The Prophets vs the Wizards: Shaping the World’s Future

“The world population will hit 10 billion. How will we feed everyone? How will we provide enough water for everyone?” 

The students of the Environmental Health Course, class 2018, Study Program of Environmental Engineering, Faculty of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Institut Teknologi Bandung, held a mock-up of a high-level panel United Nations debate. The students are the members of the United Nations High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability. The students act as delegates from low-, middle-, and high-income countries, standing on the two opposites: the Wizards and the Prophets.

The terms “Wizard” and “Prophet” came from Charles C. Mann’s book, the Prophets believe that the world is governed by ecological processes with limits: “conserve more, use less, otherwise everyone will lose,”. The Prophets support small, interconnected communities who are closer to earth. They dream of a world with maximum human connections and reduced corporate control. Neighbourhood solar panels and wind power and rainfall harvesting are the types of technology they prefer. Meanwhile, the Wizards are the strong believers that science and technology, if properly applied, are the solutions of the world’s population problem. “Be smart, make more, and everyone wins,” is the jargon. The Wizards imagine a world of hyper-efficient mega-cities, ultra-productive low-footprint farms, genetically modified crops with high yields, and desalination plants.

The students of the morning class chose the topic of “Zero Hunger”. The main challenges when the population hit 10 billion are there will be more people to feed, the land for agriculture is getting scarcer, and the low productivity and high emission of conventional farming. The Wizards proposed for a more innovative and efficient way to produce food, such as cellular agriculture. A distinguished example is a lab-grown meat. This so-called clean meat” is made by taking muscle tissues from an animal, e.g. poultry, cows, etc. and the tissues are cultured in the laboratory to form pound meat. The Prophets rebutted the use of that kind of approach as they think it’s tampering with the law of nature and there may be side effects and unacceptability to such unnatural way to grow food.

The Prophets rather proposed for a more down-to-earth approach, such as small-scale community farming, urban farming and encouraged families to start growing some of their food. They thought policies should focus on the empowerment of women as education starts at home. The idea is for people to start thinking: when they know it is difficult to produce food, then people will start to consume wisely. The Wizards thought that home farming for everyone is a Utopian notion because they thought: “how could you change the already-ingrained perception and behaviour of 10 billion people, fast?”. Not to mention, the current generation, the millennial generation, is busy, impatient and technology-dependent. For example, how would one force people to grow their own food when they hardly have time as people tend to juggle between work, commute, and personal life these days. In the era where time has more value than money, they argued that technology can provide a ‘shortcut’ towards a more environmental-friendly, low emission, low water footprint agriculture. The socio-engineering approach might be necessary but it has to be coupled with technology as we are racing with our own growth. It is too unreliable nowadays to rely on the law of nature; for example, with the increasing frequency of extreme events, crops failures are imminent. The Prophets mentioned that if, anything, changing the perception and behaviour of people is first and foremost. Even the slight change of technology will be used by the human, and therefore it requires a certain level of socio-engineering. They questioned how such advanced technology can be equally accessed by everyone, e.g. people who live in rural areas. They thought technology needs to be matched with the law of nature.

The similar themes were also found in the afternoon session, in which the students chose the topic of “universal access to water”. The Prophets highlighted the tendency of people to wastewater, therefore, controlling demand is the key strategy to make water is equally available for everyone. The Wizards argued that you cannot have too much faith in people, people cannot change easily. Meanwhile, water is getting scarcer, and we need to push our technological boundaries. In many cases, technology can help to solve the problems for water, e.g. pipe leaks.  The Wizards once again emphasizes that technology can shorten the path towards sustainable development, considering the rate of natural resources is declining. The Prophets countered by saying that the only constant about people is changing. People had been constantly evolved in centuries and thus, advocating that educating the younger generations is imperative rather than relying on technology that does not exist yet or technology with unknown side effects. Technologies are expensive, and often, the politics of technology make the low-income countries are dependent on the more advanced countries. Focusing on socio-engineering helps in many other aspects, e.g. combating corruption in the water sector and making technologies more available and cheaper.

The hostility between wizards and prophets are ongoing, but surely, both sides have their own advantages. It is imperative to employ such advantages and create a cooperative force towards a more sustainable world. Most of the times, there is no single answer to the world’s problem. The right or wrong is not always clear as dawn. One thing fore sure, we cannot have everything. There is always a trade-off as our resources are not infinite.

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