Friday, August 3, 2018

Tyler Cowen interviews Charles C. Mann on Shaping Tomorrow’s World and the Limits to Growth

I think it’s impossible to overrate him. Jackie Chan’s amazing.
From Conversations with Tyler, HERE.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COWEN: Okay.

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

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

Both of them — from the point of view of today’s technology — are equally impossible. It’s a leap in the dark no matter what we do, but then that’s the human condition, isn’t it?
MANN: And it is absolutely true that people waste staggering amounts of water, and this is the kind of thing that people who study water, like Peter Gleick and the Pacific Institute, they tear their hairs out about all the different ways that we waste water.

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

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

There’s another one that’s going to be in Aqaba in Jordan — it’s even larger. California has 20 of these planned. And then these mega projects, which I think from a strictly economic cost-benefit or benefit-cost point of view, are kind of crazy, given the wastage. But there’s a real pull toward doing that, and I just don’t know how it’s going to come out.
[Privatizing water companies] is a solution that should be on the table in many more places than it is, because the fact is that governments at every level have failed with water systems, and almost anything would be better than that.
The earth is finite, no?
MANN: ...So clearly, there is some limit somewhere. But where it is, we just don’t really have a clue.

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

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

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

COWEN: Every day.

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

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

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

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

So if that’s the case and that stretches out as far as we can see, which is what they say — not that we can see that far — then if we can feed everybody and everybody’s in pretty good comfort by 2070 or whenever this point is, I think the optimists can declare victory, even though the pessimists could still be right in that there are limits. They just aren’t relevant.
Mann's talked with two farmers:
I now understand why economists complain about farm subsidies. Because they were saying these were reduced, and I couldn’t believe the number of things that you can do if you’re a farmer who produces the right commodity crops. And certain crops are very definitely much more in tune with what the government wants than others.

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

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

And he is eligible for nothing. He has not gotten a dime from the government. He wouldn’t mind it. It’s not a matter of principle, but as far as the government is concerned, he doesn’t exist. Whereas his next-door neighbor has 1200 acres of corn and wheat, and there’s an entire parade of things that he is eligible for.
So one guy’s produce is much more expensive than the other guy’s produce, but it’s very hard for me, as an outsider, without conducting a serious study, to tell.
And now the important stuff. Jackie Chan:
MANN: Oh, I think it’s impossible to overrate him. Jackie Chan’s amazing. [laughs] Have you ever seen those . . . You must’ve seen . . . I’m a big fan obviously.

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

MANN: Right.

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

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

COWEN: Yeah.

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

COWEN: A lot.

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

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