Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Loony tunes

Among the books in my parent's library when I was a child were the popular works of Hendrick Willem van Loon, published in the years between the World Wars. Those books made an lasting impression on my young mind.

Van Loon was a man of encyclopedic interests. The volumes in our house included The Story of Mankind, Van Loon's Story of Art, and Van Loon's Geography. With folksy wit and a genius for simplification (all too often, oversimplification), van Loon reduced eons of history to pithy paragraphs, illustrated with his own charming, slightly loony drawings.

The first page of the Geography had a drawing of a packing crate teetering on the brink of the Grand Canyon. Van Loon wrote: "If everybody in this world of ours were six feet tall and a foot and a half wide and a foot thick, then the whole of the human race (and according to the latest available statistics there are now nearly 2,000,000,000 descendants of the original Homo Sapiens and his wife) could be packed into a box measuring half a mile in each direction." He issued a challenge: "If you don't believe me, figure it out for yourself."

I accepted the challenge. I knew just enough arithmetic to scribble out the calculation. It came out exactly right. All of the people in the world would fit into a box that could be tipped into the Grand Canyon.

In Van Loon's drawing, the box looks tiny, teetering on the brink of the chasm. It was easy for the boy in the chair (and presumably other readers) to imagine that the human impact on the planet was slight, reversible, and manageable. In the first illustration of his Geography, van Loon perhaps unintentionally underplayed the most important geographical problem of our time: The exploding human population.

Today, world population stands at 6.7 billion, more than three times what it was in 1932, the year Van Loon's Geography was published. Current projections foresee 9 billion humans by 2050.

For all his half-baked science, chauvinistic politics, and loony illustrations, Hendrick Willem van Loon knew, even in 1932, that unchecked population growth and depletion of natural resources were serious problems, demanding serious solutions. His Geography ends with a plea for "planetary-planning" that sounds remarkably relevant to our time.