Books

four takes

Recalling the birth of environmentalism

William Vogt was a drama critic and amateur birder who never trained as a scientist.
William Vogt was a drama critic and amateur birder who never trained as a scientist.

Along with enough bacteria to fill a large soup can, the average American unwittingly carries around the ideas of William Vogt. Born in 1902, Vogt was a drama critic and amateur birder who never trained as a scientist. Yet his insights would form much of the basic scaffolding for the modern US environmental movement.

In The Wizard and the Prophet – Two Remarkable Scientists and their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World,” Charles C. Mann resurrects this largely forgotten Cassandra. The “wizard” of his account is Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Peace Prize winner often credited with helping the world avoid mass starvation through the 1960s “Green Revolution.”

The tension between the two men’s visions — an ethos of respecting the planet’s limits vs. overcoming them through scientific and technological advances — is very much with us as Earth Day nears its 50th year. By now, most Americans have absorbed Vogt’s idea that heedless consumption comes at a steep price. The struggle is over how much to sacrifice. Today, Mann suggests, the disciples of Vogt and Borlaug battle for our souls.

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In a sense, his antagonists emerged from the same American landscape. Vogt grew up on Long Island before it was developed. A solitary rambler, he reveled in the Hempstead Plains, likening them to Nebraska. Borlaug grew up in Iowa, schooled in the drudgery of farm life. He was grateful for mechanization, not least because it brought enough prosperity to pay for college.

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At the University of Minnesota, a horrified Borlaug witnessed Depression-era clashes between dispossessed farmers and law officers. The experience helped drive his ultimately successful research in Mexico on a disease-resistant strain of wheat.

Around the same time, Vogt was hired to study a baffling decline in seabird guano, then widely used as fertilizer. On a group of islands off Peru, he developed his ideas of ecological interdependence. In “Road to Survival,” a wide-ranging treatise published in 1948, he warned that humanity was on a disastrous course. Embraced by reviewers (the Globe called it “dismaying and yet hopeful”), the book was an enormous success.

Among other things, Vogt attacked DDT, a new pesticide that the United States had used in World War II to kill lice and halt a typhus epidemic. Rachel Carson, who became a friend, extended the argument in her landmark “Silent Spring,” published in 1962. In a 2012 biography of Carson, On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson, Author of Silent Spring,” William Souder contends that “Silent Spring” decisively turned the conservation movement into what we now know as environmentalism, aligning it more or less permanently with political liberalism.

Carson’s “knack for gentle explanation” may have won her more converts than the abrasive Vogt ever managed. But by the time she joined the fight, Cold War scenarios of the end of the world were common fare. Carson shrewdly played on the public’s growing unease, drawing a parallel between overused chemicals and nuclear fallout.

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Perhaps inevitably, Carson was denounced by some chemical companies (and even investigated by the FBI) as a Communist. Still, even as Vogt died thinking he had failed, Carson’s warnings took hold. All life she insisted, was interconnected.

Among more recent apostles of this holistic view is the writer Wendell Berry, whose experiences on his Kentucky farm turned him decades ago into an insightful critic of US agricultural practices. In his classic, The Unsettling of America — Culture and Agriculture,” Berry sounded one of the earliest warnings against industrial farming. Though it took years, his critique has borne fruit in the locavore movement.

Opponents argue that the smaller, organic farms Berry favors can never produce enough to feed a burgeoning global population — a position Borlaug might take were he still alive. Mann’s balanced, even heroic portrait of Borlaug could throw readers who thought they knew which side they were on. (The scientist’s extraordinary efforts to get his new strain of wheat past the Watts riots and to India in time for planting is a story in itself.)

Borlaug vs. Vogt is memorably prefigured in a book by John McPhee. Encounters with the Archdruid deftly illustrates the battle lines drawn in the decade following “Silent Spring” and remains as fresh as when it was published, in 1971. The nature-loving druid in question, David Brower, was an uncompromising wilderness champion. For 17 years the executive director of the Sierra Club, he is sometimes called the environmental movement’s John Brown.

On three vividly rendered wilderness journeys, McPhee successively pairs Brower with Charles Park, who would mine a pristine section of Washington’s Cascade Range; Charles Fraser, an environmentally sensitive developer with designs on Georgia’s Cumberland Island; and Floyd Dominy, a US reclamation commissioner who never saw a river that a dam would not improve. In scenes that unfold like the dialogues of Plato, Brower’s small hypocrisies are gently revealed. They are still the ones that bedevil most of us — even as we vow to live more harmoniously with the earth.

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M.J. Andersen is an author and journalist who writes frequently on the arts.