Could Shrinking Ourselves Like Ant-Man Solve Overpopulation?

Short answer: Yes. Long answer: It's super complicated.

Flickr user JD Hancock

As the human race sexes itself forward towards severe overpopulation, a global population of 12 billion by 2100, our outsized demands are taking a toll on the planet. We need too much water, too much food, too much energy, and too much space.

Yes, that’s the sort of insane science question you arrive at by squinting at movie posters for too long, but it’s actually a hell of a thought-exercise. Unless Michael Douglas, who has a fraught relationship with science anyway, actually developed a shrinking machine for Paul Rudd, we don’t have the tech to pull this off. But the relationship between size and sustainability is still worthy of consideration. Non-crazies are thinking about it.

The average height of humans has risen significantly in the last several centuries — especially in the last 100 years. Height still varies between different cultures around the world, but, thanks to improvements in diet, nutrition and healthcare, mean height has risen by about four inches since the 1900s.

This is a good sign (people are healthier), but a bad result. Individual humans are more demanding than ever before. If we found a way to reverse this trend, we could actually sustain rises in population without depleting resources. Thomas Samaras, a researcher on human height, wrote in his 1994 book, The Truth About Your Height:

“Short people place fewer demands on the environment. They consume less food, require less material for clothing, etc. If the world is indeed entering an era of scarcity, are not short people the most appropriate model for homo sapiens?”

Amsterdam artist Arne Hendriks is incredibly interested in this idea. Since 2008, he’s been running a speculative research project called “The Incredible Shrinking Man” (named after the very good 1957 science movie of the same name) where he, along with other artists and scientists, investigate how shrinking humans down could soften our impact on the earth and allow us to survive. He proposes that humans should find a way to shrink themselves down to 50 centimeters.

Among the things Hendriks has found: You could fit 8000 half-meter passengers onto a regular sized Boeing 747; trains could be refitted to a smaller size so that one goes one way on the left rail, and the other goes the opposite direction on the right; and a regular cup of coffee could be made from a single bean.

But there’s one piece of information that really resonates. In one of his posts, Hendriks uses calculations from Archimedes to point out that an increase in height by 20 percent actually results in a 73 percent increase in body mass. On the other hand, by the same calculations, a 20 percent decrease in height means an over 51 percent decrease in body mass.

The relationship of height and body mass.

Arne Hendriks

So, if you’re 6’ 0’’ and 180 lbs, and you shrink to 4’ 10’’, your ideal weight would be somewhere around 90 lbs. Imagine how much less food and water you’d need to consume at just 90 lbs. In Hendriks’ ideal half-meter world, the average person weighs less than two kilograms, and only needs two percent of the resources used today.

Even if a 20 percent shrink is too much, the figures still emphasize just how effective even a smaller reduction in height would be in conserving resources.

Of course, shrinking remains fantasy (sexually, the desire to do this is called “macrophilia”). In the near term, the only real way to shrink down the human population would be to put greater emphasis on passing down genes for shorter height or intentionally stunting children’s growth. Those two ideas are unlikely to catch on unless we get all Brave New World.

Still, it could come to that. What the “Shrinking Movement” (let’s call it a movement) does is take a cue from the history of population growth. Specific populations have historically made room for themselves by destroying other populations, finding empty space, or accepting uncomfortable living situations. If we shrink, we won’t have to do any of these things (or go to Mars). We’ll simply have that much more Earth per capita.

Ant-Man is a visionary.