Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Wizard and the Prophet

I mentioned Charles Mann's The Wizard and the Prophet a few weeks ago, when I was about 200 pages in. I finished it over a week ago, and I don't think I'll manage to do a full post on it.

But for Earth Day, here are a few relatively random facts and ideas from the book.
...eliminating coal pollution in northern China would raise average life expectancy there by more than five years. (By contrast, wiping out all cancer would increase U.S. or European life expectancy by three years.) (page 333). [Those deaths, I note, have nothing to do with climate change. Just pollution.]

When the IPCC says...the likely consequence of doubling carbon dioxide is a temperature rise between 2.7°F and 8.1°F, the scientists have a specific definition in mind for "likely." ...[they] estimate there is a roughly two-thirds chance that the temperature rise will be between these two numbers [and] a one-out-of-three chance that the effect will be outside that range. Very roughly speaking, this translates into a one-out-of-six chance that nothing much will happen — and a one-out-of-six chance of complete disaster, with chunks of the planet becoming nearly uninhabitable (page 334).

At the beginning of the 20th century...barely 10 percent of the world's grain harvest went to animals, mostly horses, mules, and oxen used as farm labor. By the beginning of the 21st century, the figure had risen [to] perhaps 40 percent...the great majority of it destined for dairy and meat animals" (page 192).

Between, 1961 and 2014, the world's meat production more than quadrupled. Simply reproducing that jump [in the future] could easily require doubling the world's grain harvest (page 192).
Consider cassava, the big tuber also known as manioc, mogo, and yuca.... On a per-acre basis, cassava harvests far outstrip those of wheat or other cereals. In optimal conditions, cassava farmers have pulled 160,000 pounds per acre from the ground—more than fifty times the average for wheat. [And even accounting for cassava's higher water content] cassava produces many more calories per acre than wheat (page 213).

[California] remains the nation's biggest producer of alfafa, used for cattle feed [in other states and exported]. Meanwhile, more water is used to grow alfafa than is consumed by all the households in California (page 250).
In discussing GMOs, Mann describes how the low-hanging wheat of the Green Revolution will not happen again:
Farmers can't plant much more land; in Asia, almost every acre of arable soil is already in use. Indeed, as cities expand into the countryside the supply of farmland may be decreasing. Nor can fertilizer be increased; it is already being overused everywhere (except some parts of Africa). Irrigation, too, cannot readily be expanded. Most land that can be irrigated is already irrigated (pages 193-194).
One of the main possibilities that remains is to increase the efficiency of photosynthesis, so that is what many scientists are working on. Mann explains the complications that have prevented that type of change so far, and that even if it becomes possible, the plants that result still have to be bred for other properties (including disease-resistance, ease of growth, and palatability).

Mann is clearly in the camp of people who don't find GMOs to be inherently bad, but who questions how they end up being used within our existing economic system:
Wizards, [Norman] Borlaug among them, have repeatedly claimed that GMOs are essential to feeding tomorrow's world, which they identify with large-scale industrial agriculture. Prophets, who believe that large-scale industrial agriculture endangers tomorrow's world, naturally resist any innovation that is said to be central to perpetuating it. In this way GMOs became a focus for a larger disquiet, a synecdoche for a larger anxiety about being an insignificant part of a vast economic complex that did not have the citizen's best interests at heart (page 206).
Wizards and Prophets, the hard path and the soft, the subject of the book—explored through a century and dozens of innovators and thinkers:
...the soft path is about limits and values.... At one level, it is about reforming institutions; at another, about changing habits. Ultimately, though, it is a vision of the human place in nature. Hard-path supporters see technology placing humanity in charge: we can move H2O molecules wherever we want to satisfy our wishes. Soft-path people think this level of control is illusory—cooperation and adjustment, not command and control, is the way to live (page 237).

The hard path creates universal Wizardly solutions that do not depend on local conditions or knowledge. It leads quite naturally to broad fields of waving grain—visions of concentrated productivity. Societies that adopt the soft path will lead toward networks of smaller farms with drip irrigation and multiple crops—the inhabited, networked spaces preferred by Prophets. One values a kind of liberty; the other, a kind of community. One sees nature instrumentally, as a set of raw materials freely available for use; the other believes each ecosystem has an inner integrity and meaning that should be preserved, even if it constrains human actions (page 250).
There's lots more where that all came from.

No comments: