The Future Is Crowded: What Can We Do?

behold-the-inferno-coverIn the wake of the release of his latest book, there has been a bit of Dan Brown-itus floating about the bookish community.  Both from fans and critics.  Dan Brown has a singular ability to both inspire and to spark distain.  While he has a huge following of fans, myself included, he has also generated a rather large, almost cult-like anti-fan base; people who would rather see his career take a dive than to enjoy the fictional mysteries he writes.

His latest book, Inferno, if you haven’t read it yet (spoiler alert by the way), is an homage to the Divine Comedy, or more specifically, the first part in the comedy, Inferno, commonly known as Dante’s Inferno.

Written by renowned Italian poet Dante Alighieri between 1308 and 1321, this epic poem is widely considered to be, not only the preeminent work of Italian literature, but one of the greatest works of literature in the history of mankind.  It is a truly beautiful and inspiring piece of writing, as are the final two parts, Purgatorio and Paradiso.

Sandro Botticelli's famous 'Chart of Hell', inspired by Dante's Inferno
Sandro Botticelli’s famous ‘Chart of Hell’, inspired by Dante’s Inferno

For those unfamiliar, the Comedy tells the tale of Dante as he embarks on a journey through hell and purgatory in pursuit of his love, Beatrice, who resides in heaven (paradise).  Dante is guided through hell (and purgatory) by the ancient poet known as Virgil, and the two of them make their way through the ten circles of hell, observing and discussing the various horrors they witness along the way.

Though he has said that his motive for writing Inferno was to inspire a greater love and awareness for the Divine Comedy, Brown’s story only makes use of certain imagery and art that has been inspired by the Comedy over the centuries.  The main subject of the book is actually a matter of extreme importance and urgency for humanity: overpopulation.

As the story goes, there is an international movement or community of academics, scientists and futurists who believe in and work toward achieving a concept known as Transhumanism.  Designated popularly by the symbol H+, transhumanism, which may sound somewhat ominous, is actually a rather optimistic ideal relating to the effort of improving human longevity.  Essentially it speaks of making people immortal through the use of technology.  Most scenarios envision combining biology and technology and thereby eliminating disease, decay and death, and ultimately creating a utopian society where no one dies and everyone lives in a perpetual state of health.  It actually sounds pretty good, if you ignore certain problems.

TRANSHUMANThose problems of course, tend to be pretty big ones.  Not the least of which is achieving the technical ability to successfully merge our fragile bodies with robust technology, but we may be closer to that goal than you realise.  In any event, there is a much bigger problem to overcome before we even get to that point, and this is the problem that Brown’s Inferno tackles in, I must say, a somewhat elegant way.  Brutal, but also elegant.

That problem is overpopulation.  It’s a massive problem, and it’s one we face right now, regardless of our dream to become cyborgs.  We, as a species, breed a lot, almost exponentially.  To illustrate the significance of that word, consider the story of the man who invented chess, of all things.

According to the Persian poet Ferdowsi, in his epic and ancient poem Shahnameh (which is considered to be entirely apocryphal), the man who invented chess submitted his new invention to the Persian King who was so impressed that he offered to reward the man with whatever he wanted.  The man being a mathematician told the king that he wanted grains of wheat.  Specifically, he wanted the wheat counted on a chessboard: starting in one corner of the board, he wanted one grain of wheat on the first square and two grains on the second square, then four grains on the third and so on, doubling the number of grains with each successive square.  Now, you might think this a reasonable request, as the king certainly did, and he ordered an administrator to count out the wheat and award it to the man.  The problem, which the king did not understand at first, is that the man was requesting an exponential progression of wheat, which, by the time you reach the final square on the board, would result in far more wheat than you might imagine.

The count on the final square would be 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 grains of wheat or 263 grains.  That’s more wheat than the massive Persian kingdom could have produced in several years.  It’s a huge number.  And unfortunately for the mathematician, who many believe was just offering a joke, the king found no humour in the situation and promptly had him executed.

overpopulation2-20110405-134739This, as I said, illustrates how quickly an exponential progression can result in unimaginably huge numbers, and some believe that our collective birthrate is exponential.  It isn’t really, but it’s close.

A popular graph image (shown below) further illustrates the problem, showing that over the past several decades and centuries, our global population has skyrocketed, and the consequences of such growth are catastrophic.  Notice I didn’t say potentiallycatastrophic, as there’s nothing uncertain about it.  Our huge numbers have resulted in environmental disaster; global warming, the depletion of resources like oil and coal and water and food, a constant state of war, and the rapid spread of disease, just to name a few.  Our planet cannot sustain our current population, which is quickly approaching seven billion worldwide.

q69graphSome experts estimate that we’ll reach 10 billion by the year 2050, othesr say it’ll happen before then.  And if you fail to see the problem here, I’m really not sure how else to make the point.  Something must be done to curb our breeding progress, though there are those who believe otherwise, the Catholic Church for one.  But with a rational view of the situation, one can hardly deny the importance of not only reducing the rate at which we multiply, but also – and this is the main point of Brown’s book – we have to find a way to essentially cull our current population.

This is a horrific suggestion, I know.  Everyone has a right to exist, to live, to enjoy the fruits of labours past, but the reality is, our planet cannot sustain us.  Some enlightened people, notably people like Carl Sagan, have suggested that our future is in space.  That our only hope of survival is to leave this little blue ball.  Others think that’s much too ambitious, that our technical ability lags too far behind our ability to procreate and that the realisation of that solution will come much too late.

Other still, namely Brown’s fictional antagonist, Bertrand Zobrist, suggest that an actual cull of our population is necessary. That is to say that a certain percentage, a large percentage at that, should be eliminated.  Or in other words…killed.  I told you it was brutal.

Fortunately, well it was sort of fortunate, Zobrist came up with an alternative that was no less brutal, but at least it didn’t involve the arbitrary selection of a large number of people for planned genocide.  He developed and released a genetic virus that served to effectively sterilize nearly one third of the global population.  It offered a uniquely elegant (in my view) if not slow acting solution for the overpopulation problem, in that a third of the people on earth would no longer be able to procreate.  It would immediately reduce our numbers (immediate in relative terms) and thus ease some of the pressure on our planetary resources.

Whether you agree that it’s an elegant solution or not (I certainly wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t), one thing Brown neglected to address in his story, was the fact that, in order for a transhumanist future to manifest, our birthrate would have to be reduced to nearly zero.  A one third sterilization would not do the trick.

If the goal of transhumanism is to make us immortal through technology, then even a small birthrate would eventually put us right back in the same situation.  I suppose one could argue that by the time we’re capable of staving off death permanently, we’ll also be technologically matured enough to advance colonies of humanity throughout the solar system, or even the galaxy, but that hardly solves the problem.

Now, before the comment section on this post fills up with righteous condemnation of me and my sick pragmatism, let’s be clear than I’m not suggesting we do any such thing.  I simply see not only how desperate our situation really is, but I also see the value in exploring the various possible solutions, no matter how uncomfortable they make us.  Dan Brown has, as I mentioned earlier, generated rather large criticism, both of his writing (which I personally enjoy, but others don’t’), but also of his ideas.  Many disbelieve the severity of the problem, others deny that it exists at all, but most recognize that we have to do something.

If there were a question I was leading up to with all this, I suppose it would be: if you had the power to turn off the reproductive ability of a third of our population, would you do it, based on the knowledge that our survival depends on it?

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