assume. Personally, I think humanity peaked a few hundred thousand years ago. If one day the human race has a wing in the Intergalactic Natural History Museum, I hope that the crowning artifact which sums up our glory and achievements is NOT a frickin’ iPhone.

  24. gardenbreads

    I’ve read Mann and it is interesting. However, the term of art for “Wizard” among prophets is TechoCornucopian, Cornucopian if casual, and Cornie if one is being unpleasant.

    “Wizard” among the prophets has a totally different meaning. After all wizardry is more magical or practical than high tech. For example, John Michael Greer’s “Green Wizards” are the people with practical skills in sustainable agriculture, passive solar, crafts, etc. whose skills will be in high demand when high tech solutions become unsustainable.

    The names Technocornucopians have for us I leave as an exercise for the reader.

    1. Planter of Trees

      “Luddite” is the go-to thoughtstopper. Of some interest is the fact that the Luddites were an early labor-rights movement; in that light, their villification in technocratic rhetoric says more than it intends about their interests.

  25. Rosario

    I believe this site has said it before, “and/both” rather than “either/or”. Any good “wizard” is also a “prophet”, and vice versa.

    Going a bit into the weeds WRT this posting, I am a bit tired of the nuclear power route being pushed over and over again by people making so-called pragmatic prescriptions for our energy future. People who should know better if they did their research. There is a big difference between theory and practice and nuclear power is a hot example of this.

    Bottom line: it is too expensive, in both hard capital and externalized costs. Way too expensive per kWh by a long shot over the long term when accounting for all economic factors. It is the same with all nuclear, including modular reactors (one of the most mature of reactor designs). Ever wonder why the military are the only ones that use modular reactors? They are the only ones that can afford it (in the USA anyway), in terms of hard costs and safety (both to environment and personnel). When you are essentially handed a blank check by the government every year with no accountable audits, why not.

    People tend to conflate the abundance or density of the fuel with the cost to operate the plant that consumes the fuel. As an example, if we somehow got fusion reactors working, it would mean little if they ran on deuterium if the cost of building and maintaining the plant is well beyond that of other conventional energy generation means or, ideally, renewables.

    Also, getting the cost data on nuclear generation is tricky because of the heavy subsidies by governments, externalized costs to taxpayers (decommissioning/remediation) and the powerful influence of dispatchable power special interests on power cost studies (the very-official-sounding Institute for Energy Research comes to mind as one of the worst offenders). It is best to look at industry behavior to investigate the true viability of nuclear power.

    Look no further than the number of plants scrapped or projects abandoned (globally and in the US) and the true long terms costs being realized (most notably in the US, Japan, and France). If nuclear is such a no brainer why are all the big players running for the exits (Germany, consistently on point WRT energy policy, comes to mind). If nuclear’s “true cost” is actually the 3.5 cents/kWh provided by Forbes ( then every single utility would be building nuclear plants, yet we see the opposite, and high costs are cited as the cause. Seems like hard intellectual dissonance to me.

    On the SC plants being abandoned and the Toshiba/Westinghouse nuclear division bankruptcy:

    On nuclear power in France with a fairly unbiased view on the complexity of nuclear power (vis-a-vis essential safety, oversight, etc.), hence the baked in costs often hidden in the long term accounting:

    A more biased view of nuclear in France but still a good study:

    A biased source but still a good critique on nuclear power:

    There is a perfectly functioning fusion reactor 93 million miles away that gives us nearly all the renewable ways to produce power on the earth (technically hydro counts if you consider the water cycle), and the costs (hard and externalized) to extract its energy are lower than nuclear. IMO spend more money trying to figure out energy conservation/efficiency and energy storage. Conventional renewables (hydro/wind/solar), will do the trick if utility interests will either help it along or get out of the way.

    Once we get our s*** together on this tiny rock we can start talking about using nuclear where it makes sense and/or is essential, space travel, moon/mars colonization, what-the-hell-ever. It is not “essential” here.

    1. Synoia

      There is an inverse square law which shields us from radiation, too.

      I believe in nuclear fusion, when the reactor is at a safe distance.

      I also believe the human race needs to evolve and get out of the gravity well of earth.

  26. Peter Phillips

    Me, certainly not in the camp of the wizards. I’m sure Elon will find no spare seat for me on his rocket to his doomsday prepper hideaway on Mars.

    Neither a prophet unless the prophecy extends beyond “saving” homo sapiens only. The plants and animals that cohabit the ecosphere with us cannot just up stakes and migrate to the next amenable location.

    I will though listen to and work with those in my community who talk the language of collaboration, power sharing and sustainability, and place that conversation in the context of the fact that this enormously precious space ship Earth, the only one that myself and future generations will ever get a ride on, is imperilled by the dominant value systems and power imbalances of late stage capitalism (soon to become early stage neo-feudalism if things don’t change).

  27. brackerman

    Something that often gets lost in this conversation around the “wizard” approach is that there is always, and necessarily, a lag time between the introduction of technology and the understanding of its effects. (That’s particularly true in a business-centric environment like the US where technology create lots of ‘value’–using traditional metrics of money, growth, etc.–and the more sustainable methods of “prophets” don’t.) And that lag time can be a very long, dangerous time. So we often forget that climate change is actually a problem created by technology; we just didn’t recognize what fossil fuels were doing until a hundred years later. Science was both the hero and the villain in their case, though we only tend to look at them as the former.

    The same is true of health care, or almost anything. Our understanding of biology has undergone a sea change in the last twenty years. Everything is different than we think. For a hundred years we KNEW that proteins were rigid structures and that structure was key to its function. Only that’s not true: there are shape-shifting proteins. We KNEW that environment can never change inheritance. Except that in the case of epigenetics, it does. And we had little idea that microbes are essential players in the human gut, and in the soil, and everywhere.

    As in the case of microbes in the gut, the relationships in all these cases are extraordinarily complex, well beyond a mechanistic understanding. And that’s precisely the problem with the techno approach to solutions everywhere: Nature is more complicated than we think, and our solutions are frequently like taking a crowbar into the operation room.

    And because successful technologies become wedded to business interests, they become ever more difficult to change and challenge–as the on-going battle against the influence of fossil fuel money in the face of an existential threat makes deadly clear. So we can’t simply discard technologies as we discover they’re problematic. Yesterdays savior technology become baked into the landscape even as we see they’re no match for the underlying complexities of the universe.

  28. Lead Bow

    Our local council planted a dozen saplings in a small public green space adjoining a local river. Within a week they had all been pulled out or snapped off at the base by the local youth.

    Makes me wonder if the world as we know it is worth saving.

    1. RWood

      Pop-lar support for trees ends in youthful alienation?
      Alienation is costly, but giving in and giving up is more costly to futurity.
      Cynicism is too and also is shallow expression of angst, so what is being tautened around young necks?
      As though this might not be known by twitchers.
      of which ilk…

  29. meeps

    Comparing wizards to prophets isn’t especially useful here unless the point of the exercise is to divert attention away from the tools and methods humans deploy to meet energy demand onto the actors (now conveniently divided into two opposing factions). If you be a wizard, unless your magic is sufficiently advanced as to render moot your biological need, you’re in the same boat with the prophet (by indication here) clinging to his guns and his antiquated religion.

    Large scale technologies have been the preferred energy extraction and utilization schema for generations yet environmental degradation continues apace. That’s because ‘one size fits all’ solutions allow a relatively small number of agents to control and allocate vast amounts of physical resource despite the inappropriateness of said solutions when applied to a variety of contexts and microclimates. The metric of success here is ease of replication and control, not environmental soundness.

    The production of liquid fuel is a reasonable example of this. Alcohol can be produced from a wide variety of feedstocks from corn and wheat to prickly pear cactus to comfrey. In just about any microclimate there are crops that can be sustainably grown for both food and fuel. But no single crop is suitable to all environments. And resource is not being allocated toward the creation of distributed, small-scale (potentially cooperative) enterprises that could more sustainably manage and produce this energy. So ‘everywhere’ gets scraped at scale for corn, cane, beef, and fracked gas because it’s easily done and it’s the schema that’s been in use. Good people argue about food versus fuel and the environment keeps taking it on the chin.

    If there’s a useful comparison to be made it’s that this ‘debate’ mirrors the claustrophobic confines of our binary political debate. That, too, has outlived its usefulness by any metric.

  30. Jessica

    Gracefully combining wizardry and prophecy requires that we consider who is wielding the wands and, hmm what do prophets wield?
    The problem with wizardry is that unless we change our societies, it will be wielded by and for the same people who have benefited from creating the problems in the first place.
    The problem with prophecy is that it too often amounts to protecting those who of us have, either enough or far too much, at the expense of those who don’t.
    When we redistribute power, we will do a better job of using wizardry and prophecy.

  31. Oregoncharles

    “Wizards basically believe that science and technology, properly applied, can let us produce our way out of our dilemmas.”
    They don’t know that the Earth is round? Or, like most economists, they just refuse to think about it?

    1. Mark P.


      More illuminating than Jared Diamond, also, about the real specifics of how the indigenous human cultures of the Americas functioned and failed (or didn’t). It’s best, however, to read Mann and Diamond together.

  32. Demented chimp

    Carrying capacity really only applies to blind biological knowledge which doesn’t have explanatory power.. It’s plain dangerous and reactionary when extrapolated to us with explanatory knowledge. It encourages loss of hope and pessimism and undermines the institutions that support scientific progress

    Without applied explanatory knowledge the fate of all species is to go extinct. the planet is out to kill us (volcanoes, natural climate cycles, asteroids, sun spots) and it surely will if we don’t use all the tools we have to grow knowledge.

    With knowledge we can transmute any atom into any other and create almost infinite power or materials. Only we and stars can create gold in nuclear reactors. We are not limited to earth and it’s resource limits it’s nonsense. With the right knowledge (and we are very close) we can escape the shackles.

    Yes we need to try to solve the problems which inevitably follow every solution but we should remember we are the only species attempting to do so in a systematic way.

    Key message is we are not the problem we are The solution. The universe we be a cold deterministic place if left to blind biology. We understand how stars shine without having physically been there. Our telescopes probe reality. Its very quiet and we are probably unique at least in the parts we can ever observe which is why we need to protect the institutions and systems that allow for open critisxm and testing of theories so our underatanding of reality increases and the enlightened continues. It’s very precious.

    Not going to be easy many enlightenment have been snuffed out before. But we have to stay optimistic and keep it moving forward.

    Recommend beginning of infinity by David Deutsche. I was a prophet before I read his book. So you can switch camps! Prophets need to think bigger and see the problems in their proper context.

    1. Jamie

      We are not limited to earth and it’s resource limits it’s nonsense.

      I am sympathetic to your larger view of reality, however biological limits are not nonsense. If you want to believe in space mining as a solution to mineral shortages I have no problem with that at all. So if by resources you mean iron, nickle, copper, aluminum and titanium, I agree that we can (in theory) push the limits to the level of the solar system and buy ourselves another age or two of building with metals. But asteroid mining is not going to reverse the decline in fertility and fecundity of our oceans, and going to the Moon is not going to give us the water purification utility of a salt-water marsh. Ecology is also science. ‘Wizards’ and ‘prophets’ does not mean science versus non-science. It is more like “engineering for profit” versus “understanding living systems”. Maybe our great great grandchildren will be eating strange fish from the oceans of Titan… but I wouldn’t count on it.

  33. H. Alexander Ivey

    My 2 cents:
    The two terms nicely capture the positions and functions of each group. But it is not clear that many do not realize that the two groups have two separate, independent functions. The wizards, being the doers, ignore the moral questions while the prophets, being the moralists, ignore the technology questions.
    We need both, but they both together must answer to those of us who pay for their answers and live with their works.

    1. Jamie

      The wizards, being the doers, ignore the moral questions while the prophets, being the moralists, ignore the technology questions.

      I strongly resist this characterization. Wizards are more talkers than doers. What characterizes them over all is big talk of giant constructions. They talk (presumably because they are trying to convince people to give them the money and power to actually do, but possibly just because they love the limelight)… and they don’t actually do very much. They are all about what could be done with present engineering knowledge that has never been tried before, so they talk about their hopes and calculations showing their big plans are feasible. If they were actually doers, we would not be having this conversation because they would have already done whatever it is they think will solve the problem, and we would already know if their proposed solutions “worked” or not.

      Meanwhile, prophets are busy making change everywhere I look. They are not much in the news, but are quietly doing community assisted agricultural in many small local efforts, networking the saving and exchanging of seed to preserve genetic diversity of food crops, and many other projects pretty much ignored by the media. It is not the Wizards who are using composting toilets, rain barrels, green roofs and solar water heaters off the grid… The conflict is not technology versus religion. It is, as meeps says above, large scale command and control engineering versus decentralized “appropriate” technology. The greenies I know are all tech lovers and users… they love a different tech than the wizards promote and they aren’t waiting around for someone to give them funding for their projects, so who are the real “doers”?

      1. JTMcPhee

        Of such people, the category of “doers,” one can hope much — one can also wonder at what scale these below-the-radar efforts are being conducted. A lot of what I see (maybe just my own myopic selections) of this is in the “survivalist” cult — and that is very much a very individualized and atomized set of belief structures and behaviors, including a large helping of Gunz and other “defensive weapons” that so easily can become the armories of new Warbands… Maybe the “doer” people are not going to “save” 8 or 10 billion of us humans, most of whom are desperately just trying to get enough drinkable water and calories to live out the day (with the silent prayer they won’t be blasted by Hellfires or 2000-lb GBUs or depleted-uranium 30-mm cannon shells or sickened by industrial wastes or pesticides or assassinated by drug dealers or the goons of corporate looters wanting their land or trees or extractables beneath them, or “government forces” or “insurgents” or greedy neighbors or all the other external and internal ways humans can die or be killed “before their time…”)

        See, e.g., Joseph Heller’s character Chief White Halfoat in “Catch-22:”

        “Chief White Halfoat is the assistant intelligence officer to Captain Black, although Halfoat cannot read or write. He blames his lack of education on “the white man,” who kept moving his family around in Oklahoma, since oil was continually found on Native American land there, [actually directly underneath wherever he pitched his tipi, and the oil company prospectors eventually followed the family around and would kick them off whatever patch of ground they tried to set down on before they even could unpack, and drill right there] and the profits from it were seized by the white population. Despite his own oppression, Halfoat expresses mistrust, even hatred, of other non-white ethnic groups.”

        1. Jamie

          I didn’t mean to advance any claim on the effectiveness of small efforts nor to deny that some big projects do get completed. People who are doers will do what they can with whatever power they have. Some of them are positioned to influence cities, regions and nations, some only their own backyards. There certainly are doers who are wizards. I just don’t see the doer/moralizer dichotomy as salient. “Wizards” are also moralizers. They are “true believers” in the rightness of corporate structures, markets, accumulated capital, and resource extraction and use, and they defend these on moral grounds as well as practical. And it is possible to be a prophet without taking a moral stance. One can say, “if you exploit this resource beyond its capacity to regenerate, then you will experience declining returns in the future”, without casting it as a moral choice. It is pragmatic as much as it is moral. The only reason that is not clear to everyone is we allow companies to externalize the costs of much of the environmental degradation associated with production, distribution, consumption and disposal of their products.

  34. Tyronius

    I read both Guns, Germs & Steel and Collapse by Dr Jared Diamond years ago and they were together the most terrifying books I’d ever read. I’ll be picking up Charles Mann’s works and reading them soon, even if they don’t directly address the future I see coming for our human kind.

    Right now, I’m developing new technology that directly addresses food shortage and water scarcity. I’m working to make it a modular approach, scalable from to individuals and small groups up to cities and perhaps nations- or even civilisations built off planet, should we be clever and fortunate enough to get the chance.

    I don’t know if the synthesis of technologies I’m using make me a wizard (shipping containers, LED lighting, AI cultivation, etc) or a prophet (portability, reclaiming water, use of solar panels, etc) but I do believe I’m firmly in the camp of doers rather than mere talkers.

    Someone above said that science is neither moral or immoral. I disagree; the knowledge is always Good. The uses to which we choose to put that knowledge may not be. We’ve given ourselves an amazing boon; the ability to see what will happen in a future where we continue to do as we are doing now. The problems of our collective foreseeable if not immediate future are vast and implacable if we refuse to address them and get on with building the solutions, now, while there is still time and resources. I’m making hay while the sun shines. I may or may not live to see the storm that’s coming- with roughly 30 years left, it’s a tossup- but my daughter and her children surely will.

    Both Jamie and Demented Chimp above made many excellent points. I feel that I can make a material contribution to man’s ability to survive the largely self inflicted storm of resource depletion and overpopulation and so that is what I’ve chosen to do with my life.

    I can only hope that I build something robust, flexible and useful enough to be up to the task when it’s needed- and that our progeny have the opportunity and intelligence to put it to its best use when the storm comes.


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