Dan Brown’s Inferno is now at the top of best seller lists wherever it has been published. A lot of people are going to read it.
Apart from its loving detail of Dante, art, museums, Florence, Venice and Istanbul to support the chase and adventure, it has a very serious central theme: we are rushing toward a catastrophic end to human society as we know it. The amazingly intelligent characters in the book who are worrying most about all of this conclude that human over-population is the underlying cause.
A hard-to-read graph in the book condenses the evidence. It is a compilation of graphs of the acceleration of pretty well everything in the past 50 to 250 years, originally published in The New Scientist on Oct 12, 2008 as a Special Report, entitled How Our Economy is Killing the Earth. You may need library access or a subscription to read the whole report but the link lets you see some of the underlying data. It is certainly worth looking at, for it bears no good news:
To help you read it where the print is too small:
Time runs along along the bottom or x axis – 1750 on the left with 50 year increments to 2000 on the right. The scales on the vertical or y axis are all relative to a low starting point on the left, but of course vary immensely depending on what is being measured, so no numbers are included.
12 measures are graphed, 5 starting in 1750, 4 in 1900, and 3 in 1950. Some graph global data, some are restricted to the USA.
Starting in 1750, and working down, are Northern hemisphere surface temperature (orange), Global population size (red), CO2 level in atmosphere (blue), GDP (dark red), and Loss of tropical forests and woodland (green).
Starting in 1900, and again working down, are Water use (blue), Paper consumption (yellow), Species extinctions (green), and Number of motor vehicles (black).
And starting in 1950, Tons of fish caught (blue), Foreign investment (light grey), and Ozone depletion (dark grey).
Obviously this is an odd graph, for the scales on all of the measures have been adjusted to make the lines coincide as much as possible. But the essential point is still a valid one – all measures increase rapidly, on their own scales, at about the same rate, at about the same time, and none show signs of slowing down.
Although Brown’s characters are convinced that the causal, driving force is the growth of the global human population, the reality is of course a lot more complicated, for consumption and capitalism also do a lot of the driving.
While we wait for the human population to finally level off, we could do a lot to reduce the rate of growth of almost all of the other measures.
Meanwhile, the graph should worry us all. If it looks like we are generally out of control, we are. With luck, some of the people now in power will read Inferno and become infected by its sense of urgency.