My Conversation with Charles C. Mann

by on January 31, 2018 at 9:57 am in Books, Economics, Food and Drink, History, Science, Travel, Uncategorized | Permalink

Here is the audio and transcript, Charles was in superb form.  We talked about air pollution (carbon and otherwise), environmental pessimism, whether millions will ever starve and are there ultimate limits to growth, how the Spaniards took over the Aztecs, where is the best food in Mexico, whether hunter-gatherer society is overrated, Jackie Chan, topsoil, Emily Dickinson, James C. Scott, the most underrated trip in the Americas, Zardoz, and much much more.

Here is one excerpt:

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: 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.


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.

And finally:

MANN: …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.

Self-recommending, and I am delighted to again express my enthusiasm for Charles’s new The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World.  Here is Bill Easterly’s enthusiastic WSJ review of the book.

1 John Thacker January 31, 2018 at 10:24 am

While Cortez was a political genius, it’s also interesting to note that that isn’t that different from what the British did in India. Look at the Mahar Regiment and how many Dalits served the British, such as defeating a larger army of the Brahmin Peshwars at Koregaon Bhima. A lot of the imperial conquests and colonization involved allying with a locally oppressed group against their oppressive rulers.


2 Ray Lopez January 31, 2018 at 12:08 pm

Kind of like Trump and his minions?

Random throwaway comment: notice how Mann tries to dis Diamond, a common tactic: like two predators in a limited jungle, competing for the same resources (readers) they cannot tolerate one another and find fault. Of course arguably that’s what the scientific method is all about, but I doubt these two writers are really scientists in any way, more like educators.


3 carlospln February 1, 2018 at 12:32 am

Diamond is a professor of physiology @ UCLA Medical School.

He won the National Medal for Science in 1999.

He began his career researching salt absorption in the gall bladder.

He’s a scientist.

You know, this information is publicly available. You’d come across as much more intelligent if you would educate yourself a bit prior to issuing your ‘random throwaway comments’.


4 Art Deco February 1, 2018 at 3:35 am

Jared Diamond is a 10 inch player.


5 Hadur January 31, 2018 at 10:31 am

I had never heard of this guy before but this was cool to read. Seems like a thoughtful guy.


6 Dave Smith January 31, 2018 at 10:33 am

A very good comment about Diamond. I read his stuff thinking: “this guy is utterly unaware of the last 100 years of economics.”


7 dearieme January 31, 2018 at 11:41 am

Only 100 years?


8 Dave Smith January 31, 2018 at 12:07 pm

Well, I was an undergraduate.


9 rayward January 31, 2018 at 11:09 am

Not trying to change the subject, but here’s an essay/book review (of Why Nations Fail) by Jared Diamond that is both interesting and revealing (as to the criticism of him):


10 carlospln February 1, 2018 at 12:40 am

Thanks for posting this.

I enjoyed reading Diamond’s review more than I did the book!


11 Hunter Pritchett January 31, 2018 at 11:14 am

I’ve been to Arequipa and the Colca Valley!

It is amazing. My biggest regret is that, while I had the delicious Arequipa variety of Pork Chicharron, I didn’t take the chance to eat the guy (guinea pig) variety as I was afraid it wouldn’t sit well with my stomach on the 8 hour bus ride afterwards.

The Colca Valley is stunning in it’s depth and the amount and beauty of the centuries (millenia?) old terraced gardens. Trekking in the canyon is real work as it is so steep (it is the deepest canyon in the Americas) but is really beautiful and worth it.

Perhaps my favorite part was that they had a sign that said “Bienvenidos a Hunter” (which is my name) because there is a section of town named Jacobo Hunter. Not a phrase you will here very often in Spanish, let alone see on a billboard.


12 Anonymous January 31, 2018 at 11:28 am

I knew a vegan girl who broke her diet to try the guinea pig. That’s like doubly funny to me. Not just meat, cute meat.


13 dearieme January 31, 2018 at 11:42 am

I hope it was guinea pig wrapped in bacon rashers.


14 dearieme January 31, 2018 at 11:43 am

Come to think of it, and with a pork and chestnut stuffing.


15 Viking January 31, 2018 at 12:51 pm

I enjoyed the city of Arequipa. After my visit, the Peruvians created a new expression: “Tomo como Vikingo”!

At my trek through Colca, we noticed some bad smell that got gradually more putrid. The source was a dead mule next to the trail!

In Lopez style, bonus trivia: Arequipa is surrounded by volcanoes, and the English/Spanish words for those have an inverted pattern of suffixes, Vulcano in English has the traditional masculine o-ending, whereas the Spanish word “vulcan” lacks a suffix.


16 Anonymous January 31, 2018 at 11:14 am

Probably the most interesting moment was the recognition that nuclear and solar nirvanas are equally, not just distant, but impossible.

Path dependency matters, and if you can’t get there from here, arguing about *which* impossible destination is pointless.

Still, in a marginal revolution sense, what short term reductions in carbon intensity are right there, ready and waiting? I think a lot, from better insulation to bike lanes.


17 Art Deco January 31, 2018 at 12:02 pm

Kingdom Hearts destroyed our sense of norms by introducing shard-haired Final Fantasy characters to Goofy and his family. there’s no Trump presidency without those games


18 Dan hanson January 31, 2018 at 1:25 pm

Beware simplistic solutions. Around here, our push for more bike lanes resulted in a lot of high-energy road construction, followed by plenty of empty bike lanes. And if taking away car lanes for bike lanes increases traffic congestion, it could easily result in a net increase in CO2 output.

Insulation? Extremely expensive for old homes, not necessary for new ones. And as we found out with Obama’s ‘green’ investments in weatherstripping programs and such, the houses that need it the most are in poor neighborhoods where there is almost zero demand for this kind of maintenance – even with high subsidies. Seattle’s ‘green jobs’ program failed because they coildn’t find enough people who wanted to do the work, and they coildn’t find enough homeowners who wanted the work. So unless you are going to mandate retrofitting at the point of a gun, it’s not likely to make much of a dent.


19 Anonymous January 31, 2018 at 4:42 pm

I am happy to follow any serious ROI studies.

One thing to keep in mind on bike lanes is that they last a really, really, long time. A bicycle doesn’t break down it’s lane like a trash truck.


20 dearieme January 31, 2018 at 11:39 am

“There just really isn’t that much fresh water.” There’s oodles. The water goes round and round: it’s not a fixed amount, like a mineral. If you have a local problem, it’s easy – meter it, and charge a market price. If that price makes it profitable to import water from elsewhere, go right ahead. Add a few constraints of the sort known for millennia, and you have a working system.


21 ChrisA January 31, 2018 at 12:05 pm

Indeed, water is pretty easy to purify, especially “used” water, so the cost of an ample supply of clean water is trivial as a fraction of any developed country GDP. It’s sort of like food, because of our evolutionary history we get really anxious about ensuring food supply but nowadays we can supply all the calories we need at a small part of our income.


22 Ignacio January 31, 2018 at 12:48 pm

Agreed. I think that the fixed factor is (clean) power. If we had unlimited (clean) power, you could desalt ocean water and pump it uphill and irrigate every desert in the world; you could cover Antarctica with greenhouses with artificial lights. Power is the fixed factor.


23 Borjigid January 31, 2018 at 1:59 pm

Somebody has to actually do the work needed to create a working system. If Cape Town is anything to go by, this is not as easy as you or I would think.


24 Jeff R January 31, 2018 at 11:58 am

Nice. I’ve been looking forward to this.


25 ChrisA January 31, 2018 at 12:00 pm

Very interesting interview, I very much enjoyed it. Thanks Tyler.


26 Slocum January 31, 2018 at 12:04 pm

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?

False. Discovery and extraction (and transportation and refining) are not free. When the price drops below the cost of getting fossil fuels out of the ground, they’ll be left there. And coal, in particular, emits a lot of pollution as well as CO2, so there are local incentives to stop using it even when it’s cheap (and aren’t there already a lot of coal mines around the world that have been shut down — not because the coal is exhausted, but because they’re no longer profitable to operate?)


27 ChrisA January 31, 2018 at 12:11 pm

Yes you are right that there is a steep cost curve in the cost of fossil fuels as currently produced. But that is only because of political constraints, in reality you could provide the worlds oil at about 4 bucks a barrel all from the Mideast and Venezuela almost indefinitely if they let private companies in. The world supply of oil is currently rationed both explicitly and implicitly by having state owned companies run it.


28 Viking January 31, 2018 at 1:04 pm

I must concur. I remember some oilfields in Norway, where I heard from insiders that the “lifting cost” is $10 per barrel. These same fields now have lifting cost around $40 per barrel today. You could understand higher production cost on marginal fields, but in addition, the higher oil price has increased the production costs on fields that used to be profitable at $20/barrel.


29 Dan hanson January 31, 2018 at 1:34 pm

Well… it would be true if he said, ‘all the oil in the ground will continue to be burned until it is no longer profitable to do so’. For example, a local carbon tax does not raise the global cost of oil – it lowers it by lowering aggregate demand. So more of the stuff simply gets consumed elsewhere. The effect may not be a reduction in carbon, but a wealth transfer from the country with the tax to the countries that do not have one.

One mechanism for this could be for example the movement of energy-heavy industries to the country with the lowest cost of energy. If that country has lower overall energy efficiency, the result could actually be an increase in the carbon footprint of energy intensive products. So you wind up hurting the economy while doing nothing for global warming or even making the problem worse. See biofuels for an example.


30 Slocum January 31, 2018 at 2:36 pm

“One mechanism for this could be for example the movement of energy-heavy industries to the country with the lowest cost of energy.”

Yep. Which is why some have proposed ‘carbon tariffs’ to go along with ‘carbon taxes’:


31 Sir Barken Hyena January 31, 2018 at 4:39 pm

Read Bernal Diaz for insight into Cortez’ tactics; one technique was to intercept Aztec tax collectors and tell them a town refused to pay; when they got back to Tenochtitlan with their report that town would become a de facto ally of Cortez.

In fact, read Bernal Diaz anyways.


32 magusj January 31, 2018 at 9:34 pm
33 Brian Donohue February 1, 2018 at 8:57 am

Excellent interview Tyler. Charles Mann is great.


34 Todd K February 1, 2018 at 5:41 pm

This was fun to listen to, up in my favorites. However….

* Mann mentions the horrendous air polution in China but both indoor and outdoor levels have declined for over two decades and has accelerated from 2013.

* Geoengineering is not a “science in total infancy.”

* Fake meat *is* just around the corner.

* “And they also have a zillion cops who are just everywhere. Tokyo has a huge police force.” Tokyo has 40,000 police officers and NYC has 36,000. Mann might be right that they are more visible in Tokyo.


35 Ryan T February 1, 2018 at 8:39 pm

Probably my favorite episode so far.


36 Zach S. February 2, 2018 at 5:10 pm

Really, really enjoyed this interview and if anything my only complaint was that it was too short! I could have listened for another hour or two.


37 Milan Douglas Griffes February 9, 2018 at 5:57 pm

I especially like the “production function” question. Keep them coming!


38 Alex T February 16, 2018 at 3:36 pm

Great interview, and I appreciated Charles’s point that people sometimes overstate the consequences of meat production, in that they exclude non-meat products and additional uses for feed in their calculations. That said, in the interest of constructing an accurate portrayal of the system, those alterations barely make a dent in the overall trophic inefficiencies of grazing mammals. The vast majority of energy consumed by cattle, say, becaomes respiration (not recaptured), heat loss (not recaptured), and urine/manure (which can partially returned to the soil in the best systems, but often isn’t). The meat industry is still an inefficient system, calorically, and I don’t foresee that changing…


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: