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A friend once joked that the human race should miniaturize itself: Smaller people would consume fewer natural resources and generate less pollution. In the creepy way life has of imitating bad jokes, along comes an earnest author promoting just that.
In The Truth About Your Height, Thomas T. Samaras (himself 5-foot-10) sounds the alarm: People in developed nations are taller than their ancestors. (Americans and Europeans have gained about 1 inch over each of the past few generations, and Japanese youth are 3 to 5 inches taller than their grandparents.) That greater height and the associated weight exact substantial environmental costs. If developing nations follow suit, the consequences will be severe.
By “being a more efficient configuration,” smaller people not only consume fewer resources and generate less waste; they “require less space, and are stronger pound for pound.” They also avoid some health and physical-performance problems associated with taller stature, and they live longer.
Unfortunately, Samaras’ book is more interesting to read about than to read. He identifies himself as a researcher who has studied the effects of height and weight on longevity for 20 years, and his book is complete with footnotes, references, figures, tables, charts, appendices, and an index. But the accompanying promotional material smacks of amateurish self-publishing, and the book is awful. From it one gains a keener appreciation for mainstream publishers’ standards.
Beyond the typos and wayward capitalization, the text seems carelessly assembled. Chapter 1 presents these footnotes in quick succession: “54 refers to 5 feet 4 inches”; “[t]he height 68 refers to 6 feet, 8 inches.” Lest we forget, the second chapter opens with this footnote: “The number 56 indicates that the Roman soldier’s height was 5 feet and 6 inches.” At least the footnote repeated three times in Chapter 3 offers useful information.
As the numbing redundancies accumulate, the reader’s attention is diverted from substance to a more pressing matter: the struggle to fathom the nature of the author’s mind. Here’s a taste:
“The upper classes have been traditionally taller then [sic] lower classes, especially in England where a full head difference in height may exist between a nobleman and a laborer.” Among this sentence’s many problems: Being tall is a “tradition”?
This struggle is compounded by Samaras’ persistent championing of a thesis that has never been in doubt: Short people can be as successful as tall people. “The Mayan civilization is an outstanding example of a society created by short people,” he writes. Kudos, too, to those wee ancient Chinese and Indians, who were so busy building fabulous civilizations that they probably didn’t even realize they were short.
The author also extols pygmies. While “not famous for industrial achievements, art, science, or literature…they have the distinction of surviving with their culture pretty much in tact [sic] for over 2,500 years.”
But back to Samaras’ thesis. To determine how human size affects energy and resource requirements, he performs a simple calculation: Holding density and body type constant, a 6-foot, 190-pound person has a 73-percent greater volume and weight than a 5-foot, 110-pound person, and a 44-percent greater surface area.
Equipped with these multipliers, the author assesses the effects of tallness. Taller people need bigger houses, bigger washing machines, bigger cars, bigger airplane seats and therefore more airplanes. Feeding taller people requires more farmland, pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, and energy; more livestock, antibiotics, and hormones; more food-processing and packaging.
You get the drift: A tall society needs more and bigger things, with associated increases in raw materials (adios, rain forests) and energy inputs; manufacturing, storage, and transportation costs; and waste and pollution. And because (as Samaras interprets the data) taller people aren’t as healthy, they drive up the costs of health care, drugs, and nursing homes.
On a global level, Samaras calculates that increasing the average human weight from 140 to 175 pounds would increase total biomass for 6 billion people by 210 billion energy-and-resource-consuming pounds.
This sort of stuff is fun to think about, but the author doesn’t know when to stop, and the result is material David Letterman could use. Do we need to know that short people have a better chance of surviving being shot from a 22-foot cannon at 100 miles per hour over a distance of 200 feet? That career options for short people include “space travel…writing, editing, and self employment”? That tall people use toasters more often, demanding more energy in the process, because they eat more toast? That, over a 50-year period, a shorter U.S. population would save money because it uses lower-dosage aspirin?
Samaras acknowledges that overpopulation is a severe global problem, and that obesity threatens individual health; his argument is that the consequences of increasing height must be taken seriously, too. But his solutions (education, planning, dietary changes) are so vague that they might float off the page.
Worse, his analysis is a series of crude calculations. If he’s right about longevity, won’t those billions of tall people—who live fewer years than short people—consume or pollute less over their life spans? Samaras does note that “if 5 people live 17 percent longer, they will produce garbage for an additional 12 years” and that long-lived shorter people will require greater pension and social-security payouts, though they will stimulate the economy longer. Yet he comes nowhere near identifying all the variables that bear on his thesis, modeling their complex interrelationships, and analyzing them through time.
Even adequate analyses aren’t likely to help us much. The human race largely lacks the political and social capacity to control its reproduction rate. Most Americans lack the personal resolve to lose five pounds or to moderate their voracious, environmentally destructive habits of consumption. How are we to moderate our height?
For now, we are left with cocktail chatter. If shorter people consume and pollute less but live longer, at what point is size a wash? Would it be better for a few, taller people to live shorter lives or for more, shorter people to live longer?
Or, should we populate the earth with just a few really, really, really tall people who play great, thundering basketball?
They’ll die young, of course—but oh! Whatta game!