Incredible Shrinking Man

Shrinking humans: an artist’s perspective on the sustainability challenge

The Incredible Shrinking Man is a speculative project that investigates the implications of downsizing the human species to better address the demands on the Earth. It has been a long established trend for people to grow taller. As a direct result we need more resources, more food, more energy and more space. At the dawn of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, an estimated 5 million people lived on Earth. Today that number stands at well over 7 billion. And the pressure of human omnipresence on Earth is increasing. Every day, alarming scientific papers are warning us of imminent doom, due to overexploitation of our environment.

But what if we used our increasing scientific knowledge of the factors that contribute to human height to shrink mankind down to 50 centimetres? One hypothesis is that it would alleviate the resource pressure on the planet. Four years ago I decided that this seemingly absurd question was worth investigating.

Although I am not insensitive to the project’s metaphorical qualities in times of ecological, social and economic crisis, I was much more interested in researching if and how such shrinking could really be achieved. For reasons outlined below—that I only understood later myself—the Incredible Shrinking Man gained the attention of the art/science community.

Because of the initial seemingly absurd nature of the question I needed to start doing my own scientific experiments with zebra fish. I therefore cooperated with scientists to acquire the knowledge necessary to underpin my arguments. Regardless, the project mirrors one of my personal interests and concerns with the position of science within society. Especially, I worry about the notion of autonomy in research. What does science want?

Science is good at measuring the destructive force of man’s presence on Earth, in the same way it has been good at creating the visions and the tools for the destruction itself. Unfortunately, in this crucial time for mankind, it has not shown to be equally powerful at harnessing a vision that inspires mankind to change its destructive paradigms. And that’s understandable: figuring out how things work just is not the same as knowing how to use it. And yet, more than ever before in the history of man does humanity need science to independently put forward its vision on how we are going to deal with the incredible challenges we are facing.

To do so, perhaps, it is necessary to learn from that another important expression of humanity’s desire for knowledge: art.

When I decided to become an artist, now a little over 5 years ago, the first rather frightening thing I realised was that from that moment onwards I represented nothing but myself. There was no language, no institution, no displaced responsibility I could hide behind. If I said something, I said it. If I desired something, I desired it. But I also realised that society can no longer afford to condemn such notions to the realm of art and romanticise them.

Faced with today’s societal challenges, we need the scientists to become artists. And to not confuse art with innovation or creativity, or all those other reasons why the marriage of art and science is so often desired but not understood. Instead, science needs to take responsibility for a vision of the future. Science should attain public visibility. And scientists should be more outspoken in a public way about their desires in order to initiate a debate.

To most readers the Incredible Shrinking Man, perhaps, is not that vision. But I would like to argue that at least it is an attempt to direct knowledge in such a way that it enables humanity in general and, perhaps, science in particular, to take responsibility for the fate of our existence.

Let’s shrink into abundance.

Arne Hendriks, artist, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Featured image credit: Arne Hendriks

Go back to the Special Issue: Ethics, values and culture driving research

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