(Authors update (10/30/2016): The movie version of Inferno has just hit the theaters, and guess what the script
writers have changed? Now, in the movie, the virus created by the mad billionaire kills one half of the world's
population, a significant change from the book version where the virus makes one-third of the world's women
The book version Inferno virus is the topic of this detailed essay below, and in this essay I argue convincingly
that making one-third of world's women infertile would essentially have little to no effect on reducing world
population. Can't be true you say? Read the essay below and you will be convinced.
Apparently, the writers and/or producers of the Inferno movie also read this essay, became convinced, and
decided to make this change to the plot. According to google analytics aproximately 10,000 people have
referenced the essay in the past two years so I'm not just guessing here.
The unfotunate result of the publicity garnered by the Inferno movie is to further obscure the topic of human
overpopulation. Our population continues grow faster than predicted 5 years ago, 10 years ago, 20 years ago.
The consequences of our expanding population are coming at us faster than predicted, and yet, the discussion
of overpopulation has become even more taboo and ignored. No one in the current environment is willing to
even mention it.
See the essay below to get an idea of how hard it will be now to stop population growth, and avoid the abyss.
And if you are one of the few who are alarmed by our headlong rush to oblivion - pass on this essay, this
website, and the books to everyone you know - maybe we can get this issue raised again before it's too late.)
The original essay follows:
Dan Brown's latest novel, The Inferno, was the top selling book of 2013, and it will soon be a major motion
picture starring, once again, Tom Hanks as Robert Langdon, the Harvard "Symbologist" and hero of several
other of Brown's blockbuster novels (the four-book "Langdon" series has now sold in the neighborhood of 200
In The Inferno, Brown has taken on a very controversial issue - overpopulation - in a way not often seen by
mainstream authors, or mainstream people in general. As many of you know, the taboo topic of overpopulation
is seldom discussed these days. It is considered to be politically incorrect for liberals and environmentalists. It
is regarded as anti-capitalist and undemocratic for most conservatives, and morally abhorrent to the religious
But in The Inferno, Brown uses his antagonist, Bertrand Zobrist, to unapologetically make the case for
overpopulation being the driving force behind all of the worlds major challenges - climate change, peak
resources, etc. - and he implies that the likely endpoint of continued overpopulation will be a collapse of our
Of course, the dangerous consequences of overpopulation have been accepted and understood by many who
have diligently studied the issue, but it seldom happens that such a prominent public figure has the courage to
acknowledge it. Dan Brown needs to be applauded for articulating this issue so clearly - though it seems that
the general public is sitting on their hands instead.
Curious about the general public's reaction, I've now read hundreds of reviews, blog posts, comments, and other
analysis pieces that react to Dan Brown's overpopulation positions as expressed in the book. And once again I
am reminded how emotionally charged this issue has become. I'd estimate that around 90% of the reviews and
comments (the ones that discuss overpopulation) are aggressively hostile towards the simple claim that this
planet is overpopulated. And interestingly, the mainstream reviews (New York Times, etc.) never even mention
Brown's arguments on overpopulation - they simply ignore the issue altogether.
What has happened here is that the concept of "the overpopulation problem" has, through the wide distribution
of Dan Brown's book, suddenly reached a much more general audience - an audience well beyond the
scientists and activists who have studied, and who understand the problem. This points out again how far we
still have to go to achieve a broader public-awareness and understanding of this critical issue.
And though this lack of public understanding is an important point - it is not the purpose of this article.
In The Inferno, Brown goes much further than just defining the problem - he actually has his antagonist execute
a specific solution. What I really wanted to know (by reading the hundreds of reviews and comments) was if
anyone had done a critical analysis of Dan Brown's solution to the overpopulation problem. Had anyone actually
done the math to see if it would work? Surprisingly, no one had.
(Spoiler alert: this next part exposes Dan Brown's solution to the overpopulation problem as expressed in the
conclusion of the book.)
By the end of the book, Robert Langdon et al have become convinced that the antagonist, a biotech billionaire
named Bertrand Zobrist, has solved the world's population problem by creating a virus that makes one-third of
the women in the world infertile.
In the reviews and discussions of The Inferno, the reactions to Brown's solution vary depending on whether the
reviewer believes that there actually is an overpopulation problem - or not. Those that don't believe it is a
problem, call Brown's solution abhorrent, inhumane, evil, eugenics, a madman's vengeance, etc. - and those
that do, call it creative, humane, brilliant, ingenious, etc.
Apparently, everyone simply assumes that making one-third of the world's women infertile will reduce population
substantially, or perhaps if not reduce it substantially, the reduction will be enough to buy time for a more
comprehensive solution. Zobrist's solution would at least be a good start - right?
Wrong. I'd like to expand on Albert Bartlett's famous quotation - here's my new version: mankind's greatest
failing is it's inability to do simple freaking math!
The reality of Brown's solution is that it does not reduce population - in fact under his solution, population
continues to grow. Here is the easy version (forget fertility rates or the demographic transition for a moment):
Population grows every year because births outnumber deaths. It's that simple.
Right now, worldwide, we have around 135 million births and 55 million deaths annually. Therefore, we grow by
80 million each year (rough numbers). Under Zobrist's solution, births would be reduced by one-third. Therefore,
births would go down from 135 million to about 90 million. What that means is that worldwide population would
still increase by 35 million annually.
However, those numbers assume that fertility rates among the remaining fertile women stay the same. Let's
play out the script and see if that would be true. Try to project what the worldwide reaction would be to the
sudden knowledge that one-third of the world's women were now infertile because a madman had created and
distributed a horrifying virus.
Of course, it would begin with a deafening chorus of harrumphing by all of our leaders - political, religious,
academic, etc. They would immediately seize the opportunity to propose solutions to this fertility catastrophe.
Certainly, these leaders would try to encourage the remaining fertile women to have more babies. They would
make surrogacy and adoption easier, and perhaps even profitable. Laws would be hastily passed. Childbearing
would become a patriotic imperative.
Additionally, the people who do want babies would self-select each other - as well as the people that don't want
babies. In other words, if you were a male that didn't want children, you would now chose from one of the
one-third of women that couldn't have children. This self-selecting could cancel out the reduction in births all by
There is no question that birth rates among the remaining fertile women would spike upward. And it is surprising
how minor of a shift in the fertility rates it would take to offset the reduction in births implied by Brown's solution.
To make this easier to grasp, imagine a group of 100 women (of child bearing age) after the virus. Under normal
circumstances (before the virus) about 10 of these women would give birth in any given year (again, rough
numbers, though close enough). But after the virus, only seven will do so. That means that 7 out of 67 who are
still fertile will give birth. So, in order to get back to the same number of births as before the virus, only 3 more
of the 60 remaining fertile women (67 minus 7) will have to have a baby.
In other words, the new reality of encouraged surrogacy and adoption, financial incentives, self-selection, etc.
will only have to convince 3 out of 60 women that they need to help "save the world" by giving birth. Common
sense tells me that that is easily achievable.
But to be conservative, what if that number of total births only went from 7 to 8? Or even more conservatively,
what if it simply stayed the same. What if births were reduced from 10 to 7 out of 100 women, and then just
stayed the same rate after that for the next 100 years? Clearly, that would be a very conservative estimate -
wouldn't you agree?
To find out what would happen in that case (of constant fertility), I went to the spreadsheets provided by the
U.N. and modified them for this scenario. I simply took the births per year and reduced them by one-third and
kept the deaths the same and then ran out the numbers. Understand however, in our example above, we stated
that fertility rates would remain constant - 7 births per year/100 women of child bearing years - i.e. a constant
fertility rate. And because of that I used the U.N.'s "constant fertility" variant as the basis for the spreadsheet.
The result: Even with Zobrist's virus, world population reaches over 9 billion by 2055, just 5 years later than the
commonly accepted timeframe of 2050. And it reaches the astonishing number of 18 billion by 2100. Brown's
so-called "radical and abhorrent" solution does virtually nothing to change our overpopulation picture.
Dan Brown may not be the greatest writer on the planet, but he is deservedly recognized for the amount of
research he does for his novels. So, how could he have so substantially missed this calculation of the
fundamental and primary premise of his novel? And even more astonishingly, almost a year after The Inferno's
publication, why has no one else pointed this out?
To be clear, Dan Brown did himself believe that Zobrist's "one-third-infertile" solution would work. Here are two
quotes by Brown from a BBC interview done after the release of the book:
"And the reason I think Zobrist is such an interesting character is because you can say, is he a madman or a
genius? Or a little of both?"
"There are moments in the novel, or at least when I was writing it, when I thought, wow, Zobrist may save the
world here. Maybe this is how far we have to go to stop this."
(Dan Brown, from BBC.com 20 May, 2013)
Why did Dan Brown get this so wrong? And why has no one pointed it out?
The answer is: the extraordinary power of denial.
After every corner turned, denial greets us first. Dan Brown turned the first corner and accepted the role of
overpopulation as a fundamental obstacle in our attempts at solving our sustainability problem. But like so
many others who have also turned that first corner, he can not allow himself accept the incredible (and
horrifying) depths that we must go to in order to actually solve the overpopulation problem and prevent the
otherwise inevitable collapse.
This pernicious second-level denial cripples many of the small group of people who understand and accept that
overpopulation is the primary driver of our rapid rush to oblivion. They have turned the first corner but can get no
Unfortunately, these people still hope that there are things that we can do to solve the problem that are not that
painful. They believe that there are actions we can do that will strike a balance between objectionable and
But just like Dan Brown's widely accepted (and completely unexamined) solution - these half-measures will not
solve our sustainability crisis. They are not the means to the overriding and necessary end.
And to the extent that they promote false hope by claiming to be a cure for our looming sustainability crisis to
the people who support these ideas, and to the people who listen to them, they are a danger.
This dangerous false hope obscures the reality of our situation. It fosters complacency, even in those who
accept the problem. It allows us to defer the solution to the smart people who we hope will (as Zobrist did)
come up with an easy win-win solution.
Here is a quote from Beyond Hope, Orion Magazine May/June 2006, a beautiful essay by Derrick Jensen:
"A WONDERFUL THING happens when you give up on hope, which is that you realize you never needed it in
the first place. You realize that giving up on hope didn't kill you. It didn't even make you less effective. In fact it
made you more effective, because you ceased relying on someone or something else to solve your
problems-you ceased hoping your problems would somehow get solved through the magical assistance of God,
the Great Mother, the Sierra Club, valiant tree-sitters, brave salmon, or even the Earth itself-and you just began
doing whatever it takes to solve those problems yourself."
That is the lesson here. That is the lesson of Dan Brown's miscalculation. Quit thinking someone else is going
to solve this problem. Quit hoping that the smart people "out there" will come up with something to fix this
without your involvement or sacrifice.
Do as Jensen suggests - give up on hope and get into action. Educate yourself, think, get real, do something,
say something, write something, get involved - you must do these things because our leaders will not.
If you don't, within just a few decades, we will erect a giant monument with this epitaph for humanity:
What we would do, could not work
What could have worked, we would not do
Has Dan Brown Saved The World?
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