Wizards and Prophets

I've been reading Charles Mann's latest book Wizards and Prophets, which was released earlier this year.  Overall, I've enjoyed the book.  The subtitle, "Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow's World" is an apt description for much of the content, which describes food, agricultural, and environmental problems through the lens of Norman Borlaug and William Vogt.  The history is informative, and Mann gives a fair comparison of the underlying philosophical differences, which he attributes to Borlaug and Vogt, driving much of the debate today around food, agriculture, and the environment. 

I am very much in the "Borlaug-wizard camp" (which advocates for innovation, science, research to solve food security and environmental problems) but I came away with a better appreciation for the Vogt-ian, prophet point of view (focused on resource constraints, ecological limits, need to reduce consumption, etc).  

While I thought the book was well done and well worth reading, Mann gets one aspect of this debate wrong.  Because I've seen other writers make the same mistaken point, it's worth delving into a bit.

Throughout the book, Mann refers to the Borlaug way of thinking as "top down" and the "hard way," and he contrasts this with Vogt's approach which he depicts as "bottom up", "localized", etc.  This is exactly backward. 

Mann aptly describes a core belief among the prophets: that there are finite resources on earth and just like any other species, we will grow exponentially until we exhaust our resources, and then our population and civilization will collapse. The analogy is a jar filled with few fruit flies given a fixed amount of food.  Initially, the flies have ample resources and they multiple rapidly.  However, at some point the population becomes too large for the fixed food supply, and the population collapses.  The fruit fly population follows something like an S-shaped curve over time.

Moving from flies to people, the issue is typically described in a Malthusian manner.  As the graph below shows, as we add more labor to a fixed amount of land, diminishing marginal returns kick in and the amount of food available per worker eventually falls.


If this resource-constrained view is a core belief, how do you solve the problem?  Adherents to this point of view typically urge folks to consume less or use less resource-intensive systems/products or to constrain population in some way.  But, most individuals don't want less.  Particularly folks in the developing world - they want to have and consume the things those us in the developed world enjoy, whether it be meat, air conditioning, ipads, or MRIs.  Yes, persuasion may result in a few people cutting back, but not on a scale that matches the magnitude of the problem.  Thus, the only fully effective way for the prophets to accomplish their goal (preventing catastrophic collapse) is to force or constrain the population to adopt outcomes few individuals would choose on their own.  Thus, the call for policies to mandate a cap on the number of children one can have (as occurred in China), restrictions of resource use, taxes, bans, etc. In other words, top-down planning is required to constrain growth and population, which is often manifested in "one size fits all" or highly non-localized policies.  Just recall of all the clamoring by Vogt-type adherents when Trump decided to pull out of the Paris accord that had global (i.e., non-local) prescriptions to fight climate change [note: I'm not advocating for or against the Paris accord, only noting that it is non-local and more-or-less top-down).  

The wizardly Borlaug view, by contrast, operates via entrepreneurial innovation and individual decisions of whether to adopt or not.  When Borlaug worked for the Rockefeller foundation, he/they had no "power" to force individual farms to adopt their new seeds and production practices, rather as Mann himself reveals, the early Mexican adopters took on the new seeds precisely because they saw for themselves via Borlaug's demonstration plots that they could achieve higher yields.  Yes, the types of seeds and production practices developed by Borlaug et al. spread far and wide, but it is was largely because they "worked" not because it was mandated from on high.  And, the adoption was much more adapted to local conditions than Mann lets on.  Producers in different locations ultimately used different varieties, different irrigation and fertilization techniques, etc.  As time has gone on, precision agriculture has led to even more localization of management decisions.  

The promise and hope of the Wizard is that innovation can get us off the curve shown in the graph above and move us to a new, higher outcome, as shown below. 


This isn't a denial of resource constraints, it is a recognition that innovation allows us to get more with the same or fewer or even different resources.  But, for those innovations to be adopted, they must pass the market test.  Real life-farmers and consumers need to choose to adopt them (or not). This is precisely the opposite of top-down.

Here's what I wrote a while back when Nassim Taleb referred to GMOs as a "top down" technology. 

Taleb makes reference to the Hayek bottom-up vs. top-down planning. He says GMOs are the top-down sort. I’m not so sure. Real life farmers and people have to be willing to buy varieties that have the GMO traits. No one is forcing that outcome. It is true that competition will limit - to some extent - the diversity of plants and genetics that are observed because some plants aren’t tasty or aren’t high enough yielding. But most plant breeders keep all kinds of “ancient” varieties precisely for the purpose of trying to breed in new traits to today’s varieties (and folks working on synthetic biology are creating their own, new strands of DNA, creating new diversity). Geography also increases diversity. Iowa grows a lot of corn, Oklahoma doesn’t because it isn’t our comparative advantage. I see little reason to believe that a single GMO variety will perform well in all locations. So, yes individual companies are planning and creating new varieties, but it is all our local knowledge of what works in our places and conditions that determine whether particular genetics offered by a particular company are used. We do not have a seed czar or a DNA czar.