To Boldly Go… Where Few Have Imagined

This past week, I finished reading The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles C. Mann (the topic of our August Gaian Discussion). This book (Wizard, for short) chronicles two “dueling visions” regarding how to address the ecological challenges we face, and more generally about human progress and the future. Out of sheer coincidence, while reading this, I also showed my son The Star Trek (original series) episode, “The Trouble with Tribbles.”

Now, I hadn’t remembered the full premise of the episode, just the hilarious exponential growth of an unchecked but adorable tribble population. But in this new context, it was a perfect foil to Wizard. The Enterprise answers an urgent distress call from a space station, and is actually being summoned to guard a special high yield wheat-rye hybrid called Quadrotriticale to sow on a contested colony planet. Not surprisingly, the fluffy little tribbles, “who are born pregnant” and never stop reproducing as long as there’s food, and are being sold on the station as pets, find their way into the grain stores and consume the entire lot. (Yes, a similar story to any population with no predators to check it, including us, as Lynn Margulis makes abundantly clear in Wizard: ‘the fate of every successful species to wipe itself out—that is the way things work in biology’ (p. 23).)

The result of too much success. (Clip from Star Trek, “The Trouble with Tribbles.”)

The Trouble with Wizards

But the funny thing is that Mann also talks about Quadrotriticale, although he calls it C4 Rice.* C4 rice is an aspirational crop that would use a more efficient form of photosynthesis found in some plants (like fast-growing crabgrass) so as to produce more food, more quickly. Rice, for example, could produce 50 percent more grain. This, as Mann explains, would be the next stage of the “green revolution.” Just as the first stage increased food production dramatically—allowing our species to fill up the entire grain compartment (though we have yet to fall out in a dramatic flourish)—this would enable our continued growth, the continued feeding of the next two billion who are projected to arrive on the scene by 2050.**

This, ultimately, captures the heart of Wizard as well. The wizards portrayed—from the historic Norman Borlaug to people like Bill Gates (whose foundation is funding the C4 Rice research (p.197))—believe that through scientific development we can solve our way out of anything. And even if the solutions create new problems, new solutions to those problems can also be found.***

Prophets on the other hand are more cautious—questioning the perpetually optimistic “we’ll figure it out” attitude of wizards, and instead raising the point that perhaps there isn’t always a solution. In our discussion, Stefanie Hollmichel, who writes this great blog, said it best when she noted that wizards versus prophets don’t simply mean those who think technology will save us versus those who don’t, but wizards don’t believe in limits, while prophets are defined by them. That makes far more sense. As one who falls in the prophet camp, I’m all for appropriate technology. But in a world of 8 billion (or more) appropriate has become bicycles and enough energy to keep us warm(ish) in the winter and probably not even cool in the summer (unless you’ve got a medical condition).****

But I get that this prophet-style vision is not attractive. In a culture defined by progress and growth—for generations—who wants to believe that the future is about reining ourselves in (or worse, the Earth doing it for us)? Better to imagine new ways our innovative species can keep expanding—whether through better agricultural technologies or literally, by spreading out to the stars.

And that captures the prophet’s dilemma: the wizard’s vision is far more attractive. Borlaug grew up on “an impoverished family farm,” and most likely as an adult he would have scraped by as a farmer, if his cousin/teacher hadn’t seen in him an intelligence and encouraged his parents to send him off the farm to the neighboring town for high school (a huge sacrifice both in terms of costs and lost labor) (pp. 95-102). The green revolution, which Borlaug was instrumental in sparking, has meant that instead of millions eking out a living from the soil, they could go off and do interesting things—albeit at the direct cost to countless species and future generations. But ignoring that small caveat, the high tech future of advanced agriculture, flying cars, and space colonies sounds far more romantic than returning to parents’ homes to become yardfarmers (at least to most).

Which future looks more exciting: a suburbanized space colony or a suburb converted to sufficiency farms? (Images from Donald Davis via NASA and Yardfarmers.)

Space: The Final Limit to Transcend

And that’s where Star Trek comes in. Watching this extreme futuristic wizard-porn (which, don’t get me wrong, is a lot of fun), it dawned on me that nearly all science fiction fits into the wizard perspective.

How many prophet-framed sci-fi novels can you think of? Let me clarify: how many can you think of that don’t start with a collapse? There are countless novels in which, post-collapse everyone adopts a prophet’s perspective; they have no choice. (And in the cases they don’t, they crash again—A Canticle for Leibowitz and Star’s Reach come to mind.) But how many futures that embrace limits do so before the collapse? I thought of only one, Ecotopia.*****

Now, if you haven’t read Ecotopia, it’s kind of boring. That could be because of the style, which is more of a travelogue of the breakaway sustainable state of Ecotopia (the Pacific Northwest) rather than a novel, or it could simply be because the prophet future is not as exciting. There will be no first contact, no underwater sea colonies, no robot slaves, no immortality as we upload our consciousness onto the web. Instead there will be less conflict, less speed, less opportunity to be a billionaire, even if that will be coupled by less violence, less inequity, less ecological devastation. And whether people say they do or not, it seems like we value the hoped for presence of the former far more than the absence of the latter.

The point is: the prophet’s vision is a harder sell than the glitzy wizardly version of the future. Thus, we need more attempts to imagine that world. If not, the Bezoses, Bransons, and Musks of the world will win by simply showing up. And they’re not boldly going where no man has gone before, frankly, they’re not going anywhere. Our utter dependence on Gaia guarantees that. But if we fail to figure that out, our species won’t be going anywhere either—except along the same path as the dinosaurs and many other successful species of times past.

That just about sums it up! (From the hilarious comic strip, dinos and comics)


*I got especially excited watching Trouble as I thought the quadro actually referred to C4 photosynthesis. It could have, as the discovery came out the same year as the episode (June and December of 1967, respectively), though the writers seem to have shifted it to refer to the number of lobes the plant has.

**Truthfully, we have not filled up the entire grain bin yet. Including humans and our livestock, we now make up just 96 percent of all mammalian biomass. So sure, we still have room to grow. Though if consumerization also continues, we’ll need even more calories as meat consumption will grow as well.

***I’m indebted to Brian Stewart, Stephanie Hollmichel, and the discussion group for many of these great insights.

****At two billion people, we could’ve been a bit freer, at least for a while, especially if we had coupled appropriate sustainable technologies, efficiency, and a circular economy—then perhaps we could have even thrived for millennia.

*****Maybe two, if you include Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future, though it starts with us at least bumping up hard against the limits if not transcending them.

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6 Responses

  1. Brian Stewart

    “The chief cause of problems is solutions.” -Eric Sevareid

  2. Stefanie

    Enjoyed reading your thoughts. The Trouble with Tribbles is a perfect analogy. Serendipity is awesome! Here is another wizard at work that I came across that made me horrified: gene splicing human DNA into rice and potatoes in order to activate a growth protein so the plants produce more:

    What could possibly go wrong?

    As for sci-fi, have you read Ursula LeGuin’s The Word for World is Forest? And if you’d like a great book of war between wizards and prophets, The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch is most excellent.

    • Erik Assadourian

      Thanks for book recommendations, and the article–scary indeed! Especially the scientist’s conclusion: ““This is not just about food security, it’s also related to our ecosystems. With higher yields we could save more lands and forests,” says He. “I am excited about all these possibilities.” Borlaug thought the same thing but that didn’t pan out. Our populations grew, our appetites grew. our damage grew.

  3. Eleanor Nettleton

    No way is overpopulating we the people and engineering food the answer. Brilliant to be reminded of Trouble. Space stations also give me the willies. Like wal-e the premise that we can engineer our way out of the plastic world we are smothering… We can be entertained but it all seems like a preview of our doomed legacy.
    Survival of the fittest does not apply to humanity.

  4. Tom Read

    “The point is: the prophet’s vision is a harder sell than the glitzy wizardly version of the future. Thus, we need more attempts to imagine that world.” –Erik

    One of the lessons I learned as a telecom services salesperson 30 years ago was that success in sales depends on one’s ability to listen for understanding. If you listen to your prospective customer very carefully, you’ll learn their needs and you can then set about trying to meet those needs with your product, IF that’s appropriate. If your product can’t meet your customer’s needs, then you stop trying to sell, and you start trying to problem-solve with no per-conceived idea of how that will turn out. If your customer ends up buying someone else’s product based on your help in problem-solving, at least you’ll be considered honest and worthy of a trusting relationship.

    What bothers me about the dichotomy between “wizard” and “prophet” views of the future is that both are overly broad stereotypes. Wizards take for granted future conditions of environmental, social, economic and political stability. Prophets take for granted an expected collapse or great disruption – and Ecotopia is no different.

    You may recall that Ernest Callenbach wrote a prequel to Ecotopia, titled “Ecotopia Emerging.” This is a story of the great and violent conflict that occurred when the US military sent thousands of troops by helicopter to invade the Ecotopian secessionists, who responded with shoulder-mounted ground to air missiles and shot down all the invaders. The Ecotopians also set up nuclear mines in several major US east coast cities, including Washington DC and New York City, and threatened to detonate them simultaneously if the US didn’t immediately cease all efforts to invade Ecotopia. Only then did the US back off, re-directing its military aggression onto a war in Brazil.

    So I ask that we let go of these stereotypes. Stop trying to sell ourselves on a particular (wizard, prophet or whatever) future based on some sexy imaginative vision. Instead, how about we focus on the moment and simply listen to the fears and aspirations of the people around us, and try to be useful in some way. Don’t sell sexy imaginary future dust. Build trusting relationships instead. It should be blindingly obvious that big changes are on their way no matter what we do. I’m not saying we should ignore the future – just that we should face it with a focus on personal and community resilience. That stance is perfectly applicable to wizards and to prophets.


  5. Dan Fiscus

    Sorry I missed the book discussion group, and thanks for this article and comments discussion. Similar to Tom, and while I like the compare and contrast approach to wizards and prophets, I also see value in seeking ways the two hypothetical camps can be synergistic, cooperative, allies rather than oppositional antagonists. For example, any wizard type who wants to successfully sustain life beyond Earth will need to deeply understand how to sustain life, how life can operate so as to improve its environment, any environment. Thus they will need intimate knowledge of Gaia, ecosystems, permaculture and what the prophets know. And they will have to take a mini Gaia, a mini biosphere for the space journey. No combination of just humans and machines has a chance. And, any prophet type who studies life deeply will realize an inherent aspect of dispersal, exploration, transcending current environmental boundaries for the sake of long term survival. Think of tree seeds with wings, dandelion seeds, burrs that hitchhike, aboriginal peoples that set off across the ocean. The two hypothetical camps are very complementary and could achieve something greater than if either alone were to “win” – the two cooperating could achieve two successful futures instead of just one.

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