David speaks with Charles C. Mann, a journalist and author, specializing in scientific topics. He is the author of the bestselling books 1491, which won the National Academies Communication Award for Best Book of the Year, 1493, and The Wizard and the Prophet. He is the co-author of four books, and contributing editor for Science, The Atlantic Monthly, and Wired.

They talked about:

๐Ÿ“š The Columbian Exchange

๐ŸŒŽ How European diseases conquered the New World

๐ŸŒพ How crops fuelled human conquest

โ™ป๏ธ Environmental limits and human innovation

๐ŸŒฑ The fragility of ecosystems

๐ŸŒ The future of sustainability

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๐Ÿ“„ Show notes:

[00:00] Introduction

[02:04] The common thread in 1491, 1493, and the Wizard and the Prophet

[04:55] The influence of disease in 1491

[08:44] The devastating impact of European diseases on native populations

[10:45] How religion shaped early American interactions

[13:22] The real people behind historical conflicts

[14:56] Lessons in land management from Indigenous practices

[18:48] The influence of cultural time concepts on society

[21:06] The evolution of agricultural practices

[23:28] The potato's role in European history

[28:59] Lessons from Norman Borlaug and William Vogt

[33:57] William Vogt's exploration of ecological limits

[36:33] Ideological battles in environmentalism

[38:46] Balancing technology and ecology

๐Ÿ—ฃ Mentioned in the show:

1491 | https://amzn.to/3mI7Ti6

1493 | https://amzn.to/3mN9Aur

The Wizard and the Prophet | https://amzn.to/3KOuvFL

Alfred W. Crosby | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_W._Crosby

The Columbian Exchange | https://amzn.to/3XJq9HN

Zoonotic Diseases | https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/zoonoses

COVID-19 | https://theknowledge.io/issue7/

Moros y cristianos | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moros_y_cristianos

Russell Thornton | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russell_Thornton

Morgan Housel | https://www.morganhousel.com/

The Psychology of Money | https://amzn.to/3RQzWYN

Adolf Hitler | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adolf_Hitler

Karl Marx | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karl_Marx

African time | https://theknowledge.io/issue25/

Yaqui | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yaqui

Fernand Braudel | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fernand_Braudel

Daniel Defoe | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Defoe

List of deadliest floods | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_deadliest_floods

Boxer Rebellion | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boxer_Rebellion

Taiping Rebellion | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taiping_Rebellion

Norman Borlaug | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Borlaug

Green Revolution | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_Revolution

Stem rust | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stem_rust

William Vogt | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Vogt

Paul Ehrlich | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Ehrlich

Road to Survival | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Road_to_Survival

Genetically modified organism | https://www.fda.gov/food/agricultural-biotechnology/gmo-crops-animal-food-and-beyond

Jethro Tull | http://jethrotull.com/

Full episode transcript below

๐Ÿ‘ค Connect with Charles:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/CharlesCMann


1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus | https://amzn.to/3mI7Ti6

1493: How Europe's Discovery of the Americas Revolutionized Trade, Ecology and Life on Earth | https://amzn.to/3mN9Aur

The Wizard and the Prophet: Science and the Future of Our Planet | https://amzn.to/3KOuvFL

๐Ÿ‘จ๐Ÿพโ€๐Ÿ’ป About David Elikwu:

David Elikwu FRSA is a serial entrepreneur, strategist, and writer. David is the founder of The Knowledge, a platform helping people think deeper and work smarter.

๐Ÿฃ Twitter: @Delikwu / @itstheknowledge

๐ŸŒ Website: https://www.davidelikwu.com

๐Ÿ“ฝ๏ธ Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/davidelikwu

๐Ÿ“ธ Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/delikwu/

๐Ÿ•บ TikTok: https://www.tiktok.com/@delikwu

๐ŸŽ™๏ธ Podcast: http://plnk.to/theknowledge

๐Ÿ“– Free Book: https://pro.theknowledge.io/frames

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๐Ÿ“œ Full transcript:



Charles C. Mann: There's a carrying capacity is one way of the thing. There's these planetary boundaries, there's these ecological limits, and we surpass them and we're in trouble. And this is, I would argue, the fundamental idea of the ecological movement,

If you draw too much water from the aquifer, you'll destroy the aquifer. There's countless examples of this principle that it that nature sets limits. And as the ecologists, Paul Ehrlich said, nature bats last."

David Elikwu: This week I'm speaking with Charles Mann, an acclaimed science writer, and the author of bestselling books 1491 1493 and The Wizard and the Prophet.

And as a self-proclaimed nerd, I was incredibly excited to have this conversation. Charles has done a ton of incredibly interesting work, so you're gonna hear us talking about the history of colonialism, the Colombian exchange, and exactly what happened when Christopher Columbus made that expedition to the new world and the knock on effects that shaped the world that we live in for [00:01:00] centuries afterwards.

You are also gonna hear us talking about the many complex ways that geography and agriculture have shaped human development and movement over the years.

So we pull a lot of the ideas from his books, talking about environmentalism and technology as almost new religions and the contrasting ideals of the wizards and the prophets.

So I think it's a really interesting conversation. It probably digs into a lot of the ideas that you might already interact with on a day-to-day basis without realizing it. And it goes a lot deeper into these ideas that are helping to shape not just the world that we live in today, but also the world that we are trying to build for tomorrow.

So I really love this conversation. I'm sure you will too. You can find the show notes transcript and read my newsletter at theknowledge.io.

You can find Charles on Twitter @CharlesCMann. I'll leave the links to his books in the description below if you're watching on YouTube. But if you're just listening, everything will be in the show notes.

If you love this episode, please do share it with a friend, and don't forget to leave a review wherever you listen to podcasts because it helps us tremendously to find [00:02:00] other listeners just like you.

The common thread in 1491, 1493, and the Wizard and the Prophet

David Elikwu: So I thought perhaps the first question I would ask, you have three really interesting books, 1491, 1493, and The Wizard and the Prophet. And I was thinking about where we should start, but I thought maybe I'd ask you how you thought of the, the narrative arc of these three stories. I think, they are different in their own way, but I think there is a common thread that ties them all together, starting from, you know, you're looking at this period of the beginning of the 1500s right through to the common age and the things that we have to think about in the present day about how we progress towards the future.

Charles C. Mann: Any question that begins by asking a writer what, you know, their narrative arc is, is, you know, gonna really produce a pompous pretentious answer. And unfortunately I do have one. I'm sort of embarrassed because it's so pretentious. I sort of think of the, these three books as past, present, and future.

And the 1491 [00:03:00] describes what the Americas were like and to a certain extent what Europe and Africa and Asia were like before you know, Columbus and the encounter between these two hemispheres that have been separated for tens of millions of years, and that led to consequences, there were as much ecological and biological as economic. And the wonderful historian Alfred Crosby called it the Columbian Exchange, where huge numbers of species from over there came over here, and huge numbers of species from over here came over there dominated in its initial centuries by this enormous movement of Africans into the Americas. You know, just an absolutely huge, an unprecedented movement. Unprecedented just both in it its size and the fact that none of the well, 99.9999% of the people who came didn't want to do this. So in this enormous involuntary and cruel immigration. So that with all these swapping around diseases led to this [00:04:00] convulsion throughout the entire world and that's the subject of, as I said, of 1493.

And one of the things say's led to is an enormous increase in prosperity for those people who weren't as victims, If you, if you follow. And this has led to this incredible situation where we have almost 10 billion people coming on the planet. This enormous level of global interconnectivity and these for the first time really global environmental problems. And you know, how do we think about all this? This is this unprecedented era built unprecedented cruelty and unprecedented prosperity, which is sort of hard to wrap your head around.

And the wizard and the prophet is sort of my experience as a 20 or 30 years as a journalist. These sort of two alternative ways that it seems that most people have about thinking about how we should move forward. At least in my mind, there's a connection.

The influence of disease in 1491

David Elikwu: I'd love to start with maybe from the beginning with, with 1491. I think for a lot of [00:05:00] people, their knowledge precisely of what happened when Columbus entered The New World as it was called at the time. It's quite limited to maybe topics around Thanksgiving and the, the questions of whether or not, you know, people were nice to each other at the time, but I think what's so interesting about digging into your work is, first of all, I remember seeing an image of the spread of disease. And I think you showed it in a talk once where you show, okay, how diseases went both ways at the time. And on one side you have a list of maybe something like 14 different diseases and on the other side is only syphilis. And how that had some, some limited spread. And it's really this idea that it's almost unfathomable, the drastic impact that something, it's even before the settlers actually had a chance to do anything, the diseases that they brought with them already had a massive impact on the cultures on the other side.

Charles C. Mann: Yeah. There is this epidemiological imbalance and it goes very, very deep in history when for [00:06:00] reasons that researchers have been arguing over for decades. Most of the large mammals in the Americas vanished, you know, on the order of 12 to 16,000 thousand years ago. We don't know why or rather we have too many explanations.

And what that meant was that most of the animals that could be domesticated, you know, domestic couple animals all disappeared, so horses and camels and that kind of thing that had been over in the Americas weren't there anymore. And so the peoples of the Americas grew up without cows, horses, chickens, goats you know, and they also didn't have any analogies to it. So they didn't have beasts of burden or beasts, beasts of transportation, they just didn't exist. And that meant that, that was a constraint on the way that their societies you know, changed and grew and developed. And it was also meant in some ways that was negative, but also meant something that was positive. Cause most of the great killers, you know, in disease killers in history are what they call [00:07:00] zoonotic diseases, which are animal diseases that, as they say, jump the species barrier and become human diseases.

We had a possible example of that with Covid, which, you know, many researchers think came from bats and the common examples are flu, which you know, came from chickens and poultry of sorts and smallpox, which is, you know, huge killer, which either came from horses or camels depending on which gens leave. And all of those have been causing enormous amounts of suffering and death for thousands and thousands and thousands of years in Europe and Asia and Africa, and didn't exist in the Americas. And so it wasn't exactly a disease-free paradise, but it was pretty nice.

And one of the things that happened when the Europeans arrived is they brought these diseases with them, you know, swimming in their bloodstream as if all the suffering and death in Europe and Asia and Africa over the past, however many thousands of years were compressed into a couple of hundred years in the Americas, and the demographic impact was just absolutely [00:08:00] awful. Somewhere between two thirds and 90% of all the people in the Americas died. And it's the worst demographic catastrophe that we know of in human history.

And one of the really sort of remarkable things to me as I've thought about Covid epidemic is just, that disease which has a fraction of the mortality of something like smallpox or even measles. You know, just convulsed our societies and at least in the U.S., you know, created these enormous political tensions. And yet native societies have suffered, you know, viruses that were just astronomically worse are still here which is incredible to think about. I'm not sure what would happen to the United States if we had 60% mortality.

Well, you have lots of images of what that would be like in, you know, in zombie movies and that sort of stuff. It would be bad.

The devastating impact of European diseases on native populations

David Elikwu: Yeah. And it's one of those things that it's so easy to underappreciate, like imagine up to 90% of an entire population being wiped out. And this is before, you know, when people talk about maybe there's genocide or other things where it is an intentional act, but simply just the [00:09:00] diseases that came with the Europeans that settled has already wiped out a ton of people.

And I think you also wrote about some of the ecological impacts that came with that. So, for example, native Americans had a lot of practices about how they dealt with wildlife and I'm being able to clear some of the land and using it for different things. And actually, when you had the rewilding where a lot of this wildlife grew back and a lot of the forestry grew back, in some ways from a modern perspective, that might sound like a good thing, but actually for them it actually had a lot of negative consequences.

Charles C. Mann: Right. Wilderness to a lot of native people is a word that means, it means a cemetery, it means a place that they've, in one way or another been kicked out of. You know, sort of a lot of modern conservation dogma has a real bad taste to folks in that, in that situation, it's pretty obvious why.

And you know, there's a, a whole sort of, moral argument about it, which you just briefly alluded to, which is if most of the deaths were actually caused by diseases, which, you know, this is before the germ theory of disease they weren't really [00:10:00] under anybody's control, they didn't really understand them, you know, and all that sort of stuff. Does this sort of let the settlers off the hook? And certainly you can hear that, you know, we didn't do it, it was just the disease. But at the same time, it seems to me that if you find somebody in bad shape, you know, who's been mugged and is lying there on the, on the side of the road, and then you take the opportunity to rob them you know, you don't really exactly have much chance to congratulate yourself by the fact that you didn't do the original thing, which is knock him out and leave 'em by the side of the road.

So those kind of arguments seem, you know, seem a little silly to me, you know, this was really, really tough on you know, what a, a quarter to fifth of humankind. And then it was followed by this enormous wave of slavery. So there's a really a dark part that, you know, we should know about it. That's the modern world is built on it.

How religion shaped early American interactions

David Elikwu: Yeah, and I think there's a quote that you used or you've mentioned, which was something like God saw fit to clear the natives for us. And I find it really interesting the ways in which religion and faith also interacts with some of these, the human side of [00:11:00] these interactions where for a lot of people, you know, for the, the settlers, they're thinking, ah, this is God clearing the way for us and killing all these natives before we even have to start doing much, and then for the natives, they might be thinking they've done something wrong to anger the Gods. And actually they, so, they saw the way that they are responding to these same things is also different. And I think about a lot of the ways in which that interaction or that duality has played out through some of the other circumstances through our history as well.

Charles C. Mann: Yeah, I mean, it's important to remember that people back then native Americans in the 16th century, European in the 16th century, and for that matter, Africans in the 16th century were more like each other than they are like, you know, modern, more secular people, even the most you know, devout person on the religious side, you know, on the evangelical side, doesn't look at the sky and see a thunderstorm and say, you know, that this is the interaction of spiritual forces. But that was the explanations that were available to people then.

And so, you know, one of the reasons that you know, Christianity had such tremendous [00:12:00] success coming into the Americas and that there are so many devout Christians among native people today, is that you know, these cataclysmic events happened and the only explanation available at the time was spiritual. You know, we must have done something wrong, and it's a way of a assert control over it. And so it's pretty understandable that you would look for an alternative spiritual explanation when your Gods have failed you.

And so, it's more complex than that, there's a whole bunch of ways that people adopt religions. And for example, if you go to modern Mexico today there's a Spanish festival that's widespread in places like, exactly it's called the Festival of Moors and Christians. And it's an adaptation of a Spanish festival go dates back to the eighth century or so. One of the odd things is here is that in places like Zacatecas, the Moors are all dressed like Spaniards and the Christians are all dressed like indigenous people. So under the cloak of you know, this Christian festival, it's a festival of resistance [00:13:00] showing a bunch of you know, Zacatec native people killing a bunch of Spaniards and then, and driving them out of their country.

And so this kind of thing is very, is very complex. And so anyway, I wanted to bring this up because when you say, How natives have become Christian? And, and so forth, there's all these, you know, multiple overtones and they're always, people are just crazy complicated.

The real people behind historical conflicts

David Elikwu: Sure. Were there any narratives that you found particularly surprising as you were digging into this and doing some of the research?

Charles C. Mann: Yeah. One of the things that I tried to get across as something that was said to me right when I was beginning, there's a Cherokee historian named Russell Thornton, and when I was beginning my research on this is, you know, 25 years ago or something, I asked him for advice and he said, "Just remember that the people you're writing about are human. And you know, they're not specially good. They're not specially bad, they're just people."

And there's a real tendency in writing about these, these clashes and colonialism to paint one side, as, you know, as extra bad and one side [00:14:00] is extra good and to try to reduce these things to, in fact, these sort of, these situations in which many people are thrust into conflict by things that are beyond their control.

And so, you know, in where I'm from, which is in North American West, many of the settlers who came in were fresh from Europe and they're swindled at the, as soon as they arrive and told that there's this free land that they can have, which is obviously a desperate dream and these people are desperate. They don't have any money, they don't have any ability to leave. They've slunk everything they have into it, and then they find out that their land is contested. And so there's this quality of desperation on both sides, fighting for what they see as an existential struggle while people in New York are profiting from this. So there's this kind of complexities all the way through that I hope, you know, in some way I'm able to convey to people who are reading the book.

Lessons in land management from Indigenous practices

David Elikwu: Yeah, that's a really good point. It made me just think about in a [00:15:00] Morgan Hausel's book, I mean, it's a completely different topic in some ways, but Morgan Hausel has a book called The Psychology of Money. But one of the stories that he mentions in there is about how, you know, like Hitler's rise to power. But if you look at newspaper clippings from, let's say 1931, I think you can see that even American newspapers are not necessarily taking Hitler's rise to power seriously, and they don't see the negative impacts that can come simply just a few years later.

And I think it goes back to some of what you've written about, and I'm interested to know what you think are maybe some of the lessons that we could get from reading this, which is obviously a piece of history. But I think like you say, the important thing is not necessarily just going straight to the abstraction of, okay, these are the good people, these are the bad people. This was the good thing, this is the bad thing. Because I think when you abstract things in that way, it's very easy to miss a lot of the lessons like, there's a lot that we could have learned both from how different groups of people interacted at the time, and also how we think about the future as well.

Charles C. Mann: Right. [00:16:00] And some of it is that we all have in our minds an idea, you know, of what is the good and what is, you know, progress and what is science and these, these ideas, and they're pretty much what we see around us and what our societies are good at. And so one of the lessons for me of all these encounters is that peoples in the Americas have developed entirely different systems of agriculture that are in many ways more sophisticated than people in Europe and Asia.

They're somewhat similar to systems of agriculture in West Africa. But the Europeans who encountered them just didn't understand them at all. And didn't recognize native agriculture as agriculture at all, cause they were, they were used to what we call industrial monoculture, where you have large areas covered with a single crop and then, you know, there's square and fenced off and over here are domestic animals. And these kind of things where there's polyculture, where multiple crops are being grown in the same places where you have animals integrated into this, and so there's no fences and [00:17:00] Europeans came and looked at places like New England where this kind of agriculture was being practiced and they said, this is a wilderness, this is wild land. They simply couldn't recognize it.

And one of the things that we should be, you know, in some kind of ideal world would be that if somebody would've recognized this and would've understood that their alternative ways of you know, getting crops from the land that are in many way cases more suited to what we're doing.

And so we're, you know, I live in the United States and this is also increasingly true in Europe, the kind of forest management that we've done that you know, springs from sort of 19th century, Karl Marx is actually one of the early pioneers of European forestry and if what indigenous style forestry had been understood and more, it's possible that we wouldn't be having the forest burning all over the west now, and you guys wouldn't be facing the same problems as you probably know, the level of fires in Europe is just going up. You guys are about 15 years behind California, but that's not very comforting because you can imagine what's gonna happen in 15 [00:18:00] years.

The influence of cultural time concepts on society

David Elikwu: Yeah, exactly. It's a really interesting point that you raise as well. I know you're specifically talking about how that relates to the environment, but I'm just thinking about how the interplay of, okay, as Europeans came and discovered a [00:19:00] lot of cultures that were already preexisting, how they interpreted certain actions that they had and how, I guess in the modern world are conceptualizations of different cultural practices.

We misunderstand why certain people acted in the ways that they did. And I think when you are able to take that slightly different lens, it changes completely how you would view certain things. So just like you were talking about, if you take a different lens on the native practices on dealing with the environment, you might have a completely different view of how humans should interact with the ecosystem.

But then similarly, the other example I was thinking of, so I wrote about this maybe a year or so ago in my newsletter, which was just this idea of African time and this idea that when the colonialists came to Africa. Sometimes you could see people sitting around or lying around and you think, oh, these people are lazy, or something like that. But actually, you know, when you start digging deep, and I did some research on maybe like, some Swahili culture, so in Eastern Africa and some parts of Western Africa as well. You see, I think it's [00:20:00] Swahili word, so you have a word called Sisa and the Zamani and so the way that they look at time Sisa is kind of like the short time, it's a mixture of the present and time that's within touching distance and Zamani is encapsulates the near future, but also the far future. And so they just have these very different conceptualisations of the way that time works. And as a result, instead of having necessarily a calendar, you would just say, okay, this is the time that you do the crops, this is the time that you milk the cows, this is the time that you do this. And if it's not the time for doing that, then you do something different. And it's not, you are not running on this industrialist calendar where everything has to be done. Oh, has this happened by 11:00 PM or 11:00 AM? And then you go on with your day like that.

And it's really interesting, I think there's been a lot of work thinking about how the conceptualisation of time maybe in the west has influenced so much about how we act today, right. And you think about turning up on time to have this discussion with me and the timing of everything else that happens throughout your day and throughout your life. And it's strange how, [00:21:00] you know, maybe if we had taken a different culture's concept of time, how different the future could have been as a result as well.

The evolution of agricultural practices

Charles C. Mann: Yeah, we do have you know, and it's, it's a natural part of being human. You grow up in a certain circumstances and you, you think, well, these are normal. These are the way the things should be. And there's a wonderful impulse in that you treasure which you grew up on, but it's important not to let it blind you to other possibilities and other ways of doing things that you may end up liking or find better.

You know, a small version of that also speaking of west Africa I talk about a little bit in the Wizard and the Prophet. There you have a system called Civil pastoral of agriculture, which is this fancy way of saying, leaves that fall on the ground and the cattle eat them and the cattle fertilize it with these.

And so you don't have, you know, wheat or you know, these annual crops there and you can have large expanses doing this with a cattle essentially taking care of tending the trees and dealing with the, the fire dangers and the trees sheltering the cattle and providing the fodder of them. And you can take quite marginal land in a very dry land that wouldn't really be suitable [00:22:00] for agriculture and with very little water, cause cattle use less water than annual crops. You can you know, make it a highly productive system, and as climate change is happening, more and more of Europe and more and more of the United States and elsewhere are starting to look like these dry, arid areas in which civil pastoral systems are you know, millennia old practices that have worked out beautifully in western. And the Americas by when slaves came over and they would escape and they would merge with, they would escape often with indigenous groups like the Yaqui who are in Northern Mexico. They would take these civil pastoral systems and you see them in places like Sonora. And these are really, I think, things that should be explored and you know, for our agricultural systems to deal with the impacts of climate change and, and drought. But for an enormous amount of time, they were just seen as really crazy, why would you have all these trees in the middle of your, of your country? Why would you grow trees, you know, as opposed to [00:23:00] wheat, which you could just harvest and so it didn't fit the mental categories. And, you know, there wasn't great ill will in this and so forth, but nonetheless, it meant that almost no research, agricultural research, you know, in places like Vagamon or Roth Shire where you, where you are or Davis went into really understanding how we could use these systems.

And so we're playing catch up because we had these, you know, these expectations about how things should be that weren't necessarily really the case and certainly not for changing circumstances.

The potato's role in European history

David Elikwu: Yeah. One of the things I loved in your work are the ways that you have described and really been able to tell this narrative of also the way that the environment has shaped so much of the world's development as well. And I'd love if maybe you could expand on that. I'm thinking particularly of, for example, the way that the potato shaped much of Europe's development and also in China, how, I guess the, the layout of the geography meant that they had to build these terraced architectures to be able to grow things and certain things like that.

Charles C. Mann: So the [00:24:00] environment is something that is a real constraint on us, but how we deal with it is really left up to us. It isn't so much that the environment causes things, it's just that people have to deal with it and dealing with it shapes their cultures. And so, as you were mentioning in China, one of the sort of central facts about China is it has hardly any water. You know there aren't any really big lakes in China, and it's only got these two major rivers, the Yellow river and the Yangtze river. And then just to make things worse, the crop that everybody really likes there, rice, you have to grow out in swimming pools. Which is it requires tremendous amounts of water. And so, you have a culture with a society with 20% of the world's people, 8% of the world's above ground freshwater. And they're trying to grow this water intensive crop in a certain way that explains thousands of years in Chinese history.

And what happened with the arrival of the Spaniards in the Americas is they discovered the sweet potato and the potato and the sweet potatoes from probably from Ecuador, and [00:25:00] the potato is from Peru, and they brought them over to Asia. And these are crops that can grow in dry areas in the way that rice can't, or wheat can't. And the western half of China is all dry mountains and high plateaus and it meant for the first time that these could be planted with crops in a serious way and there's this sort of go west young man type of exposure where the Han who were based in the Northeast are the sort of largest ethnic group in China and probably the world sort of pushed out their following these American crops.

And so the conflicts that we're now seeing in Western China and Xinjiang and so forth, they're in a sort of direct shin bone connected to the leg bone type way related to this expansion fueled by the arrival of the sweet potato, and then later the potato into China.

And this had enormous impact, you know, this potatoes, because the good part about potatoes is that from a point of view feeding if you have wheat, you know what wheat [00:26:00] looks like, which I'm gonna guess you do, there's a surprising number of people who don't. But it's a, it's a grass. It's this tall, skinny plant with grain on the top. And if you grow more than so much grain, it becomes top heavy and it falls over. This is called lodging and it kills, kills the plant. Whereas potato, all the good part is underground, so it can just grow as big as it wants. And in the 18th century when all this was, you know, coming in, basically you get four times as many calories from an acre of potatoes that you could from an acre a wheat.

Now, Europe had never been able to feed itself. It just doesn't have that much really good land, it's cold. And so there's just recurrent famines. In fact, there's this great French historian, Fernand Braudel who sort of added them up and 16th through the mid 19th century. There's something like a continent wide famine every 10 years or, I can't remember these exact um, but it was just terrible. And there's hundreds and hundreds of local famines. There're granaries in the middle of cities, and they would be surrounded by army guards. And if you read Daniel Defoe and those [00:27:00] kind of guy, they're always talking about the mobb, M O B B that's trying to get the food from the granaries and the soldiers killing them and so forth, so it's just horrible.

The potato comes and suddenly Europe can feed itself, and this is a profound transformation. And it turns out that what happens to a lot of countries when they suddenly acquire the ability to feed themselves and to have a healthy population that's growing. They go out and look for other countries to conquer, at least in Europe. And this is really the fuel that fed the European empires. Absent the potato in the north and maze or corn in the south. It's really hard to imagine how Europe would've gotten its act together to go and conquer all these other places in a substantive way. So you have these huge impacts.

In China, the impact was also this empire but then a second thing they pushed into the northwest, which are these loess, L O E S S hills, which is made of silt, blown up the river valleys up the yellow river. Very fertile soil, but very dry and it's sandy. And so [00:28:00] to grow, and so they had to build these terraces. The terraces were this huge amount of labor and they didn't really work because they weren't faced with stone, they didn't have stone there. And they just all eroded into the things and cause these massive floods. So if you go on Wikipedia and look for, you know, worst floods, the list of the worst floods. There's just an amazing number of them that occur in China in the 19th century and tens of millions of people die, and these sort of things now leads to when you have these recurring, enormous natural disasters, it's incredibly destabilizing. And part of what happened to China in the 19th century these things like the Boxer Rebellion and the Taiping Rebellion where, you know, millions of people died, are due to this ecological convulsion caused by the introduction of the potato, which was in sweet potato, which were in turn directly linked to the European colonization of the Americas.

So you have this mix of politics and economics and the environment that I, I find fascinating, and I also think it's sort of a big part of what it is to be alive today.

Lessons from Norman Borlaug and William Vogt

David Elikwu: [00:29:00] Sure, and this leads perfectly to a lot of what you talk about in the Wizard and the prophet. And you were starting to mention, I guess the wheat and you wrote about Norman Borlaug who is the, the wizard in your book who ends up in Mexico. You could probably do a better job of talking about his background than I could. But I remember that I think in Mexico they were having problems growing corn and he had a side project working on the wheats and he found a way to make this super productive wheat by merging to I think the hypothesis at the time was that you couldn't mix these two different types of wheat, and actually he found a way that you could, and so suddenly you have a hyper-productive wheat. But then also I think he mixed in some, some Japanese long wheat or, or something like that. So maybe you could tell us something about that.

Charles C. Mann: So just to make that this book sound really appealing to your listeners, it's about two dead white guys nobody's ever heard of. And but I think they're important. And one of them, as you mentioned, is a guy named Norman Borlaug who's the only agricultural scientist I believe ever to win the Nobel Peace [00:30:00] Prize, and I think he should be much more well known than he is.

And what he is the primary figure in what's called the Green Revolution. And that's the mix of advanced crop varieties, high intensity fertilizer and irrigation that doubled, tripled, even quadrupled grain yields around the world and are a big reason that all the people who predicted massive starvation in the 1960s, it didn't happen. That there weren't, you know, and today the chance that an average person somewhere in the world is born into, you know, in a place that suffers periodic food shortages is smaller than it's ever been, you know, as far as back as we can measure.

When I was born in 1955, I'm really old, 45% of the world was malnourished. And today it's something like 8%. And this is an extraordinary impact and it's led to things like the rise of China, you know, the explosive growth in places like Southeast Asia. The fact [00:31:00] that India is now a burgeoning, you all of this has to do with this increased agricultural productivity that people weren't just sort of desperately preoccupied by feeding themselves. And a lot of that was sparked by this guy, Norman Borlaug. And he began in, as you've said, in Mexico as kind of a ludicrous thing. He had no experience, he'd never been outta the United States, he'd never worked with wheat, he'd never bred crops. And he nonetheless ended up getting the assignment to try and do something about this wheat disease called stem rust that was plaguing Mexico. And it was, as you said, it was just an offshoot of a program to try and focus on improving corn maze, which is what everybody in Mexico eats. And so he's just on this thing very underfunded. But by sheer hard work, massive and insanely hard work over a number of years created this much more productive varieties of wheat, which if you gave him lots of fertilizer. It's essentially modern agriculture, you know, you treat the land kind of as a Petri dish, [00:32:00] you put the right seeds into it, and you just flush it full of chemicals and water and woof, and it's been enormously successful. This principle reason we have 7.8 billion people on the world. And this example, as you can imagine, has had enormous impact.

And as I said, I'm a science journalist and talking to scientists, often when you'd hear problems, they'd say, well, I would like to be due for X, what Borlaug did for wheat, you know, to make it cheap and productive and make more and produce our way out of whatever our problems.

And at the same time though, there was this other guy named William Vogt, who's even more obscure, and that's V O G T a Dutch name. And is the progenitor of the modern environmental movement, which is the only successful ideology I think that's come out of the 20th century. The fundamental idea that Vogt came up with and was the first to articulate was that we live in systems that have whose rules we can't violate. And if we expand beyond the bounds of the system and [00:33:00] violate the rules, we're in terrible trouble. There's a carrying capacity is one way of the thing. There's these planetary boundaries, there's these ecological limits, and we surpass them and we're in trouble. And this is, I would argue, the fundamental idea of the ecological movement, but it's also the idea that we can't just treat the land as a Petri dish and pouring in chemicals. These systems are characterized by processes of their owns, and we have to work with them, you know, not just ignore them.

And so that's where organic farming comes in, that's where all kinds of ideas about conserving water comes in rather than trying to generate new water from in with industrial processes. There's a whole mindset of ways that they should, and these two systems, two ideas of how to proceed are opposed and a certain way. You can think about what are the decision there's gonna be in our children's generation is that you know, where are they gonna go? Which path are they going to take and which places?

And that's what that book is about.

William Vogt's exploration of ecological limits

David Elikwu: Yeah, I love that, that example particularly [00:34:00] with William Vogt who I think you described as a bird watcher who went to Peru to try and figure out why the birds kept dying. And he realized it was because of, I'm imagining the map, but I think there's El Nino, which essentially meant that seasonally there weren't enough fish because there was a lot of small fish towards the shoreline that the birds ate. And because of these I guess the geographical events, the small fish would kind of get swept away from the shoreline. And so the birds couldn't eat them, and so suddenly all these birds are dying.

And so it's this idea that ecosystems can be very brittle and they can only hold so much, and they have the biocapacity. And then I think you go on to explore how I guess that the idea pervades to this day.

Charles C. Mann: Right. And the bird, the reason he was sent down there for the birds was that, the birds which are these coron especially live on these islands off the coast of Peru. And they're enormous birds that produce enormous amounts of fertilizer. And in fact, that was the beginning of the global fertilizer industry, was mining these enormous piles of bird excrement on these [00:35:00] islands off of Peru. And Peruvian government nationalized this and made a lot of its funds for, you know, building roads and schools and so forth from the export of this excrement. And Vogt was brought there to see if they could, as he put it, augment the increment of excrement. And if he could make the, you know, more birds so they would have more poop, so they would have more fertilizer. And he discovered that there's these natural rules, these fluctuations, El Nino, as you mentioned and La Nina, you know, we're the water temperature goes up and down, and that if you increase the number of birds, it just meant that when conditions got less favorable during the next El Nino, more birds would die. There is a limit set by nature to how big these bird populations could be. You couldn't exceed it and trying would just lead to tragic consequences. And he said, wait a minute. This isn't just true for birds, you know, on, on little Islands off the coast of Peru. This is a general principle. And in nature, if you grow too many crops you [00:36:00] know, and exploit the land too hard, you'll destroy the soil. If you draw too much water from the aquifer, you'll destroy the aquifer. There's countless examples of this principle that it that nature sets limits. And as the ecologists, Paul Ehrlich said, "nature bats last." you can't, it will let you know that you've done bad things.

And this is, you know, again, the fundamental idea of the environmental movement. And Vogt wrote a book back in 1948 called The Road to Survival, which is like a blueprint for every environmental book that you've read since then.

Ideological battles in environmentalism

David Elikwu: Sure. So why do you pit these two guys against each other? Maybe you can break down the idea of the wizard and the prophet as being kind of polar ideals of how we deal with the world of tomorrow.

Charles C. Mann: Well, what happened is essentially that you know, in the course of 30 plus years reporting unscientific environmental issues, I realized that the people I had was talking to tended to fit along, you know, there's like a spectrum and they tended to bunch up at one end or the other of the [00:37:00] spectrum. Now there's nothing like, this isn't like a natural law or anything, but it just was this very strong tendency that I had observed that there's these spectrum people lined up on either end. There were either wizards or prophets and they were fighting each other. And so prophets tend to like small scale democratic with a small d, you know, network resilient system to go from the ground up and so they like the idea of inhabited landscape with patchworks of small farms and network solar installations, all of which under local control in which they can respond to local conditions.

And that's a very powerful image in the back of the mind of, I think many people, particularly on the left. But also, you know, in different ways on the right. And then there's this other side that loves, says, wait a minute, what we want is in these enormous centralized facilities that are hyper efficient that will feed these beautiful dense cities that are walkable, where people can have the maximum amount of liberty and are, you know, slaves [00:38:00] to the land. And then we can have huge expanses of wilderness for animals that you can go and visit if you want to. And, you know, this is also another very powerful image.

It's one that I think is quite common, probably where you are in, in London of this gleaming, futuristic city surrounded by this wonderful forest but these things are incompatible. And so you end up with environmental fighting over nuclear power or fighting over GMOs or fighting over any number of issues. And what they're really fighting about is values. The different conceptions of what's important and different conceptions of how the world works. And my hope was that if I wrote a book about it, that people would go, oh, I see what's going on. Of course this is incredibly naive and these fights are continuing unabated.

Balancing technology and ecology

David Elikwu: Yeah, even just you saying that makes me think of going back earlier in our conversation, how we were talking about the ways in which religion or or culture can shape some of our values.

I would love to know what you think is maybe the analog of that today, because I think that [00:39:00] partly explains some of this split where there is no central locus that we can use to organize our values around, and some people the new religion is perhaps technology and for some people it is I guess just following whatever seems the most ecological or biological.

Charles C. Mann: I think all these are values that we all have it's just that different people assign different weights to them, and it's pretty easy to find especially in the United States, people for whom, you know, personal autonomy and the maximization of individual potential is hugely important. Let people flourish and do what they want and, you know, not be tied down. And almost always, that's associated with a real metropolitan view of how people flourish is these, in the city, you go to the city to be who you can be, you go to the city to cast off your old identity and create a new one for yourself.

And this involves, you know, necessarily the construction of really quite elaborate centralized technological structures to make it possible for you to live comfortably in, in the city. And so the, sort of ideal vision of that is [00:40:00] New York say with three gigantic nuclear power plants powering everything and enormous desalination plants just off the shore, you know, pumping in the, in the water. And then surrounded by that is nature that you can go and visit.

And that's really, you know, appealing for many people, particularly because you know, it's city life can be really tremendously wonderful and tremendous charm of it, is that you can go to a place like London or a place like New York and, you know, invent yourself.

The other vision is again, a very powerful one that has goes back to people like Thoreau in the United States and I believe Jethro Tull and people like that in England. And that is this image of the countryside as you know, you're rooted in nature and you're rooted in your community and you're rooted in a place and you understand you have this knowledge of what it's like to be there and understanding of how it's there and your ancestors were there.

And you're part of a community and that that's also extremely appealing. It's appealing to me that's why I live in a small town, right. But I've also [00:41:00] lived in New York City and I, you know, at least have some idea of what it's like to, why that is, is appealing.

And, there's been this long divide between rural and urban and this is part of it. And this is also I think part of philosophical division. So the people who sometimes they're call themselves ecomodernist who have this vision of, you know, this urbane, maximization of individual potential. Sort of think like God, they want everybody to root around in the muck, you know, and just be slaves to their farms and eat, you know, it's a recipe for poverty and you'll hear that kind of thing.

The other response is, well, you're just talking about kind of a deracinated enemy that's where everybody is just, you know, these isolated atoms bouncing around each other and how horrible that is. Cause it's sort of awkward and uncomfortable to talk about values. They sort of say, well here's your situation's not very practical because organic farms can't produce enough farm. And so that way I can tell you that it just won't work. We don't actually have to talk about values. Now I can say, well this is absurd, your [00:42:00] ideas of these giant cities you know, existing independent of their environment is completely crazy. And again, we don't have to talk about values, so they get through these proxy battles. Which I try to talk a little bit in the book too.

David Elikwu: Thank you so much for tuning in. Please do stay tuned for more. Don't forget to rate, review and subscribe. It really helps the podcast and follow me on Twitter feel free to shoot me any thoughts. See you next time.

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