A Review of Dan Brown’s Inferno: Neo-Malthusian Reactionary Discourse in Popular Fiction

By Ricardo R. Fuentes Ramirez

Dan Brown’s latest book Inferno is definitely a page-turner. You will not drop it until your done. Like all of Robert Langdon’s adventures, there are various recurring themes and elements. However, this does not make the book repetitive or unoriginal respect to Angels & Demons, The Da Vinci Code, or The Lost Symbol. On the contrary, there are sufficient new elements that make the book wonderful in its own right. The recurring elements from his previous books just give it the flare and addictive nature of all of Langdon’s adventures. The only element I found problematic was a certain twist of events at the end of the book. Twist and turns are part of Brown’s style, but in Inferno, two of our characters (Langdon and Dr. Elizabeth Sinskey) develop a strong disdain toward one particular character (Bertrand Zobrist), only for it to be unrealistically switched to understanding and even a bit of admiration at the end. The shift was so sudden that it was borderline plain bad story telling. Other than that, the book is all we have learned to love of Brown’s work.  His previous books definitely had implications on current debates (the best example being the complex and ever changing relationship between science and religion), but they were always focused on particular historical elements that captured the reader’s interest, such as the Illuminati or the Holy Grail/Mary Magdalene story. In this case, the historical element isn’t a secret organization or a bible conspiracy theory, it’s Dante Alighieri’s epic poem The Divine Comedy, especially the canticle on Hell: Inferno. Personally, I found Dan Brown’s historical “did you knows” or “fun facts” less mind boggling compared to previous books. To be fair, readers more interested in world literature, instead of secret organizations or conspiracy theories, might enjoy Inferno more than the previous Robert Langdon books. In terms of the implications on the current debates, the issue is overpopulation and sustainability. Here is where Dan Brown really messes up, and becomes an advocate of a Neo-Malthusian, bourgeois, reactionary understanding of a whole array of topics. The novel has implicit views on population growth as the fundamental cause behind economic and environmental sustainability issues. The book’s tone supports conservative arguments that criminalize and attack the “poor and overpopulating masses” as the culprits, while ignoring the role of large corporations with truly unsustainable production techniques. I personally don’t think he intended to do so, but he definitely did, so it is worthwhile discussing this vision.

The upside is that he is nudging readers to reflect and react to the fact that humanity is currently facing a survival threatening sustainability problem. The problem has two elements, fundamentally linked, that of environmental sustainability and that of economic development. Humanity is consuming Earth to its oblivion, while simultaneously goods and resources seem insufficient to satisfy all our needs. The problem with Dan Brown’s rhetoric is that it promotes the idea that the fundamental variable is population growth. Hunger, sickness, pollution, melting ice caps, are all explained with overpopulation. According to this vision, Malthus was right; population grew exponentially while our means of subsistence lagged behind. The vision ignores the fact that science and technology have also been developed exponentially in the last centuries. World population grew more in the last 200 years than it grew in the previous 200,000 years. However, science and technology have also been developed much more in the last 200 years than in the previous 200,000 years. Therefore, we most likely have the technological capacity to satisfy our needs and wants in a sustainable manner even with population growth. This isn’t a novel idea that should have escaped Dan Brown’s preparatory readings. It’s been around as early as merely 10 years after Malthus’ death. In 1844, Engels wrote in his Outline of a Critique of Political Economy:

Yet, so as to deprive the universal fear of overpopulation of any possible basis, let us once more return to the relationship of productive power to population. Malthus establishes a formula on which he bases his entire system: population is said to increase in a geometrical progression – 1+2+4+8+16+32, etc.; the productive power of the land in an arithmetical progression – 1+2+3+4+5+6. The difference is obvious, is terrifying; but is it correct? Where has it been proved that the productivity of the land increases in an arithmetical progression? The extent of land is limited. All right! The labour-power to be employed on this land-surface increases with population. Even if we assume that the increase in yield due to increase in labour does not always rise in proportion to the labour, there still remains a third element which, admittedly, never means anything to the economist – science – whose progress is as unlimited and at least as rapid as that of population. What progress does the agriculture of this century owe to chemistry alone – indeed, to two men alone, Sir Humphry Davy and Justus Liebig! But science increases at least as much as population. The latter increases in proportion to the size of the previous generation, science advances in proportion to the knowledge bequeathed to it by the previous generation, and thus under the most ordinary conditions also in a geometrical progression. And what is impossible to science?

Overpopulation (or lack of technology adequate for our growing numbers) is not the issue behind hunger, sickness, pollution, or melting ice caps. The problem lies within our economic system, our mode of production. How can we say that goods and resources are scarce, when we have, simultaneously, hungry people and surplus food being thrown away, empty houses with no tenants and homeless people, and pharmaceuticals stocked in warehouses while there are sick? In assessing the causes of pollution and global warming, how can we reduce it to population growth, without mentioning the millions of tons of waste and contaminants that come from unsustainable industrial production methods? The roots of our problems lie within the unequal distribution of resources and the unplanned character of our economy. With a more sensible distribution of goods and resources, along with replacing market forces and profit seeking behavior with social planning, we just might escape a Dante-like apocalypse. However, as Dan Brown presents the issue, it’s not only ignoring the actual roots of the problem, it’s a borderline (and for some an openly) racist argument. To say we are overpopulated is to say someone shouldn’t be here. Who? Well, population isn’t actually rising in the First World. Every single country with a population growth rate above 1% is a Third World country. In other words, the world’s problems are a result of the uneducated poor who simply cannot stop having babies (according to this Neo-Malthusian discourse). Dan Brown does right by bringing the sustainability issue to focus. If we do not do something, humanity, sooner than later, might actually face a species-threatening crisis. In fact, evidence points to the fact that we already are in this crisis. Where Dan Brown fails is in pointing the reader into actual solutions. We shouldn’t be focusing on population growth. We should be focusing on the system as a whole; on how, what, and for whom we produce goods and services. In other words, capitalism is the problem! The solution: socialism (or if this is a bad word, then economic democracy, participatory economics, or any other euphemism). In the spirit of Dante’s work, the most treacherous beings on Earth are the members of capitalist class, as their existence actually threatens the survival of our species. Therefore, the deepest corners of Hell are saved for them. Our job is to make their Hell on Earth, by making our Paradise on Earth.


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