Charles C. Mann on Shaping Tomorrow’s World and the Limits to Growth (Ep. 33)

And he doesn’t do meetings.

At the beginning of their conversation, Tyler dubs Charles C. Mann a tlamatini, or ‘he who knows things.’ And oh, the things he knows, effortlessly weaving together, history, anthropology, economics, and a half-dozen other disciplines into enthralling writing. And the latest book, The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World, is no exception, which Tyler calls one of the best overall frameworks for thinking about environmentalism and the limits to growth.

In the course of their chat, Tyler and Charles cover pollution, why the environmental impact of beef might be overstated, what fixed factor might ultimately constrain growth (and if there is one), Jared Diamond and Bjorn Lomberg, the underrated political genius of Cortes, his top tip for appreciating Robert Frost, and why Andrew Jackson didn’t have to be such a jerk.

Watch the full conversation

Recorded January 18th, 2018

Read the full transcript

TYLER COWEN: We are here today with Charles C. Mann. Charles is renowned for many things. He has won writing awards. He’s written for just about every magazine I’ve ever heard of. His books 1491 and 1493 are both bestsellers and personal favorites of mine. He is a tlamatini, which in Nahuatl means “he who knows things.” You could say he is a thinker-teacher who is writing wisdom.

And just about now he has a new book out called The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World. This is a book about how to think about the environment. It’s a book about American history. It’s a book about biodiversity. It’s a history of the environmental movement, a book about pollution. Like all of Charles’s works, it’s anthropology and history and economics and all social science rolled into one and fun and exciting and dynamic.

And now we have today Charles with us. Charles, thank you for coming.

CHARLES MANN: Oh, it’s my pleasure.

On air pollution

COWEN: I’d like to start with some questions about air pollution, since the environment actually is a topic of so many of your books. The World Health Organization estimates that each year, six million to seven million people die from air pollution, and yet we in the United States, we hardly ever hear about this. Is this actually one of the world’s biggest environmental problems? And if so, why is it so neglected?

MANN: Well, it’s not a big problem here. We’ve done enormous things to improve the environment in North America and in Europe.

What they’re really talking about is mostly indoor cooking smoke in places like South Asia and China, as well as some urban places in Asia that have just absolutely horrific levels of smog from coal. So this is one of those areas in which you have enormous impacts in one part of the world, and relatively little in another part of the world.

Obviously, getting rid of indoor cooking, especially on biofuels and coal, especially for home heating, would be a great idea for human health in those areas.

COWEN: And in your book, environmental optimism versus environmental pessimism is a recurring theme. On this issue of the millions of deaths from air pollution, are you an optimist or a pessimist?

MANN: Oh, I think I’m an optimist on this. This one is a problem that we have a clear idea how to resolve. There are obvious substitutes that would be much better than the kind of kerosene that you see in Indian villages. So I think this is a totally lickable problem. There are other ones that I’m much more worried about.

COWEN: The Kuznets curve, it states a relationship between per capita income and how willing a country is to actually fight pollution. Do you think the Kuznets curve is being rejiggered?

If you look at the history of the United States, we’re really pretty wealthy until we start tackling our air pollution problems in the 1960s. Is China going to beat our pace or are they going to lag behind? Are we getting better or worse at fighting generalized air pollution?

MANN: Well, we’ve already licked most of that problem, not all of it by any means. Now it’s concentrated in certain areas.

COWEN: But Africa, Vietnam, China, India, Iran, they pollute a lot.

MANN: Yeah. Oh, they pollute an incredible amount. What’s remarkable is that if China follows through on what it says it’s going to do, they’re going to beat us all hollow. China is way poorer than we are, and they are taking some pretty draconian measures against air pollution — if they actually do it.

I’m skeptical that they’re going to close down as many coal plants, for example, as they say they’re going to close down. I’m skeptical that they’re going to build all those green walls of trees that they say they’re going to build. I’ve seen them, and there’s a big difference between what is proposed at the top and what actually happens at the bottom.

But I could be wrong. They could be great. [laughs]

COWEN: How much is China’s installed coal base a problem, preventing them from licking most of their air pollution issues?

MANN: Oh, a huge problem. They have other issues as well, but this is the kind of thing like, you take the big one first, the easy one first, and that would be coal. Although, in China’s case, to be fair, it’s not so easy. Most of those coal plants are brand new, so you’re essentially asking them to trash an infrastructure they’ve just built and replace it, and that’s a big problem.

This, for me, is one of the reasons that I’m kind of upset about environmentalists in our country arguing against the idea of carbon capture and storage, which is the leading proposal for what to do with coal plants like the ones in China.

It might make sense for us to just say, “Stop using coal altogether.” But I think that’s a much harder call in India and China and other parts of Southeast Asia. And carbon capture seems to be the only technology that’s available, possibly, to deal with it without requiring India and China to trash an infrastructure they’ve just built.

On carbon capture and sequestration

COWEN: What’s the main barrier toward carbon capture and sequestration working?

MANN: It’s super expensive.

COWEN: Give us an example of what it would cost.

MANN: Okay, what you’re doing in carbon capture and sequestration for a coal plant is, you’re taking all the gases that are emitting from it, and you’re combining it with a toxic chemical, big silo full of it, called MEA, and then you’re boiling it. And in the process, it combines with the carbon dioxide, and then you . . . I actually said that wrong. You cool it, it combines the carbon dioxide, and you boil it. It releases the carbon dioxide, and you set up a cycle.

The cost of this are what they call parasitic cost, meaning that it takes a certain amount of the energy produced by your power plant just to run the cleaning apparatus, and typical estimates are 30 to 50 percent. And then on top of that, you’re basically boiling a giant silo full of super-toxic chemicals all the time. And there’s all kinds of novel metallurgy that’s required. There’s a bunch of technical development that’s required.

This is an area, basically, that the coal companies have been saying that they’ve been developing for decades: “Clean coal, clean coal!” You can find advertisements for that from the 1950s. They’ve done practically no work, and as a result, there’s a huge technological catch-up to be done.

COWEN: And on carbon issues overall, are you an optimist or a pessimist? And why?

MANN: Well, I’d say, if you think about it, in 1800, look at the situation of the world: We’re vastly poorer; a huge portion of the earth’s population is enslaved in one way or another. There’s actually estimates from people like Adam Hochschild that it’s three-quarters of the earth’s population. I think that seems high, but you get the general idea. Women aren’t allowed to own property, I think, anywhere. They aren’t allowed to go to college, you name it.

Our world has totally transformed in the last 200 years. Slavery was one of the foundational institutions of civilization. So to me, it would just be incredibly disappointing. Carbon in the air seems, by comparison to slavery, a much easier challenge, although it’s not to say a small one.

COWEN: And what do you think the solution will look like?

MANN: I think there’s multiple possible solutions, and that’s, in fact, what the argument of the book is. There’s different ways to go about it, and it really depends on what kind of future you want to have.

If you’re what I call a wizard — maybe I should call them, to be more exact, what would it be? A Schumpeterian meliorist or something like technophiliac meliorist or something.

COWEN: Okay.

MANN: So I call them wizards. You want to have big, centralized, super efficient facilities, and that typically translates into nuclear power.

If you’re a prophet — typical environment movement — you don’t like these giant, centralized facilities in and of themselves, and you want smaller and much more networked systems. And that looks like a complete reconstruction of the grid to use solar and wind, as well as lots and lots and lots of planting.

Both of them — from the point of view of today’s technology — are equally impossible. It’s a leap in the dark no matter what we do, but then that’s the human condition, isn’t it?

COWEN: But say I make an argument that you yourself have considered in print: As some parts of the world lower their demand for fossil fuels, the prices of those fossil fuels will fall, and there’ll always be someone who’s going to burn it, whether it’s Vietnam or Africa or Brazil. And essentially, we’re going to burn through everything we have at some price, and the flow of that into the atmosphere will continue more or less unabated. True or false?

MANN: Well, I think that’s an excellent argument, and I’m proud to have made it.

COWEN: [laughs]

MANN: So let me consider why this Mann guy might be totally wrong.

COWEN: Okay.

MANN: One is that there seems to be a growing popular conception of “carbon dioxide is pollution,” which it isn’t, obviously, in the same way as sulfur dioxide and the other stuff.

COWEN: Right.

MANN: One of the things that’s fascinating to me is that when you talk to people in China about cleaning up, they regard cleaning up the particulates in the aerosols and carbon pretty much in the same breath. If people are going to make that mental category, then this Mann guy might have then gotten it all wrong. [laughs] And we won’t just see scrubbers . . .

The second thing is that there seems to be a respect for international community and international agencies that, frankly, surprises the hell out of me. Yes, our current president is obviously a counterexample against that, but people seem to be interested in kinds of collective action that I would not have guessed, both on the international front, which I think is very weak but still there, and on the regional front.

Personally, I would see the evidence of cities taking a lead in this, regions taking a lead in this, and then, to some extent, individual households — so there’s a whole institutional framework that seems to be swinging into effect to counter this sort of Jevons-type paradox that you were talking about, where things get cheaper and people use more of it.

COWEN: Right.

MANN: So I don’t know. I made that argument. I still think it’s a strong argument, but maybe I’m wrong.

COWEN: And are you a geoengineering optimist, given uncertainty it may be hard to experiment with? And also the notion that countries may not agree. We might want to do one kind of geoengineering, but Russia will have other ideas because it’s a colder country. Can that work?

MANN: I think you’ve hit on, to me, the big issue. I think the social issues in almost all these cases are much harder to solve than the technical issues. Geoengineering is a science in its total infancy, and right now the leading technology is solar radiation management, as they call it, SRM, which basically means sprinkling shiny, little, tiny, shiny particles into the air and reflecting back the sunlight.

But there’s lots of other kinds that are at least potentially possible. So it’s difficult for me to believe that all of them will fail to prove. I’m not sure about the institutional frameworks because there is the problem of the greenfinger, as it’s called, which is that geoengineering is sufficiently cheap because all you need is a bunch of airplanes that an eccentric, rich person . . .

COWEN: It may be too cheap.


MANN: Yeah, may be too cheap, right. And Weitzman and Wagner, the two very good economists, have written a book about that, which they call the free-driver problemas opposed to the “free-rider problem” — that it’s so cheap that people would just take the wheel and go.

COWEN: Right.

MANN: Imagine if you’re Indonesia, and you’re threatened by rising seas and so forth. Indonesia has about 70 billionaires in it, each one of whom could actually set a course of geoengineering on his own. So you add that; that’s at the bottom. Then you add at the top the difficulty of international coordination. I think that’s the tough problem as opposed to the technical problem.

On the water problem

COWEN: The environment and water. Do you think there are water problems that can’t be solved simply by having higher prices when needed, better-defined property rights when needed, and also some kind of regulation when needed? Or is water something we absolutely can do — we just need the will to do it?

MANN: I would say this is, again, complicated by people’s ideas about water. What you’re saying is totally standard economic good sense, right?


MANN: Right. And it is absolutely true that people waste staggering amounts of water, and this is the kind of thing that people who study water, like Peter Gleick and the Pacific Institute, they tear their hairs out about all the different ways that we waste water.

Seventy percent of the world’s water, or something like that, goes to agriculture. Most of that is for irrigation, and estimates in the amount of water that’s lost and just totally wasted in irrigation range up to 70 percent of that. So 70 percent of 70 percent, you’re getting close to half the world’s water just wasted. So they say all the things you should do, which you were just talking about, which is charge people, act intelligent about this.

Opposing this is the fact that people are not rational [laughs] about water and have never been, as far as I can tell. When people feel water is threatened, they want more. So then their view is to do these giant mega projects. Like Israel, for example, has just built these huge desalination plants all over the Mediterranean coast. They have five big ones and they plan to build three more.

There’s another one that’s going to be in Aqaba in Jordan — it’s even larger. California has 20 of these planned. And then these mega projects, which I think from a strictly economic cost-benefit or benefit-cost point of view, are kind of crazy, given the wastage. But there’s a real pull toward doing that, and I just don’t know how it’s going to come out.

COWEN: Isn’t Israel a good example of why we should be optimistic?

MANN: Yeah.

COWEN: Now, Israel has 70 times the GDP they had in 1948, 10 times the number of people, half the rainfall, and they do water reclamation, desalination, drip irrigation. They have regulation when needed. I’m not saying they have no water problems, but it’s pretty well-off as a nation. Water’s not what’s holding them back. They do some wasteful things that may be for national security reasons.

Doesn’t Israel show it can be done? The whole world will, when it needs to, solve its water problems, or no?

MANN: Israel’s certainly an example of what you can do. One of the striking things is they’ve oscillated between these two sides, what I call the wizards and the prophets. They began by constructing these enormous water projects, the National Water Project, which is this huge canal that takes water from the north, which has relatively plentiful water, and channels it down in the Negev Desert.

Then they realize, “Oh my gosh, we’re getting in tremendous trouble with our neighbors because that water is supposed to be for the Jordan River, and we’ve taken 70 percent of the water of the Jordan River. So now we have to do this conservation program.”

This is exactly what you’re talking about, the water reclamation. It’s very innovative drip irrigation, basically an Israeli technology, and was invented . . . Desalination, also basically an Israeli technology, both of them were invented . . . the fundamentals elsewhere, and Israel took them and developed them. They’re kind of the Japan of water, and they have done this extraordinary thing.

But as soon as desalination kicked in at the beginning of this century, all those little tags that you used to see about “every drop counts” — they’re all gone, and only in the south now do you see them. And the water . . . I just came back from there a few months ago, and the water guy . . . I was talking to her, sort of tearing her hair out in the way the water guys always are.

On privatizing water companies

COWEN: The idea of privatizing water companies — in your view, is this an underrated or an overrated idea?

MANN: I think it’s simultaneously both because it’s a solution that should be on the table in many more places than it is, because the fact is that governments at every level have failed with water systems, and almost anything would be better than that. The problem is that the private companies do make the investments and they have to get paid back.


MANN: And the governments then don’t pay them back. The individual customers do, and that’s frequently really tough on them. I think this is a real case where you can make an argument that government failures over time require government subsidies to make up for them. Because you talk to these people in China who are paying a quarter to a third of their income for water; that’s quite tough. That’s a lot. And that’s obviously something that is a big punch in the face in terms of what they’re trying to do. And you’re going to get that and you get rebellion, and you don’t want to have people revolting against [laughs] their own water supply. So I think that it should be done more and the government should pay more attention.

[Privatizing water companies] is a solution that should be on the table in many more places than it is, because the fact is that governments at every level have failed with water systems, and almost anything would be better than that.

On feeding the global population

COWEN: Let’s consider a common interest we both have: food and food in the environment.

MANN: Yeah.

COWEN: Now, as you well know, global population has continued to rise, but for the most part, at least relative to expectations, we’ve fed many more people than most commentators ever expected was possible.

Can this simply continue forever, or is there some fixed factor in the system where you can’t just keep on increasing your population and your food supply and every year feed a higher and higher share of the global population?

MANN: Well, that’s the question, right?

COWEN: Yes, but what’s your view? And if there’s a fixed factor, what exactly is the fixed factor?

MANN: Well, one of the things that’s interesting is that on some level, obviously the earth is finite. And so on some level there is . . .

COWEN: Sure. Georgescu-Roegen, yes.

MANN: Wait, what?

COWEN: Georgescu-Roegen makes this point.

MANN: Right, right. So clearly, there is some limit somewhere. But where it is, we just don’t really have a clue.

One of the arguments I actually point out in this book is that there’s this idea, right at the beginning of the environmental movement, which is making this argument that we can’t do everything we want, that there’s carrying capacity. It has a whole bunch of different names — ecological limits, planetary boundaries — gets dressed up in different guises.

But the whole idea is that there’s these fixed points that we cannot surpass. Yet, when you look at it, the argument, however intuitively appealing — and it’s enormously intuitively appealing because the earth is round and it’s finite — is very, very difficult to substantiate. And you could, because it depends on what you consider those limiting factors to be.

In fact, one of the earliest calculations of this was done by the great physicist and mathematician Warren Weaver, and he said, “Well, the usable energy is what we need.” And there’s just an inordinate amount of energy coming in from the sun.

COWEN: Every day.

MANN: Every day, 24/7. So if that’s what your idea is, this is a ridiculous thing to worry about because people will not want to live in a world of hundreds of billions of people, that’s just too crowded to move. And this is the wrong thing to consider, the limiting factor. Other people say, “That’s crazy. We need to have these ecosystems.”

Yet all of these concepts — because they’re ecology, they’re very difficult. Ecology is like studying . . . Ecology and macroeconomics are sort of the same thing. They’re studying these huge systems with a zillion moving parts, none of which we understand very well. [laughs]

COWEN: Partisan and poorly understood, also.

MANN: Right, right. And they’re partisan and poorly understood. And there’s something there obviously. The economy exists. Obviously there is something for macroeconomics to study, but we don’t really have very good tools to do it.

They’re also afflicted with models that are adhered to far more often than they are — in terms of people’s belief — far more often than they are actually empirically tested.

Ecology and macroeconomics are sort of the same thing. They’re studying these huge systems with a zillion moving parts, none of which we understand very well.

COWEN: But if you had to pick a leading candidate to be the fixed factor, I’m not saying you have to endorse it, but what’s the most likely fixed factor if there is one?

MANN: Well, water is certainly a big candidate. There just really isn’t that much fresh water.

COWEN: But we can price it more, and since we have growing wealth — global economy grows at 4 percent a year — we can subsidize those who need subsidies.

MANN: Right, well, you asked me what was a candidate. I didn’t say I was a believer. [laughs]

COWEN: Okay, yeah.

MANN: You’re right. But water’s obviously one of them. But hovering over it is these questions about whether these natural cycles . . . is kind of a fundamental question about life itself. Is an ecosystem an actual system with an integrity of its own, with rules of its own that you violate at your peril? Which is the fundamental premise of the environmental movement. Or is an ecosystem more like an apartment building in which it is just a bunch of people who happen to live in the same space and share a few common necessities?

I don’t think ecology really has settled on this. There’s a guy in Florida, Dan Simberloff, who is a wonderful ecologist who has kind of made a career out of destroying all these models, these elegant models, one after another. So that’s the fundamental guess.

If it turns out that it’s just a collection of factors that we can shift around, that nature’s purely instrumental and we can do with it what we want, then we have a lot more breathing room. If it turns out that there really are these overarching cycles, which seems to be the intuition of the ecologists who study this, then we have less room than we think.

On topsoil

COWEN: David R. Montgomery wrote, and I quote, “The United States Department of Agriculture estimates it takes 500 years to produce an inch of topsoil.” Is that a plausible candidate for the fixed factor, topsoil?

MANN: I don’t think so. Topsoil’s really important, and nations that screw up their soil — that’s a bad thing that happens. When I went to the Fertile Crescent a couple of times, and you see these soils that used to be part of the Fertile Crescent and were irrigated . . .

COWEN: Or in Haiti, yes.

MANN: Or in Haiti or something like that. You walk across the border between the Dominican . . . So obviously that is something you should really pay attention to. But the tools we have for measuring it are pretty poor. For instance, the soil people have this thing called the universal soil loss equation. Do you know about this?


MANN: This is how they measure how much erosion it is. When you hear that there’s one-third of the farmland in the Middle West, or whatever the figure is, has been eroded, it’s with the universal soil loss equation. And it’s the best thing that people can do at the time, but it really measures soil movement. An awful lot of erosion is when soil goes from one place to another.

If we’re next-door neighbors and some of my soil blows onto your farm and your farm blows onto my farm, they’re both counted as eroded even though we may actually have the same amount of topsoil. And that’s not because people are faking it or anything. It was just the best tool that was available in the 1950s, and of course people like to have consistent tools. So it’s got through it.

That said, there are estimates from people in Wageningen, where that great Dutch university, great Dutch agricultural university is, sort of behind the Dutch agricultural . . . And they believe that the actual issue is more soil contamination. And they say that something like a third of the world’s arable land has some problems from contamination.

COWEN: As in China. And soil contamination is harder to fix than air pollution.

MANN: Oh boy, yeah. It’s a big deal. You don’t want soil contamination. In that case, it’s a plausible limiting factor, particularly if we don’t develop remediation techniques. So I’m very interested.

Here’s an underrated thing for you, which is phytoremediation. If you could really develop that technique and you could plant some crops that would suck out the aluminum or the salt or whatever it is that’s your problem with your soil, that would be pretty neat.

On pessimist views

COWEN: A general question: At what point can we say the pessimist views are wrong?

As you know, Malthus is writing about subsistence wages and even starvation in the 1790s. There are pessimists well before Malthus. Paul Ehrlich is writing The Population Bomb. Those predictions haven’t panned out. So there have been centuries, century after century where, war aside, siege of Leningrad aside, the optimists essentially are correct. Most of the time, the relative price of food is falling; labor employed in agriculture as a percentage of the workforce is declining.

So what would have to happen for us to say, “Well, we simply decided the pessimists are wrong. We can keep on doing this.”

MANN: If you take the argument — the pessimists are saying there’s a finite world. We can only get so much from it. That obviously is true. The question is not so much whether they’re wrong, it’s whether they’re relevant. If the limit is so far out there that we don’t even need to bother with it, they could still be right, [laughs] it just wouldn’t matter.

One of the ways, I think, of looking at it is, supposedly in the next part of this century, all the demographers believe that world population is going to roughly level off somewhere around the realm of 10 billion. The, quote, pessimists think it’ll be 11 or 12, the optimists think it’ll be 9. But basically, the population is not going to double again. Nobody seems to believe that.

So if that’s the case and that stretches out as far as we can see, which is what they say — not that we can see that far — then if we can feed everybody and everybody’s in pretty good comfort by 2070 or whenever this point is, I think the optimists can declare victory, even though the pessimists could still be right in that there are limits. They just aren’t relevant.

The pessimists are saying there’s a finite world. We can only get so much from it. That obviously is true. The question is not so much whether they’re wrong, it’s whether they’re relevant. If the limit is so far out there that we don’t even need to bother with it, they could still be right, it just wouldn’t matter.

COWEN: And when evaluating these issues, how much do you trust market price data? You can look at the relative price of food, the price of potatoes, the price of rice, and that’s giving you some measure of what the market thinks will be happening in the future. Will there be forthcoming supplies? If there are not forthcoming supplies, people will buy them and hoard them or speculate. Do you trust market prices enough to infer judgments from them, or do you dismiss that information?

MANN: It’s funny you should ask. I do trust market prices, but food is one of those areas in which the government tinkers so much with this that I’m really not sure what to make of them. One kind of eye-opening, at least for me in this, was I went to Illinois, northwest Illinois, and I talked to a bunch of the farmers in Marengo, Illinois, which is a corn and bean place. And they described for me all the different programs that they are eligible for and participate in.

I now understand why economists complain about farm subsidies. Because they were saying these were reduced, and I couldn’t believe the number of things that you can do if you’re a farmer who produces the right commodity crops. And certain crops are very definitely much more in tune with what the government wants than others.

So I talked to two farmers, both in Marengo, next-door neighbors. One guy is your sort of Michael Pollan ideal and an amazing farm. He grows a thousand different varieties of crops, just everything you could imagine, mimicking natural systems. He doesn’t like to call himself organic because he doesn’t like to submit to rules that he thinks are arbitrary and outdated, but we’ll call him an organic with quotes. You get the idea.

It’s really an amazing information processing system that he has, this extraordinarily complex thing. He produces a staggering amount of food off of it because he grows a lot of trees and tubers, and trees and tubers are more inherently productive than cereals like wheat and barley and so forth.

And he is eligible for nothing. He has not gotten a dime from the government. He wouldn’t mind it. It’s not a matter of principle, but as far as the government is concerned, he doesn’t exist. Whereas his next-door neighbor has 1200 acres of corn and wheat, and there’s an entire parade of things that he is eligible for.

So one guy’s produce is much more expensive than the other guy’s produce, but it’s very hard for me, as an outsider, without conducting a serious study, to tell.

And then, there’s all these aspects which the system has tied together. One of the things you always hear is that meat — every pound of beef takes 10 pounds of grain and so forth. You’ve heard all this, and meat is terrible. It’s actually much more complicated than that because you’d think that would give you some idea of price and so forth, but in fact, the grain that they’re doing is distiller’s grain, which has already been used for a couple of other processes before it. It’s used to make high fructose corn syrup and alcohol and so forth. So the costs of these things are all getting disseminated around to all these different products that each have their own set of programs and their own set of incentives and so forth.

So the market data from agriculture, while obviously very important, especially for individual people, is really tough to tell what it means. [laughs]

On beef being cheaper than we think

COWEN: Are you saying beef is possibly environmentally cheaper than many of us believe?

MANN: Yes. Now, I should say, of course, it’s all complicated. Right, right. For example, I live in the country and there’s a small farm just down the street from me.

COWEN: This is western Massachusetts?

MANN: Western Massachusetts. Sorry, I live in western Massachusetts, and we have a boutique farm next to us that us yuppies support because we like Jeremy, and it’s all a sort of friendly but slightly ridiculous enterprise. The beef and pork he has is absolutely delicious, so we pay a ludicrous amount for it. Any normal person would think we were idiots.

But his stuff, his animals, they eat scraps. They eat leftovers, and they graze on weeds. As far as I can tell, the environmental cost to what they do is zero or negative in the sense that they also have manure, and the manure is then plowed back into the fields. So obviously what he’s doing is having extremely small impact on the environment. Possibly the methane.

Now you get to these giant feed lots, and this is where they’re talking about how terrible it all is. But that grain is used for so many things, and the cattle themselves are used for so many things. Even if you didn’t eat meat, there’d still be need for leather, there’d still be need for keratin and collagen and all the other things that come from cattle.

When you take these things and just say, “Oh, 10 pounds of grain produces a pound of meat,” it also produces all this other stuff, as does the grain. So I think that the environmental impact is overstated. I’m sorry, that was a very long-winded answer.

COWEN: Great.

Due in part to the influence of Rachel Carson, the use of DDT has been highly restricted. Some people have charged this cost a fairly high number of human lives, and other people are more skeptical. What’s your view?

MANN: I’m skeptical of these claims in the sense that, from what I have read — and I’m certainly not a expert on this — the implication seems to be that . . . We’re always talking about poorer nations that don’t use it. Implication seems to be that these nations would’ve mounted the kind of systematic DDT spraying campaigns that were seen in this country from the First World War to about the 50s.

COWEN: Most of all in the South, yes.

MANN: Most of all in the South. But also in places like Long Island and the Middle West.

COWEN: Sure.

MANN: And the little I have seen in malarial countries and places like Niger and Chad and Nigeria and so forth, it just seems implausible to me that the government could’ve done this. So clearly it had some impact on the margins, but I don’t know if we have a good idea of how much it is. And I often think that the debate is more heat than light.

On population control

COWEN: Now William Vogt is one of the two centerpieces of your book. One of his environmental solutions was population control and eugenics. Julian Huxley, who also plays a role in your book, brother of Aldous, he was a big advocate of eugenics.

These ideas have faded from favor within the environmental movement, though not in China, of course, where they had a one-child policy. Do you think the future of environmentalism lies in population control at all or not?

MANN: Population control’s had such a terrible record because those ideas about population control were then embraced by the ecological elite, if you want to call it that, in North America and Europe, as well as governments in poor nations like particularly India and China, and the result was just terrible abuses.

COWEN: But say China’s one-child policy. Was it a major disaster or was it something . . .

MANN: Well, the studies that I have seen suggest that if you look at the impact that it actually had on China, it was negligible. But if you look at the impact it had on individual families, it was terrible.

So, you had a policy where you caused maximum social disruption and personal trauma that had relatively limited impact on population itself. And the reason that they do this is, they compare the trajectory of China’s population and birth rate with similar nations that didn’t have this and they aren’t that different.

COWEN: And a lot of the TFR decline came before the one-child policy.

MANN: Yes, exactly. TFR is total fertility rate.


MANN: Yeah. So it looks like, if you take this evidence seriously, which I think you should — the Chinese demographers are pretty good — it looks like this was just an awful mess, and that they shouldn’t have done it, and that, just like the sort of boring thing they say, empowering women and educating women is actually what you really want to do. [laughs]

COWEN: My colleague, Robin Hanson, wonders if it isn’t one of the world’s biggest problems, that we’ll have too few children and too low a population. Countries such as Italy, I think, now have TFR of about 1.3. For Singaporean Chinese it’s, I think, 1.1.

If you have enough countries — not all of them wealthy, by the way; Iran, Algeria have rapidly falling rates of childbirth — and you just have a shrinking population all the time, you have fiscal imbalances, you may have lower creativity, you may have a problem with aggregate demand. So you’ll have bad macroeconomic outcomes. Do you worry too much that the global population will be too low and will be shrinking too rapidly?

MANN: I think your colleague is completely right that the population crashes that he’s talking about are going to face society as challenges they never faced before. Always there’s been what they call the population pyramid, which is a small number of older people and lots of younger people, in theory to support them, certainly by their taxes. And what happens is the birth rate declines, is that the pyramid turns into a cylinder or something like that, and you have an age structure that’s never really existed in human history before.

Not only that, but there’s all these old people like me who are hanging around endlessly, [laughs] and what we seem to really want to do is push down that retirement age, so that the ever-shrinking number of younger people will have to do more and more to support us, if you go by the European example.

So I do think this is going to be a big problem, and the only upside I can see of this is that if all these people retire, maybe it will postpone the problems with the shrinking amount of work that’s available [laughs] if we all do this.

COWEN: Or maybe robots will be our savior.

MANN: Or robots will be our savior, yeah. [laughs]

There’s all these science fiction stories from the 1950s where the robots are doing everything. I remember one, it was called “The Midas Touch” or something like that [It’s “The Midas World”- Ed.], where there’s so much productivity from the robots that people had to spend all their days energetically consuming stuff just to keep up.

On things under- and overrated

COWEN: In all of these conversations, we have a segment in the middle, overrated versus underrated. You’re free to pass on any of my questions.

MANN: I just don’t think I have a particularly interesting taste, [laughs] but go ahead.

COWEN: Jackie Chan, overrated or underrated?

MANN: Oh, I think it’s impossible to overrate him. Jackie Chan’s amazing. [laughs] Have you ever seen those . . . You must’ve seen . . . I’m a big fan obviously.

COWEN: My favorite is Drunken Master II, which on some reissues is now just called Drunken Master.

MANN: Right.

COWEN: But what’s the best one in your view?

MANN: Oh god, they’re all so good. I would’ve said Drunken Master. Do you like Steve Chow?

COWEN: Yeah.

MANN: Yeah, okay. So, he’s . . . look, to compare: Jackie Chan has done, I don’t know, 150 movies or something. [laughs]

COWEN: A lot.

MANN: Yeah. And an incredibly large number of them are good. Steve Chow has done about a third as many movies. He’s much younger, of course, and what is his hit rate, 20 out of the 50 or something like that are good? So, that’s why I say it’s impossible . . . The hit-to-miss ratio of Jackie Chan is unbelievable.

COWEN: Fake meat, overrated or underrated?

MANN: I think it’s overrated in the sense that it’s often described as something that’s basically around the corner, and I don’t think it is from what I can tell.

Although I have to say, I ate an Impossible Burger for the first time the other day, and it was pretty good. If I had been served that burger at a church social barbecue, where they give you these mediocre burgers and so forth, I wouldn’t have batted an eye; I would’ve thought it was a real one.

I ate an Impossible Burger for the first time the other day and it was pretty good. If I had been served that burger at a church social barbecue where they give you these mediocre burgers and so forth, I wouldn’t have batted an eye; I would’ve thought it was a real one.

COWEN: You live in or near Amherst, so I have to ask you: Emily Dickinson, overrated or underrated?

MANN: Oh wow. I think her reputation is pretty sky high, so probably then she is overrated, but I feel like that’s almost like saying that I don’t like the Boston Red Sox. So, sorry, I’ll pass. [laughs]

COWEN: She could be properly rated.

MANN: Properly rated. Okay, yeah. She’s a good poet, boy. Robert Frost, the other Amherst poet, is also a really good poet. I think he’s my top favorite American poet for the 20th century.

COWEN: If someone is approaching Robert Frost for the first time, what would be your pointer on how to make sense of it?

MANN: The simpler the rhymes, the more singsongy it is, the more lethal the point.

COWEN: The city of Oaxaca, overrated or underrated?

MANN: Oh, I’m a huge Oaxaca fan, so I don’t think it’s possible to overrate. I just love that town.

COWEN: Other than Oaxaca, what is the most underrated travel destination in the Americas that you would recommend? And how should someone go about approaching a trip to that place?

MANN: Wow.

COWEN: So you do have opinions on all of these matters.

MANN: I just don’t think they’re very interesting ones. Okay.

COWEN: [laughs] They’re interesting to me because whatever you say I’m going to go there . . .

MANN: [laughs] Oh, no!

COWEN: . . . unless I’ve been already, which is actually a pretty high probability.

MANN: Okay. It would probably be Brazil or Peru.

COWEN: Where in Brazil or Peru?

MANN: I’m a big fan of São Paulo, just this amazing city with incredible stuff in it. Some of the best Japanese food I’ve ever had . . .

COWEN: And Italian food. It’s the best Italian food outside of Italy.

MANN: Yeah, unbelievably, really good food. Really good food. Also, the beaches just outside the city are great. You have these fantastic gardens by Roberto Burle Marx. I also really, really like — just because it’s so interesting; it’s not as beautiful — but I really like Manaus. It’s just such an interesting place, with this fascinating history, and it is, of course, the gateway to the Amazon. So that would be the two places.

In Peru — gosh, there’s so many different places in Peru, so let me pick the place you might not likely to be going to immediately, which is Arequipa. But you should also go from there to the Colca Valley, which is just dazzling.

COWEN: I love the food in Arequipa.

MANN: Oh, boy. Okay, you’ve been there.

COWEN: It’s the best spicy food in Peru.

MANN: Yeah, it’s really good, and it’s beautiful. There’s all these white stones.

COWEN: And lovely rooftops. It’s perfect, yeah.

MANN: Yeah.

COWEN: What’s your favorite movie and why? But you can’t mention Jackie Chan again.


MANN: “What’s your favorite movie and why?” The thing about favorites is the ones that have these emotional impacts on you, right?

COWEN: Sure.

MANN: I will tell you, as a college freshman, I had a summer job working in a movie theater, and I saw the movie Zardoz 100 times because I was stationed in the theater to stop people from sneaking in.

COWEN: I love Zardoz.

MANN: So [laughs] I think that movie’s drilled into my brain. So I have to say Zardoz.

COWEN: I’m going to name three thinkers. You don’t have to evaluate them overall, but just make some point that comes to mind when you ponder their work.

MANN: Okay.

COWEN: Jared Diamond.

MANN: I think an interesting guy who really should learn more about social sciences.

COWEN: Economics in particular.

MANN: Yes.

COWEN: Theory of common property resources.

MANN: Yeah.

COWEN: He’s too much of a pessimist about the history of Easter Island?

MANN: Yes. I really admire his reach, what he’s trying for. I don’t understand sometimes why, it seems to me — maybe I’m wrong — that he doesn’t do his homework.

For example, there is a bunch of French and Dutch archaeologists who went to Easter Island just as you said. Oh, my gosh, I’ve lost his name. I think he was head of UNESCO for a while, great French archaeologist. Anyway, he wrote three books about Easter Island. The UMass Library, which is the one nearest me, which has 10 books about Easter Island, but four of them, three or four of them are by him. So it’s not an obscure source.

He went to the Dutch Archives; he pieced it together. Basically what happened to the islands is they were really small, defenseless islands at a time when European traders were particularly rapacious, and the place got just swept away by slavery, disease, and also the trees got cut down for masts.

COWEN: James C. Scott and his theories of anarchism in governance and conquest.

MANN: I think they’re completely fascinating, really worth knowing. And I also think he pushes them too hard.

COWEN: Bjorn Lomborg and the Copenhagen Consensus.

MANN: I just read The Skeptical Environmentalist. I’m not familiar enough with what he’s doing now to say. He contacted me about a bunch of stuff about that time. I thought what he was trying to do was valuable.

I often think that people who do this tend to be this sort of person who . . . Knowing that they’re going to arouse opposition, sometimes people who do this tend to like to pick a fight. So I think he picked fights sometimes where they weren’t needed, and not just in a political sense, but in the sense that he would very strongly take a position this way or that when the evidence wasn’t that clear.

I joke . . . I have a friend, Gary Taubes, who writes about diet and so forth.

COWEN: Yes, I know his work.

MANN: And I always say that there’s weak Gary and strong Gary. And weak Gary is the idea that the evidence that carbohydrates are the way to go for heart disease is very poor. That’s weak Gary. Strong Gary is that carbohydrates are actually bad. There’s a big distinction between these two.

I think that Bjorn Lomborg didn’t often grasp this in The Skeptical Environmentalist, which is something I’m familiar with, often would go beyond saying the evidence for this or that is weak to saying the evidence where it’s opposite, it must mean that the opposite is true.

On the history of the New World

COWEN: Now, we turn our attention back to the history of the New World. Here’s a question from a reader, and I quote, “If Napoleon had not conquered France, leading to the Louisiana Purchase, would there have been no Indian Removal Act and no American Civil War? Is Napoleon therefore responsible for the collapse of the Native American civilizations?”

MANN: I think not, although your reader has obviously got an alt history book right there, [laughs] in which that would be true.

Disease emptied these areas in the 1780s. There’s a wonderful book by Elizabeth Fenn, called Pox Americana, which is about this enormous smallpox epidemic. She also wrote a book about the Mandan that came out recently that talks about it as well. So the native groups were just smashed by this disease. It seems to have been maybe 40 percent, maybe even 50 percent mortality rates. Very difficult for societies to recover from that, and I think that people would have just moved in.

It is possible that Andrew Jackson didn’t have to be such a jerk. I’m working now with a project with the Choctaw, who are in Oklahoma and used to be in Mississippi, and they certainly remember. They allied with him in 1812 and were partially responsible for his great victories in 1812, which led him to the presidency. So, they feel like he directly and personally stabbed them in the back. In fact, when they said they’re taking him off the $20 bill, there was great rejoicing in Choctaw country. [laughs]

COWEN: Now, as you well know, there’s huge literature on how Cortez and the Spaniards managed to conquer the Aztec Triple Alliance. For me, it’s one of mankind’s most remarkable but also tragic stories. But in the whole set of explanations, what do you think is the underrated factor in how so few people managed to take over such a mighty, and in many ways highly advanced, civilization?

MANN: Well, it wasn’t so few. What I think is the underrated factor is that Cortez was much less a military genius than he was a political genius. He was quite a remarkable politician, really deft. And what he did is . . . The Aztecs were an empire, the Triple Alliance, and they were not nice people. They were rough customers. And there was a lot of people whom they had subjugated, and people whom they were warring on who really detested them. And Cortez was able to knit them together into an enormous army, lead that army in there, have all these people do all that, and then hijack the result. This is an act of political genius worthy of Napoleon.

Actually, Napoleon did sort of the same thing: He hijacked the French Revolution and put himself into power. [laughs] Okay, Cortez is Napoleon.

The Aztecs were an empire, and they were not nice people. They were rough customers. And there was a lot of people whom they had subjugated, and people whom they were warring on who really detested them. And Cortez was able to knit them together into an enormous army, lead that army in there, have all these people do all that, and then hijack the result. This is an act of political genius worthy of Napoleon.

COWEN: Here’s a very general question I’ve wrestled with over the years. If I travel to most parts of Asia, I actually feel really very safe, even late at night. When I travel in the New World, it depends where I am, but very often, I don’t feel entirely safe. And if you look at murder rates, crime rates, it does seem, on average, many parts of the New World are quite a bit more violent than many parts of Asia.

What theories or what categories do you apply to help explain why the New World has evolved to be relatively so violent? Not Canada, of course, but I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. How do you think about that?

MANN: I’ve often thought about that and speculated about it because we lived in Tokyo for a year, and it’s the largest city in the world — 32 million people, and there’s no place in Tokyo . . . there’s not a bad neighborhood.

COWEN: You can’t find trouble.

MANN: Right. One time I was riding on the train in Tokyo at one o’clock in the morning with a friend of mine, who was just from the United States. He suddenly realized — we’d gone to a sake bar and had quite a bit of sake — that we were riding on the subway at one o’clock, and we were both a little unsteady on our feet, and he got alarmed, right? Because this is something you wouldn’t do in many places in the United States, or certainly Mexico City or what have you. And then he looked around, and he realized that every other person on the train was drunk, too.

MANN: And you see these in the Cherry Blossom Festival, where everybody goes out to the parks, and everybody in Tokyo is completely plowed at eleven o’clock in the morning, and there’s no fights.

There’s hardly even any litter. It’s really remarkable. So, I thought, why do the Japanese do this? And to some degree, it has to do with a level of social engineering, I think, that we are really uncomfortable with.

If you get on the subways, you hear all the time these sort of chirpy female voices telling you something in Japanese. And when I lived there, I learned enough Japanese to realize they’re always saying, “Hey, let’s not talk on our phones, it’s so rude,” or “Hey, don’t do this . . .”

Those sort of admonishing nanny state–type things that we Americans find so irritating? They’re just all over the place. And they also have a zillion cops who are just everywhere. Tokyo has a huge police force. I mean, it’s a huge city, but it has a much . . .

COWEN: Police box on many corners, right?

MANN: Every corner they have one. One time, because we were idiots, we didn’t understand how our new stove worked, and we caused a fire in our stove, and the police were there, I swear, within a minute. Because the kiosks are always three blocks away from you. They ran over on foot [laughs] and helped us put out the fire.

When you have that degree of being watched and that degree of social control, it has some impact. Unfortunately, I think this is a disquieting answer for people like me who are Americans who don’t like being supervised in this way.

COWEN: As you know, there are still many Nahuatl-speaking villages in Mexico.

MANN: Oh, yeah.

COWEN: Other non-Spanish languages. Very often, a village of this kind would have 1,000 people, 2,000 people. Say the Mexican government has you in to advise them — and maybe they have — and they say, “We’re looking to make some changes to improve well-being in those villages.” What would you recommend?

MANN: The big problem I think with Mexico is official corruption. It’s just terrible. I think it’s underreported if anything. It’s just staggering, the level of malfeasance and incompetence there, just on every level. Things that most governments wouldn’t even think to loot have already been looted there.

I was shocked . . . They have these CONASUPO and these systems for subsidizing corn, which they have in Mexico. And every small village has those little shelters, those little concrete dome structures where you’re supposed to bring your corn in, and then it gets packaged and sent off to the factory. And it’s a kind of national — it’s a remnant of the ejido system.

When I went down to Oaxaca and I was looking at these — no, it’s Chiapas, excuse me. All of them had been made with defective concrete. And somebody had . . . and they were all crumbling and falling apart, and the corn was being spoiled. And then you actually had to pay off the inspector. The corruption just permeates the thing.

So basically, I would tell the government that if they fire pretty much everybody in the government [laughs] and hired a new government, they would be better off. I’m joking, obviously, but . . .

The Mexican people are just wonderful. It’s a culture full of all these people who know how to do all this stuff. There are so many people in Mexico, in rural Mexico, who know how to wire their houses. They know how to do the plumbing. They know how to build with cement.

They come over to the United States, and they’re tremendously in demand all through the Southwest and California. And you see these neighborhoods that are former dumps where they’re now middle-class neighborhoods, where everything is built by the people themselves. There’s no lack of knowledge or enterprise there. You have to feel like what’s holding them back is the government.

COWEN: Where’s the best food in Mexico?

MANN: I’m just a Oaxaca fan, so . . .

COWEN: Oaxaca?

MANN: Yeah.

COWEN: The city or the surrounding countryside and villages?

MANN: They’re different. They’re different. Boy, the city is the place where I’ve had the best food, but also some of it’s pretty touristy.

COWEN: I like the suburbs of Oaxaca the best.

MANN: Yeah, yeah. I think, actually, the immediate suburbs.

COWEN: Yes, exactly.

MANN: Yes, Yes, that’s where . . .

COWEN: Oaxaca’s a bit spoiled at this point.

MANN: Yeah. Yeah.

On why the Amazon basin has been neglected

COWEN: How much early civilization was there in the Amazon basin? And why has this topic been neglected for so long?

MANN: It appears there was much more than previously thought, and it was neglected for a variety of reasons. One was, there was this longstanding belief that tropical forests simply couldn’t sustain complex civilizations.

That began well in the 19th century with this whole idea that they’re too hot and people can’t do things in hot areas, and they’re too wet, and moved on with the idea that they don’t have stone. And then, gotta give it an ecological gloss, largely by Betty Meggers and her late husband. And there was this whole idea that the soil is too poor and that people were incapable of overcoming this limitation. And so, consequently, you could not develop the tropical forest.

This was then embraced by environmental groups who wanted to preserve the tropical forests as a reason to do it, that you’re just going to wreck it. So there was a tremendous prejudice against it.

It was only really in the ’90s, when mainly Brazilian archeologists, but also some Americans, started looking, that they discovered every place that people have really seriously looked, they found much more than previously thought. The work of Michael Heckenberger on the Xingu is the most famous one, where he’s found these network cities that are very reminiscent . . . Do you know Garden Cities of Tomorrow?


MANN: Yes. They’re quite reminiscent of those cities.

COWEN: In terms of complexity or living standards, what would you compare it to, say, from history? Do you have a broad sense?

MANN: Well, it’s easy to live there. So in terms of living standards, they were doing great. I mean, the environment is incredibly rich.

COWEN: Sure, for food.

MANN: You don’t get that much meat, but food and water is fantastic. That was not a given [laughs] in lots of places.

But in terms of material technology, it’s really unclear. They had no stone or metal; it just wasn’t available. And so it’s unclear how much you need stone or metal to have enduring technological enterprises. For instance, you can do a lot with rubber and these kinds of things, but they vanish. To really ascertain how much they had, it’s going to require some very sophisticated archaeological work.

On agriculture

COWEN: There’s a wave of revisionist accounts suggesting that, in some ways, the invention of agriculture may have been, if not a mistake, at least bad for humanity for many, many centuries and that we’ve been underrating the lives of hunter-gatherers.

This isn’t anymore a new argument, and there’s much earlier versions, say, from [Jean-Jacques] Rousseau. But what’s your take on the whole debate of agricultural existence versus hunter-gatherers relative to other people? Where do you stand on that question?

MANN: Agriculture is what allowed us to build up a surplus. A surplus is what allowed people to specialize.

COWEN: It’s good for us, right?

MANN: Yeah, it’s good for us.

COWEN: Clearly.

MANN: It’s clearly good for us.

COWEN: But the overall comparison: A society moves to agriculture; 300 years later, is it better for them?

MANN: Well, if you listen to James C. Scott, no! Right?

COWEN: [laughs] Yes.

MANN: I think he underrates the potential for being awful outside of those states’ societies. I suspect that each of them was awful in their own way. [laughs] And yes, you certainly had more freedom of action in those nonstate societies. And that was particularly true . . . You’ll notice in his book, Against the Grain, he carefully excludes tropical forests and other environments. He’s really talking about grain civilizations. And so, the answer for them is, yeah, it was tough.

I don’t think that was true for tropical forests in Africa and Asia and South America. And it may not even have been true in places like Peru. Most archeologists think that it was plentiful there. There was so much fish, that you could be in a state and you really didn’t have to work that hard. It’s only when you get to the Inca and those kind of people that you start getting these sort of totalitarian enterprises.

On what pain relievers he uses

COWEN: Now a much earlier Charles C. Mann wrote a book, coauthored a book called The Aspirin Wars, and a reader writes to me the following question, quote: “Maybe simply ask him what pain reliever he uses, and ask what he has to say about the FDA’s delays in addressing known health risks of high doses of Tylenol combined with alcohol.” You’re free to pass, but if you would care to address this?

MANN: Well, I take aspirin for my heart. I have been instructed to do this by my doctor, so I take a baby aspirin. And we typically have ibuprofen around the house because my daughter takes it for the reasons that women especially take ibuprofen for period pain. So I do that by default. They all work pretty much the same for me.

What’s happening with the delay in that is that the FDA has lost any power other than to delay. There’s a whole complex of reasons why some of the drugs and things that they’re asked to regulate are enormously complicated. They’re very, very short-staffed, they’re underfunded, they’re under considerable political pressure. It’s sort of a good idea that needs to be shaken out and rethought, I think.

COWEN: And overall, how efficient are aspirin markets today?

MANN: I just don’t know the answer to that question now because it’s been a while since I’ve looked at them.

COWEN: But in the 1990s, what was your argument?

MANN: Well, you’re dealing with pure capitalism. You’re dealing with products that for most people can’t really distinguish them. And so they’re kind of an exemplar of the power of marketing. I don’t know if that counts as efficient or not. [laughs]

On the Charles C. Mann production function

COWEN: There’s a question I like to ask many of our guests. You don’t work from inside the traditional academy. You don’t have tenure. You don’t have an overwhelmingly single academic specialization, but yet you’re remarkably productive.

Your works are, in scholarly circles, very highly respected. Hardly anyone, if anyone, knows more about the history of the New World than you do, as illustrated in your books, 1491 and 1493. The breadth and also depth of your knowledge of the environment and history of environmental movements in your new book, The Wizard and the Prophet, again seems virtually without parallel.

So I would ask, what is the Charles C. Mann production function? How do you get this stuff done? What is it you know about being productive in your path? I’m not saying you would tell other people to do exactly what you did, but what’s your insight into how you’ve become Charles C. Mann? What’s your production function? What’s the secret?

MANN: [laughs] Well, I don’t go to meetings. And unfortunately, academia is replete with meetings. One of the reasons for living in Amherst is that they don’t request me to come and talk to people. So there’s a huge amount of the overhead of, say, an academic job, that I’m very lucky not to have to do.

The other thing is that, because I live near a university, I’m able to use the University of Massachusetts Library. And there’s a bunch of colleges and universities around here, good libraries, a wonderful thing, and they’re kind enough to let me use it even though I’m like a parasite.

The second thing is the wonderful tradition of scholars in which, if somebody with a plausible interest in what they’re doing calls them up or writes to them, nine times out of ten, they’re very happy to talk to you about what they’re interested in. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to this tradition. People will talk to me for hours; it gains them nothing. I try to make it pleasant for them, but frankly, it’s sort of nuts, but they’re willing to do this.

Then the third thing is that I am able to sit down and read a lot of stuff, and my secret weapon is that I can read.

COWEN: That you can read, you can read quickly perhaps?

MANN: I can read fairly quickly, and I’m not afraid of numbers. An awful lot of journalists aren’t afforded the pleasure, or time or whatever, to read, and an even larger percentage of them are much more scared about numbers than they should be. I was always raised by my father that if you stare at something long enough and ask enough questions, you can always figure out the gist of it.

I can read fairly quickly, and I’m not afraid of numbers. An awful lot of journalists aren’t afforded the pleasure, or time or whatever, to read, and an even larger percentage of them are much more scared about numbers than they should be. I was always raised by my father that if you stare at something long enough and ask enough questions, you can always figure out the gist of it.

COWEN: And how do you organize your workday then?

MANN: I’m a night person, for whatever reason.

COWEN: Your work night.

MANN: Yeah. I typically spend the morning dealing with correspondence and the sort of overhead of the modern electronic era. And then I am able to work from, say, 1:00 to 5:00. Then I cook dinner for the family with my wife, and then I work late at night. And living in the countryside with few distractions has been very good for me.

COWEN: Just to recap, the subtitle of Charles C. Mann’s book is Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World. Those two scientists are Norman Borlaug and William Vogt, environmental optimists and pessimists, respectively. The title is The Wizard and the Prophet. I love this book. I encourage you all to read it.

And I thank you, Charles, for coming and joining us today.

MANN: Oh, it was totally my pleasure.