Inferno (a novel)

I recently finished reading the latest Dan Brown book, Inferno:  A Novel.   As always, it was a page turner.

In college, I was an engineering physics major.  I had a slew of AP credits, so the only real humanities course I took was during my freshman year--a junior level science fiction course taught by Rabkin (which was truly an excellent course!   We read a different book every week.  We could only write a one page paper, so it was great for teaching us to tighten up our writing!).   In high school, I had another excellent course called, "Humanities" which tried to immerse us in the zeitgeist of the times--we would march through western history, exploring writings, art history, philosophy, and music of different periods.   It's a compelling way of learning.   I was also fortunate enough to take Latin in high school and to read the Aeneid, the Cena Trimalchionis, etc. in Latin--but otherwise, most of what I've encountered of the humanities has been in my copious free time.   Somehow, I have not read Dante's Inferno and after reading Dan Brown's book, it's definitely on my to read list!

I will skip over a discussion of the iconography and plot of the book except to say that it revolves around a problem raised by Malthus.  Writing in the 1800s, Malthus' essential observation was that while the growth of resources up to then was linear, the growth in population was geometric.   Given this, there would have to come a point where the population could no longer be supported by available resources.   He believed that famines, plague, etc. had managed to avoid the inevitable catastrophe from occurring by dropping the population, but that it was just a matter of time.   A character in Dan Brown's novel believes that Malthus was right and takes steps to try to deal with the problem.

Now, the question I wish to ask, is whether Malthus was indeed correct.   By simple evidence of the fact that we are here today without having observed his predictions coming true shows that at least his time scales were wrong.   Some have argued that through science, we've managed to beat Malthus--namely through the Green Revolution.  But as this blog points out, the Green Revolution was made possible through the expanding use of fossil fuels--which are limited.   So, perhaps we've merely been able to push off the inevitable.    However, it would appear that as societies become more developed and educated, they tend to produce less children and the population is expected to stabilize around 2050.   Given current resource levels, we may have centuries to think about better solutions--so, I don't see the same urgency that led to the drastic solutions of Brown's villain...

As a final note, one of the suggestions in the book was that population collapse, such as that which happened after the Black Plague in Europe led to the Renaissance--but what of Justinian's plague?  What of the Spanish Flu?  I find it hard to believe that pandemics have generally been beneficial for humanity.  Personally, I think that overpopulation is not the most pressing concern that we have to worry about today.   Climate change and our energy future is a different story...






Posted by william

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