John Ostrander: Too Much

I read recently that Dan Brown’s book Inferno has been optioned for a film. Brown is most famous for The DaVinci Code that was subsequently made into a film by Ron Howard starring Tom Hanks as Brown’s character Robert Langdon. I’m not a big Brown enthusiast, but I bought Inferno. I needed something to read, was looking for some light entertainment, and that was the best that was available.

I read it and sort of enjoyed it, as is the case with me for most of Mr. Brown‘s books. There were some very good scenes and taught suspense and/or action sequences but Brown also has to have his twists and often these start to strain credulity. That was very much the case for me in Inferno and I thought that the climax and resolution veered into science fiction. I like science fiction but this was not really a SF book. The story got to be too much.

“Too much” is also part of the theme and the plot of the book.

Central to the whole concept of the book are the theories of The Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus who lived in the late 1700s/early 1800s. His theories involved the rate of population growth and the ability to feed everyone. He said “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.” A Malthusian catastrophe occurs when the number of people in a given area exceeds the ability to feed them.

In the past, plagues and natural catastrophes would cut down on the population. One theory suggests the Black Death so reduced the amount of people in Europe that the survivors actually wound up having more prosperity and this led, in part, to the Renaissance. In theory.

But we’ve gotten better at keeping people alive; people live longer – at least in first world countries. And that will put a further strain on resources – not just food but water and other resources.

Brown isn’t the only person who has dabbled in Malthusian theory. In DC’s Green Lantern, the planet Maltus was originally the home of those who would become the Guardians – who created the whole Green Lantern Corps. Maltus had a severe overpopulation problem; the planet’s name of Maltus is so close to Malthus that it’s inconceivable to me that the writer wasn’t referring to him.

Central to Brown’s plot is that, according to Malthus’ projections and given the rate of increase in the world’s population, it becomes a mathematical certainty that the Malthusian catastrophe of overpopulation will occur in about fifty years.

That in itself is pretty depressing. Add to that environmental catastrophe and the view gets bleaker. (We’re not going to debate climate change here; deny it if you wish but do it elsewhere. And while you’re at it, deny the Earth is round.) There are climate scientists who think we’ve already gone past the tipping point and we can only mitigate the damage, not stop it.

It’s not that there aren’t solutions to these problems but those solutions are themselves difficult, complex, perhaps draconian and involves the world acting in concert. It will call for drastic change. That looks very unlikely. I don’t think there is the political will to achieve it; politicians these days are concerned almost exclusively to keeping their constituents happy. We will have to be in the crisis before we will address it realistically and that will be too late. The world Dan Brown writes of in Inferno will be well on its way to becoming Green Lantern’s world of Maltus.

And to think I picked up Inferno for a little light reading.