Word of warning: If you haven’t read Inferno by Dan Brown and you don’t want to know what happens, stop reading now. This post contains spoilers!

So I got really bored last night and downloaded the Dan Brown novel Inferno on the iStore. Read the entire thing because I had insomnia and couldn’t sleep.

I’ve read all of his other novels, so knew to expect the standard conspiracy theory fluff. While I enjoy reading classic literature, I’m not going to pretend I don’t like reading mass-market stuff either. I actually like Dan Brown, as long as you don’t take him too seriously.

Anyway, the point of this blog entry isn’t the book as such, but the topic at the centre of the story. Overpopulation.

This is usually where people jump up and down and call me a racist, an elitist snob, Hitler…And yeah, let’s invoke Godwin’s Law here.

Inferno isn’t the first place to have posed the question by any means, but I’ll put it out there again anyway:

If you had to kill half of the world’s population now in order to save humanity from extinction 100 years from now due to overpopulation, would you do it?

Now I’m not sure what this says about me as a person, but I actually would.

I mentioned this on a Facebook post after I finished reading the book and the response was (predictably) fairly immediate. Ethnic cleansing, racism, discrimination etc.

How do you decide who to kill? The book suggests doing it randomly, but it would never be random in reality. Kill the weak and the strongest survive and continue the human race. Who are generally considered the weak? The poor, the starving, the unhealthy. And if we’re being honest, the geographical distribution of “the weak” is not even – some areas would be more “weak” than others. So if the weak were targeted, it would in reality be a way to annihilate certain communities. Ethnic cleansing, or some derivative of it.

Or you generate what is (in theory) a virus that attacks indiscriminately, as posed in the book. Is it really random though? Certain groups are more prone to falling victim to certain diseases than others. Some groups have a higher predisposition for certain genetic disorders. Generate this “vector virus” as they do in the book in order to randomly activate infertility in one third of the world’s population? Is it really going to be random? As one of the characters attests, what’s stopping someone from engineering the virus to attack certain population groups?

It’s not a particularly nice thing to be thinking about, wiping out half the world’s population. But I concede that reading this book hasn’t been the first time I’ve thought about it. I first started thinking about it roughly 10 years ago when I got into a debate with someone over why I didn’t want to have kids. One of the reasons I raised (aside from the fact I simply don’t like kids), is that I didn’t want to contribute to the world’s overpopulation problem. I got lambasted for that comment because apparently it seemed like I was attacking anybody who decided they wanted kids. Untrue, but it lead to an ongoing debate about overpopulation and resource consumption.

And as I work as a research geologist on mineral exploration problems, I know a little bit about non-renewable resources. There is not an infinite amount of oil. There is not an infinite amount of copper or iron ore. The areas in which we can grow crops for food are decreasing in size due to ongoing climactic changes. We are killing marine life (for food, among other things) at such a high rate that populations aren’t able to reproduce fast enough to maintain a stable population. It goes on…

After a while, I started to read up on the Malthusian catastrophe hypothesis and looking for a few simple journal articles on overpopulation. It’s interesting reading. At the end of the day, I do think overpopulation and the availability of natural resources (or the lack thereof) will be a catastrophe for humanity if we keep going the way we’re going. But on the other hand, I also think humanity is far more likely to annihilate itself through biological or chemical warfare before we actually reach the overpopulation catastrophe threshold.

It’s funny, even though at the end of Inferno, the bad guy basically won, I was thinking “awesome!”. Is it weird that I actually sympathised with the bad guy and was happy he got away with it?

Also, now I need a holiday to Italy.


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