Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Dan Brown’s Inferno: Population, Resources and Socio-Economic Futures

Dan Brown’s recent book Inferno has had mixed reviews at best (e.g. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/may/19/dan-brown-inferno-review, http://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/books/2013/05/26/book-review-inferno-dan-brown/TPxCswZpdIqLrkZHarRcYM/story.html, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/10053517/Inferno-by-Dan-Brown-review.html ). You could take the view that Dan Brown, as Liberace before him, is probably crying all the way to the bank. Dan Brown in an interview with the BBC, however, shows his concern at such ‘hurtful’ reviews as he sees them but, as importantly Brown views overpopulation, the central motivating force of the book’s ‘villain’ Betrand Zobrist, as a key messge of his book.

Leaving aside the literary merits of the book (I read it in three night, enjoyed the ride and got annoyed as some of the tour book description slowed the plot, but that is just me), Brown believes he explores the central concern of overpopulation is explored from both sides, and enters the 'grey' area of suggesting a scientific solution. Brown takes a very Maltusian, doom and gloom, view of overpopulation citing the usual population increase is geometric whilst resources grow at an arithmetic rate, hence we're all doomed. Technology and science provides the resolution to the problem, although whether it is within the remit of technological solutions envisaged by Ester Boesrup back in the 1960s is another question. After finishing the book I thought there was probably a more interesting book to be written about the implications of the solution the mad-scientist comes up with and how thinking through the solution helped to identify how current socio-economic activity is tied to fertility and demographics.

For those that have not yet read the book a spoiler warning now! Betrand Zobrist, the 'villian' (or hero depending on yoru view point), is a genius geneticist who hides away from everyone for a year to come up with his solution to the problems of overpopulation. Inferno is about the hunt, after Zobrist suicide in Florence, for his genetically engineered answer. Throughout the book the reader assumes, as the pieces fall into place, that the ‘solution’ is some type of super virus, a new plague that will reduce global population to a sustainable level through mass contagion, mass death and destruction. The twist, apart from the fact that Langdon doesn’t prevent the release of the virus, is that the virus doesn’t kill people. The virus affects the genetics of the world population so that a third of the population is sterile and so perpertual population control is achieved. The third is randomly selected and the virus persists through time so that a random third of the population is always sterile. Brown seems to assume that the scientific solution is an end to his story: his two heroines jet off to the World Health Organisation in Geneva to sort out the implications. I would suggest that the scientific solution would unravel due to these implications.
The interesting thought is if such a ‘solution’ was implemented what would the world look like in ten, fifty or hundred years? What does such a vision tells us about the intertwining of socio-economic structures and fertility?
· What would be the status of the sterile third? Would they be viewed as drones to service the ‘productivity’ two-thirds of the world’s population? Would a change in status produce an effective underclass?

· Would personal relations be ‘managed’ by the state to ensure that sterile individuals did not marry fertile individuals? What are the social implications of such management?

· Expectation of fertility is an essential element in maintaining social structures. Passing on wealth and power as well as the hope for the future of your offspring is a key determinant in socio-economic relationships. If the third was truly random, i.e. your children could be sterile even if you were not, then there would be no certainty of being able to ensure this transfer of resources. What would be the socio-economic implications of such uncertainty? Why accumulate wealth if it is not to be past on or would a larger unit than the family become the focus of human emotional attachment.

· Random does not mean spatially homogeneous. As with any random process there are likely to be clusters of sterility and fertility. How would such a distribution affect power relations between nations? Would initial differences in fertility/sterility rates be magnified through time leading to a redistribution of power and economic wealth?

Inferno is a nice read (at least I think so) but the scientific solution should not be viewed outside of the socio-economic context that it would impact. The implications, left to the unseen committee in Geneva in the book, are the forces most likely to untangle the idealist solution.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Monitoring Coastal Changes in Saltmarshes: Maps or Aerial Photography?

A key aspect of the recent changes in planning legislation is that development should be preferred provided it is sustainable. On coastal margins there is an additional issue of the potential impact of sea-level change on increased development. Development behind existing coastal defences, both human and natural, seems to be encouraged within the new planning legislation as it makes use of investment already sunk into defence and implies that any future sea-level rise will be accompanied by increasing investment these defences.
Given the importance of these defences it is essential to know how the coastline has responded in the past. The rate of past change is an important indicator as to how dynamic the coast is and how it is likely to respond to increasing sea-level. A long-term, over 50 or 100 or more years, view of rates of change often makes use of historic maps to establish baselines from which change is measured. A recent paper by Brian Baily and myself ( I made the coffee again!) published in the Journal of Coastal Conservation looks at how maps have been used as sources of evidence of coastal change in the Solent (specifically Lymington, Beaulieu River, Calshot Spit, Eling, Portsmouth Harbour, Langstone Harbour and Pagham Harbour). The paper  is entitled Assessing historical saltmarsh change; an investigation into the reliability of historical saltmarsh mapping using contemporaneous aerial photography and cartographic data, a long title but a very accurate description of what the paper does. The paper assesses how these maps have been used to identify and quantify changes in saltmarsh, an important coastal ecosystem and a natural protective barrier. In current terms a key ecosystem service. Importantly, the locations and rates of change these maps suggest are compared to the rates of change that an analysis of aerial photography provides. 

The mapping of saltmarsh is full of problems that limit the reliability of the changes measured. Surveyors in the mid-nineteenth century, for example, did not have a clear and specific set of instructions about what to map above the low water mark. Inconsistencies in the accuracy and precision of saltmarsh identification and mapping are bound to arise when a surveyor was confronted with the practical and often hazardous task of trying to get into a saltmarsh and survey it. Similarly, this ecosystem was not viewed as a particularly valuable resource in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and so the incentive to get into the mud and accurately survey was not really there. In addition, the growth of Spartina spp. in this period would have made the identification and mapping of this ecosystem tricky at best in some locations. Often saltmarshes were only indicated by some symbol on a map covering a vaguely defined area of land – not the best baseline from which to accurately measure changes.

The aerial photography of the same areas provided a useful control from which to assess the accuracy of the location and rates of change in saltmarshes derived from maps. The aerial photography shows that large areas of saltmarsh were excluded from the OS maps – so major losses of a valuable coastal ecosystem can not be quantified. These areas seem to be the newer salt marshes and so areas that are likely to have provided coastal protection in the recent past as development has occurred in these coastal regions. Given that salt marshes can change in extent rapidly this suggests that analysis of rates of change in this important protective coastal ecosystem needs to be gauged against the accurate data provided by aerial photography which is only available from the early twentieth century onwards rather than from the potentially more inaccurate figures provided by historic mapping in the nineteenth century.