“300,000 Dead Refrigerators: Peril and Promise in the World of 2050” 

Charles Mann speaking at a podium

Charles  C. Mann ’76 is a journalist and author, whose most recent book is The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow's World. His previous books include 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, a New York Times best-seller, and 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, winner of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences’ Keck award for the best book of the year. 

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See the honorary degree citation read by President Biddy Martin at the 2019 Commencement ceremony.


Charles Mann: I should say that they don't really tell me who is going to come. They sort of guess that you might be people who are parents or relatives or friends of people who are about to graduate. Is that the case? Could you raise your hand? Who are those? But don't count to the actual graduates -- the people who are about to graduate. How many people are students here who are about to graduate? Okay. This talk's not for you. This talk is aimed at the old people and even more humiliatingly and awfully, it's aimed at telling them some stuff about the world that you guys are going to encounter. So this is like talking about you but not to you. I can't think of anything worse so if you want to leave, it's okay.

Charles Mann: So thanks very much to the college for inviting me to this occasion and thanks, you guys, for coming here. It's much nicer out there than it is here. I'm very grateful that you failed to make that calculation. So I'm going to talk about, as I said, what's next for your kids. And a feature of all speeches at graduations I've noticed is that they begin with seemingly irrelevant personal anecdotes that very cleverly and subtly you hope are somehow keyed into the main theme. And that's exactly what I'm going to follow in this. So imagine this irrelevant personal anecdote. Thirteen years ago to the day, literally to the day, May 23rd, 2006, I'm standing in the foothills of Mt. Katrina. About six months before Hurricane Katrina had inundated New Orleans. Now the student in here may not remember this, but their parents will, it was the worst natural disaster to hit the United States in many, many, many years.

Charles Mann: And it may be, you know, in future we'll look at it as the first sign of the hand that climate change was going to play in the American landscape. Now people in New Orleans didn't think about this at first. They didn't really realize what was going to happen. So they initially left the city, they're forced to evacuate thinking that they are going to be back in a day or two. Instead, they couldn't return for weeks. Now, this is New Orleans. It's hot. There's no electricity because of this. And so what that meant was across the metropolitan area, their refrigerators became inadvertent experiments in the biology of putrefaction. So all these people returned home and it took only one opening of the refrigerator to realize that this refrigerator could not be saved. And so there were signs all over the place about what to do with these horrifying toxic refrigerators.

Charles Mann: And what ended up most people ended up doing was duct-taping them together and putting them on the sidewalk to be cleaned. And the streets from miles were lined with dead refrigerators. It was really an extraordinary sight to see these things. And then there was like this competition to paint your refrigerator with amusing slogans. And weirdly enough, they are now at least two art books called something like the "Refrigerators of New Orleans," or you know, "Katrina Refrigerators" and so forth. And there are actually, if you go now to the French Quarter during, you know, the big festivals there, they're are refrigerator floats where people dress up as refrigerators. So this is part of New Orlean's culture. Now, this refrigerator is actually a small part of the 35 million cubic yards of debris, and that figure doesn't include the quarter of a million wrecked automobiles. Now east of the city is the old Gentilly Landfill that was finally closed as a horrible toxic waste site. It was closed in 2004, immediately reopened in 2005 to dump all of this. And it became, was locally known as Mt. Katrina, about a 250 foot tall mass of soggy armchairs and ruined mattresses and busted concrete and wrecked appliances. Now by volume, the refrigerators were a very small part of this. Nonetheless, thousands came in every day. And by the time I was visiting the refrigerators there, they had us about 300,000 of them. The refrigerators had their own staging area. They had their own team of people to come out and you had to empty the stuff. And the guys had snow shovels in Hazmat suits and well, it looked like this. And these guys are emptying out the squirming, writhing, maggot-filled contents and putting away, and you had to do this all very quickly because there are these hordes of tens of millions of carnivorous dragonflies that would eat the maggots and they would descend on you and it's basically when you think of dystopia, this is my personal idea of dystopia.

Charles Mann: This is, I would argue, I, you know, journalists, I travel around -- I've been to 70 countries -- I think this is the worst place that I have ever been. Now, not until I saw this, did I realize that rebuilding a modern city would involve with disposing of hundreds of thousands of malodorous home appliances. Not until I visited New Orleans did I have a visceral appreciation for the enormous web of expertise that's required to operate a modern society, let alone restore it. Or solve its problems. To rebuild all the homes, the federal emergency management talked to architects and planners of course, but much too late, they needed, they realize they should have also talked to microbiologists. And the reason is the fungal problems were just extraordinary. The economists, rafts of them, drew up schemes to reconstruct the city much too late. They realized they hadn't talked to political scientists and sociologists ’cause the plans floundered if they didn't take into account the peculiarities of New Orleans politics and history. Engineers, they needed to revamp the levies and canals.

Charles Mann: They discovered that as late as the 1990s, the engineers who were building the levies and maintaining them had never consulted soil scientists about the physical properties of the place that they were building on. The petroleum scientists, wanting to replace the areas thousands of ruin pipelines, discovered they had never consulted marine biologists, estuary ecologist, sedimentologists, about the subsurface conditions in that peculiar watery region. And perhaps most tragically, nobody in the Bush administration talked to historians. And the reason is historians would have told them that the way you reconstruct southern Mississippi and society was set as a template by the great storm of 1927 and this had been done repeatedly. And their ignorance led them to make the same mistakes that they made in 1927. Now rebuilding New Orleans required making some fundamental civic choices. As you can see here, I hope, realize that about a third of the people in the city left, they didn't, they had to, they didn't have a home, and they relocated all over the country.

Charles Mann: That would mean that there's going to be, most of those people would then get jobs, have sent their kids to school and so they weren't going to come back. So that meant you didn't have the same size city. You're gonna have to have a smaller footprint. You're going to have to make decisions about where to put people. And because he didn't want what they call jack-o-lantern city, which is just random people scattered around because that means you have to have the same number of roads, the same number of pipelines, the same number of electrical connections, same number of everything spread over many, many fewer people. So they had to make this fundamental decision about where they're going to go. Now the main protection from New Orleans, New Orleans is right up here, is when the storms come in. Here is this area here, this is the delta, the soggy mass, and the delta is rapidly disintegrating. It's the worst environmental problem in the United States by a long shot. I would argue it's criminally under-covered. My colleagues in the journalism racket should be really rubbing this into because this is happening right now. And the big culprit for this is that there's 15,000 miles of oil, gas and petrochemical pipelines that are carving up this area, letting the seawater in, which kills the plants that keep the whole thing together. So this is all disintegrating and this is why Katrina, which is actually a relatively minor storm, was able to wreak so much damage. So if you're going to rebuild the city, you have to do something about this. The problem is that the same industry is the area's biggest employer by far. It's the area's biggest employer and it's the area's biggest threat. And obviously this is a very complicated problem and you need to do something about it.

Charles Mann: Furthermore, this is actually New Orleans. That's Lake Pontchartrain up there and this heart of the city is this area, Orleans Parish. And then there's these other two parishes. Saint Bernard Parish. Now there, if you drive there, you just cross the street and you get that there's no physical separation between them. There's no, any difference. Everybody talks about origins character as New Orleans, but in fact, it's this metropolitan area and all of these people share a common destiny. And the reason is that if Jefferson Parish gets flooded, the water doesn't stop at the border because there is no border. It just goes into Orleans Parish. Saint Bernard Parish gets...actually, Saint Bernard Parish is the worst affected of all of them. It just is. And so these are unit, yet Orleans Parish in 2005 was about 65% African American. Jefferson Parish was about 70% white and St. Bernard Parish was over 90% white.

Charles Mann: And these parishes, despite the fact that they're unified, you physically had nothing in common with each other. No communication. And they never planned together and they still don't. And so the result was New Orleans reconstruction was a complete catastrophe. This is the famous lower ninth ward just on the right in the heart of Orleans Parish. It's on the east side. And it was, you know, the center of the devastation there. And this is how it was reconstructed in 2015. And this is precisely what you don't want. This is...first you notice, that there's all these random scatter of vacant lots, right in the heart of a city. City's are about density. This is not [inaudible]. The second thing you know, it's, these are nice houses. This is a relatively poor neighborhood. None of these people, not none, but very few of these people are the people who live there originally.

Charles Mann: So all these people were dispossessed in this completely random form. There's tons of self-dealing that got involved. You ended up with a dead urban fabric dispossessed people. It was a complete catastrophe. And the reason is that nobody talked to each other and nobody thought about what it really takes to reconstruct a modern urban society. And so it seems evident to me that if you're going to have, don't want to have a city full of mountains of dead refrigerators and don't want to have a future full of things like this, you're going to have to get better at this sort of large scale, longterm multidisciplinary problem solving. So now think about the year 2050 when tomorrow's graduates, you, will be this, this is the one little part that's for you, we'll be as old as I am now. I know that's an unthinkable thought.

Charles Mann: This is actually the one, the few satisfactions of being old like I am, is that you see younger people and they have no idea it's going to happen to them. You know, I'll at the time of this 2050, I'll be long dead. You guys will be giving the graduation speeches. And so what do we know about that? Demographers believed that at that time there's going to be almost 10 billion people. All of you guys, tomorrow's graduates, will just be a tiny fraction of that along with their, you know, their friends and their relatives and their spouses and their children. But they and everybody else in the world are going be facing life together in this world of 10 billion and all of them are going to face huge challenges. How are we going to get food to everybody? How can get water to everybody?

Charles Mann: How are you going to get energy to everybody? And how are we going to avoid the worst impacts of climate change? And the way I think of it is all of you guys and all of your kids, their common task is preventing mountains of dead refrigerators, which all of these lead to in one way or another. Now to feed the 10 billion, most researchers believe global food production is going to have to rise by 50% or maybe even more, maybe double by 2050. And that's partly due to the increase in human numbers, but mainly due to the increase in human affluence. People with more money. And that's happening all over the world. Incomes are rising, they've always wanted in the past, wanted to eat more meat. Growing meat requires much more land, much more grain than just simply eating vegetables. And so as affluence rises, the amount of meat consumed rises has been historically true forever.

Charles Mann: And so the result is you're going to have to grow much more grain, a lot more to provide water for the 10 billion. We're going to have to negotiate a world where the rising demand for food because 70% of the world's water use freshwater use is for agriculture, is balancing against the rising demand for water by industry, which was balanced against the rising demand for water by the increased number of families. I've seen projections by water researchers that say if we don't pay attention to this, half the world is going to be short of water in 2050. And that's not some sort of problem that we can sort of say is in some far distance plays. A big part of that is going to be right here in the United States to provide electric power for the 10 billion. Global electricity will have to rise, output will have to rise by 25 to 70% and the big variance in here is that there's about 1.2 billion people today without electricity.

Charles Mann: If we provide them with power, which I would argue is an absolutely essential global task, we're going to have to generate a lot more electricity. Nobody knows how we're going to do this. Also, I should say we have to distribute that electricity to poor rural communities and again, as a test that we're not very good at the numbers are very unclear. There's lots and lots of argument, but the main point is that the human enterprise is going to require a lot more energy by 2050 probably quite a bit more and all of this has to happen while we're avoiding the worst impacts of climate change. Around the world, I recently learned are a 136 large, low lying coastal cities: Shanghai, Miami, London, Chicago, Manila, Bangkok, Amsterdam, Mumbai, Boston, right here. The list goes on. The total population here and that's, you know, obviously rising, is about 550 million right now.

Charles Mann: That's about 420 metropolitan New Orleans. All of those are future Katrina's. All of those are future masses of dead refrigerators. But it would really nice to prevent all that from happening. So these are the work of your kids' generation. We don't really have any good ideas about how to do any of them really solid was, and what I mean by that is let's just pick one of these. Food, which is obviously a super basic human need. Now, we don't know how to grow enough meat to satisfy everybody, nor do we know how to convert everybody to vegetarianism or veganism. We don't know how to do this without pouring massive amounts of fertilizer that then go on into rivers. When they don't get absorbed by plants and go into the oceans and create massive coastal dead zones, we don't know how to do this without enormous applications of ecologically damaging pesticides.

Charles Mann: We simply don't know how to grow the food in a way that is captured by the term sustainable, yet we have to, you know, there's a significant chance that we'll have to double global food output by 2050. So let's think about that doubling the amount of food that the world grows by 20, 50. And um, some of you may have taken accounting or math and you know that there is a simple method, the rule of 72 in this fake picture from the Internet, um, that, uh, shows Einstein calculating to get the annual increase worldwide in the magic numbers, 2.3%. We have to increase global food output by 2.3% per year to make this target. If we're going, if this is our target and this is the target that you know, many producers believe we have to do, how are we doing? Well here is, there's a massive global study led by a bunch of people at the University of Minnesota and the best...came out a couple of years ago and they had good data was for 2010.

Charles Mann: And so that was the average rate of yield change percent per year. And globally it was 0.9%. So remember we're trying to hit 2.3 in 2010 last year. We have really good data. It's 0.9, not so good for wheat. How about rice? Very, very slightly better. Still not enough for everybody. Corn, a little bit better. 1.6% per year. But the point is, we don't know how to do this. Either we're going to have to do some kind of planning and it's going to have to be something that doesn't simply involve a bunch of agricultural scientists. It's going to have to involve politicians. It's going to have to involve historians. It's going to have to involve sociologists because we can't do what we've been doing. We're either going to have to dramatically change the way land use has done around the world. We're going to have to dramatically change the way we eat.

Charles Mann: And that's super fundamental to culture or some combination of both. And it's simply impossible to avoid. This is the work of--thank God I'm going to be dead--but it's a work of your kids and we really need to give them some support. Actually, it's worse than that because all this has to happen. While a whole lot of the world's arable land is being consumed by expanding cities and the cities are located next to good farmland because it's right next to good farmland for supplies and there's increasing competition for water. Remember agriculture, 70% of fresh water use and this intensification that we have is degrading the resource that we have. So we have erosion chemical contamination. We have a vulnerability of the pests in disturbance, none of which we know to do. And on top of that is climate change.

Charles Mann: And as the temperatures rise, there's all kinds of unexpected effects. For example, the pollen in rice, which is the world's most important food, you know, sustains two and a half billion people in Asia is a very, very temperature sensitive. And there's a number of studies that suggest that as temperatures rise just slightly more than they now more and more at the pollen in rice will become sterile and it will fail to germinate and produce grain again. Nobody knows what to do with that. And on top of that, we have a lack of effective governance. So let's look at just one of these things, which is the water. Now, many people don't know how little water there is in the world because you see the picture of the earth and you see all this water on it, but that's just a mile deep. There's another 24,000 miles of rock there.

Charles Mann: So if you take all the earth's water of all types and put in a ball, it's about a ball about 900 miles wide, but only 3% of that or something like that is freshwater. And most of that is actually buried very deep underground or contaminated or is it not available. The total available global fresh water, it's a ball, it's about 35 miles wide and there's just simply not pretty much of it. There's 10 billion people and we aren't making very good use of it and we do all this bad stuff with it. And in fact, if you really want a depressing time, you can just look up global water use on some, one of the wonderful scientific databases that they have here in Amherst College. And I think that you probably can get access to and you'll find many studies like this and basically what they tell you is we're doing a stupefyingly bad job at dealing with a fundamental resource that is going to be...that is obviously important to the way we live.

Charles Mann: One of the things that's really kind of mind-boggling, is you go to agricultural areas like the Central Valley in California and there's all the water that comes from the mountains and all the snow that's on top of it. And it goes in these big channels and it's hot there. And when I was taking this, when my friend Peter was taking this picture, it was over a hundred degrees. Now think about big tracts of slowly moving water in 100 degrees. You will not be surprised to learn that about two-thirds of this water just goes right up into the air. It's an insane waste. But that is the way that we do things. And in fact our failure to deal with this...I mean, it's not, I'm not the first person to notice this. This has been complained about since the 1950s has, you know, we've had a collective failure to engage with this issue.

Charles Mann: Another problem here is that when the irrigation water goes away and it evaporates, it leaves behind the salts in the water because the water is always impure and sea salts poison the soil. This is Syria. Remember Syria's part of the Fertile Crescent. Much of the Fertile Crescent is not quite so fertile anymore because it's full of this stuff. And it's not a surprise to me that areas with very high civilization in the soil, which you have very, very poor farming opportunities and not so much money end up being highly unstable. Now is this salinization the direct costs of the tremendous amount of social unrest and loss of life in Syria? No, there's a million other causes, but I can guarantee you that there is, that it things will be a whole lot easier there if this wasn't happening all over the place. So what to be done about it. Grappling with these enormous challenges is going to be the work of the next generation.

Charles Mann: So let me put what I think about this on a personal level and then we can talk about it more if you want to. This is a picture from one of my very first journalistic assignments. Early in the 1980s, I went to Mexico City where there are these absolutely gigantic dumps outside the city and I recall to the southwest. Huge miles and miles long. And there are thousands of kids like this that lived on the dumps. They were, I guess they were orphans and they would run away when I came and they were obviously terribly, terribly poor and malnourished and you're picking through this area and it was an absolutely awful site. And so it was really a lesson for a middle-class kid like me, how extraordinarily fortunate and privileged I was. So about 10 years ago, I went back to this site with Peter.

Charles Mann: The photographer took that picture and it's a middle-class neighborhood. Now I don't think you'd really want to dig too deep in the soil of the middle-class neighborhood, but the point is, it's dramatically better than it was before. And this is true all over the world. In the early 1980s, Peter and I also went to Bihar, which is in northeast India. It's notoriously the poorest, one of the poorest parts of India. It's dreadfully corrupt. We were there. We had the bad luck to be there during an election and activists and social reformers were getting shot. And there's guys who followed you. It was just awful. And I went back there for the first time, for this recent book I wrote, you know, 30 years later and it is just enormously better than it was.

Charles Mann: So, you know, maternal mortality has fallen all over India. Indian life expectancy has climbed by this extraordinary factor. Can you see that? That's 42 in 1950, just before, it was 48, excuse me, in 1950, just before I was born, to something like 72. Now it's an extraordinary improvement in, human well-being and the things that people in India we're fighting against, you know, the legacy of colonialism, which just ripped apart the society, the enormous difficulties in having a society with 600 languages. You can just pile them on. And so for these guys to do this is just an absolutely a huge accomplishment. It just seems to me that, you know, for us to complain about having to double the world food output compared to what these guys have already done, seems a little bit premature. Oh, I forgot to say the same thing has happened all over the world. So let's do the numbers and you see everywhere on the planet this enormous improvement despite terrible difficulties. When I was born, about one out of every two people in the world was hungry, undernourished is the UN term.

Charles Mann: Today the UN says the figure's less than one out of 10. In that time, the average lifespan globally has risen by 24 years with most of the increase being in poor places. Similarly, even though we have a world that's full of conflict now, the fact is that the last 50 years, you've seen this absolutely dramatic decrease in the number of people killed by state-sponsored violence. One of the things that makes me personally so upset about the Iraq war, that's the Iraq war. Just look at that picture without the Iraq war. And you'd see some idea of the dramatic difference that the global institutions, that the foundations, the NGOs and governments around the world have made. So we have done things well. We have made enormous social progress in the last few generations. So this is a picture of my daughter when she was born, shortly after she was born.

Charles Mann: She's roughly the age of the graduates. So I'm sort of with you guys. I'm, you know, a parent or almost a parent of a graduate and I think we have to say, given this, and one of the roles that we have to do in addition to supporting them in the urgent task is to be optimistic about it. I don't think we can look at the record of the past couple of generations and not be optimistic about our ability to do these things. And I think to me, one of the most upsetting things, when I read the newspaper and talk to people, is the conviction that we're doomed. It's clearly not the case. We have enormous challenges, but we can do better if we do something about it. So it's perhaps particularly appropriate to be talking about this at Amherst College, which is the traditional liberal arts college.

Charles Mann: Now one thing I can say for sure that very few of the students here, very few of the parents here will be soon in a place with as much intellectual diversity. That's what a liberal arts college is about. And all those people who didn't talk to each other in, around Mt Katrina, they're all here. This is a place where people do talk to each other. This is a place where economists are forced to take sociology. This is a place where scientists are forced to take liberal arts classes and the other way around, or not, not forced, they say, actually they're not forced, but they're strongly encouraged, I think is the phrase that I heard when I was going here. So outside in the rest of the world, social media and a whole other bunch of social forces, encourage people to like to talk to like, you know, scientists with scientists, economists, economists, writers with writers, Ph.D.s, the Ph.d.s, upper middle class professionals with other upper middle class professionals. Here is a place where there's at least the possibility of a genuine exchange of an idea without everybody sort of locked up in their social media cocoon. Now, sorry, I want to make sure I get this right because this is actually the only point I'm trying to make.

Charles Mann: The consequences of people not talking to other people like themselves of not addressing other people's ideas, experiences, and areas of expertise are all over the place. So we have liberals who have utterly confused ideas about conservatives and conservatives who are just bafflingly wrong about liberals. The ecologist who get the social science wrong, the social scientists get the ecology wrong, the political types, it can't be bothered to know anything about science no matter how pertinent. We've unfortunately seen a lot of that recently. And the scientists, whether equally lofty, equally misguided dismissal of politics, which we also have seen the academics who know much less than they imagine about the world's outside the walls and all the world's outside their own discipline, the way the nation's political [inaudible] completely misread the electoral campaign that we just suffered through.

Charles Mann: Like New Orleans after Katrina, every one of these things I'm going to talk about is a solvable problem that can only be solved if people pool their expertise. If people talk to each other in a common enterprise, and if people have the conviction that they can, that they can do it. Well, if we do these things, we will be able to feed the world. We will be able to provide water for the world. We will be able to furnish energy. We will even avoid the worst impacts of climate change if we pool the multitude of perspectives and the support of the citizenry. It's willing to educate itself. So I guess you know, this is a graduation, you're supposed to give these sort of homolactic nuggets of advice for the graduates. Talk to your neighbors. I guess it's all that I'm saying. It's really important. You just have a little time left to do it, and then you also have all the time in the world. So I wish all of your children fantastic luck and everything that comes up, and I wish them all to have incredible support from people who proceeded them. Thank you.