David speaks with Charles C. Mann, an acclaimed science writer and author of the bestselling books 1491, 1493, and The Wizard and the Prophet.

They talked about:

  • How Christopher Columbus’ inadvertently wiped out up to 90% of the Native American population.
  • How the humble potato led to European colonialism.
  • The contrasting ideals of technology and environmentalism.
  • The complex relationship between climate change, population growth, and natural energy.
  • How to solve climate change and our energy crisis.

🎙 Listen in your favourite podcast player

The Knowledge with David Elikwu - Podcast App Links - Plink
Podcast App smart link to listen, download, and subscribe to The Knowledge with David Elikwu. Click to listen! The Knowledge with David Elikwu by David Elikwu has 29 episodes listed in the Self-Improvement category. Podcast links by Plink.

📹 Watch on Youtube

👤 Connect with [Guest]:

Twitter: @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

📄 Show notes:

0:00 | Intro

2:28 | The narrative arc of 1491, 1493, and The Wizard and the Prophet

5:17 | Understanding Columbus and 1491

9:09 | European diseases and Indigenous populations

11:15 | Religion and Faith in settler interactions

13:55 | Surprising narratives in research

15:32 | Hitler's rise to power and the psychology of history

18:33 | Cultural interpretations and practices

23:51 | The Rise of China

25:42 | How potatoes in Europe led to colonialism

28:48 | How wheat changed forever

36:16 | The wizard and the prophet: polar ideals

38:40 | Technology and environmentalism as new religions

42:03 | Why most people are indifferent to climate change

48:52 | Climate change explained

50:57 | Carbon dioxide and earth's dynamics

54:16 | The impact of climate change on society

57:21 | The impact of deforestation on climate change

1:06:17 | The role of technology in addressing climate change

1:17:38 | The ethics of climate change and its solutions

1:27:17 | Explanation of C4 rice

🗣 Mentioned in the show:

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

The Columbian Exchange | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Columbian_exchange

Festival of Moors and Christians of Alcoy | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moors_and_Christians_of_Alcoy

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

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

The Psychology of Money | https://amzn.to/41iJgr5

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

Swahili culture | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swahili_culture

Sasha and the Zamani | https://www.theknowledge.io/issue25/#:~:text=Seasons for everything

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

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

Ebenezer Howard | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ebenezer_Howard

Richard Doll | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Doll

Cochrane | https://www.cochrane.org/

American Chestnut Foundation | https://acf.org/

The Gros Michel Banana | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gros_Michel_banana

Panama disease | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panama_disease

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

International Rice Research Institute | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Rice_Research_Institute

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation | https://www.gatesfoundation.org/

Full episode transcript below

👨🏾‍💻 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.

🐣 Twitter: @Delikwu / @itstheknowledge

🌐 Website: https://www.davidelikwu.com

📽️ Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/davidelikwu

📸 Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/delikwu/

🕺 TikTok: https://www.tiktok.com/@delikwu

🎙️ Podcast: http://plnk.to/theknowledge

📖 EBook: https://delikwu.gumroad.com/l/manual

My Online Course

🖥️ Career Hyperdrive: https://maven.com/theknowledge/career-hyperdrive

Career Hyperdrive is a live, cohort-based course that helps people find their competitive advantage, gain clarity around their goals and build a future-proof set of mental frameworks so they can live an extraordinary life doing work they love.

The Knowledge

📩 Newsletter: https://theknowledge.io

The Knowledge is a weekly newsletter for people who want to get more out of life. It's full of insights from psychology, philosophy, productivity, and business, all designed to help you think deeper and work smarter.

My Favorite Tools

🎞️ Descript: https://bit.ly/descript-de

📨 Convertkit: https://bit.ly/convertkit-de

🔰 NordVPN: https://bit.ly/nordvpn-de

💹 Nutmeg: http://bit.ly/nutmegde

🎧 Audible: https://bit.ly/audiblede

📜Full transcript:

Charles C. Mann: one of the things that happened when the Europeans arrived is they brought these diseases with them, you know, swimming in their bloodstream. And it's 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 awful. Somewhere between two thirds and 90% of all the people in the Americas died.

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. Just convulsed our societies, and at least in the U.S., created these enormous political tensions. And yet native societies have suffered, viruses that were just astronomically worse are still here. Which is incredible to think about.

David Elikwu: Hey, I'm David Elikwu. And this is The Knowledge. A podcast for anyone looking to think deeper and work smarter. In every episode I speak with makers, thinkers, and innovators to help you get more out of life.

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 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. And finally we dug into the complex relationship between climate change. First of all, defining exactly what that is and what we should think about it, but also how climate change interfaces with technological development and the ethics that surround all of that. 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.

Every week, I share some of the best tools, ideas, and frameworks that I come across from business psychology, philosophy and productivity. So if you want the best that I have to share, you can get that in the 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 other listeners just like you.

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, you know, 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: Well, 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. And 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 describes what the Americas were like and to a certain extent what Europe and Africa and Asia were like before 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 convulsion throughout the entire world.

And that's the subject of, as I said, of 1493. And one of the things that it's led to is an enormous increase in prosperity for those people who weren't as victims, 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.

You know, and the wizard and the prophet is sort of my experience as 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. And so, at least in my mind, there's a connection.

David Elikwu: I'd love to start with 1491. I think for a lot of 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 is quite, 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 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 you know, 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 society's, 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 zoonotic diseases, which are animal diseases that, as they say, jump the species barrier and become human diseases. And we had a possible example 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, of sorts and smallpox, which is, you know, huge killer, which either came from horses or camels. 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. And it's 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 awful. Somewhere between two thirds and 90% of all the people in the Americas died. And it's the worst demographic catastrophe 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.

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 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 and it means a place that they've, in one way or another been kicked out of. So, you know, sort of a lot of modern conservation dogma has a real bad taste to folks 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 you know, 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 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.

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 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 you know, 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 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. You know, there is you, you, 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 this Christian festival, it's a festival of resistance 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.

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 so it's, 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 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 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.

David Elikwu: Yeah, that's a really good point. It made me just think about in 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 the 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. 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 Europeans who encountered them just didn't understand them at all. And didn't recognize native agriculture as agriculture at all, cause they were used to what we call industrial monoculture, which is 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 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 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 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 you know, 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 years.

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 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 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, 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.

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 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 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 for agriculture and with very little water, cause cattle use less water than annual crops. You can 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 this you know, millennia old practices that have worked out beautifully and western in the Americas by when slaves came over 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 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 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.

David Elikwu: Yeah. One of the things I loved about your work is the way that you've 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: Right. So the environment is something that you know, 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 requires tremendous amounts of water. And so, you have a culture with, you know, 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 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 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 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 is that if you have wheat, you know what wheat 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 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 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 to grow, 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.

David Elikwu: 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 there was, 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 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 that India is now a burgeoning, you know, 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, 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 is.

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 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.

David Elikwu: Yeah, I love that, that example particularly 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 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, 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, you know, if you grow too many crops 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.

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 were, was talking to to fit along, you know, there's like a spectrum and they tended to bunch up at one end or the other of the 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, you know, democratic with a small d you know, network resilient system to go from the ground up and you know, 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 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 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. and 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.

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 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: Yeah. And so, you know, there's this, 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 the city. And so the, sort of ideal vision of that is New York say with three gigantic nuclear power plants powering everything and enormous desalination plants just off the shore, you know, pumping 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 lived in New York City and I, you know, at least have some idea of what it's like to, why that 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 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: Yeah. Another problem that I see is that really, so first of all, I love the framing of you have the wizards and you have the prophets, but I think the issue that I see today is that if anything, it's more that people default to being wizards or they default to being prophets, but day-to-day, I would probably estimate 90% of people don't actually care enough to figure out what they should be. And they don't, you know, people care about a lot of the environment, climate change in theory, right? When you hear about the story of what could happen and all of that. But day to day, do you actually care enough to do anything about it? Do you actually care enough to investigate? It's surprising how when you think about, okay, there's a climate change debate and you have some people that are pro climate change in terms of they believe that it's a thing and something we should be careful of.

And you have some people that don't believe in climate change. They deny it completely. How many people have actually taken the time to figure out, okay, what does climate change even mean? Because even when people say it, there's a bunch of different definitions. Some people just say it's the, the natural oscillation in the global temperatures. And actually at some point we've had ice stages and at some point we've had heat waves. And actually, you know, how far are we off the course of the natural variants throughout the earth's history. But then also, you have some people that strongly advocate for the fact that if the earth just heats up by one degree, then it's the end of the world.

And so a lot of people, I think they hear so much of this, first of all, they don't know enough or haven't care enough to look into it for themselves. So my question to you is like, how do we deal with all of those people? I mean, it's almost a better problem if we had two groups of people that cared enough about the problem and just wanted to solve it in very different ways. But I think you actually have a whole middle trench of people that don't necessarily care enough, and might have some defaults, but beyond that, we can't actually get to any of the solutions that we might otherwise propose because, you know, we're not building nuclear plants and we're not doing enough on the wizard side in terms of innovation. And we're also perhaps not doing enough in terms of the ecology and how we can better cultivate the ecosystem around us.

Charles C. Mann: So I should say question you very sneakily moved from areas of fact to areas of opinion which is like, how do I think we could motivate people? The proper answer is, I don't know. Because it's, it's, this incredibly murky area. What really motivates people? Why do people take action? Why do suddenly, is there suddenly a revolution? What causes people to suddenly gather in the streets and say no, or say yes or whatever? And I don't think we know. So that's like a huge caveat.

I'll tell you things that I believe that stand in the way of that. Both wizards and prophets you know, the people who have this sort of idea that science will save us and the people who to put a kind of barrier in the way of ordinary people, not intentionally, I don't think. One is the wizards sort of unintentionally provide the idea. Well, the solutions are all for technocratic experts, and it's not in your hands. We're gonna do all, this. The scientists will do all this with their white coats and they'll come up with the answers. And there's no room for you to participate in there. And the prophets do a different thing to discourage ordinary people. And that is, you know, a lot of what they're messaging is that you are bad. You're driving too much, you're eating too much meat. Your clothes have too many non-natural fibers, you're consuming too much, you're flying planes too much. And most people are just trying to do, you know, they're ordinary lives. They don't really like being told that they are bad for having ordinary dreams of maybe a vacation and go off to someplace warm in the winter or I don't know, play their video games or whatever. They don't really like to be heard that they're consuming too much. And so both of them, I think, and their different ways, they're actively discouraging.

The other thing is that, often these things are presented as choices of individual virtue. And what's really going on is that we're dealing with these enormous systems. The system of energy production, the system of water production, the system of food production. And these aren't taught so far as, at least in I'm aware of in most schools certainly not in the us I don't know about England. Did you grow up in England?

David Elikwu: For the most part, yes.

Charles C. Mann: Yeah. So you went to school here. Did they ever have a class when they said, this is how you get water, you know, this is what, how you get this and cause these systems are miracles. That you can just for the first time, you know, in most of the world, you can actually just go to your bathroom and turn on the tap and something clean and drinkable will come out of it. This is incredible. Or you can take your trash and you can put it in this thing and it will be disposed of for the most part, you know, really safely. All this stuff. You can walk in the streets and not really worry about catching horrible diseases. There's all these systems that are, life is based on and that the environmental problems that we have are byproduct and we're just, I don't think we're taught enough about these systems to really value them.

You know, it's sort of mind boggling when you think of the generations of work that have caused it to be possible that you, I, can turn on the tap water and just drink the water and not think that we're gonna have to die or you know, from something or that I'm talking to you from, I mean, there's a light over here that's shining this nice light on my face and I can just switch it on. And these electrons are generated in past, it's an unbelievable system. Again, that took generations to build. And that's what we have to change is these enormous systems. And so people are not literate in those systems. It's not their fault. And I think if they had an appreciation for how these work and how incredibly fortunate we are that we have them and they might be more willing to listen to arguments about how they should be changed.

That's my 2 cents. It's totally opinion. I don't have a single scientific study to back it up, but that's what I think.

David Elikwu: No, that makes a lot of sense to me. Let's double click on like how we can distinguish the opinion from fact, because just like you say, I think it's really important for people to be able to crystallize some of these things that we're not necessarily taught, or simply maybe a factor of the fact that we've kind of grown up and then, well, in some ways people have been talking about climate change since the nineties. I, Al Gore was talking about climate change then, and I remember, I think well completely separate, but I remember when people were saying the world is gonna end in 2012, because there was some Mayan ruins or something that they read.

But I'd love to, maybe

Charles C. Mann: The Mayan themselves didn't actually believe that, you know.

David Elikwu: Oh really? Oh okay, maybe tell me about that first.

Charles C. Mann: No, no, It's misinterpretation. You know, it's a little bit like the Christians in the year 1000, there's a widespread anxiety about what would happen in the year 1000, it was seen as the close of one millennium, and there's, you know, as a dangerous passage. And there's some of that in the Maya system as well. It doesn't mean the world ends, it means that there's a shift to another one. And this is not the part of the Maya culture that makes the most sense to me personally. Just like the part of that, there are this widespread panic, you know, in Europe in the year 1000. Also isn't the part of Christian culture that makes the most sense to me personally.

David Elikwu: Sure. Okay. Thank you for clarifying that, that's super useful. You have done a really good job in the past of explaining climate change. I'll try and regurgitate what you've said in the past. But what I'd love is if you could help me to break out, if there are alternative descriptions of what climate change means, because I think that is one thing that can trip people up sometimes, and then maybe we can discuss what the various arguments against it are, at least the strongest ones that you've come across. Just so we can accurately frame what most people might be thinking about when we're having these parts of the discussion. So, I think from the way that you framed climate change in the past, the reason that we have climate change and the way that we currently think about it is that the sun bathes the whole of the earth in light, and a third of it bounces off or gets stuck in the dust or the clouds or gets absorbed by the ozone layer. The rest of the two thirds comes down and it goes into the ground or water or vegetation and all of them heat up. So everything heats up and releases a lot of that energy back as infrared radiation. So most of that theoretically go right back up. And the issue is that in our, the ozone layer or in the atmosphere, the nitrogen and oxygen that make up 99% of the atmosphere. They can't absorb that infrared radiation. If it was a hundred percent, then the earth would get super cold because none of that would be able to escape. But actually water vapor does take some of it in. And water vapors just 1% of it. Water vapor takes it in. But only a few wavelengths and these are kind of like, almost, I think an analogy that you've used is like having holes in a bathtub. And so water vapor allows some of these wavelengths to escape and that stops the earth from becoming unbearably hot.

And so the issue that we're having is that carbon dioxide, which does absorb the wavelengths that water vapor would've let through carbon dioxide actually absorbs them. And so that it's a bit like plugging holes in the bathtub. And so now, instead of the water that would've normally drained out, it's being held in. And so that's why the earth is heating up because some of this radiation that normally in the normal course of things would've just escaped, is now being trapped inside. Is that a good explanation?

Charles C. Mann: Yes, Absolutely. Absolutely. And so there's two things to go over now. One is it's incredible bad luck, you know, from a certain point of view that carbon dioxide just happens to have this, this property, because if it didn't, fossil fuels would be great, you know, all this would be fine. We could clean up the the smog and we'd be just great. And we would have tons of fossil fuel energy forever. But unfortunately it does have this physical property. And the next part that gets difficult is that the earth is a dynamic system, and so if it was a completely featureless ball, you could predict very, very well what would happen when you block off that, you know, the release of that infrared light.

But because it's got oceans and forests and winds and clouds and all this, it's really hard to predict really precisely what's going to happen. And since for us, the difference between two and two and a half degrees global increase, you know, is a huge deal. The fact that we can't predict it precisely is really a problem. And so I think of it this way is, we're like in a bus and we're slowly approaching a cliff, but it's foggy and we don't know where the cliff is. So there's fairly good chance that if we just keep going for a while, we'll be fine. But there's also a chance that the cliff is closer than we think. And so, it makes a lot of sense to turn the wheel. The question that we have is though that turning the wheel really, really quickly is gonna throw everybody, you know, slam everybody into the sides of the bus and cause a lot of discomfort. But that's better than falling off a cliff. Whereas turning it more slowly means that everybody has a more comfortable turn. But there's more chance you hit the cliff. So all of this is, is kind of murky and gets you to the choice of what do you do about it? And, so I have a couple friends who say, well, what do I owe to people that aren't born yet? They don't exist. How can I owe them anything? They're not real. And you know, all the problems are gonna happen after I'm dead. How can I possibly have sorry, isn't that's like fixing my roof for the guy who's gonna buy my house 10 years from now. Why would the hell would I do that?

And there's a certain logic to that. I don't agree, agree with that, but it get to, you know, his response. My friend Dick, who is a, I think he's partly doing it to put me up, you know, he knows I'm concerned. So he like aggressively gives me grief, like Why do I care about the future generations? They're, they don't exist. But what he's pointing out is that there's a difference between saying what the situation is, which is that we're approaching a cliff, that we don't know exactly where it is, and then saying what you do about it? And there's a logical case for doing nothing. I don't agree with it, but that's my friend, Dick. A logical case for saying, I hate living in this case, uncertainty. We should turn the wheel as hard as possible, even if that means that some of the passengers are thrown against the sides of the bus. And then there's a case for saying we should do it more gently, because the being thrown against the side of the bus is not very good and the people who are most likely to get hurt from that are the poor and the infirm and so forth, like probably, I'm stretching this analogy beyond its point of usefulness, but you see where I'm going with with this and of these are questions of values.

David Elikwu: Okay. So what does it look like to turn the wheel on the bus? Both from, I guess, the wizard's perspective and the prophets perspective

Charles C. Mann: Yeah, exactly. And so there's two, to me, there's two sort of general ways you can think about this. Turning the wheel on the bus, one is the Wizard's Way and that's you immediately start building, probably small scale and nuclear power stations cause they have the smallest footprint. And you create a high energy prosperous future that's overwhelmingly urbanized. You reduce the human footprint which is mostly agriculture by doing hyper-productive plants, which most of which will be genetically modified and so on. So you have this technological series of, you let the technology do its thing. And you know, there's a, there's a certain logic to that. I don't, I don't, when I describe it, I don't mean to dis it or something. And that way probably is most congruent with the way our societies have developed. It's sort of doing what we've been doing, but doing it much, much smarter would be the, the analogy. The other way is to say, well, that's not really working for a whole host of reasons and producing more when the problem is over consumption is like, I don't know, saying that the best way to fight a fire is by pouring gasoline on it. You know, we are, we are just accelerating in the direction that's gonna get us into trouble and the claims by technologists that we can do all this without negative consequences are the typical kind of hubris that you get from those sorts of people. And that what we need to do is kind of hunker down and, you know, on a sort of personal level, put on their cardigan sweaters, turn down the thermostat a little bit, and do all that, but really create a much more from their point of view humane network small scale society in which, I have solar panels and you have solar panels and we all are swapping electrons back and forth. You know, when it's cloudy over here, cloudy over there. We integrate agriculture much more into our daily lives, that's part of our problems is an alienation from nature. There's a British guy, Ebenezer Howard back in the 1900 or so who came up with this idea called Garden Cities for the Future, that really spells out most of this idea kind of an amazing book. He's a sort of an old school, you know, visionary socialist from about 1905 I think it was Garden Cities of the Future.

And it's this idea that you have these garden cities that we're smaller communities in this sort of giant industrial hell hole that it's how they see London. And that would be a completely different way of life that was put much less and from their point of view pressure on the earth and integrated us better into the natural systems. And as you know, the large cities that we have aren't exactly models of social equity or anything like that. They're sort of cesspools of inequality and corruption, which is sort of amazing, but, you know, Sao Paolo, Lagos, los Angeles, you know, Miami, you name them and they're not according to this point of view, where people should really want to live. They're terrible places.

David Elikwu: Yeah, it's really interesting finding that balance between, People have to live now. People still have to make a living. People still want to move to these big cities. And I think that's the difficulty, right? You talk about the argument for some people is, oh, why should I care about the person that's buying my house after me? Right? Theoretically, why should I care about these people that haven't actually born yet? I've still got all of this time to live. I still have to feed my family, make a living. We've probably still got even a few interim generations of people that would actually probably benefit from us continuing in the way that we're doing things now. I also think that another issue that people have is that we conflate, so we talk about the environmental problem, and I think in the popular sphere of public thought, when we talk about the environment, we talk about climate change, is that we conflate a bunch of different things and we talk about it all as being like eco-friendly and eco, this is what you should do.

And I wonder if, and maybe you can tell me, Are they all equal problems on the same time horizon? So I might think of maybe three and a half different types. So one is population and waste, and this is about how we, the way in which we consume everything. So the amount of pollution that goes out, the amount of waste that's left everywhere. Okay, so one type of environmental change that we need to deal with is the way we deal with waste. Then the other part is energy and resources. So are we gonna run out of the fossil fuels that we have? Perhaps we should be conserving them a lot more. Perhaps we should be more careful of the way in which we use them and not use them so much. And maybe we should switch to more sustainable forms of fuel just for that reason. And then also then there's the climate change and perhaps sustainability part, which is, oh actually, you know, the combination of a bunch of these things is leading to the earth heating up. And there is a specific time horizon where life might become unsustainable on the earth simply because of all these things.

And I think that is closer to the analogy that you gave of, you know, there is some cliff that we could be driving towards in the fog and we don't know where it is with the other two problems. They're kind of nebulous in that, Yeah, it sounds bad, but you don't know specifically what happens. I mean, you see some waterways that get clogged with rubbish and litter and they can tell you about the sea turtles, but you know, there might be a part of people's brains, which just thinks, okay, we can pick it up, or fail to appreciate the full gravity of that.

And I said three and a half, because I guess the other half part, you mentioned that there's 8 billion people on the planet earlier, and that's another thing that people talk about, which is the population growth and expansion and maybe a balance between, okay, on one hand, It's weird, it kind of actually maybe goes back to some of the previous work that you've done where you talk about the fact that because we've reached this point in time where the majority of the world kind of lives in liberal democracies.

We don't have violence and we don't have wars to the same extent, and we don't have the same amount of disease that we used to have. You know, you were comparing, we just had covid in the pandemic. What would that have looked like if you lose 60% of the population? And so we don't have all of these things in the ecology that can kill us because healthcare's gotten better. We've gotten so much better at dealing with a lot of these things, and so life is better and so there's more people. And so I think there's a confluence of all these different problems. Do you weigh them all equally? Do you think that we should be focusing more on one than any of the others?

Charles C. Mann: There's a sort of an, and if you can imagine a graph, you know, and on the, on one side is immediacy. How immediate is the problem? The other side is how seriousness, you know, measured in terms of number of people affected and you know, right now that to me, the combination, the thing, if I were, God forbid, dictator for the day, you know, you had to do what I said, which would be a terrible idea.

On a global level, water, you know, freshwater is pretty clearly you know, there's something like a billion and a half people, I mean, it sort of gets measured differently, who don't have reliable access to clean potable fresh water. And that just spreads misery in every aspect of life and this is something we know how to do as in fact that you and I have lived in places where you don't worry about it, right. And to me, this is something absolutely urgent and it's something that we're often amazingly bad at, there's an astonishing fact to me is that although we know how to provide freshwater for people, the technology is very old, it's very reliable. There are tons of places that are in perfectly affluent countries that have really lousy water. You may have heard about the problems that the US has in Flint Michigan. Flint Michigan is, you know, basically a suburb of Detroit. Detroit is like, you know, a city that even though it's had economic problems, it knows how to do, they know how to make fresh water.

And there's, you know, places all over it. So, freshwater would be for me, the thing I would focus on and with that is the problem that agriculture uses up about 70 to 80% of the world's fresh water. And a lot of it is colosally inefficient. It's expensive for farmers, particularly small farmers, particularly farmers without a lot of capital. And I personally, you know, again, since we're talking about need, personal, we would like to see a lot more effort being made so that it's possible for farmers to grow the crops they want to grow in a much more efficient way. Typically now the way that people do it is if they get subsidized water, which encourages inefficiency. And so we have that problem very much in the United States, particularly in the West, but it's common everywhere.

So water is the most immediate one, then probably following that is electricity. There's again, about a billion people who don't have electricity. That's something we know how to do, that's something I think. India has made big strides on recently. East Africa has made big strides on that. And again one of the things that was really revelatory for me personally we're researching the risen nonprofit. I went to a very poor part, a couple of very poor parts of India, and you could see that just a little bit of electricity, just a little bit, just had such a huge impact on people's lives that it just seemed criminal not to do it. So you go to these small places and they'd have a teeny little cheap solar thing that would power a battery and the battery would make it so that and this one family that I was visiting, always doing her homework by the light provided by this battery, you know, before she couldn't do it. It was dark. The father was listening to the radio and listening to the news, so he had some idea of what was going on, you know, outside his community. And the wife was making these Bidis, I think they're called, these small non-tobacco cigarettes that are very popular in that part of India and she had the light so that she could do it, so earn some extra money for the family. And this was, you know, a single battery powered by a solar thing about the size of an iPad. And so, clearly that's to me just on every level and it also means people can live without having smokey indoor fires and all the things that cause tremendous respiratory problems and diseases around the world.

So that, those are the two most immediate ones. The one of the greatest existential stake is climate change. Cause one of the things is that, we don't really understand these systems yet. And so we can't rule out a terrible catastrophe. An example of that, what I mean by not really understanding that is that I'm speaking to you from Western Massachusetts and Amherst, the University of Massachusetts. Amherst has a pretty important climatology department and one of the guys there not too long ago, four or five years ago, did the first real calculations on what it would take to break Antarctica up, whether that was actually a realistic possibility. Discovered that there are areas in which, because it's not a homogeneous place, there are pockets where water pulls up on the surface and it's warmer, it melts the ice below, and there are pockets in which by the fluctuation of the oceans and waves and, you know, all these very complicated phenomena, the ice melts more from the bottom. And these can coincide and break up Antarctica much easier than, you know, at least in theory than we thought. And that would be terrible. That would be more or less instantly, you know, over a couple decades raising the sea level by like 30 feet. London would become you know, uninhabitable Miami, New York, all they would all become, you know, there'll be a disaster beyond measure.

And it could happen maybe, much easier than we think. And so that kind of surprise where there's something about the system that we don't understand turns around and bites us in the ass, for me, the primary worry. I sometimes talk to skeptics and say, finish the following sentence for me.

"Gee, I'm so glad we're randomly fooling around with the constituents of the atmosphere because", right? Like, what is the gain of that? And so, for me that's the primary reason, is it kind of insurance. And that's something we do in our life a lot, you probably have life insurance or homeowner's insurance or I don't know how a system works in England, automobile insurance or something where in case of an unforeseen consequence, you at least have some you know, cover. And I see climate change in that same way as there's a real chance of something happening right at the, that we don't know about or can't predict. I'd be very happy to pay money to make that possibility small as possible.

David Elikwu: Sure. I completely agree, and I think a lot of what you were just saying goes back to what we were talking about before about the fact that so much of solving these problems is embedded in the need to have some framework of shared values. And also what you were mentioning about water. Funnily enough. Well, I was gonna make the connection to waste cause even as you were saying it, it reminded me that I remember seeing a stat that I think 25% of all the fresh water used in the US each year goes towards creating food that is thrown away. So food that no one eats. So again, when you talk about the inefficiency of how agriculture uses water, it's also that, okay, first of all, so much of the agriculture and whether people are growing plants and stuff, or people are feeding cattle, all of the water that goes towards that entire process, 25% of that is wasted because people don't even eat the food that we produce.

And so it's this, I don't know, there's a shocking divergence of values where so much of the time we opt for convenience and it's much better that I can walk to the convenience store, I can walk to the supermarket and I can just pick up some meat or some vegetables. It is much better that it's convenient for me to do all of those things, and we can just write it off as an externality that so much of that will be wasted regardless of, well, the cost of the waste itself and then the cost of the water that went towards feeding the animals or watering these crops to make the waste.

And so there's so much, I think that's the other part of it, where in our human calculus, when you think of economics, we write off so many of these things as externalities, and they're not factored into the cost, right? We have the cost, which is the labor, how much you actually paid specifically for the land, everything else, the environmental cost, the human cost. That is just the cost of doing business. And that is something we'll deal with another day in the future.

Charles C. Mann: Yeah, I was gonna give you an, an example that was personally relevant to me. A few years ago I was in Arizona driving on the southeastern Arizona, close to the border of Mexico. And I was driving through the Stafford Valley which is an area where they grow Pima cotton, which is this very fine cotton with very long threads is used for making the finest shirts and so forth. And I sort of vaguely thought maybe, maybe I can buy a Pima cotton shirt cause they're so nice. You know, as I was thinking down there and I was going to meet a guy who was an archeologist but he was also, he's an amateur archeologist and he is also hydraulic engineering. As I was driving, I saw on the side of the road they're growing the cotton and they're growing the cotton with flood irrigation, which is means that they were just flooding the field to an inch deep or so, and there was a ditch, a big ditch you know, 20 feet wide or so of water that was coming in and then would be used to flood the fields and then we'd go back in, into the ditch. And I stopped, and the ditch was unlined, meaning that it was just a ditch, it was just a, you know, a hole in the dirt. So obviously water is just pouring in into it and the field. It was 106 degrees Fahrenheit. So it was hot and you could see the water sh you know, they were just evaporating off. So I was floored that they were doing this to grow the cotton and I went and I asked the engineer, you know, the hydraulic engineer, I said, how much of that water is evaporated to get it to the cotton? He said, oh, all of it. And it's, you know, he was joking. It's really, but it is like 80%, you lose 80% of the water in evaporation. This is water that came from the Colorado River. It was hundreds and hundreds of miles away, brought to be evaporated into the into the desert air. Suddenly I was less interested in buying a Pima cotton shirt and I reflected that all the times that I go to the shirt store, I have no idea, right. That this incredible waste, you know, is goes on into making these very nice, you know, I'm wearing a cotton shirt now. God only knows what happened in, in its manufacturer. And this is a big, I think, problem for us cause it's unrealistic.

I think to expect me in the store to do these elaborate mental calculations of, "oh this one's more wasteful, this one's that." It's would be much better to focus our attention. You know, at the farmer's level, they don't wanna waste water. They're not like dancing with glee cause 80% of the water's going into the air and saying, how can we help you make this drip irrigation that would reduce the level of evaporation? How can we, you know, affect your life? And so that the consumer can then, you know, the person like me can then go to the store and just buy the shirt and feel okay about it and knows that.

And that is typical of I think many of these problems is that we try to attack them on the level of getting me to, I don't know, boycott pima cotton or something like that. Rather than helping the poor schnook who's just trying to grow these things and can't afford to, you know, the elaborate network of tubes and pipes that would be necessary for him to be more conservation minded with water.

David Elikwu: I was thinking of the story you told of spending that time in India before, and it's so interesting to me how, okay, we have these great technological marvels and you talked about even when you said, okay, two of the things that you might change, one relating to water, one relating to electricity. In some ways you could put both of those in the wizards camp in terms of being able to spread that too to more people. But it's also interesting how you can have electricity and internet and be in a, in a, a room with no windows and no exposure to the outside world. But you could know everything that's happening in the world around you, technically, right? So you could have a radio or you could just look at on the internet and see the news. And so there's a way in which, okay, you can be in a box and see all these things about the outside world, but then simultaneously, all of us in the outside world seem to not know too much about what is actually going on.

And so the fact that we have all these means of being able to communicate these ideas, but we're not seemingly able to leverage them well enough because just like you were sharing this story of driving along in the desert and seeing all this water evaporating, I can only imagine how many other people drove by and had no idea that anything was occurring. And there was anything to pay attention to.

So how can we do a better job of, maybe there's two parts of this. One is, Creating a framework of shared ideals to some of these things are important, mean the same to everyone in the same way that the wizards and the prophets might have different ideals, but at least they have some ideals in terms of they both equally see something as important. So how do we build that shared framework, but then also how do we, I guess, share and educate people? Cause we talked about that earlier as well in terms of the fact that getting water or, there's a lot of these things that people aren't necessarily taught in school. So how do we make sure that people are actually educated about what is going on?

Because there's an extent to which people hear things that are happening. People hear about climate change, but they don't necessarily know what it means for them and what it means for how they should consider their behavior in the future. Their behavior or maybe I, I guess this is the other contentious point, because how much of it is an individual responsibility? How much of it is their collective or government responsibility? So maybe like how the world should be thinking about these things?

Charles C. Mann: Well, so our personal level, I mean, again, we're now venturing into the realm of opinion. I think one of the problems that are both typically wizards and prophets go forth, is that there's this emphasis on large scale solutions. Whether they're international agreements, cop agreements, like you know, the thing that they just had, or the Kyoto agreement in 1992 or these ideas that we're going to have gigantic nuclear power stations or what have you.

And much of the work for environmental issues from climate change and everything is done at a much more local level. And so I give you a small example and again, because it's local works differently in different places but this is a kind of thing that you see a lot. On a global level, the built environment meaning houses and structures of all sort, roads, is responsible for 25 to 30% of all emissions.

So, we are going to need both for increasing population and for climate reasons to rebuild a substantial part of the current built environment so that, you know, the place that you're living is got more insulation and has fewer leaks and so forth. I think there's pretty easy to find agreement that houses should be more comfortable and less drafty, right. And that you should be able to pay for less to heat them. And so that's not it, and yet we don't have building codes that strongly push for this in most places. I think including where you are if you build a house that has, you know, is more climate friendly as they say that, you know, has easy to hook up solar panels to, or has super installations of work. That's not reflected in the appraised value of the house. There's these conventions that bankers, you know, set up to determine the appraised value of a structure. And they're set up in the 1950s and in the 1930s and so on. And of course climate wasn't considered and they're just sort of going on autopilot. Similarly when you have you know, building inspectors, they're not inspecting for climate ready things. There's whole host of these much smaller scale things where the British Engineering Society, whatever it's called, and the American engineering societies should be saying, Hey guys, we need to, you know, all civil structure engineering need to consider this, and it needs to be part of education.

So, similar ly bankers need to get together and talk about appraisals and what they mean. My wife, particularly thinking of this, my wife is an architect and, you know, in a modest way, I participate and she builds climate friendly houses. And a substantial obstacle is the things that make them climate friendly, cost something, and yet are not reflected in the value of the house. You can't sell your house for $10,000 more because it's climate friendly and you can't get a mortgage for it for more money because it's more valuable because of this. So that's a typical much smaller scale. Similarly, the associations of cotton farmers in Arizona, to the best of my knowledge, are not lobbying their congressmen to say, "Hey, help us get drip irrigation, so we don't use it as much water."

There's a whole level of participation that ordinary middle class people can do. And once you start being part of your neighborhood association to try and see if you can get collective results for your neighborhood that are more friendly or your condo association to get parts to try and put solar panels on top of your condo association.

Once you're involved in this level, I think you found a pathway to educate yourself about other parts of these issues. And they're almost all about things that everybody agrees on. Let's have more comfortable homes, let's have more comfortable offices. Let's not waste so much. These are not difficult values. I don't think that there's gonna mean that there's some kind of paradise of agreement on all levels, but I think that there's a substantial body of overlap that can be exploited and used for things that everybody's comfortable with.

In the United States, which is terribly divided is one thing everybody loves. It's solar power. Everybody loves it. And, you know, the biggest solar power and wind power installations in the United States are in Texas, which is a very conservative place. These government is officially mocks, you know much of the ideas behind climate change, but everybody likes wind power, everybody likes solar power.

David Elikwu: Yeah. Before I let you go, I wanted to ask you about two articles that you've written about in the past. I think they were both paywalled, so I couldn't look at them, but they seemed like it very interesting issues. So one was in The Atlantic, it was about, while you've been putting fluoride in our water for about 75 years, and I think you were trying to make the case that we should change something about that. And then the other was in the Wall Street Journal, which was about why we should start planting chestnut again.

Charles C. Mann: Okay. So one of the things is a science writer, you periodically get nut letters. One of the types of nut letters that I've gotten for 20 years now are saying, "Why don't you look at fluoridation in the water." And I always thought this was completely crazy. Cause it's absolutely unmistakably true that fluoride in the water leads to you know, better outcomes for people's teeth. And it's absolutely miserable to be an adult with bad teeth. So I finally did look at it. And I was very surprised to find that almost all the studies that had been done on the impacts of fluoride water were done before. There's fluoride and toothpaste, and when you're drinking is water, you're sort of flooding your whole body with fluoride, which is after all not good for you to get the small amount in your teeth. And when you're doing fluoride toothpaste you're putting the fluoride directly on the surfaces, so it's obviously much more efficient. So it seems to be like a completely open question, is the fluoride in your toothpaste better than fluoridating water? And it's expensive to fluoridating water.

The second thing I was quite surprised is the inadequacy of the safety studies that they were also done in the 1950s and they were done under, we now know much better how to do those kinds of studies. In fact there's a whole group of Oxford epidemiologists beginning with Richard Doll and going on to Richard Petto and the people you have there now who spent decades figuring out the best way to accomplish this kind of studies. And suffice it to say none of those Oxford rules were followed in the 1950s, cause they hadn't been in, in invented yet. So I was surprised at the extremely slim evidentiary base that we have, that the levels that we're using now are actually safe. And by safe, I don't mean safe free, you and me, but there's always gonna be people who are extra sensitive to something for some reason or another. Or people who just drink enormous amounts of it. There's always people who are out on margins and we don't really know whether it's levels we have now are, safe for them. It was surprising to me to discover that we don't know whether it's necessary cause you know, maybe it's better to just give everybody in school little things of fluoride toothpaste.

And we don't know if it's safe for, everybody. And so my article was to say, wow, this is surprising. Maybe the nuts have a point here and we should really examine this.

By the way it doesn't mean fluoride is dangerous, and it doesn't mean it's ineffective. It just means that we don't know as as well as we thought we did.

David Elikwu: Yeah. funnily enough, I think that applies quite broadly.

Charles C. Mann: Yeah, we know less than we think we do. And in fact, one of the best institutions in the UK I think is the Cochrane collaboration which is this body of medical professionals, you know, quite large, that tries to say, what do we actually know about you know, this or that medical problem?

Why do we think that this or that is good? And often these things get hardened into our patterns of behavior and thought in the society. And the evidence for them, especially when you look back, isn't that good. And one of the first things they did is there's a thing called a "Episiotomy" which is, when women are giving birth the birth canal isn't big, they slash the woman open. And it was completely routine that a woman would be cut very deeply to facilitate the birth. And they, one of the first things they studied was, well, is this actually necessary after all, slashing this woman in this, this day? And it turned out there was basically no evidence that this was necessary. It was just something that had gotten embedded into doctor's practice. And there's a ton of those things, as you say, in the world where just something gets embedded into the way we do things. And there's simply, if you look back, you think, whoa, why did they decide to do that? That's not good evidence.

Second thing that you asked about was the chestnut piece and this is a personal interest of mine. The American chestnut is relative to the European chestnut and the Chinese chestnut. It's a wonderful tree. speaking as a patriotic American, I think it's actually better tasting than the European chestnut. I'm sorry. You guys have inferior chestnuts and

David Elikwu: I have to tase it and find out the the difference.

Charles C. Mann: Yeah, they're, they're, they're smaller and sweeter and they're incredibly productive. The old story was that a poor family that had a chestnut tree had food for the year. They could make chestnut flour and, and chestnuts have been monotonous, but it would be nutritious. 1904 a disease came over that it had affected European chestnuts and European and chestnuts had adapted to chestnut blight. And it essentially completely destroyed the American chestnut. And since at the time something like one out of every forest species, one of every four trees in the eastern forest, which is the forest east of the Mississippi, where chestnuts have led a huge ecological hole and there's now efforts to bring it back. One of them led initially by Norman Borlaug who in addition to, you know, doing all this other stuff I mentioned, found time to help found the American Chestnut Foundation, which was breeding American chestnuts with resistant Chinese chestnut. And then what they call back crossing, where you, you breed them together and so they're 50 50 mixes. Then you expose them to the blight and then the ones that survive you then breed back to American Chestnut, the ones that survive, keep going on. And now they're on their seventh generation or something like that. And so I was saying that they're both great trees and they should be, should be around, but also they represent a sort of form of resilience.

And this is also the part I think is relevant for your yours and listeners in Europe. In that the chestnut flour, is really good for wheat is used for all kinds of purposes that aren't making delicious croissants, right? You buy soy sauce, it's got wheat in it. You know, there's all kinds of things that wheat is used to for including pig farm, pig fodder and, you know, and so forth. And you can do chestnuts for most of those as well. And so you can take some of the pressure off of European you know, the world's wheat farmers and now take these largely abandoned forests in Europe and put some chestnuts in them, give people economic incentive and you could be a real win-win situation that would help for resilience and climate change.

So that was, that was my argument in the Wall Street Journal.

David Elikwu: Sure. I love that. I think that part just reminded me of, again, it goes back to this idea of how these small intricacies in the ecology, whether that's through animals or through the plant ecosystem, just have these massive impacts that you can easily underrate. I think there was two examples that came to mind.

One was with wolves, I think. So from memory, pretty much since the 1960s or 1970s, or perhaps even before that, there were no more American wolves. They're actually extinct. All the wolves that you find in America are actually from Canada. They immigrated across the border. And so all the wolves in America are actually originally from Canada, but they have like slightly different feeding habits. And so it's interesting seeing how that then manifests in changes of the populations of different animals where the wolves typically hang out.

And then the other example I was thinking of was the banana and how the banana, well, the most popular type of banana went extinct. The Gros Michel Banana The Cavendish, yeah.

Yeah, used to be what everyone ate, but then there was Panama disease. And so all of those pretty much disappeared. And so that's why now we all eat a different type of banana. Yeah, these are the ecological things that most people easily overlook, right? You go to the store and you see a banana and you think that's a banana, and you don't think about how some of these small things, and this goes back to maybe some of the wizard things where, you know, some of the innovations that we've been able to make.

Oh, actually one thing I might ask you about in a moment is C4 rice. But just this idea that some of the small changes that we can make to the foods that we eat can allow plants to live for longer. It allows us to eat bananas. It allows us to eat chestnuts and all of these things that we can underappreciate simply because they're so available.

Charles C. Mann: And, you know, often these systems are the way they are as, as I mentioned for these arbitrary decisions that weren't particularly well founded. They're embedded in the system and one of them is that, bananas typically to come into place like, England or, or Massachusetts, where I live. They have to be inspected and there are standards for their inspection. And in many places there's, cause there's dozens and dozens of different types of bananas, many of the types of bananas that are grown and are perfectly healthy don't happen to fit the standards that were set up by people in Massachusetts who had no idea what kind of bananas there were other than the ones that were already in stores.

And so you have a system that for no particular reason, is geared towards the production of one single type of banana, which one single type of a single species, which has grown clonally and makes them incredibly vulnerable to diseases. Whereas if you had a somewhat more open agricultural inspection system. You could grow multiple types of bananas and possibly get yourself some insurance against these diseases through diversity.

David Elikwu: Okay. Could you tell me briefly about C4 Rice before I let you go?

Charles C. Mann: Yeah. Well that's an example of the wizards solution is, you know, a direct line from Borlaug as you probably know, photosynthesis is this amazing thing that all life depends on, and it's the ability of plants to convert water and carbon dioxide and light. Into sugars that then make up, you know, the plant food and the proteins and so forth.

This extraordinary thing happened, there's a character in the book named Lynn Marli who did, you know, some of the figuring it out. It's an absolute extraordinary event where some of the first tiny single cell forms of life incorporated other forms of life into them. And you know, all the plants today, their green plants still have evidence for this. So this is an amazing thing, but it's also wildly inefficient. I mean, staggeringly inefficient plants convert much less than 1% of the light that falls on them into the sugars and starch as grow. They, they're, a particular catalyst an enzyme they call that's involved called Rubisco. And it's one of the most inefficient, bad, incompetent enzymes known. And so there's been a number of workarounds that plants have developed, and so they're, the basic photosynthesis is the same, but there's ways that plants have developed to prime the pump in a way. Because they are invent, they've discovered by botanists have really unimaginative names like C3 and C4 and so forth. The common type of photosynthesis, sort of, Joe Blow photosynthesis in C3 photosynthesis. But I don't know if you've ever been to a lawn. I think you guys have this you know what crab grass is?

David Elikwu: Yes.

Charles C. Mann: And you've mowed your lawn and there's some of the plants that grow much faster than the ones you want. Those are the, it's invariably the weeds that grow so fast. And then your grass is just there, that the, you end up with the lawn that where the weeds are more prominent than the grass itself. Those weeds, particularly crab grass that are typically C4 plants, and they just simply have slightly more efficient or slightly less inefficient photosynthesis. Now, C4, this mechanism has arisen something like 80 times independently in the plant kingdom, so evolution heavily favors it.

The idea is that most green plants therefore have the precursors, the building blocks to make this kind of photosynthesis it's just, not all of them, they get developed it. And so the idea is that we could make rice that has this genetically engineering rice, so to speak, with its own genes, create rice that grows faster with this slightly less inefficient method of photosynthesis. And that would be C4 rice. And there's an international project headquartered in the Philippines where there's this amazing Rice Research Institute and Oxford and in England and funded by the Gates Foundation and so forth. And that would be a example of what we're talking about

David Elikwu: I'm very interested to see, you know, we talked about how the benefits of potatoes for Europe and we talked about how wheats changed well first of all, Mexico, then the U.S, then India, and I'm interested to see what Rice does for the rest of the world as, as well.

Charles C. Mann: Yeah. I hope this is helpful to you and useful to your audience. I mean, that's the whole purpose of trying to be the kind of journalist that I am.

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.

Share this post