Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Of Dante and Malthus?

I never thought my decision to read Inferno a second time will left me hanging with so much bizarre thoughts and preconceptions on mind. Anyone who used with Dan Brown and his writing will know how heavy his works are. Being filled with facts from page to page, sometimes it’s hard to grasp everything in one go. And it’s not weird for me to only skimming through the pages as he tried to precisely describe a painting, a building or a sculpture even. Maybe the fact that I’d never really seen the actual thing made it less meaningful to me and the stories behind them that had never conjure to me until just now had fail to make me understand the emotion that I should feel accordingly. But, it was really amazing how he was able to put a fictional Robert Langdon into life. Every time Langdon’s deciphering a symbol, it sent me chills as if I was reading through the Sherlock Holmes series.

I know now the name of many famous artists like Botticelli, Dante, Vasari for instance and their works. Though I really shouldn’t just rely on a fictional novel alone to really understand a field out of my expertise but it was a really good book to start first with.

The masterpiece before him—La Mappa dell’Inferno—had been painted by one of the true giants of the Italian Renaissance, Sandro Botticelli. An elaborate blueprint of the underworld, The Map of Hell was one of the most frightening visions of the afterlife ever created. Dark, grim, and terrifying, the painting stopped people in their tracks even today. Unlike his vibrant and colorful Primavera or Birth of Venus, Botticelli had crafted his Map of Hell with a depressing palate of reds, sepias, and browns.

Exalted as one of the preeminent works of world literature, the Inferno was the first of three books that made up Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy—a 14,233-line epic poem describing Dante’s brutal descent into the underworld, journey through purgatory, and eventual arrival in paradise. Of the Comedy’s three sections— Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso—Inferno was by far the most widely read and memorable. Composed by Dante Alighieri in the early 1300s, Inferno had quite literally redefined medieval perceptions of damnation. Never before had the concept of hell captivated the masses in such an entertaining way. Overnight, Dante’s work solidified the abstract concept of hell into a clear and terrifying vision—visceral, palpable, and unforgettable. Not surprisingly, following the poem’s release, the Catholic Church enjoyed an enormous uptick in attendance from terrified sinners looking to avoid Dante’s updated version of the underworld.

Depicted here by Botticelli, Dante’s horrific vision of hell was constructed as a subterranean funnel of suffering—a wretched underground landscape of fire, brimstone, sewage, monsters, and Satan himself waiting at its core. The pit was constructed in nine distinct levels, the Nine Rings of Hell, into which sinners were cast in accordance with the depth of their sin. Near the top, the lustful or “carnal malefactors” were blown about by an eternal windstorm, a symbol of their inability to control their desire. Beneath them the gluttons were forced to lie face down in a vile slush of sewage, their mouths filled with the product of their excess. Deeper still, the heretics were trapped in flaming coffins, damned to eternal fire. And so it went … getting worse and worse the deeper one descended.

I maybe have the least interest with both Dante’s Inferno and Botticelli’s La Mappa dell’inferno. But, I can’t help feeling a little pumped up reading a familiar name like Malthus when included in the story. Malthus was famous for coming up with the ‘Malthus Theory of Population’ that stated how the rapid population growth will later result in resources constraints. (I was contemplating whether I should or should not elaborate further, maybe not). Interestingly, it’s not just a plain economics theory like we used to learn in class. Instead, Dan Brown twistedly included the role of World Health Organization (WHO) as one of the main causes of population growth. These three different perspectives of Art History, Social Sciences and Pure Science though fictional was thoroughly plotted and had successfully convince me about its possibility of turning into reality – theoretically.

Thomas Robert Malthus

It begins when a Dante fanatic (as in he believes about the Dante’s Divine Comedy) who’s happened to be a scientist was disturbed by the extremely high percentage of the population growth from the previous years. Before, it took the earth’s population thousands of years —from the early dawn of man all the way 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. After that, it took a mere fifty years for the population to double again to four billion in the 1970s. As you can imagine, we’re well on track to reach eight billion very soon. Just today, the human race added another quarter-million people to planet Earth.

 As a scientist (biochemist) himself, he knows the result of overpopulation will be disastrous to the society and to the world itself. World Health Organization also was known to again increased its forecasts, predicting there will be some nine billion people on earth before the midpoint of this century. Animal species are going to extinct at a precipitously accelerated rate. The demand for dwindling natural resources will be skyrocketing. Clean water is harder and harder to come by. By any biological gauge, the human species has exceeded their sustainable numbers. However, though well-known with the implications, the World Health Organization—is investing in things like curing diabetes, filling blood banks, battling cancer. Not only that overpopulation will become a health issues, it might also cost us our humanity. Under the stress of overpopulation, those who have never considered stealing will become thieves to feed their families. Those who have never considered killing will kill to provide for their young. All of Dante’s deadly sins—greed, gluttony, treachery, murder, and the rest—will begin percolating … rising up to the surface of humanity, amplified by our evaporating comforts.

He suggested that all doctors should stop practicing medicine because extending the human life span was only exacerbating the population problem. The biggest backlash he got, however, came when he declared that his advances in genetic engineering would be far more helpful to mankind if they were used not to cure disease, but rather to create it. A study made in the U.S. showed that some sixty percent of health care costs go to support patients during the last six months of their lives. The longer we live, the more our resources go to supporting the elderly and ailing. Ironically, while often our brains say, ‘This is insane,’ our hearts wouldn’t allow it. It’s the common conflict between Apollo and Dionysus—a famous dilemma in mythology – the age-old battle between mind and heart, which seldom want the same thing. The mythological reference, was now being used to describe the alcoholic who stares at a glass of alcohol, his brain knowing it will harm him, but his heart craving the comfort it will provide.

As I was trying to unbiasedly processed those possibilities, it was natural for me to repetitively reminding myself as the novel being only a fiction. The novel might be a fiction, but I believe the main issue it trying to convey was not. Picture a colony of surface algae living in a tiny pond in the forest, enjoying the pond’s perfect balance of nutrients. Unchecked, they reproduce so wildly that they quickly cover the pond’s entire surface, blotting out the sun and thereby preventing the growth of the nutrients in the pond. Having sapped everything possible from their environment, the algae quickly die and disappear without a trace. Though overpopulation is inevitable, I’m not saying it is correct that a plague that kills half the world’s people is the answer to it. Nor am I saying we should stop curing the sick and the elderly. But, to an extent I believe with the possibilities that will arise as the results of the overpopulation. We can’t deny that many global conflict today was mainly revolving around resources be it a piece of land, oil, energy, and water.

When China decide to abolish it’s one-child policy and replace it with the new two-child policy, I thought what they did was humane. But, realizing the bigger impact it might cause I can’t help but to feel a little worried. Some economist critics Malthus Theory of Population by saying that though population increases abruptly, the advancement in technologies that we had nowadays are more than able to support and produce foods and resources twice or thrice time more than the last century in order to cater our needs. But, did they take into account the defect those technologies might cause to the nature? On what did we had to pay in return? I’m not trying to be any more pessimistic that I already are, but I prefer to live in the light of truth even it is painfully hard to accept.

Our human mind has a primitive ego defense mechanism that negates all realities that produce too much stress for the brain to handle and it’s called denial. Denial is a critical part of the human coping mechanism. Without it, we would all wake up terrified every morning about all the ways we could die. Instead, our minds block out our existential fears by focusing on stresses we can handle—like getting to work on time or paying our taxes. If we have wider, existential fears, we jettison them very quickly, and only refocusing on simple tasks and daily trivialities. A recent Web-tracking study of students at some Ivy League universities which revealed that even highly intellectual users displayed an instinctual tendency toward denial. According to the study, the vast majority of university students, after clicking on a depressing news article about arctic ice melt or species extinction, would quickly exit that page in favor of something trivial that purged their minds of fear; favorite choices included sports highlights, funny cat videos, and celebrity gossip.

Maybe we can do nothing of the world being overpopulated. But, we can do something to suffice the resources we have today and preserve them for the future generation. At least, we are being granted with that much of power and it can make a big change if only we realised them.