I recently made the acquaintance of population expert Kurt Dahl. He has written an interesting essay about Dan Brown’s book, Inferno. While a novel, it deals with the very real issue of overpopulation. In the book Brown has an “antagonist execute a specific solution to the overpopulation problem, but what Dahl wanted to know was if anyone had done a critical analysis this solution – in reality, would it work? Here is his essay and what he found out.
Dan Brown’s latest novel, Inferno, was the top selling book of 2013, and it will soon be a major motion picture starring, once again, Tom Hanks as Robert Langdon, the Harvard “Symbologist” and hero of several other of Brown’s blockbuster novels (the four-book “Langdon” series has now sold in the neighborhood of 200 million copies).In Inferno, Brown has taken on a very controversial issue – overpopulation – in a way not often seen by mainstream authors, or mainstream people in general.
As many of you know, the taboo topic of overpopulation is seldom discussed these days. It is considered to be politically incorrect for liberals and environmentalists. It is regarded as anti-capitalist and undemocratic for most conservatives, and morally abhorrent to the religious community.
But in Inferno, Brown uses his antagonist, Bertrand Zobrist, to unapologetically make the case for overpopulation being the driving force behind all of the worlds major challenges – climate change, peak resources, etc. – and he implies that the likely endpoint of continued overpopulation will be a collapse of our civilization.Of course, the dangerous consequences of overpopulation have been accepted and understood by many who have diligently studied the issue, but it seldom happens that such a prominent public figure has the courage to acknowledge it. Dan Brown needs to be applauded for articulating this issue so clearly – though it seems that the general public is sitting on their hands instead.
Curious about the general public’s reaction, I’ve now read hundreds of reviews, blog posts, comments, and other analysis pieces that react to Dan Brown’s overpopulation positions as expressed in the book. And once again I am reminded how emotionally charged this issue has become. I’d estimate that around 90% of the reviews and comments (the ones that discuss overpopulation) are aggressively hostile towards the simple claim that this planet is overpopulated. And interestingly, the mainstream reviews (New York Times, etc.) never even mention Brown’s arguments on overpopulation – they simply ignore the issue altogether.
What has happened here is that the concept of “the overpopulation problem” has, through the wide distribution of Dan Brown’s book, suddenly reached a much more general audience – an audience well beyond the scientists and activists who have studied, and who understand the problem. This points out again how far we still have to go to achieve a broader public-awareness and understanding of this critical issue.
And though this lack of public understanding is an important point – it is not the purpose of this article.
In Inferno, Brown goes much further than just defining the problem – he actually has his antagonist execute a specific solution. What I really wanted to know (by reading the hundreds of reviews and comments) was if anyone had done a critical analysis of Dan Brown’s solution to the overpopulation problem. Had anyone actually done the math to see if it would work? Surprisingly, no one had.
(Spoiler alert: this next part exposes Dan Brown’s solution to the overpopulation problem as expressed in the conclusion of the book.)
By the end of the book, Robert Langdon et al have become convinced that the antagonist, a biotech billionaire named Bertrand Zobrist, has solved the world’s population problem by creating a virus that makes one-third of the women in the world infertile.
In the reviews and discussions of Inferno, the reactions to Brown’s solution vary depending on whether the reviewer believes that there actually is an overpopulation problem – or not. Those that don’t believe it is a problem, call Brown’s solution abhorrent, inhumane, evil, eugenics, a madman’s vengeance, etc. – and those that do, call it creative, humane, brilliant, ingenious, etc.
Apparently, everyone simply assumes that making one-third of the world’s women infertile will reduce population substantially, or perhaps if not reduce it substantially, the reduction will be enough to buy time for a more comprehensive solution. Zobrist’s solution would at least be a good start – right?
Wrong. I’d like to expand on Albert Bartlett’s famous quotation – here’s my new version: mankind’s greatest failing is it’s inability to do simple freaking math!
The reality of Brown’s solution is that it does not reduce population – in fact under his solution, population continues to grow. Here is the easy version (forget fertility rates or the demographic transition for a moment): Population grows every year because births outnumber deaths. It’s that simple.
Right now, worldwide, we have around 135 million births and 55 million deaths annually. Therefore, we grow by 80 million each year (rough numbers). Under Zobrist’s solution, births would be reduced by one-third. Therefore, births would go down from 135 million to about 90 million. What that means is that worldwide population would stillincrease by 35 million annually.
However, those numbers assume that fertility rates among the remaining fertile women stay the same. Let’s play out the script and see if that would be true. Try to project what the worldwide reaction would be to the sudden knowledge that one-third of the world’s women were now infertile because a madman had created and distributed a horrifying virus.
Of course, it would begin with a deafening chorus of harrumphing by all of our leaders – political, religious, academic, etc. They would immediately seize the opportunity to propose solutions to this fertility catastrophe. Certainly, these leaders would try to encourage the remaining fertile women to have more babies. They would make surrogacy and adoption easier, and perhaps even profitable. Laws would be hastily passed. Childbearing would become a patriotic imperative.
Additionally, the people who do want babies would self-select each other – as well as the people that don’t want babies. In other words, if you were a male that didn’t want children, you would now chose from one of the one-third of women that couldn’t have children. This self-selecting could cancel out the reduction in births all by itself.
There is no question that birth rates among the remaining fertile women would spike upward. And it is surprising how minor of a shift in the fertility rates it would take to offset the reduction in births implied by Brown’s solution.
To make this easier to grasp, imagine a group of 100 women (of child bearing age) after the virus. Under normal circumstances (before the virus) about 10 of these women would give birth in any given year (again, rough numbers, though close enough). But after the virus, only seven will do so. That means that 7 out of 67 who are still fertile will give birth. So, in order to get back to the same number of births as before the virus, only 3 more of the 60 remaining fertile women (67 minus 7) will have to have a baby.
In other words, the new reality of encouraged surrogacy and adoption, financial incentives, self-selection, etc. will only have to convince 3 out of 60 women that they need to help “save the world” by giving birth. Common sense tells me that that is easily achievable.
But to be conservative, what if that number of total births only went from 7 to 8? Or even more conservatively, what if it simply stayed the same. What if births were reduced from 10 to 7 out of 100 women, and then just stayed the same rate after that for the next 100 years? Clearly, that would be a very conservative estimate – wouldn’t you agree?
To find out what would happen in that case (of constant fertility), I went to the spreadsheets provided by the U.N. and modified them for this scenario. I simply took the births per year and reduced them by one-third and kept the deaths the same and then ran out the numbers. Understand however, in our example above, we stated that fertility rates would remain constant – 7 births per year/100 women of child bearing years – i.e. a constant fertility rate. And because of that I used the U.N.’s “constant fertility” variant as the basis for the spreadsheet.
The result: Even with Zobrist’s virus, world population reaches over 9 billion by 2055, just 5 years later than the commonly accepted timeframe of 2050. And it reaches the astonishing number of 18 billion by 2100. Brown’s so-called “radical and abhorrent” solution does virtually nothing to change our overpopulation picture.
Dan Brown may not be the greatest writer on the planet, but he is deservedly recognized for the amount of research he does for his novels. So, how could he have so substantially missed this calculation of the fundamental and primary premise of his novel? And even more astonishingly, almost a year after The Inferno’s publication, why has no one else pointed this out?
To be clear, Dan Brown did himself believe that Zobrist’s “one-third-infertile” solution would work. Here are two quotes by Brown from a BBC interview done after the release of the book:
“And the reason I think Zobrist is such an interesting character is because you can say, is he a madman or a genius? Or a little of both?”
“There are moments in the novel, or at least when I was writing it, when I thought, wow, Zobrist may save the world here. Maybe this is how far we have to go to stop this.”
(Dan Brown, from BBC.com 20 May, 2013)
Why did Dan Brown get this so wrong?
And why has no one pointed it out?
The answer is: the extraordinary power of denial. <italics mine>
After every corner turned, denial greets us first. Dan Brown turned the first corner and accepted the role of overpopulation as a fundamental obstacle in our attempts at solving our sustainability problem. But like so many others who have also turned that first corner, he can not allow himself accept the incredible (and horrifying) depths that we must go to in order to actually solve the overpopulation problem and prevent the otherwise inevitable collapse.
This pernicious second-level denial cripples many of the small group of people who understand and accept that overpopulation is the primary driver of our rapid rush to oblivion. They have turned the first corner but can get no further.
Unfortunately, these people still hope that there are things that we can do to solve the problem that are not that painful. They believe that there are actions we can do that will strike a balance between objectionable and effective.
But just like Dan Brown’s widely accepted (and completely unexamined) solution – these half-measures will not solve our sustainability crisis. They are not the means to the overriding and necessary end.
And to the extent that they promote false hope by claiming to be a cure for our looming sustainability crisis to the people who support these ideas, and to the people who listen to them, they are a danger.
This dangerous false hope obscures the reality of our situation. It fosters complacency, even in those who accept the problem. It allows us to defer the solution to the smart people who we hope will (as Zobrist did) come up with an easy win-win solution.
Here is a quote from Beyond Hope, Orion Magazine May/June 2006, a beautiful essay by Derrick Jensen:
“A WONDERFUL THING happens when you give up on hope, which is that you realize you never needed it in the first place. You realize that giving up on hope didn’t kill you. It didn’t even make you less effective. In fact it made you more effective, because you ceased relying on someone or something else to solve your problems-you ceased hoping your problems would somehow get solved through the magical assistance of God, the Great Mother, the Sierra Club, valiant tree-sitters, brave salmon, or even the Earth itself-and you just began doing whatever it takes to solve those problems yourself.”
That is the lesson here. That is the lesson of Dan Brown’s miscalculation. Quit thinking someone else is going to solve this problem. Quit hoping that the smart people “out there” will come up with something to fix this without your involvement or sacrifice.
Do as Jensen suggests – give up on hope and get into action. Educate yourself, think, get real, do something, say something, write something, get involved – you must do these things because our leaders will not.
If you don’t, within just a few decades, we will erect a giant monument with this epitaph for humanity:
What we would do, could not work
What could have worked, we would not do
He can be found at: www.populationelephant.com
What do you think of Kurt’s analysis?
Ugh. That is really all I can muster at this point. I’m so tired of the rampant denial and idiotic rationalizations surrounding this issue.
The “but we need more workers to pay for social security!” (Because basing your economy on what amounts to a demographic Ponzi scheme is totally sustainable.)
The “we need to breed great thinkers who can solve all our problems!” (There are 7 billion people in the world today. We have plenty of smart people already, and yet still, we choose to continue digging our own graves. So much for the smart. Not to mention, maybe we’d have even more smart people if we decreased inequality instead of having more kids. Who knows how many Einsteins are already here, but languishing in poverty and thus too busy merely surviving to bring about world peace–poverty that is intensified due to overpopulation?) This brings to mind that Nina Paley cartoon “Talkivist.” I am not tech-savvy enough to link, but you can find it on google.
And what might be my personal favorite (a corollary to the one above) “technology will save us! ….. Somehow!” (Note the details of the “somehow” are never provided. Note that, to a degree, technology is what got us into this mess in the first place, and there’s that old saying about not being able to solve a problem at the same level of thinking that created it. Note that quality of life never seems to concern the proponents of this chestnut. Even if we could all fit into Texas, we would still need a ton of workable land to grow our food, get clean water, etc. What’s the point of enabling ourselves to have 15 billion people squatting on the planet if we have to destroy the environment to do it? Wouldn’t you like your grandkids to know what a tree looks like?)
Part of me (the last, gasping optimistic molecules) suspects this issue won’t be such a hot button for much longer. Right now, it’s mostly developing countries that are bearing the brunt of things like climate change, famines, etc., so the power players don’t care. But once these problems start hitting the first world countries hard enough so that they can’t be denied even by the blindest of morons, I think it’s possible that the scope of what’s considered “acceptable” conversation will be widened, possibly to include population problems. The generations currently in adulthood grew up in a time of cheap oil and (what seemed like) infinite expansion and possibility. I’m not sure that will be true for kids being born today, so they may not be as wedded to the status quo in adulthood as their parents are now. So in this sense, ironically, the baby-pushers may have a point–it will be the children who save us…by choosing to have fewer of their own.
I forgot to mention my favorite part of my favorite denial, that naturally, “someone else” will invent the technology to save the world. It’s so lazy and intellectually dishonest. If you* think technology can solve everything, that all of our problems are even solvable, then why haven’t YOU solved our problems yet? I’m sure YOUR parents thought their little genius was going to cure cancer someday, after all. How’d that work out for you? And hey, maybe your parents could have solved our problems already if they hadn’t been so busy raising you. But sure. I’m SURE your little precious will be the one exception in the billions that have walked this planet since the dawn of homo sapiens to solve all our problems without anyone needing to make even the smallest of sacrifices in their lifestyle and consumption.
(Angry? Why do you ask?)
People are just so damn unwilling to think outside their own conditioning and their own immediate wants.