Towards the 5th Stage

An often heard criticism of the theory of shrinking ourselves to reach a sustainable human presence on Earth is that in the long run we’ll fill up the space we’ve created with more people and that, even at a much smaller size, we may be worse off. Although such criticism seems valid at first, it is very unlikely because we’ll shrink into a world of abundance. And contrary to what we might indeed have expected based on evolutionary biological rule, well-off people don’t have lots of children. Thus shrinking is more likely to lead to a stable population.

The historical demographic transition that underlays the phenomenon of developed nations having lower birth rates is traditionally divided into 4 stages. Stage 1 refers to a time when high birth and death rates more or less balance each other out. Stage 2 sees an enormous decline in death rates while birth rates remain high, leading to the population explosion we’ve seen over the past 50 years. In the third stage the population moves towards stability through a strong decline in birth rate, one of the most important reasons being that when we experience abundance we prefer to spend time doing other things than raising children. In the 4th stage population stability is reached. Some have suggested to include a 5th stage where populations will decline because of sub-replacement fertility. In theory this means that shrinking ourselves into abundance may ultimately lead the way to that other ‘big’ solution to an overpopulated world: downsizing the number of people on the planet.

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Microbial Temper Tantrums

In stressful conditions, cells must prevent the initiation of replication and shift their priorities to protective functions. Experiments in bacteria at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have uncovered the mechanism that translates stress into blocked cell growth. According to molecular biologist Peter Chien stressful conditions causes proteins to be bent out of shape. ”You might think of this as microbial temper tantrums. Bacteria deal with stress by destroying proteins. Specifically, we’ve shown that certain kinds of bacteria respond to high temperatures by destroying proteins needed for DNA replication. Therefore, they stop growing.”

The signal for this destruction turned out to be the buildup of proteins that were misfolded because of the stress. Bacteria contain a large variety of differently shaped proteins that help cells do all the chemical reactions needed for life. Stressful conditions cause some proteins to be misfolded and stop working, stopping growth until the cell copes with the stress. Until these experiments scientists did not fully understand the molecular mechanisms that cells use to transduce information about environmental conditions to their replication machinery. Now the experiments conducted at the lab have shown that in the bacteria Caulobacter, when a particular enzyme, Lon protease, encounters too many misfolded proteins, it starts destroying the perfectly fine protein DnaA, that normally starts the growth process. When DnaA is destroyed, cells stop growing, allowing them to respond quickly to stressful conditions. Chien: ”Stress and protein misfolding are a universal part of life, so understanding how simple bacteria deal with this kind of stress will help us understand how our cells do as well.”

The question is how much stress we’ll allow ourselves and the environment to experience before we decide to shrink.

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Cell Culture

The central problem with curbing the growth of the average human body is the deeply embedded desire of each cell to become two cells. This process of division, known as mitosis, represents the essence of our challenge. Cells are not naturally prone to want to limit themselves. They want to multiply, to grow, to proliferate. Only the body as a whole, as the social entity of many different kinds of cells, is able to control this fundamental desire. Although it is undeniable that it’s natural for a cell to want to proliferate, it is equally natural for the body to curb this desire. It is not growth itself that defines the quality of life but how growth is guided, shaped and contained. While mitosis represents life’s raw nature, the manifestation of the body represents life’s culture. Life is cultured, and therefor curbed, growth. Uncultured growth is cancer.

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Abundance Fantasies: The Alasitas Pathway

From an early age the miniature teaches us to want. During childhood toys in all sorts and shapes create the pathways for  a grown-up desire for material abundance. The promise is right there, in the palm of your hand: toy cars, doll’s houses, miniature cattle and food. And in the mind it materialises into the real thing. We call this projection of big desire on a small object the Alasitas Pathway. The interaction between big and small becomes particularly interesting when it manifests itself in adult life, as it so typically does during the Alasitas Festival (hence the name of the pathway). During this Bolivian festival people present each other with small items that symbolise specific desirable goods such as mobile telephones, foods, cars, homes, iPad’s, and other consumer goods. It is popular belief that, through divine intervention, the recipient of such miniatures gets the real object in the course of the following year.

The Alasitas model materialises the possibility that our pathways of desire are constructed as an unconscious response to the difference in size between the symbolic and the real. If this is true, and more research is needed, then it should be possible to interfere in this cultural programming. Perhaps through the design of early age size experiences we can culturally inject structures of desire that are less harmful to the environment. Lovers of model trains and tourist souvenirs on the one hand, and the giant vegetable growers and cargo cults on the other hand, may display valuable size-related desire patterns that could inspire such reductive reprogramming. If we manage to direct newly acquired patterns of desire onto the human body and start to want to shrink ourselves, as The Incredible Shrinking Man envisions, we will need less and therefor we’ll have more.

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Degrowth is a political, economic, and social movement based on ecological economics. Degrowth thinkers and activists advocate for the downscaling of production and consumption arguing that overconsumption lies at the root of long term environmental issues and social inequalities. It is considered an essential economic strategy responding to the limits-to-growth dilemma and in this way a parallel to the physical strategy of shrinking the human body as propagated by The Incredible Shrinking Man.

Degrowth believes that reducing consumption does not require individual martyring and a decrease in well-being. On the contrary. Degrowth aims to maximise well-being through non-consumptive means such as sharing work, consuming less, and the devotion to family, culture and community. The Incredible Shrinking Man, on the other hand, proposes that the anxiety at the core of society will be defeated by the obliteration of scarcity through a drastic reduction of pure physical need. It’s probably easier to change our size than change our patterns of consumption. Yet there’s much to be learned from the degrowth movement and its inherent modesty could be of vital importance in inspiring a willingness to become smaller. Both concepts are not just a quantitative question of doing less of the same, they are also and, more fundamentally, a paradigmatic re-ordering of human values.

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The Fear of the Gods

In one of his lesser known stories, The Food of the Gods and how it came to Earth, the British writer H.G. Wells presents Herakleophorbia IV, a nutrient that makes anything grow to about 6x its regular size. The story takes the reader, rather uninspired, through the regular motions of such a plot. Careless scientists, terrifying and deadly wasps and eventually giant kids and angry mobs of little people fighting it out for power. Much like Robert Bloch’s This Crowded Earth the book’s single most important dramatic tool is the primitive activation of fear, thereby making any scenario other than disaster completely impossible. We learn very little about the immense opportunities, the feeling of incredible abundance, and the thrill of the experience of the shape shift. The author, by default, defines his imagined space as condemned. He has no intention to observe possibility but displays a typical need to project pre-programmed biological and cultural patterns. Therefor he sees nothing and shows us nothing we didn’t already presume. The fact that we so readily accept such a scenario is just as telling as its predictable occurrence.

The Incredible Shrinking Man doesn’t deny the challenges we need to overcome while we move towards a smaller human species. But the exploration of this imagined space has mostly been too much defined by anxiety. Mental preparation for such radical change cannot just be the result of fear management and a list of to do’s in case of emergency. To be able to recognise and embrace the possibilities of a smaller human race we need to enrich the imagined sphere of the small in both quantitative and qualitative ways. To counter deeply embedded cultural patterns of non-observation we must really enter into the mind and matter of the Incredible Shrinking Man and create visions of a future we want to pull ourselves into. If we’re ever to harvest the riches of shrinking we must imagine those riches first.

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The Hayflick Limit

In 1961 microbiologist Leonard Hayflick demonstrated that a population of human fetal cells in a cell culture will divide approximately 50 times before they stop. With each cell division in our body the ends of our chromosomes, the telomeres, get slightly shorter. This process continues until they shorten to a critical length, appropriately called the Hayflick limit. At this point the cells continue to live, but they stop replication. Because they can no longer replicate, damage accumulates and they simply become older.

It’s been suggested that tall people age faster, and therefor die younger, because they reach the Hayflick limit sooner. A larger body requires more cell doublings due to the ongoing regeneration of tissues over a lifetime. Ultimately this results in the exhaustion of the regeneration potential and the early onset of age-associated diseases, predominantly in large-bodied males. Contrary to normal human cells, cancer cells have the ability to override the telomeric counting mechanism, making themselves immortal, uncontrollable and equally, if not more, deadly than ageing itself. So it’s not just a matter of stopping the clock. One way or the other, abundant growth leads to a much shorter than possible lifespan. Considering the great cost of being tall, both for the individual body and the planet, perhaps it is time we rethink in what direction we want our bodies to evolve.

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Paradoxical Frog

Pseudis Paradoxa is a common frog living in the region between Colombia and Surinam. Its development however is far from common and serves as a reminder that growth doesn’t necessarily have to do with becoming larger. Like most frogs Pseudis Paradoxa starts out as frogspawn before turning into tadpoles. The tadpoles of the paradox frog however stand out because they continue to grow rapidly until they’re about 25 cm long, making them the largest tadpoles in the frog world. A regular frog’s metamorphosis then commences by developing its legs and shrinking its tail into the body. What sets Pseudis Paradoxa apart is that it is not just the tail that shrinks but the entire body. Upon reaching full adulthood the Paradoxical Frog, or Shrinking Frog as it is sometimes appropriately called, has only 1/4th of the size it used to have as a tadpole. This idea of growing into a smaller adulthood so contradicts with our general notion of development that it was named Paradoxical Frog. But it’s only a paradox because we seem to be able to think in just one direction, towards bigger and taller. It says more about the inflexibility of our thinking than it says about the paradoxical nature of growing towards smallness. Because that’s in fact a great idea. Pseudis Paradoxa raises the question if perhaps the human species as a whole is still in its embryonic state. Are we giant tadpoles, waiting for the moment that we’ll metamorphose into more suitable, more efficient, smaller beings? Are we big toddlers on the verge of shedding our baby fat?

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Human height is the result of how genetic height potential is turned into reality by circumstance. From the first whispers of life in the womb, the DNA in the nuclei of the embryo’s cells ‘monitors’ what situation to expect at birth, and develops the body accordingly. While genes provide us with the recipes for development, it is the availability and preparation of the ingredients that determines how genes are expressed in the final phenotype. This field of expertise of how and when genes are switched on or off is called epigenetics. Genes are switched on or off in response to certain initiating signals. In a process called transcription this signal activates the process of encoding specific parts of DNA to be used for the production of a protein. As much as 10% (or 2500) of all the proteins we can produce is somehow involved in transcription. One of these proteins is Pit1.

Pit 1 is a pituitary-specific transcription factor that activates promoters of growth hormone encoding genes. In other words it stimulates the making of growth hormone (GH), and even more so if environmental factors prompt it to do so. A specific mutated model of mice called the Snell Mouse, known for its lack of Pit1, is up to 70% smaller than regular mice. At the same time the lifespan of these very small mice increases with up to 50%. This possibly results from a tradeoff between the physical vigor and life span that is mediated by pituitary hormones. Growth hormone and some other hormones encoded by Pit1 like thyroid hormone and prolactin, seem to also regulate mechanisms that schedule mortality in mammals. And people are big mammals, full of GH.

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The Namazu

In 19th century Japan earthquakes were often represented by and even attributed to an enormously oversized catfish, the namazu. According to popular folklore under normal circumstances this large fish was kept under control by a deity. If the god however, was not managing his worldly affairs, the fish lashed out and caused earthquakes. In the aftermath of the particularly devastating Ansei quake in 1855 the theme of the namazu gained enormous popularity. Over 400 new woodcuts of earthquake related scenes with the namazu flooded the media. Remarkably, quite a few of these married the notion of natural disaster with failing leadership, depicting government officials as catfish.

Today good leadership is needed more then ever but shared responsibility is equally important. Our insatiable need for food, products, water and energy of has led to a situation infinitely more challenging then the natural tremors of namazu’s tail. Man has become a bigger threat to himself than any big fish ever was. In 2011 the Tōhoku earthquake caused one of the greatest and ongoing tragedies in human history. The resulting tsunami that hit the Japanese east coast was devastating. Yet the greatest threat resulting from the earthquake is manmade; the possible meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear reactor and the longterm effects of leakage of radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean. Paradoxically the image of a big fish also inspires a possible solution to man’s deeply destructive relationship with the planet. We should shrink, despite our fear to do so. Drastically smaller people would cut our energy needs by so much that we could easily sustain ourselves with the presently available renewable energy sources. And just one catfish could feed a small town.

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