Pop Culture Rediscovers Overpopulation

Published on August 28th, 2013

After a hiatus, pop culture rediscovered overpopulation big time this summer. The perils of too many people figure prominently both in a blockbuster science fiction movie and a #1 best-selling book.

The movie is Elysium, directed by South African auteur Neill Blomkamp, who now works out of Canada. It features heartthrob and liberal icon Matt Damon as an ex-con turned swashbuckling liberator. The novel is Inferno by Dan Brown, who stormed the book world a decade ago with his mystery thriller, The Da Vinci Code. Brown’s new book continues the adventures of the Harvard “religious symbology” professor, Robert Langdon.

High-profile attention to overpopulation is welcome. Unfortunately for population activists and immigration restrictionists, neither the film nor the book promotes realistic or humane solutions to the real dilemmas we face.

But perhaps this is too much to expect of Hollywood or pulp fiction. Realistic and humane solutions would neither be stirring nor shocking enough to sell tickets and books to a mass market.

Set in the year 2154 in Los Angeles – or “Lost Angeles,” as my fingers first typed instinctively – the dystopian film Elysium is about two worlds. The first is an overpopulated Earth that resembles one vast, teeming slum and fetid garbage dump. (Indeed, scenes were filmed at Mexico City’s largest garbage dump.) The second is an orbiting ring-world paradise named Elysium, to which Earth’s rulers and the rich have decamped, escaping the squalor and ruin that are all that remains of the Home Planet after centuries of rampant exploitation by ever more numerous and insatiable humans.

Elysium is like a gated community on steroids, catapulted into orbit and sealed off from the despoiled Earth and the huddled masses not just by gates, fences and firewalls, but by the icy vacuum of space – the ultimate guarantor of security, it would seem. Elysium appears to consist largely of golf courses, gardens, swimming pools and mansions, accompanied by soothing classical music. Absent are the agricultural production, photosynthesizing forests and fields of a self-sustaining ecosystem – meaning either that director Blomkamp is ecologically ignorant, or that Elysium somehow depends on a depleted Earth for these critical resources, or both.

Elysium is an extreme version of what human ecologist Garrett Hardin had in mind when he penned his classic and controversial essay, “Living on a Lifeboat” (sometimes called “Lifeboat Ethics”). Immigration to Elysium is all but impossible for the lumpenproletariat stuck on godforsaken Earth.

I will not spoil the story except to say that strict immigration controls are breached before its end. Disappointingly though, any numerate, ecolate observer would share the reaction of this review in Wired magazine:

Blomkamp’s call for reform in Elysium involves an attempt to solve the complex problems he’s forecasted in an extremely simplistic and nigh-magical way …

Brown’s Inferno provides readers a primer on exponential population growth:

Consider this. It took the earth’s population thousands of years – from the early dawn of man to the early 1800s – to reach one billion people. Then astoundingly, it took only about a hundred years to double the population to two billion in the 1920s.

It’s almost as if Brown is channeling Professor Al Bartlett’s presentation, “Arithmetic, Population and Energy – Sustainability 101,” and its provocative claim: “The Greatest Shortcoming of the Human Race is our Inability to Understand the Exponential Function.”

A rogue scientist who understands the exponential function all too well decides to “solve” overpopulation with a bioengineered plague.

Suffice it to say that Inferno is filled with excitement and intrigue – though not proven, humane solutions to humanity’s overpopulation predicament.

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