Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Dan Brown’s Inferno: Population, Resources and Socio-Economic Futures

Dan Brown’s recent book Inferno has had mixed reviews at best (e.g. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/may/19/dan-brown-inferno-review, http://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/books/2013/05/26/book-review-inferno-dan-brown/TPxCswZpdIqLrkZHarRcYM/story.html, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/10053517/Inferno-by-Dan-Brown-review.html ). You could take the view that Dan Brown, as Liberace before him, is probably crying all the way to the bank. Dan Brown in an interview with the BBC, however, shows his concern at such ‘hurtful’ reviews as he sees them but, as importantly Brown views overpopulation, the central motivating force of the book’s ‘villain’ Betrand Zobrist, as a key messge of his book.

Leaving aside the literary merits of the book (I read it in three night, enjoyed the ride and got annoyed as some of the tour book description slowed the plot, but that is just me), Brown believes he explores the central concern of overpopulation is explored from both sides, and enters the 'grey' area of suggesting a scientific solution. Brown takes a very Maltusian, doom and gloom, view of overpopulation citing the usual population increase is geometric whilst resources grow at an arithmetic rate, hence we're all doomed. Technology and science provides the resolution to the problem, although whether it is within the remit of technological solutions envisaged by Ester Boesrup back in the 1960s is another question. After finishing the book I thought there was probably a more interesting book to be written about the implications of the solution the mad-scientist comes up with and how thinking through the solution helped to identify how current socio-economic activity is tied to fertility and demographics.

For those that have not yet read the book a spoiler warning now! Betrand Zobrist, the 'villian' (or hero depending on yoru view point), is a genius geneticist who hides away from everyone for a year to come up with his solution to the problems of overpopulation. Inferno is about the hunt, after Zobrist suicide in Florence, for his genetically engineered answer. Throughout the book the reader assumes, as the pieces fall into place, that the ‘solution’ is some type of super virus, a new plague that will reduce global population to a sustainable level through mass contagion, mass death and destruction. The twist, apart from the fact that Langdon doesn’t prevent the release of the virus, is that the virus doesn’t kill people. The virus affects the genetics of the world population so that a third of the population is sterile and so perpertual population control is achieved. The third is randomly selected and the virus persists through time so that a random third of the population is always sterile. Brown seems to assume that the scientific solution is an end to his story: his two heroines jet off to the World Health Organisation in Geneva to sort out the implications. I would suggest that the scientific solution would unravel due to these implications.
The interesting thought is if such a ‘solution’ was implemented what would the world look like in ten, fifty or hundred years? What does such a vision tells us about the intertwining of socio-economic structures and fertility?
· What would be the status of the sterile third? Would they be viewed as drones to service the ‘productivity’ two-thirds of the world’s population? Would a change in status produce an effective underclass?

· Would personal relations be ‘managed’ by the state to ensure that sterile individuals did not marry fertile individuals? What are the social implications of such management?

· Expectation of fertility is an essential element in maintaining social structures. Passing on wealth and power as well as the hope for the future of your offspring is a key determinant in socio-economic relationships. If the third was truly random, i.e. your children could be sterile even if you were not, then there would be no certainty of being able to ensure this transfer of resources. What would be the socio-economic implications of such uncertainty? Why accumulate wealth if it is not to be past on or would a larger unit than the family become the focus of human emotional attachment.

· Random does not mean spatially homogeneous. As with any random process there are likely to be clusters of sterility and fertility. How would such a distribution affect power relations between nations? Would initial differences in fertility/sterility rates be magnified through time leading to a redistribution of power and economic wealth?

Inferno is a nice read (at least I think so) but the scientific solution should not be viewed outside of the socio-economic context that it would impact. The implications, left to the unseen committee in Geneva in the book, are the forces most likely to untangle the idealist solution.

1 comment:

  1. Inferno would downright be an economic disaster. As I went through the pages I thought the "plague" would not be released, cuz pages were running out for the aftermath (turns out, there was no aftermath). I was really disappointed cuz the author just expected us to believe that this would actually turn out to be ok, that this, in fact, was the "ultimate solution". The sad part is a lot of people have in fact fallen for it. Well, of course it's not ok! Turns out his brilliant and "moral" answer would definitely have worst consequences than the perverse release of an actual plague. Don’t you think there was a reason for the economic prosperity after the Black Death? The infected died. You can’t just let people hanging here ageing and with a decreasing working age population to support them, it’s a recipe for chaos; you might as well kill them. Ageing population is a problem, ask Japan. Also, people wouldn’t just accept the fact, they don’t now. Women who can’t conceive will try anything to get pregnant, and if they still can’t, they’ll pay someone to get pregnant for them; this might just be the best business after Inferno! And governments afraid of ageing population will probably do something about it, like encourage those families that can conceive to have more children than they would otherwise. Last point: one child policy in China, later-age marriages, smaller and smaller families seem to be the tendency even in third world countries… I don’t know about you, but it seems to me the “invisible hand” is driving population to some sort of equilibrium! FYI, I did enjoy reading the book, he just didn’t play out all the scenarios!