I’m a fan of Dan Brown. His books and movies are pure entertainment, blending mystery with intrigue in a fast moving (somewhat repetitive) plot. I also admire his ability to question commonly held religious and cultural beliefs in both a creative and provocative manner. And let’s not forget the travel opportunities. His novels usually include captivating descriptions of exotic locations, illustrious properties, renowned art and unique insights into history around the world. His new book Inferno, similarly offers mystery and plot twists on a global scale—but this time he tackles hell, world population and the end of life on earth. Is this Dan Brown novel better, worse, or just more of the same? More importantly, does this novel introduce ideas that should be part of our ongoing global conversation and not just because they make for a thrilling novel?
Don’t worry. I’m not going to give away the story in case you are planning to read the book or see the movie. Is there a movie planned? I’m only guessing, but the book reads like a script with dozens of actions sequences so be prepared. From a review perspective I will say that I enjoyed the book and appreciated the action—although it seemed about 15% longer than it needed to be. Overall I was surprised several times by certain plot twists and revelations, and for fans of Dan Brown you will definitely enjoy the ride.
However, the main reason I’m writing this is to explore a couple of themes in the book that intrigued me and see whether they fit into ideas of living SMART 365. First off I’ve never been a big fan of Dante’s Divine Comedy (the actual name of the text). Its bleak portrayal of a Christian hell obviously comes from someone who struggled with the concept most of his life. And while I haven’t read it in it’s entirety, and am only familiar with the more famous passages and now with explanations offered by so Dan Brown, it still doesn’t appeal to me as modern version of what happens when we die.
Instead, what I gleam when reading bits and pieces of it, is a creative and allegorical description of a hard and disappointing life as well as a revengeful and unforgiving deity. And while its label as a comedy was chosen to depict a plot that flows from an unhappy beginning to a happy ending, far too many characters were obliviously unable to enjoy the trip. In fact, the idea that anyone would be required to show his/her faith by enduring the trials and tribulations of such an horrendous decent into hell in order to witness the rewards of heaven seems like a lose-lose proposition from the onset. And while it’s clear that Dante’s poetic depiction of the religious, philosophical and political issues facing most people in medieval Europe at that time is a brilliant work of literature, those of us in the 21st century could use a new story about what follows death of our physical bodies.
The next question raised by Dan Brown is the problem of over-population of our planet. Not since the blockbuster 1970s movie, Soylent Green has the topic been given such a prominent role in fiction. For those of you who may be too young to remember, Soylent Green portrayed a dystopian future with overpopulation, pollution, poverty, depleted natural resources, dying oceans and climate change. Unfortunately most humans are forced to consume processed food rations called Soylent Green. The shocking conclusion eventually reveals that the food source is simply recycled humans.
There have been a few other stories and movies that have touched on the topic in the last few decades, but Inferno addresses overpopulation straight on by making it a convincing motivation for the bad guy in the book, Bertrand Zobrist. Zobrist is a brilliant geneticist with passion and endless resources who is convinced that the only way to save the world is to create an epidemic to counteract the growing population. That Zobrist is also obsessed with the work of Dante and The Black Death (bubonic plague) only adds to the drama. Zobrist is convinced that the only way to save the human race is to quickly and dramatically limit population and has devised a plot to accomplish that goal unless of course our hero Robert Langdon can stop him.
What makes the drama most compelling is the questions raised by the dilemma surrounding the issues of overpopulation. According to several sources, most environmental biologists or statistician believe that humankinds’ best chance of long term survival occurs with a global population of around 4 billion. That’s what Zobrist suggests in the Brown’s book too. The big problem is of course that current estimates put present population at just over 7 billion with estimates that it will be 8 billion by 2025 and 9 billion by 2050. Anyone who doubts that our exploding population is a potentially dangerous catastrophe needs to only consider the real world issues of artificial food production (GMOs?), accelerated weather extremes, debilitating pollution, increased demand for natural resources and shrinking supplies of drinkable water. Other reports continue to affirm that if everyone in the world lived like typical Americans it would take 4 planet Earths to sustain us.
But what’s the best way to handle it all? Pretend it isn’t happening and then let our children and grandchildren be forced to eat Soylent Green? Allow a geneticist like Zobrist to create a vaccine that eliminates certain portions of the population (yes, that sounds a lot like ethic cleansing.) Or what about sterilizing criminals, the poor, or minority citizens? What about making it a law that couples can only have one child? Or what about the hope that an epidemic comes along that wipes out a huge amount of the population without touching us or anyone we love?
While I’m not going to reveal any more of the plot, I do believe that these are important questions we all need to be asking ourselves. Most everyone reading this article exists in world where we live relatively comfortable lives. We have enough to eat, don’t have to worry about finding clean water to drink, our sanitation needs are met and we live in relatively safe neighborhoods. But as our world becomes increasingly more global we cannot build a wall big enough or strong enough to hold back the tide of an exploding population forever. Something needs to be done or as scientist David Pimentel wrote in 1994, “to do nothing to control population numbers is to condemn future humans to a lifetime of absolute poverty, suffering, starvation, disease, and associated violent conflicts.” When considered from this perspective maybe Dante’s Inferno isn’t too far off.
So what happens? Maybe it’s time to take the issue of overpopulation out of the closet and decide which way to go, or not go, as a species. Remember, your life and my life is not a novel with one good guy who will save the day—and there is not one among us who wants to travel through an Inferno to get to paradise.
Every single day we either make choices and decisions that put the focus of our lives on maintaining the status quo for ourselves and loved ones—or we make a choice that considers our expanded world. Every time we vote, attend particular organizations or spend our money we are effectively choosing either a sustainable world that will last far into the future or recklessly gambling with what could happen. Much as we would like to believe that we are insulated from any such calamity, the SMART response is always to remember that we are in this together and that there is no Planet B.