May 18, 2021
EP. 105 — The Truth about the Americas in 1491 with Charles C. Mann
This week Adam welcomes an author whose book blew his mind more than perhaps any other. Americans are typically taught that prior to the arrival of European settlers, indigenous communities were sparsely populated, lacked technology, and did little to shape the natural landscape. But as this week’s guest Charles C. Mann’s 1491 tells Adam, the most recent research reveals that the American indigenous civilizations were sophisticated, dynamic, and massively populated. Purchase his books 1491 and 1493 at http://factuallypod.com/books.
105 — The Truth about the Americas in 1491 with Charles C. Mann
Speaker 1 [00:00:02] Hello there, welcome to Factually, I’m Adam Conover. You know, when I think about what I do (which I do often) I sit there going, ‘What the hell do I do? What do you call this fucking job?’ Here’s what I think it is. What I try to do is; I read something. I experience something. I learn something that changes the way that I see the world in fundamental ways and knocks me off my chair going ‘What the fuck? Everything is different now.’ And then I try to tell it to you through comedy. That’s it. That’s the long and the short of it. That’s what ‘Adam Ruins Everything’ was. That’s what this podcast is. That’s what my standup is. That is what I do. Well, today, I would like to tell you about one of the most mind blowing things I ever learned. This revelation to me, I still marvel at when I think about. It is so enormous that it changed the way that I think about the place I live in, the continent that I live in, the way I relate to other people, the way I think about my society. It is truly massive and here it is. If you grew up like I did, I grew up as a white kid on Long Island in the nineties, taking history class, what you learned (what I learned) about the ‘pre-history’ (I’m using scare quotes there) of the Americas is that before Columbus there were a couple civilizations in Central and South America. Maybe you heard about the Aztecs or whatever, but apart from that it was just Indians hanging out in the woods not doing much with the space. Just a couple of people here are there and a lot of trees and empty valleys and stuff that white European settlers could just come in and make use of. That is the version that we were taught about. I learned about the Americas before Columbus as an untrammeled wilderness, an empty place and that is a grotesquely incorrect picture. When I finally learned (in my early fuckin 30’s) is that is entirely wrong. New scholarship has demolished this idea of the Americas as a depopulated, empty continent. A recent study that collected decades of work on the topic estimates that there were actually around 60 million people in the Americas at the time of Columbus, 60 million. For reference, the population of Europe at the time was just between 70 and 88 million. So the Americas were basically on par with Europe in terms of population. This was not an empty continent. This landscape was teeming with people. And not only that, the civilizations in the Americas were advanced and dynamic. The Incas created a network of roads as many as 37,000 miles long. This was a couple centuries before Eisenhower did it. The Incas were building roads everywhere. Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, had hundreds of thousands of people making it as large as many of the capitals of Europe and plus it has (did I mention this?) pyramids. London ain’t got no pyramids. And not only that, the people of the Americas were incredibly diverse. In North America alone, there were upwards of 300 distinct languages spoken. So put it all together. We got people, we got cities, we got roads. We got advanced learning and education. How did the story that we tell each other today end up being so incredibly wrong? Well, here’s what happened. After Columbus, successive waves of illness and disease brought to the Americas by Columbus and explorers like him swept across the countryside. The people that lived here had little to no immunity to these diseases. And as a result, they killed up to 90 percent of the population of the Americas. Yeah, 90 percent, as in almost every one. This was a complete cataclysm, the death toll is almost unimaginable. To give you some perspective, it was the largest human die off in history until World War II centuries later. In fact, there were so many deaths after the European arrival that the temperature of the earth decreased as a result because a huge amount of farmland was retaken by natural vegetation and became a carbon sink. So many people died that it literally altered the temperature of the earth. But here’s the wildest part, there was a gap. Those deaths occurred in the gap between when the earliest explorers like Columbus came to the Americas and when the settler colonizers came decades later. So the earliest European visitors reported seeing shores that were teeming with people, land that was full of civilization. But decades later, when a newer generation of colonizers arrived they found land that had many, many less people in it. The accounts of those colonizers were the ones that were widely disseminated and read, when in fact it was European germs that killed upwards of 50 million people right before those colonizers arrived. And this notion was perpetuated due to a self-serving and racist colonial myth that seems to say, ‘Hey, there were hardly any Native Americans here. So, you know, they weren’t really using the land. There weren’t that many of them anyway. So let’s just come in and make our own homes, right? There’s plenty of room on this continent, ha ha ha. Plenty of empty space for us Europeans to come in to and build our buildings and plant our shit everywhere. It’s the empty, untrammeled wilderness. It’s ripe for the taking.’ When, in fact, the people who perpetuated that myth (in many cases) knew quite well that there were people here. It’s erasure, pure and simple. Now, this revelation rocked my world. It gave me a stark new way to look at the very ground that I stand on. Learning about this is like learning that dinosaurs never actually existed or that the Earth doesn’t really revolve around the sun, that’s just a myth that Copernicus made up because he was being sponsored by the round Earth lobby, which is actually what a lot of Flat Earthers think. That one’s false, OK, but this one is true. It completely re contextualized everything that I thought I knew about the place that I live in. I read about this in an incredible book called ‘1491,’ and this book didn’t originate this research but it did the incredibly important job of reviewing it, surveying it, writing it up into a format that a layperson like me could read and understand and underlined the importance and the revelations that this new perspective gives us. That is the work of truly great science journalism. It takes the research and uses it to help us see the world in a new way. Well, I am so proud and excited to say that on the show today, we have the author of ‘1491.’ Charles C Mann is one of the foremost science journalists working today, and he’s the author not just of ‘1491’ but the follow up ‘1493’ and most recently ‘The Wizard and the Prophet.’ His work has meant a great deal to me and I could not be more thrilled to have him on the show. Let’s get right to the interview. Please welcome Charles C Mann. Charles, it’s so wonderful to have you.
Speaker 2 [00:07:14] It’s my pleasure to be with you.
Speaker 1 [00:07:16] I’m so thrilled to have you. I’ve been a fan of your work for a very, very long time. Your book ‘1491,’ which I know is a number of years in the past for you now, but was a huge revelation for me in the way that I thought about the world and the continent that I live on. I’ve been trying to figure out where to start because your work covers so much ground. You wrote a piece for The Atlantic last June that I thought tied together some threads where you were writing about the pandemic and a line really jumped out at me that I thought might be an interesting starting point, which was you wrote that ‘for Native Americans, the epidemic era actually lasted for centuries.’ And I wondered if you could expand on that thought for a bit for us.
Speaker 2 [00:08:00] Sure. By a bunch of historical circumstances that we can talk about, if you’re curious, when Europeans arrived in the Americas (after Columbus and so forth) there were very, very few epidemic diseases. There were very few diseases that one person could give another in the hemisphere at that time. And so one way to think about the first 150 or so years of American history is to say that all the diseases that have been killing off people in Europe and Asia and Africa for thousands and thousands of years were suddenly dumped on the Americas. They were carried over by the Spanish ships and the English ships and the result was that somewhere between two thirds and 90 percent of the original inhabitants of the Americas died. It was the worst demographic catastrophe in the history of the world and it kept going on. The Comanches had done everything; they kicked out the Spaniards, they kicked out the Texans, they kicked out the Americans. Smallpox comes in and basically does them in. And that’s in the 19th century. And up until the 30s, plagues were killing off Native Americans because they did not have these exposure to the diseases for centuries and centuries and centuries, the way that Europeans and Asians and Africans did. And so in a certain horrible way for Indian Country, this is nothing new.
Speaker 1 [00:09:24] Yeah. I mean, this revelation from ‘1491,’ this is where I first encountered it, that the population of North America was vastly, vastly higher than our popular image of it. Than what I was taught in school, than any sort of television or movie depiction of what North America was like. And that disease had wiped out most of the people there before most European settlers even arrived, the earliest explorers brought it. They wiped out how many hundreds of millions of people, an incredibly large number of people, potentially
Speaker 2 [00:09:59] Incredibly large. I mean, it’s really hard to know how many, right, because you’re looking at a bank account that’s been robbed and trying to guess how much money used to be there. So you can’t really know. But the typical estimates now are that there were somewhere around 40 to 60 million people in the Americas at the time that Columbus hit. I should note that these estimates keep rising a little bit. But one way to think about that is that they’re roughly as many people in Europe as there was in the Americas at the time of Columbus. And that picture really dramatically changed over the next couple of centuries.
Speaker 1 [00:10:31] But this is a truth that, you wrote this book in 2005, or that’s when it was published and it was based on research that was going on, I assume, for years before that and it’s only solidified more now. Yet the truth of that is something that we still have trouble internalizing. There hasn’t been a mass change in consciousness of what North America was like among those of us who now live here. And I don’t know, there seems to be a problem of – even when we revise our notion of the past, integrating that into our understanding of the present even vis a vis the pandemic.
Speaker 2 [00:11:14] Yeah, and also you see things like – For thousands and thousands of years, native people manage the Western landscape by burning it. There is a huge amounts of it, they even have a name for it; TEK: traditional ecological knowledge, and there are techniques for burning this landscape in such a way as to make it productive and livable. And the people died from epidemics and then followed by wars and mistreatment and all the other horrible things that then happened and none of that knowledge was taken up by the US government. And so we comprehensively mismanaged the forests of the West for 100-150 years and the results are what we now have in California. If we truly understood that these landscapes had been thoroughly inhabited by people who figured out how to live there, we might not have made these beginner’s mistakes.
Speaker 1 [00:12:12] Thank you. I thank you for talking to me about this. Even though, again, this is work that you first started diving into over 15 years ago because – and I read the book years ago, but every time I think about the revelations from this book I’m stunned again every time they come to me. Do you experience that? Are you in that state of astonishment about this as you think about it?
Speaker 2 [00:12:40] Yeah, it’s really, really hard to overcome what you learned in childhood and I probably learned the same thing you did in childhood. I can even recall my textbooks saying that the eastern forest was so big and dense that a squirrel could jump from Cape Cod to the Mississippi just on the branches of the trees. This was in my textbook. I just thought, ‘Wow, this forest dark and deep.’ It never occurred to me that of course that would be a horrible place to live. There’s no sunlight there, you couldn’t grow corn, you couldn’t do anything there. And in fact, people didn’t live there like that. There was huge patches of big cleared land and this was recorded by the colonists. But when the native people were killed off by disease and mistreatment and all the other things that we talked about, the forest grew back. And so somebody like Thoreau was looking at what was basically a cemetery. The lands had gone feral and he thought had always been that way, and this is just deeply lodged in my mind as well and (for obvious reasons) a lot of native people get pissed off about it.
Speaker 1 [00:13:47] Yeah just that revelation that so much of what we think of as the white colonial experience and those writers, Thoreau or earlier settlers who would write down, ‘Ah look at this primeval forest that nobody lives in,’ they were experiencing a relatively new development of forest that had grown back because all of these people had suddenly disappeared and they missed it. They showed up just after this happened and they thought that they were seeing something that was ages old. That’s incredible.
Speaker 2 [00:14:20] And actually and it’s a sort of the founding myth of (unfortunately) the environmental movement. You see it in things like the Wilderness Act of 1963, which is dedicated to preserving what is it, ‘the lands untrammeled by the hands of man?’ I think is the language and in the preface, and it’s actually taking places that were heavily inhabited, heavily modified and heavily settled by the original people and (I think inadvertently) writing them out of history. Erasing them and it’s bad because it’s not true and it’s also bad because it means that we’ve comprehensively mismanaged so much of the land as a result of this myth. There’s a geographer named William Denevan who calls it the ‘pristine myth’ and I think that’s a pretty good term for it.
Speaker 1 [00:15:13] Yeah. Even beyond those negative consequences, it also means we’re not doing the thing that we think we’re doing. When you go to one of the great national parks in the United States and you say, ‘Ah, we preserved this land.’ We said, ‘No one’s going to build anything here. We’re going to keep this the way it’s always been.’ That’s neglecting the fact that we (including people like John Muir, founder of the American conservation movement) kicked out the native people who were living there and by doing so transformed the land. We’re actually seeing a landscape that we created in the last few hundred years. We’re not seeing a preserved little corner of ‘this is how it always was.’
Speaker 2 [00:15:55] That’s particularly true even for places like Yosemite. Muir went there and he thought – and it’s beautiful. I mean, it is beautiful. But he didn’t understand that the beauty he was seeing was because it was a garden. It was a tended landscape, ‘artificial’ if you want to use that kind of language. He saw the people living there who had been living there forever and ever and ever, and he thought they were squatters and that they shouldn’t be doing this because they were doing stuff that was messing around with nature. And in fact, the Park Service made a concerted effort to kick them out and I don’t think the last indigenous people were kicked out of Yosemite until the middle of the 20th century. So there is this decades long shoving them out of their home process that really gives you a bad taste in the mouth. Now, when you go to Yosemite.
Speaker 1 [00:16:45] Tell me a little bit about how this, you said what’s happening in California now – I assume you mean the devastating fires that we had last year and will continue to have, which of course climate change plays a piece in this. But how does this mistake that we’re talking about here cause that problem?
Speaker 2 [00:17:03] Well, if you go to the far northeast corner you have the Klamath River, which runs down from southern Oregon and then goes through the mountains and ends up in the Pacific. And you have these people who’ve lived there for a really long time, the Kuruc, the Erok and the Hoopa and several other nations. They’re still here right now, even though California might have the single worst record of all the 50 states for treating its indigenous population. There’s a book that came out a few years ago about California’s treatment of its natives by a guy named Masden. It’s called – it’s got an unfortunately appropriate title. It’s called ‘American Genocide.’ So these guys; they were given reservations. There was a treaty signed and so forth and then the state of California didn’t want them to have any land. California was sort of up for grabs, this is in the 1850’s and 1860’s whether they were going to be a slave state or so forth. And to appease California, they hid the treaty. So they literally hid the treaties for decades and the result is they didn’t get any land and when they tried to manage the land in the way that they had for thousands of years, they’re arrested or shot or jailed or what have you. There’s tons of records of these guys. And what were they trying to do? They are trying to do preventive burning. They were trying to burn the landscape to prevent the fuel from building up. There are whole elaborate techniques that they had developed for preventing themselves from being burned out. Then they were arrested, so this didn’t happen. And so, there is a place in California called Happy Camp which is a largely indigenous settlement. They got burned out this year, even though the people in it, the Erok and Kuruc and so forth, have been begging the Forest Service for decades (literally decades) to let them burn the land preventively. And it was awful and this has happened again and again and again in California.
Speaker 1 [00:19:16] California is always one of the places where America’s problems seem to almost coalesce and become malignant in a way and collect, California is the repository of all these things. My understanding is that without that controlled burning, that allows undergrowth to to rise up which is much more flammable and that leads to bigger fires.
Speaker 2 [00:19:40] Right, and it’s a pretty simple process. There were, in fact, Forest Service guys back at the beginning of the 20th century in the 19-teens and 20’s who saw this. And they said, ‘No, we should not have this policy putting out of all forest fires. We should allow for burning.’ And there was a big fight within the Forest Service against these guys, and they were called ‘piyute burnings’ because ‘piyute’ apparently meant primitive or bad or something. This was a slam and so they lost, and instead the Forest Service inaugurated what’s been called a ’10 A.M. policy,’ which is that every fire started in a forest on day one should be out by 10 a.m. on the next day. And I think there’s a general recognition that this has been totally disastrous
Speaker 1 [00:20:39] Because if you squelch every fire, then there’s no room for a little fires to less damagingly burn away, what, like flammable material? And then when a fire does come, it’s enormous.
Speaker 2 [00:20:53] It’s enormous. And so what indigenous fires typically are, are in the spring when it’s wet and the temperatures are cool. Then there’s often rainfall in California and it gets wetter at the end of the day. So you light an area in the afternoon, the cool weather keeps the smoke down so there’s not nearly as much smoke. And then it goes out. And then they also have tricks like; fire burns better uphill than downhill. So you start the fire on the top of the hill and let it burn down because it burns more slowly. There’s all these tricks they know, this tech. I shouldn’t call them tricks because it’s actually experience and knowledge.
Speaker 1 [00:21:29] Technology.
Speaker 2 [00:21:30] When you have a master craftsman, you respect it. So I shouldn’t – technology. Yeah, it’s tech. They know all this stuff. And now typically what you have when you have wildfires is they burn when it’s hottest and driest, not when it’s wettest. And there’s no way to put them out and then they burn up high, they burn up and they’re call ‘crown fires.’ The tops of the trees keep burning instead of just being down in the leaf litter. Not only is that much more destructive but it also kills a bunch of trees, and those dead trees then become the fuel for the next fire.
Speaker 1 [00:22:05] It’s amazing how, looking at the history of North America, at the history that you’re talking about makes me see one of the biggest disasters that I’ve been living through – There were days where I couldn’t leave my home last year because of the wildfires that happen in California and we, here in Los Angeles, got far from the worst of it. Looking through the lens of history makes this event look completely different to me. I’m curious, just coming back to the pandemic to that opening question, do you feel you see the pandemic any differently because of your study of the epidemics that were so devastating to indigenous people in North America?
Speaker 2 [00:22:49] Well, if you think about it, one of the reasons that those epidemics were so devastating is that people who had grown up without any idea of communicable diseases were experiencing them. And there’s a memoir by a Piyute woman and there’s a sentence in there that really caught me. She said ‘We had no idea a person could pass a disease to another person any more than they could pass a wound to another person.’ You know, I cut my arm. I can’t give you that cut. Right? It’s an ailment and the whole idea of communicability is not there because there weren’t any communicable diseases. And so all your natural human reactions are working against you; smallpox comes into the village and somebody gets terribly sick. What do you do? The family gathers around that person and comforts them. And what do they do? They get the disease. They give it to their friends. Everybody panics because this horrible thing is happening. What do they do? They flee to the next village. What are they carrying? The disease. And so the logic of quarantine isn’t there. You’re seeing that now because we have so little experience with that. You’re seeing really crazy things in our own response to the pandemic that are basically from a lack of real understanding of how diseases spread. All the people who don’t put face masks on, all the people who want to get together at family gatherings for the holidays and become super spreader events or weddings or what have you. All of these human impulses are working against us. And it’s in a small way replicating exactly what happened hundreds of years ago when Europeans first arrived, except now we’re doing it to ourselves. And we haven’t learned a thing from the past.
Speaker 1 [00:24:42] I mean, it does strike me that – I’m not going to say it’s the first time it’s happened. I’m sure it’s happened many other times. But the degree to which white Europeans, the descendants of white Europeans of North America, are now being attacked by a pandemic rather than being the people who brought it somewhere else, there’s an irony to it.
Speaker 2 [00:25:12] Yeah, there’s an irony to it but the irony would be a little bit better if native people weren’t being hit so badly by it, like the Navajo and so forth. It was a a terror to the Lakota. Terrible suffering came from it. That’s not because of a lack of knowledge it’s because the health care available to indigenous people is just terrible. So many people there don’t have electricity and running water and heat. They’re just tremendously exacerbated by poverty which, of course, comes from this legacy of discrimination which has gone on for so long. So that there is this – you’re absolutely right that there’s this really unpleasant side effect. It’s actually very – there’s a small bit of good news on this. It’s been recognized in the Navajo now, in terms of just a group of people, they have more than half their populace now vaccinated. I think they’re ahead of everybody else in the nation.
Speaker 1 [00:26:18] Wow. It really can’t be understated, though, how much pandemics like this change the course of history. You wrote again, in this Atlantic piece that ‘historians have seldom noted the connection between measles and the presidency of Barack Obama,’ I really love that line. Can you share that story?
Speaker 2 [00:26:35] Well, it is an amazing story. Basically, Hawaiian islands if you think about it, they’re place again with very, very few epidemic diseases. They just hadn’t come there. The result was that when Europeans came over there on their ships, they brought these diseases. This is again, before the germ theory of disease. They knew about disease but they didn’t know what it was or how really to stop it. The problem with the islands that made it even worse was that there’s nowhere to go, right? You can’t flee. You can’t go to the next state. And so the islands beset by this, they’re also very worried about the United States taking them over: the native Hawaiians. And so the king and queen of Hawaii made this plan to forestall this by formally allying with Britain. And by doing this, they were going to gain the protection of Britain. So they went on this long voyage from Hawaii over to Europe in the 1870’s and were about to sign this alliance when in this horrible, ironic fashion; they went to Europe and they got sick. They got measles and they died. That blew up that plan. The United States did take over Hawaii exactly as they had feared. And lo and behold, there is Barack Obama coming from Hawaii to end up as president of the United States.
Speaker 1 [00:28:10] I mean, it’s such an incredibly sad story with that. That’s a light at the end of the tunnel, if you want to find a positive takeaway at the end of a story of incredible destruction and death of an entire culture. Not that Hawaiian culture is gone, but the amount of life lost was massive.
Speaker 2 [00:28:37] Yeah, and if you’re looking at indigenous groups today you can think of them as surviving a level of loss that is just inconceivable to those of us who aren’t in those groups. These are people who within historical memory lost 30, 40, 50 percent of their people and then were terribly treated. They find you and you’re dazed and bleeding after being beaten up, and someone says, ‘Oh, let’s rob this poor guy.’
Speaker 1 [00:29:14] You have an incredibly deep knowledge of native history in North America and I think beyond that, around the world. How did you come to study that topic? I’m also curious about how you feel as a white man studying this topic. Like, is there is there ever a conflict for you or is there a perspective that you feel that you bring to it?
Speaker 2 [00:29:46] Well, first, I got interested because when I was very little I moved from Michigan to an area around Seattle and it didn’t take much to notice that we were living right next to a bunch of Indian reservations. There’s twenty eight, I think, reservations in the state of Washington. And some of these folks were – they were around. I come from this really sort of uber WASP-y family. Like, I have ancestors on both sides of my family there were actually literally on the Mayflower. This is sort of what my parents were fleeing actually, to come to Seattle where that wouldn’t matter. Even as a kid, I was sort of used to this idea of ‘I come from an old family,’ and I looked at these guys and I thought, ‘No, I didn’t, I’m a newcomer.’ And then – I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the art of the Pacific Northwest, but it’s just amazing
Speaker 1 [00:30:44] Incredible.
Speaker 2 [00:30:45] It’s beautiful and even as a kid, I could tell this is really great stuff. And it was really different and it was organized, I would now say, on aesthetic principles that are completely different from European aesthetic principles. But I didn’t really do much of that, I just knew that they were interesting and important people until as a young adult and a science writer I went to Yucatán and I saw the Mayan ruins. I’d been to Greece and Roman and I thought, ‘Oh, wait a minute, these are these ruins are bigger.’ And to my inexpert eye they look just as impressive. I thought, ‘Wait a minute. In my high school we talked about Greece and Rome,’ which I think we should. ‘But I don’t know if the word ‘Mayan was even mentioned, and this is my own hemisphere.’ I just started getting curious and you know the way it is if you’re at all freelance: one thing leads to the next. To answer your second question, I didn’t think ‘Oh, you know, I’m not a white guy.’ I’m like the pastiest white guy you saw. You know, super waspy. In my inexpert way I wondered, ‘Should I do this?’ And I talked to a guy early on named Russell Thornton, who was actually at UCLA, Cherokee guy, really, really excellent guy. And so I unburdened myself, got it off my chest. And he said, ‘Well, I’ll give you some advice.’ He said, ‘A whole lot of white people forget that the people that they’re writing about are human beings. So if you just keep that in mind, you’ll probably be OK.’ And it’s really true. I don’t want to hold up myself as any kind of exemplar because I’m certainly not. But I can say that as I read stuff, quite often it occurs to me that the writer (who looks like me) hasn’t realized that native people are in the room. I was just talking to a guy about, there’s a – I hate to pick out a guy as a stick to beat with but I’m going to do it anyway, I guess. There’s a guy named Gwinn who wrote a – Pulitzer nominated? Pulitzer winning? I forget – history of the Comanche and of Kana Parkour; this amazing guy who is one of the major figures, called ‘Empire of the Summer Moons.’ I think Brad Pitt or somebody is making a movie of it. If you just read it, it’s talking about how right in the beginning it talks about how the Comanche had held back civilization and these people were the last untamed, literally using that word, Indians in there. Commance are actually reading this and their thinking, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute, we’re a civilization.’ And ‘What what the heck? I’m tamed, I’m now tamed?’ You know, who’s going to like that? And you can say what you’re talking about but remember that they’re in the room. Luckily for me, I’m sure there are native people who absolutely hate that I’ve written and hate everything I stand for but they’ve been kind enough not to tell me.
Speaker 1 [00:34:12] How do you think of yourself when you’re diving into these topics? Because sometimes I think of, again as another white person, I think ‘I’m the ignorant person, I grew up as a white kid on Long Island, hearing the same stories as everybody else.’ And I hope that by engaging on a voyage of discovery and publicly modeling it and being astonished by what I find, I can help draw other people from ignorance to knowledge because there’s other ignorant people like me who kind of need to hear it. That’s sometimes what I think my role is. Maybe there’s white people out there who are more likely to listen to another dumb white guy when he’s like, ‘Oh, shit, I just learned this stuff.’ You know what I mean? That’s what I hope I can have the role of, because I’m fascinated by these topics as well but you’re doing on the ground research. You’re talking to native experts and doing these sorts of things. And I don’t know, is there anything that you do in particular to make your role fit for you and do it in a way that is, as you say, respectful?
Speaker 2 [00:35:24] I guess I try to indicate that I’m really interested in hearing what they have to say and that it may affect what I do and how I write. The other thing – I think is going to sound hopelessly hokey but it’s one of those things where you actually believe the hopelessly hokey thing. I think that a really good book is on some level an act of generosity. You know that you’re trying to approach it in a generous fashion. Years ago I saw Penn and Teller, the magicians, and they said ‘Don’t think of us as these big experts. Think of us as this these ordinary guys who learned a couple of cool things and want to show them to you because they’re so cool.’ And that’s how I sort of think. I got a chance to meet these amazing people and they have told me really, really cool things. And the other thing is that a native person who is 75, say, has had extraordinary things happen in their life. There’s an incredible store of hundreds of thousands of people out there with amazing stories. And it’s a privilege when from time to time they’ll let me listen to them. So I just feel really grateful about the whole business and I’m very happy to try to share it. It’s hokey, I know.
Speaker 1 [00:37:01] It’s not at all. I think that’s a very fundamental human trait. That’s a lot of what I do as an entertainer, is I learned something and I thought, ‘That’s amazing. I want to tell other people.’ And that’s such an honest emotion to have that other people respond to it when that is the basis of your work. That’s really cool that you feel similarly.
Speaker 2 [00:37:25] I’ve been, just for this project I’m doing, reading about Chako Canyon which is this enormous site that’s in the Southwest (not all that far from you guys) in New Mexico. The details that the archeologists find, especially now in the last few years when they’ve been much more interested in working with native people about recovering what life was like for those people. You can just get this little picture I and just – and I just had to gasp. Literally yesterday as I was writing this, thinking ‘this is going to be so much fun for people to read because I had so much fun learning it.’
Speaker 1 [00:38:02] And before we go to break, this new book that you’re working on, you were telling me before we started rolling that it’s a bit of a sequel to ‘1491’ about the American West. Just tells us, give us a little taste of it.
Speaker 2 [00:38:18] So this is the official version, the basic idea is that a little while ago my kids (I’m from the West) started mentioning, ‘Oh, it wouldn’t be fun for us to go back there?’ And I was sort of imagining what would it be like, this place that they’re going to be 20 years from now, 30 years from now, if they were to do that? And you can’t predict the future but there are some things that would be really strange if they didn’t happen. You can’t know who’s going to be president, but you can know that barring something really weird the West is going to be hotter and drier than it is now. Every study says hotter and drier. Even the Colorado River is experiencing it’s 11th bazillionth drought in the last however many years or whatever the number is. California looks like it’s going to have another drought. You hear this all the time, right? Hotter and drier. The other things you can say about it, whatever happens it’s going to be a center of energy, the center of the energy industry. You can also say it’s going to be a mixed up multicultural place. It’s going to have, 40 percent of its people are Hispanic origin or whatever the number is, 9-10 percent indigenous. There’s a whole bunch of Asians all along the Pacific Rim. I don’t know what the numbers are but the point is it’s a jumbled up, mixed up multicultural place. And the final thing is that since I was a kid, one of the clearest things that’s been happening is that the indigenous groups to the west (there’s I think 294 federally recognized tribes, I think that’s the number) have been recuperating their sovereignty. They going to be more and more like independent nations. And so think about this future 30 years from now with this hotter, drier, super complicated mosaic of ethnic groups that looks a lot more like the west of 800 or 1200 than it does the west of 1900. So in some ways, the distant past has more relevance now. Then I thought “What if I wrote a history of that west, the west that’s coming?’ and that’s the idea.
Speaker 1 [00:40:26] That’s amazing. I’m looking forward to that so much. I want to talk about some of your other work, but we’ve got to take a really quick break. We’ll be right back with more Charles C Mann.
Speaker 2 [00:40:42] I’m a real super print guy, so I don’t actually listen to that many podcasts but I have listened to you and I thought ‘This guy sounds sort of like me.’ Only I don’t think I sound as good. Basically, in the sense that I think of myself as sort of like my Labrador: mindless enthusiasm. That’s my stock and trade. I learn things and go ‘Well, that’s really cool.’
Speaker 1 [00:41:11] Incredible. I feel that way when I read your work, I feel like our brains work a little bit similarly in terms of what I’m interested in and the enthusiasm that I have for these topics. You’re also, I want to say, one of my favorite Twitter follows because – my guess is from reading you is that you spend a lot of time reading research, new studies that come out and you tweet when something strikes you as really fascinating. As opposed to people who tweet every angry thought that they have, every tweet of yours is like, ‘Oh, here’s something really interesting. Here’s a really fascinating new idea that just came out.’ How do you go about that?
Speaker 2 [00:41:55] I actually don’t think I have much to contribute in the discussion of whether Donald Trump is awful or not or all these other subjects. I just don’t think I have that much to say. But I can read scientific papers and every now – The great thing about it is; scientists are not allowed to write well. They’re punished if they do. So they’ll take something and it’s like they’re out to bore you. But then you tunnel in and you think ‘Holy crap, this is really interesting’ in all sorts of different ways. And so then I thought, ‘This is fun to share’ because I don’t actually think my personal opinions about most stuff is that interesting.
Speaker 1 [00:42:48] As we all are, you’re a lens through which you’re viewing this work. You have your interest and your understanding and then, you’re able to take it and hold it up for us and say, ‘Oh, I found this interesting’ in a way that is a little bit more intelligible. I’m not someone who can read habitually every day, read dense academic prose. I can when I’m motivated by a research project but it’s not my day job. You hold it up for me and I see it and I go, ‘Oh, wow. OK, this is interesting. Charles pointed out what is cool about this.’ And then maybe I take that and I do that to somebody else because you’re one of the people that I read.
Speaker 2 [00:43:25] Yeah, it’s like I read this so you don’t have to – I read a lot of really bad prose.
Speaker 1 [00:43:34] I often think of what I do, as in entertainment and television, as taking work from very good writers like yourself but a lot of the audience is not able to spend their evenings reading because they have kids. They’re very busy. They only have twenty two minutes at the end of a night to watch something. And so I take it and I make that final translation of ‘I read this so you don’t have to’ and turn it into television. As I look at all your work, I think there’s a connecting thread of our relationship with the natural world, as humanity. I mean, even as you’re writing about indigenous cultures and societies there’s that connection with how different cultures have managed forests and et cetera. I know that’s very much the theme of your book, ‘The Wizard and the Prophet.’ Do you feel that theme running through?
Speaker 2 [00:44:32] Sure, very much. I grew up in the 70s and the environmental movement was on board and I also grew up in a really beautiful place, a relatively rural part of – the exurbs of Seattle. So it’s been an overwhelming concern of mine, and I also think in a way that this particular time that we’re living in; it’s the biggest issue we have which is: are we going to figure out a way to live with our environment that doesn’t bite us in the ass and gives us a good place for our kids and grandchildren to live. And we’re going to be making these decisions in the next 20, 30, 40 years about what kind of place we’re going to be in and they’re going to resonate for centuries upon centuries. As a journalist, that’s the biggest story there is, I think. And so it’s something I keep thinking about a lot.
Speaker 1 [00:45:36] I recently had Elizabeth Colbert on to discuss her new book, ‘Under A White Sky,’ which I have not yet had the chance to read. But I’m familiar with her work and I had a really wonderful conversation with her. She has a really – I want to call it a ‘devastatingly clear eyed view’ of how we have altered the planet and our prospects for preserving it or reversing any of those alterations. I’m curious about what your overall view is about climate change or the project of changing the planet overall. Are you feeling optimistic or pessimistic? Where do you put yourself?
Speaker 2 [00:46:19] I guess – let me ask you a question. I’ll tell you what seems to me to be a really plausible scenario for 30 or 40 years from now: we blow past two degrees and we’re at like 2.5 degrees. OK, so a lot of bad stuff happens from that but right now there is 1.3 Billion people without electricity and 2 billion (maybe) without potable water. Those numbers are going down and it’s quite possible that same future will have hardly anybody without electricity, hardly anybody without running water. Is that a bad world or a good one?
Speaker 1 [00:47:05] I mean, I guess I want to know more about the prospects of – I want to know more about what that world looks like. Because how many people are being forced to move from where they live? Is Arizona still habitable?
Speaker 2 [00:47:20] Yeah, the answer is yes because we know that in a severe drought that lasted for a long, long time in the 12th century and then there is one in the 9th century. There’s been these mega droughts that have lasted for decades upon decades in Arizona and Chako Canyon was built in the middle of one. There are these fantastic irrigation systems in southern Arizona of the Hohokum where they were based on this sort of radically different idea about how we should deal with water. They we’re all built during these times when it was extremely hot and dry. So the answer is yes, it could be. It is going to be like it is now? No, but have people figured out how to tolerate and live decent lives in it? Yeah. And it’s again, a question obviously, if a single family is forced to move and become exiled because of climate change that’s a terrible tragedy that will shake that family forever. But suppose on a planetary level, when you have eight or nine billion people; one hundred million people over a space of 20 years are forced to move, but one point three billion people gain electricity at that time. I mean, how do you balance all that? I don’t know. But that seems to me a more accurate answer, is that really bad stuff and really good stuff will happen because that’s the way it’s always been in human history.
Speaker 1 [00:48:47] Making that calculation is, you have to do Peter Singer levels of ethical calculus to try to do it and even if you did, how would you know if you got the right answer? But you’re right. We have to judge those things – to answer your question. I don’t know how I feel about that future because, 2.5; let’s say that means that the coral reefs are lost and they wouldn’t have been if we had hit some arbitrary other number. I think, well, that’s bad because I love coral reefs and I do think we have a duty to protect the natural world and I do think it’s bad for a unique species biodiversity to be wiped out. But on the other hand, we have a moral obligation to each other and to the rest of humanity and to prevent human suffering and death, and it’s a difficult question to answer. I don’t think we should view it as a trade off, that we have to have one to have the other; that we have to kill the coral reef in order for those people to get electricity. I think that’s a false choice that is often pushed on us by those who don’t want us to preserve the environment and just want us to keep burning oil because we can buy more stuff that way.
Speaker 2 [00:50:02] Yeah, exactly, I think your moral duty is to do as much as you can to protect the coral reefs. I’m just saying if that was an outcome, how would you feel about it? And it’s a very complicated situation if you go (as I did for the research in ‘The Wizard and The Prophet’) to tribal areas in northeast India. People are really, really poor there. And to see what even a small amount of electricity can mean for people in that situation is really profoundly moving. To see families have these little solar panels and then they get lights and suddenly the can the kids can do their homework at night. The family I was visiting was making these things, these sort of home rolled cigarette-like things; bindis as a little bit of extra money that makes a huge amount of difference when you don’t have very much money. There were all kinds of things that were happening with just a little bit of electricity. And you think, ‘Yikes, how do you weigh what that means to those families versus the other things that are in question?’ I just don’t know.
Speaker 1 [00:51:20] So ‘The Wizard and The Profit,’ I have not been so lucky as to read this book yet, but it’s been on my list for a little while. I apologize. I’ve read two of your books, Charles, don’t be mad at me that I haven’t read every single one. But I read enough when the book came out about it to know that it’s about this conflict between who you call the ‘wizards’ and the ‘prophets,’ the folks who want us to cut back and the folks who say, ‘No, we can build better. We can invent new things that will improve lives.’ And I detected that distinction in your question, to a certain extent.
Speaker 2 [00:51:57] Exactly. It’s a sort of a hybrid book, which either means it’s a brilliant mash up or a complete mess. It’s a mixture of a dual biography of these two guys (who I think are really important and hardly anybody has heard of), one of them is slightly better known. One is a guy named Norman Borlaug and he’s the main figure in what’s been called the ‘Green Revolution,’ which is the mix of hybrid crops, irrigation and high intensity fertilizer that came in the 1960s and 1970s and doubled, tripled or even quadrupled grain yields throughout much of the world. He is a big part of the reason that people like Paul Erlik, when they wrote ‘The Population Bomb’ (these classics in the 1960s) they thought that there was going to be massive famines and ineffectively those famines didn’t happen. And so they see numbers around, like ‘Borlaug saved a billion lives’ and so forth. It’s always more complicated than that, but that’s the basic idea. He’s a really remarkable figure. The second guy, who’s truly obscure (in fact, I occasionally meet people who know who he is, and I’m completely shocked). This is a guy named William Vogt, and I see he’s ringing no bells and you’re like 99.9% of the people in the world. So this is like a really, really smooth move for me commercially, which is writing a biography of two people nobody’s ever heard of; both of whom are dead, even. And he is the guy who put together the ideas behind the modern environmental movement. The fundamental idea is called ‘carrying capacity,’ which is that there is a certain finite amount of use and consumption that people can do on Earth. And if we do more, if we surpass the limits set by natural systems; catastrophe is the result. And so we have to cut back and put on our cardigan sweaters and turn down the thermostat and all those kinds of things that you’ve heard. If you think about it, the two ideas: Borlaug’s which is that we can put on our science hats and produce our way out of a dilemma, we can make more and we can make more, better and Vogt’s idea; which is ‘No, that’s crazy. We have to cut back.’ They’re kind of the opposite from each other and Borlaug and Vogt hated each other. They only met once and they immediately didn’t get along and Vogt tried to get Borlaug shut down in this sort of half-assed way and that’s pretty much where the dialog has been ever since the day in 1946 when they met. You can think of it as two ends of a spectrum (or continuum or something like that) and of course nobody is perfectly one or perfectly the other, but it’s amazing how often they line up. If there’s a certain type of person who’s against nuclear power, who’s against GMOs, who’s in favor of large swaths of untrammeled wilderness. And then there’s these other people who want everybody to pack into cities and these high tech things, lots and lots of portable nukes powering everything and sending us to Mars. And they both think of themselves as environmentalists, right?
Speaker 1 [00:55:20] Yeah. Though here’s the thing; hearing you talk about it, that maybe those two strains are coalescing – for me a little bit. A while back we had a man named Saul Griffith on the show who’s an engineer who talks about how we can – not solve the climate crisis, but make our biggest strides in addressing the climate crisis if we massively electrify our grid, convert to sustainable energy sources, drive down the cost of solar (all those sorts of things) and that produces a world that is fundamentally better; where energy is cheaper, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Now that’s you could say that’s maybe a technocratic or pro capitalist, he’s a startup founder, all those sorts of things and that’s that kind of version of it. But that’s not that different from the Green New Deal approach, which is similarly the most strident environmentalists now saying, ‘No, we can actually create jobs and have a better economy if we take climate change really, really seriously.’ It seems like they’re sort of coming together in that approach to me.
Speaker 2 [00:56:33] A little bit, I think both sides would agree that one big part of the answer to climate change is electrifying everything and then generating that energy in a carbon free way. So far, everybody is on board with this. But there’s a whole other argument. This one side says, ‘Well, that simply can’t happen from solar and wind. It has to happen with nuclear and probably it’s going to need fossil fuels and we’re going to have to have something called carbon capture and storage’ which are these big plants that capture the CO2 and inject it into the ground. And all that involves big centralized facilities, feeding it out to to everybody which is sort of the model we now have because there’s been economies of scale and so forth. The other side says, ‘No, that’s anti-democratic. These institutions don’t care about you. What we need to have is these networked neighborhood level installations of solar and wind. Me and you swapping our power back and forth, all under our control. We’re all living much closer to the land.’ They’re so different, there’s such a gap between them that it’s ‘Yes, this will work’ and ‘I know that will never work.’ So there’s a big fight in there, even though you’re absolutely right. They both say to electrify everything and do it in a carbon free way. Now, is it impossible for people to find a common ground? No, it’s not like a law of physics or anything. I’m just saying that if you look at the history of the last 60, 70 years; this fight in different ways has been going on ever since Borlaug and Vogt. You see it in the food system. There’s a guy I know, terrific writer Mark Bittman. He’s just written a book ‘Animal, Vegetable, Junk.’ He’s terrific, and it’s about in his view, how giant agriculture has ruined the food system. The opponents will say, ‘Well that’s just crazy because what that is, is highly productive and it means we can use less land for agriculture and we should be doubling down on this and using genetically modified things.’ The ultimate goals to have a single square mile of hyper productive corn feed everybody in the country and have the rest of the country be wilderness. So there’s another area which that fight is going on, or in California where you have water where you have this tremendous fight between people who want to say, ‘No, we shouldn’t be having golf courses and lawns. We need to have xeriscaping and to live in a desert environment.’ Then other people saying, ‘No, let’s build all these giant desalination plants and power them by nukes.’ You know, California has twenty five plans for twenty five gigantic things, plus this huge thing where they’re going to take – I think it’s the Sacramento River and funnel it down south in another giant canal project. I think it’s the last non channeled river in California. There’s some huge project they want to build in the inner part of the state. That’s another part of that kind of fight. So it’s going on under your feet. It’s literally – there you are in Los Angeles. It’s your water that they’re fighting over. You should really pay attention to this.
Speaker 1 [00:59:54] Yeah, I don’t know about this one. I’m not going to ask you to choose a side because I feel like that would be inimical to your project and I feel like I know what your answer would be to that. My question is, is there a synthesis of those approaches? The cutback mentality I spoke about in the intro to our episode with Saul Griffeth, it’s sort of fundamentally self-defeating. People won’t do it. You can’t tell people just to live worse lives, with colder thermostats and it mathematically won’t solve the climate crisis even if we did that. And then on the other hand, the idea that, ‘Oh, we can continue growing at exactly the same rate,’ that we have to change nothing. We can continue. Exxon can keep having massive profits. The economy can keep growing by this amount every single year and we can solve climate change at the same time. People who are wedded to that idea tend to propose solutions like going to Mars or carbon capture, which are unproven, they’re trying to have their cake and eat it too in a way that when you look at it doesn’t actually pencil out. The research isn’t there, and really they’re just asking permission to keep doing what they’re doing and fuck future generations. So I look at them like, ‘At the end of the day, it seems like we need to synthesize these two views’ and find some sort of I don’t want to say a middle ground. But what is your view on that?
Speaker 2 [01:01:22] Again, this is not the laws of physics. So obviously you can synthesize them, it’s just a question of whether people will. What I was telling you before, I think, throughout this conversation was in the realm of fact. I was trying to tell you facts. So now you’re asking me, ‘could there be a synthesis?’ And we’re entering a different room and I’m just some guy. I’m just some guy at the coffee shop that you were unlucky enough to sit next to and we somehow got into this conversation. And because you’re so desperate for conversation after covid that you would talk to anybody, you’re here. I guess I think about it often in this: I talk to a demographer, really smart guy, once named Nathan Kivitz and he told me that when he came to scientific disputes like this, he thought, ‘What would happen if you granted each side their essential premise and what have you?’ So one side’s premise for nuclear power is that nuclear is safe, that it’s not going to kill anybody. And the other side’s premise is that it leads (quite naturally) to giant corporations and utilities that are completely unresponsive to democratic pressure and end up not giving a rat’s ass about the lives of the poor workers who have to get all the uranium and that sort of stuff. So what if you said both of those are true, that it’s safe but it has these issues. You know, again, I’m just the guy in the coffee shop here, I think ‘Well, what if you thought of nuclear power as a bridge fuel? What if we built small, easily decommissioned neighborhood (so to speak) nukes?’ They exist, in New York they have them right in Columbia University and Chicago, I think still has its own reactor; the one that Fermi built know back in the 40s. There’s all these small scale things now and those are under Democratic control. They’re right in the middle of big cities and they have not killed anybody. I’m looking at this – and the same thing is essentially true with all those nukes that power nuclear submarines, they’re fine. And so what if we did things like that on a scale and that gave us a little breathing room while we figured out solar and wind, which is still in its infancy. What if we had nukes and said ‘We’re going to build a bunch of these, they’re going to last 30 years or 40 years or whatever.’ The great merit of this idea is that whenever I have brought it up, everybody hates it
Speaker 1 [01:04:24] It makes nobody happy. But that’s what makes a good compromise, is one where no one’s happy.
Speaker 2 [01:04:33] Right. Here’s another example for agriculture. Agriculture is a big climate issue. There’s a whole host of issues around agriculture. Mark Bittman is completely right about – his book is very good.
Speaker 1 [01:04:49] I can’t wait to read it.
Speaker 2 [01:04:58] Yeah, and you think; whole bunch of people are very opposed to genetically modified organisms, to GM plants. So what if we, again, grant the two sides the best and say, ‘Look, these things can be regulated right. They are safe. They’re not going to kill you.’ The other side: ‘You’re absolutely right. This is feeding into a system that has enormously destructive environmental and social consequences.’ If you think about it, the research and agriculture (which is what GMOs are about) is concentrated in like five or six crops; wheat, rice, corn, the biggies. There are hundreds of other crops that are just completely ignored and a lot of them are way more beneficial in the climate point of view. I think particularly of tree crops, ‘arboraculture’ it’s called. It’s a big deal in the global south, in places like West Africa and in the Amazon, where there’s literally hundreds of tree crops that are completely wild, essentially. They are very, very difficult to develop by conventional breeding because they have such long generation times to breed them and then wait 10 years and then breed them. That’s why the American Chestnut Foundation is moving so slowly to bring back the American chestnut. What if you use that technology to develop tree crops, which use much less water, much less fertilization, provide shelter, and provide all kinds of other benefits and took places that are dry out, and you took places had this kind of arboraculture and you could also mix it, as is in the case in northern Mexico or much of West Africa with cattle. And there’s good reason to do that and use this technology to bring in more climate appropriate agriculture. This is another solution that everybody hates but I think that it might work. But remember, I’m just the guy at the coffee shop here right now.
Speaker 1 [01:06:54] I’m not holding you to this piece. OK, arboraculture expert, Charles C Mann says that we should start small nuclear reactors all over Africa. No, I understand the point that you’re making and to me it comes down to what solutions are actually going to be effective and which ones are wishful thinking. It’s often harder than you think, to tell which is which. Saying everybody should cut back on everything and that we should make our footprint smaller is itself a form of wishful thinking, because you can do that (sometimes individually) and you can use less plastic bags and you can turn down your thermostat and you can think ‘I’ve done my bit’ when actually the solutions that are needed are in a more top down way. And similarly, you can say, ‘Oh, well, hey, you know, let’s move to a bridge fuel.’ But the bridge fuel is natural gas and you’ve actually not solved the problem either.
Speaker 2 [01:07:50] Yeah, exactly. I do wish that there is more imagination. People talk about how we need more innovation and so forth, which is absolutely dead true. But I also think we need more imagination and more willingness to do this. And the reason that I think this isn’t crazy to ask for is that fundamentally, we don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t really know what’s going to happen 30 or 40 years from now from climate. We don’t really know what the consequences of 2.5 degrees or 3 degrees or 2 degrees are. We can project but we don’t actually know. We similarly don’t know how fast battery prices can go down or how cheaply we can make nukes or any of these things. It’s a giant leap in the dark and that’s one of the things that I find consistently most (personally) annoying about environmental disputes is that people are very, very confident about things that I don’t think that there’s any reason to be confident about at all. And there’s a terrific book called ‘Climate Shock,’ by Weisman and Gernot Wagner, the late professor at Harvard, Gernot Wagner. The whole point is that the big scary thing about climate change is that there’s this possibility of really weird stuff happening that is unpredictable, and we don’t know because it’s such a complicated system. To me, it translates out as, ‘Gee, I’m so glad we randomly fooled around with the constituents of the atmosphere because _____,’ finish that sentence. There is no way to finish that sentence. There’s a non-zero chance that something really weird could happen and I see no reason to experience that risk. But avoiding it also involves a leap into the unknown, which means (among other things) that there’s never going to be enough things for the foreseeable future for journalists like me to write about. But it also means we’re on this kind of scary ride.
Speaker 1 [01:09:56] No, you’re absolutely right that the climate is such a massive system and pushing it in the direction that we’re pushing it is going to have effects that we can’t predict. I was just reading about the polar vortex that overtook most of the country a few weeks ago as we’re recording this, that’s not something that I think a lot of people would have predicted a few decades ago; that the jet stream would be disrupted such that this huge mass of polar air envelops all the way down to south Texas, that’s weird and surprising. And there’s going to be other weird, surprising results. Some invasive species is going to be let loose in an area that we didn’t predict because its range changed because X, Y, Z, and that’s going to have a massive effect, and the amount of uncertainty that we’re going to be living with is maybe the only certain thing.
Speaker 2 [01:10:54] Right, and it could also work out positively. One of the things that’s really interesting is that there’s this sub literature, in terms of the effects of what they call ‘black carbon,’ which is soot, largely from coal burning and particularly in Asia where most often this dirty brown coal, as they often call it, is burned. It gets onto the Himalayas and it goes up high in the air and it goes up and it lands on the snow of the Arctic and Antarctic and so forth. And it darkens the color of it, in the scientific language it ‘changes the albedo and changes the amount of light it reflects.’ And dark things get hotter and it adds tremendously to the melting of the ice caps. But the effect is incredibly short lived. So if you really ended coal quickly, which I think it’s actually likely to happen, you’ll have this giant positive effect that suddenly happens and it happens within months of the next snowfall. It covers up the snow and then you don’t have that and you’re actually changing the color of the planet. This, of course, should give you pause but it might be good. The research on the black carbon and the research on the different colors of vegetation and how they affect this thing, there’s a whole branch of new research on how warm air coming in from the Atlantic is affected by the color of the vegetation in the Middle West. There are these mind bogglingly complicated things that are all integrating in a way that we’re not yet able to put together with confidence. But if you don’t know what the outcome is, it could be positive.
Speaker 1 [01:12:49] This is an incredibly fascinating conversation and I wish I could talk to you forever, Charles, but I gotta bring it in for a landing, somehow. In terms of looking at all of your work, your really deep research into a knowledge of native cultures and societies and the history of them, going back millennia in North America and then your research into climate change and into how we are affecting the planet. That’s a very deep understanding that I feel you have, headed in two directions. A world of the past and a world of the future. I wonder if you find yourself coming to any conclusions about them that others don’t have because you have that perspective, or is there any surprising moment at which you find those two strains in your work coming together and colliding?
Speaker 2 [01:13:49] Well in a way, yes. One of the things that’s really striking to me is that in the past 20 or 30 years, we’ve learned a lot about the past climate of the West and how it’s subject to these enormous swings; these ‘mega droughts,’ as they call them. And just last year in the spring two (really quite good) scientific teams concluded from separate areas of evidence that the West is entering one, right now. Now, in the past, they had other causes. Now it’s climate change, taking a normally big dip (if that makes any sense) and making it deeper. They feel the West going to be much more like something that we haven’t seen for hundreds of years. And here I am reading this on the front page of The New York Times, and I’m reading about what life was like in the West, in 1200 and how people built these really thriving civilizations and what the principles were for them to do this. And I’m thinking, ‘Whoa, these interests of mine are colliding just a little bit here.’ Which, you know, ‘Hooray, the West is getting way drier!’ I’m not saying that, but for me personally this is a really, really fascinating. But I have kids, I have a vested interest in the outcome.
Speaker 1 [01:15:26] Also, so much of your work is about how native people who, again, our white European conception is, ‘Oh, lived in partnership with the land and didn’t touch anything.’ But these folks were causing wide scale changes to the environment in their own way, not to a smaller degree than we are, and certainly a difference of kind and of degree. But that this is something humans do, that humans change the environment that we live in. Is that a comforting thought or is that a depressing thought to you?
Speaker 2 [01:16:01] Well, I guess overall it’s a comforting thought in the sense that people make stuff and people change stuff and that’s what we do, and we’ve always done it. And maybe there was some perfect Edenic world, but it’s been gone for ten thousand years. One of the things that strikes me, you always are reading about this and thinking, ‘What was in their minds?’ Or at least I am trying to think about it. It seemed to me that – this is a gross generalization because we’re dealing with hundreds of different cultures and crazy different languages and belief systems and so forth. But over and over again, I think what these people were doing was making future environments. They were trying to build a world that they wanted to live in. That’s why there would be these investments by the Hohokum for future generations of these massive schemes to channel water and harvest water and why there are these things where they’re burning and maintaining the landscape and actually incorporating the burning into their religious symbols so that it became a sacred duty to create and maintain this landscape. And I think, that’s not a bad way to think. What should the environment we live in look like? Let’s build it.
Speaker 1 [01:17:19] Yes. Yeah. That brings to mind something I think about a lot, is that (and I’ve talked about on the show before) we do, to some extent, need to embrace the fact that we fundamentally change the world that we live in and that’s something that humans do. Only by embracing that can we accept that we have a choice in the future world that we’re creating and that we can create one that preserves as many of the things that we want to preserve as we can. Maybe not every single one, but as many species as we’re able to while also results in less death and more healthy, happy, flourishing lives for people. Hopefully.
Speaker 2 [01:18:02] And also thinking that way, sometimes I think that you can solve multiple problems at once. There’s a thing in architecture called alignment, which is when you build something and it does two or three things for you. For example, here I’m speaking to you from New England and our forests are having some problems. They’re mostly logged, back in the 19th century and they’re planted with fence posts, basically, and trees. Very straight trees that are used for railroad rails and those trees are short lived and they’re all dying. They should be, they don’t live that long. Pretty soon we’re gonna have a whole lot of dead trees in our landscape. And so we’re going to start having the kind of fires you guys are having, because there’s so much fuel there. And the problem is nobody has any money to invest in it, so how can we generate this? We also have another problem. The most common tree in the entire East Coast forest was the American Chestnut, which was wiped out by chestnut blight beginning in 1904, they have now developed chestnuts that could go back in. And the chestnuts are a fantastically productive tree. But something like 40 percent of our agriculture doesn’t go by weight, doesn’t go to feeding people. It’s used for chemicals and dyes and cattle feed; chestnuts are just great for this. So you could actually bring in something that would replace the dead trees, create a beautiful landscape (chestnuts are beautiful) and be a productive industry that could take some of the weight off of the industries threatened by the randomness of climate change. That kind of thing. We could build a landscape with lots of chestnuts in it. It used to be something like a quarter of the trees east of the Mississippi were chestnuts. You could put a lot of chestnuts in and have a big impact in a beautiful environment and solve a bunch of environmental problems at the same time. Again, you are now talking to the guy sitting next to you in the coffee shop that you can’t escape from.
Speaker 1 [01:20:10] OK, last question for you as as that guy, what animates you in the research projects that you pursue? As you said, you’re a freelance writer. You can work on anything that you want. You’ve probably sold enough books that I think you can probably choose your topics. What is there? Is there something in the work that draws you to certain topics or themes or pursuits? Are you looking for something when you’re…
Speaker 2 [01:20:41] Yeah, it’s like a feeling. Novikoff called it ‘that shiver up the nape of your spine’ or something like that. And for me it’s – I grew up with my dad, he’s a wonderful guy, passed away a while ago and he would come home from work; he ran a small business. He’s a smart guy and he would have a pile of newspapers and books and magazines and he would go through them, and if he felt like he’s being talked down to or pedantic (or you know or whatever), if it didn’t have a sense of humor; he had this basket in the corner of the room. He’d throw the stuff in the basket. But his highest praise was my mother would be cooking and so forth. He would run over and say ‘Nina, I didn’t know that!’ and he would tell her what he had just read. And this was a tremendous pleasure for him. And I always think when I’m writing, I’m looking for something that would make my dad go ‘I didn’t know that!’ And when I’m writing, I’m also trying to think, ‘Am I in that basket?’ I don’t want to go in the basket.
Speaker 1 [01:21:43] I love that so much. You’re not in my basket. And your book made me exclaim in that way many times, or your books have. I can’t thank you enough for coming on the show. It’s been such a pleasure and an honor to have you, Charles.
Speaker 2 [01:21:54] Oh, it’s my pleasure. And I look forward to listening to you in the future, even when I’m not on.
Speaker 1 [01:22:00] Amazing. Thank you so much. Well, thank you once again to Charles C Mann for coming on the show, if you want to pick up his books you can check them out at factuallypod.com/books. That’s factuallypod.com/books. And if you purchase the book there you’ll be supporting not just this show, but your local bookstore as well. I want to thank our producers Chelsea Jacobson and Sam Roudman, our engineer Andrew Carson, Andrew W.K. for our theme song. The fine folks at Falcon Northwest for building the incredible custom gaming PC that I record this very episode on. You can find me online at adamconover.net or @AdamConover wherever you get your social media. Until next time, thank you so much for listening. We really appreciate you here on the show, for taking a listen. And we’ll see you next week on Factually.
July 26, 2022
How can we best help animals, when it’s we humans who cause their suffering? Animal Crisis authors Alice Crary and Lori Gruen join Adam to explain how the same systems that hurt and kill animals also harm humans. They discuss the human rights abuses that happen in industrial slaughterhouses and how palm oil monocrops are devastating the world’s rainforests. They also share how we can have solidarity with animals in our daily lives. You can purchase their book at http://factuallypod.com/books
July 19, 2022
In times of turmoil, it can be useful to take a longer view of history. Like, a LOT longer. Paleontologist and author of “The Rise and Reign of the Mammals” Stephen Brusatte joins Adam to explain how mammals took over the Earth hundreds of millions of years ago, and why we survived and achieve sentience when dinosaurs died out. Stephen goes on to discuss why taking a deep look at our history can help prepare us for the crises of the near future. You can purchase Stephen’s book at http://factuallypod.com/books
July 13, 2022
Trans people have existed as long as, you know, people have. But the barriers to legal inclusion and equality are still higher than most people realize. “Sex is as Sex Does” author Paisley Currah joins Adam to discuss why institutions have been slow to give legal recognition to trans identities, why Republicans have shifted their attacks from bathroom policies to trans youth in sports, and why the struggle for trans equality is tied to feminism and women’s liberation. You can purchase Paisley’s book at http://factuallypod.com/books