Demystifying the Wizard
Technologists have a key role to play in combating climate change, but they could do with some perspective
Science journalist Charles C. Mann recently published a book titled The Wizard and the Prophet, in which he discusses the modern environmental movement through the story of two scientists. Each of these scientists is representative of an archetype Mann sees in the world. One is the prophet, a stand-in for the traditional environmentalists sounding the alarm and urging us to cut back and restrict in order to save the planet. The other is the wizard; the technologist who wishes to rush forward with the confidence that technology will solve our climate problems.
This comparison between two approaches to dealing with climate change is often touted as the difference between optimists and pessimists, but I actually do not think that is the primary disagreement. You can be incredibly pessimistic about mankind’s treatment of the earth and still think the best way to address climate change is through technological innovation, and you can also be an optimist who believes that through working together to reduce deforestation and carbon emissions and the likes we can actually make a difference. The way I see it, this difference is more a disagreement of risk calculation.
If we assume for the sake of simplicity an expected value equation for the future damage climate change will have on the planet, it might look something like this:
Expected damage of climate crisis = probability of climate catastrophe × impact
Trying to apply such an equation, the prophet and wizard likely would not disagree substantially on the impact a catastrophic level of climate change would have on the world. Both are representatives of science, and both fully understand the implications of current data trends. Perhaps the prophet would weigh the impact slightly higher as they seem to notice the toll already being taken on those living in the most disaster-prone and impoverished areas.
The wizard would be wise to take this into greater consideration. Suppose the world does avoid the greatest human costs through technological innovation. How much worse will it get before it gets better? How many people will be endangered or die in the meantime?
The greater point of disagreement, as I see it, is what value to assign to the probability in the equation above. The prophet would give that a very high probability. Meaning, if we do not change our behavior drastically as soon as possible, there will be catastrophic changes to life on earth. The wizard seemingly assigns this a much lower probability, as they see some future technology as staving off the gravest dangers.
Such a worldview is incredibly bold, as it asserts that we need to barrel forwards without knowing our savior until we invent it. The wizard seems right in many ways, we will absolutely need technological innovation to truly avert or reverse the worst outcomes from our impact on the planet. In this way, technologists play one of the most important roles in defining our future, and we ought to give them sufficient resources to try and come up with new ways to generate energy and grow food and travel and manage the resources of a planet whose population may well be approaching 10 billion by the mid-century.
I am, however, concerned that putting all of our eggs in the wizard’s basket could be problematic and I worry that they sometimes miss the influence of recency and self-serving biases. Present bias makes it very difficult to remove oneself from the time and place from which we observe the world. This can make the current trend of innovation seem inevitable and ever extending. We have been innovating technology at a faster and faster rate for several generations now. Yet, taking a broader view of human history we have only been innovating at a meaningful rate for a small fraction of our time on earth.
Homo sapiens emerged some 315,000 years ago in Africa. The earliest example of human writing dates back as late as 5500 B.C. — and we did not invent printing until 1045 A.D. The Industrial Revolution was not until the 19th century. That means that all the technological innovation in the world fits into the most recent 2% of all of human history. Innovation is a recent phenomenon, and while it will likely continue to expand on itself there is no inevitability that the current rate of innovation, an all-time historic high, will continue forever.
Even more potentially problematic for the wizarding worldview is the bias that comes from seeing how far humans have come. To date, we have survived natural disasters and famines and waves of disease that could have wiped us out. Yet humans survived. This can cause the same sort of self-serving bias that people experience when they attribute their success disproportionally to themselves over their circumstance. Perhaps there are multiple alternate universes where humans have not survived this long, but because in this one we have it caused us to believe that it was because of our brilliance, and thus we shall continue to thrive.
The dialogue between the wizard and the prophet fascinates me, mostly because I see parts of myself in both of these figures. I believe that both play an important role in the fight against our changing climate. The nature of the prophet makes them a seemingly safer choice to fall in with given how much we have already polluted the world, hedge our bets as it were. For that and many other reasons, I lean towards the prophet. But the magnitude of our problem will require technological innovation if we are to implement meaningful changes at the systemic level. For the sake of all humankind, let us hope those far smarter than you or I take into consideration the costs of not acting now and appreciate the potential biases of blind faith in innovation.