You know Inferno, the new Dan Brown novel, the one that’s had such fabulously bad reviews? Well, it’s not really about Dante’s Inferno at all. What it’s really about — spoiler alert — is that old bogey: global population explosion.
For the baddie, a genetic scientist called Bertrand Zobrist, the big threat to humanity is the inexorable increase in the world population to nine billion by 2050. ‘By any biological gauge’, he tells the head of the World Health Organisation, Dr Elizabeth Sinskey, whom he has lured into a darkened lecture room, ‘our species has exceeded our sustainable numbers… Under the stress of overpopulation, those who have never considered stealing will kill to provide for their young. All of Dante’s deadly sins — greed, gluttony, treachery, murder and the rest — will begin percolating… rising up to the surface of humanity… we are facing a battle for the very soul of man’.
Obviously Dr Sinskey, being an expert scientist herself, has an answer for that one. ‘Recently we spent millions of dollars sending doctors into Africa to deliver free condoms and educate people about birth control,’ she seethes. Zobrist is having none of it. ‘And an even bigger army of Catholic missionaries marched in on your heels and told the Africans that if they used the condoms they’d all go to hell. Africa has a new environmental issue now — landfills overflowing with unused condoms.’ Elizabeth falls silent, ‘He was right on this one,’ she reflects, somehow missing out both on Africa’s Muslim population and population increase in India, neither of which can be blamed on the Vatican. There you have it: the real villain of the new Inferno as seen by Dan Brown: the Catholic church. And yes, this is about as close to up-ending Dante as you can get.
But it would be wrong to imagine that apocalyptic vistas about overpopulation are the preserve of Dan Brown. Zobrist’s rhetoric, in fact, is not unlike that of Prince Charles’s favourite population gurus, Paul and Anne Ehrlich, whose latest paper on the subject, published by the Royal Society, is headed: ‘Can a Collapse of Global Civilisation Be Avoided?’ No, is the short answer, unless we adopt ‘dramatic cultural change’. As they observe, ‘Today, for the first time, humanity’s global civilisation… is threatened with collapse by an array of environmental problems. Humankind finds itself engaged in what Prince Charles described as “an act of suicide on a grand scale”… The human predicament is driven by overpopulation, overconsumption of natural resources and the use of unnecessarily environmentally damaging technologies.’ The authors assume an increase in population to 9.5 billion by 2050. Result: ‘global collapse’.
Indeed, if Dan Brown’s background research did not manage to include a close reading of Dante, it does seem to have taken on board Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 classic The Population Bomb, which cheerily predicted that the US would be enduring mass famine by 2000 and that half the population of Britain would be lucky to survive.
The reality is, there are no guarantees about population growth. A more sober projection by Wolfgang Lutz and Samir K.C., also for the Royal Society, suggested that the world population is likely to increase by at least a billion from its current 7 billion to 8-10 billion by 2050, quite a big margin of error. But it suggests in the second half of the century, the population is likely to stabilise, then decline, with the critical factor being the spread of education, particularly for women.
One place where Paul Ehrlich’s doomsday scenarios do seem to have been taken seriously is China, whose one-child policy since 1979 has led to an abortion rate of about 13 million a year and the perpetration of grotesque human rights abuses in forced abortion and sterilisation. The human rights activist Chen Guangcheng, in London this week, observed that in one year in his home city, there were 120,000 forced abortions. That’s demographic containment, if you like.
Dan Brown’s Zobrist has a neat solution to demographic catastrophe, viz the release of a clever virus, Inferno, which would humanely reduce the global population by making one in three people sterile. Clever, eh? And the scary thing about it is that Brown’s head of the World Health Organisation thinks he might be on the right lines. It’s tosh, obviously. But tosh that’s not very far from received wisdom.