We’ve got an important question for you – one you have to answer in two seconds. Ready? Okay: given the choice, would you want to wake up tomorrow to find yourself, and all your family, five inches tall?
Your answer? If you’re of sound mind, probably an absolute no, because A) cats, and B) what on earth would be the point?
However, there are plenty of people who would say yes to such a question. Well, plenty of fictional people in Downsizing, the Alexander Payne film that follows Matt Damon and a community of shrunken humans. All of them chose to undergo an irreversible “cellular miniaturisation” procedure, reducing their height by 92.58%.
Their reasons? Twofold. Firstly, as the film argues, these tiny humans could solve climate change. After all, if everybody is using fewer resources then everyone will produce fewer greenhouse gases – a small car will produce fewer emissions and their tiny houses will require less power. Environmentally, it’s an epic win.
But, more interestingly, Damon’s character discovers when you downsize you instantly become richer as your money simply goes further. And it kind of makes sense, right? A normal-sized bottle of vodka, or bar of chocolate, will last you much longer if you’re smaller.
And a tiny model house that you can buy for a few hundred pounds in the full-sized world would seem like a millionaire’s mansion in the shrunken one. And a millionaire is exactly what Damon’s character becomes: his $52,000 in the full-size world translates to $12,500,000 once he’s downsized.
However, is this in any way realistic or just warped movie logic? Presuming such a shrinking operation was possible, what would actually happen if a significant population of humans were downsized to five inches tall? Would it solve the planet’s problems? And if so, should we genuinely be pushing forward with height-reducing DNA alterations?
They’re the very silly questions we put to some very clever people, people with degrees in economics and science. And, it turns out downsizing could actually be the height of genius.
Sure, the list of reasons not to do it isn’t short – and we’ll measure that up later. But for now, here’s all the reasons why turning small might well create a worldwide utopia.
You can go travelling as much as you’d like
It’s only been a month since Christmas, but you could do with another holiday already, right? Well, shrink yourself to five inches now and you’d get one close to free.
“Imagine a Boeing 747 and how many five-inch people you could fit on it,” says Dr Andrew Pickering, a senior economics lecturer at the University of York. “If weight determines how you travel then you could hop on a flight to Australia for basically nothing.”
And the best bit: the costs would stay small once you landed. Hotels? A pool? The perfect beach? All would be extremely cheap to build miniaturised in the real world, thus cheap for the five-inch you to enjoy.
Medical costs would drastically shrink
Remember when we talked about a bottle of vodka becoming proportionally inexpensive because you’d only actually use a tiny fraction of it at a time? It’s the same with medicine.
“If you’re ill and you’re fully sized you might need really expensive medication – drugs that cost thousands of pounds. However, if you’re five inches tall you’d only need a tiny bit,” explained Pickering. “This way medical problems will be much easier and cheaper to solve, pushing up your life expectancy. If you’re elderly and sick with savings you should definitely downsize.”
In other words, somebody really needs to get Jeremy Hunt on the phone. We’ve got the healthcare solution he’s looking for.
There’ll be some massive scientific advances
Sure, if humanity has the ability to shrink people then we can assume that the world already has plenty of technology at its fingertips. But the rate of this scientific growth would accelerate rapidly if we were smaller. Quantum computers, artificial intelligence, even cures for cancer might be just years away in a downsized world.
“Research would be so much cheaper because you could put the likes of me and scientists who work with computers down to five inches and our running costs – food and housing – will become a lot lower,” says Pickering. “And if it’s cheaper to do, we can get a lot more people doing it.”
But how do we know that these shrunken scientists won’t ditch their research to revel in their newfound riches/cheap booze? What incentive do they have to work? Well, think about Star Trek: although scarcity is solved in the show (via replicators), people such as Kirk and Picard still want to explore the mysteries of the universe because, well, what else would they do?
“Most researchers and academics don’t do it for money, they just like doing what they’re doing,” Pickering says. “People who are investigating theoretical psychics and the universe really want to do that. I really think people will go there especially just to study.”
Everyone would be richer
That’s right: Downsizing’s depiction of wealth for all would be fairly accurate. And it’s for that big reason resources and riches aren’t a problem anymore because there’s so much of it to go around.
“Scarcity simply wouldn’t exist anymore,” says Pickering. “Food will be like water. Alcohol, the same – if you want to get drunk it’ll cost absolutely nothing whatsoever.”
Hangovers aside, downsizing would paint an optimistic picture in the full-sized world too. All that food and land that downsized people no longer need? It’ll now be going spare, thus everything will become really cheap. Everyone benefits.
In fact, Pickering argues it’ll effectively be like stepping into the future. “Here’s my analogy of downsizing: imagine it’s 1817 and you tell people that in the future food is really abundant (which it is). If you asked them if they’d want to move there it’ll be a no-brainer. There’s so much less scarcity and more things you can do now.”
However, it’s at this point we should make clear this utopia wouldn’t be without some major shrinking pains. Some fairly provocative ones.
Most likely the people that downsize will be those who could still do their jobs while very small, which probably means you, if you work in an office. Yet for manual workers, there won’t be as much demand to downsize – farmers, for instance, couldn’t produce the same output if they were five inches tall.
Some workers, though, would barely be in demand. Think about bin collectors: it’ll only take a full-sized one of them to clear an entire town of five-inch people. The other collectors at the same company – alongside people in similar jobs – would be laid off.
“There’ll be medium-term pain for people who are producing things that no longer have a demand – factory workers making stuff like full-sized cars that five-inch people no longer need,” says Pickering. “It might take a generation for society to adjust, like the miners in North England. It’s not a painless change, for sure.”
Reasons you definitely shouldn’t downsize
Sci-fi shrunken Thatcherism aside, the economic argument is fairly uncontroversial: downsizing is definitely something to think about. In fact, Dr Pickering himself said he’d strongly consider downsizing (albeit with a few caveats – “I’d still be quite worried about pigeons and my cat”).
However, what would a scientist say? How would say, Dr Adam Taylor, senior lecturer in anatomy at Lancaster University, react if you asked him if he’d downsize? “Leave me at the top of the food chain, please!” he laughs. “They are many many issues with this.”
What issues? Well…
Breathing would be far from easy
Here’s the hard truth: if you decide to downsize, you’ll also downsize your lungs. And you really don’t want to tamper with them.
“We’ve got quite a complicated respiratory system where we take air and it binds to red blood cells and goes around the body,” says Taylor. “It simply wouldn’t work if we were small as our lungs wouldn’t have the surface area to take in the necessary oxygen. That’s why other small animals – particularly insects– don’t have a circulatory system. They have a system of tubes that deliver oxygen straight to their cells.”
Okay, since we’re not insects, it sounds like something to avoid. But how bad could it be? Would it just mean that you would be a tad wheezy most days? “We would end up living a short few minutes trying to get sufficient oxygen in our tissues. It would be a slow and painful death,” says Taylor.
Kinda gives a terrible new twist to Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, doesn’t it?
You’d need to constantly exercise
Okay, presuming downsizing is possible and humans have somehow worked out a way to breathe without suffocating in minutes, there’s another big problem: we’d be really chilly. And that’s because if you shrink down your height you’ll lose a lot of mass.
Why’s that? You might regret asking: this explanation requires a bit of geometry. Imagine a square (or look down at the one below, if you prefer). Decrease its height and the area gets a lot smaller. Decrease the height of a 2×2 by half and the area reduces four times.
This is where you really need to concentrate: This effect also extends even more acutely to volume – while shrinking down our height means we’ll shrivel up a lot of surface area, we’ll lose even more volume and therefore mass.
“If we shrink by 100 times then our surface area would reduce by about 5000 times, and the volume 100,000s of times. Less volume means less mass and it’s that – or the cells in that mass – that give us heat.”
TL/DR: your mass will be even more stupidly tiny than your five-inch height, severely messing with your internal thermostat.
So, how would you keep up your temperature? Do what mice do and massively boost your heart rate. “The smaller the animal, the higher the heartbeat they’ll generally have to compensate. While the average human heart beats about 60 times per minute, mice beat 400-600 times in the same time.”
This means that to stay alive you’d basically have to be constantly working up a sweat on a treadmill. Yes, it’ll probably be a fancy treadmill considering how much money you have in your downsized bank account, but we’re guessing that fact isn’t going to be much comfort.
You’re going to have to eat a lot
To help keep your body temperature up and keep those internal chemical reactions ticking away at 37 degrees you’ll need to chomp down an inhuman amount of grub. In fact, you’ll have to eat your own bodyweight’s worth of food every day.
“Heat is partly generated by cells as they burn through energy and you need food to fuel that,” explains Taylor. “And if you had the mass of a five-inch tall person, you’d have to spend all your time eating and then sleeping to help digest that massive load.”
And here’s the really bad news: the best steak and chips your downsized fortune can buy is off limits. Instead, you’d only be able to handle food in paste form.
“Human intestines are extremely long. We’ve got about 3-4 times our own height in intestinal height. And the reason we have that is to digest quite complex food. Shrink the intestines and we’d have to eat food that requires less processing. It’ll be a life on rice pudding,” says Taylor.
Your main senses would be kaput
Yup, things are about to get worse. Your eyesight? That’s not going to work.
The reason’s simple: shrinking your eyes means you’ll have a tiny target for light to hit. “Smaller creatures tend to have several lenses to let in light and see, but human eyes have one tiny slit. Make that slit smaller and you’d have a very dark blurry image at best.”
And, as well as not having the visual ability to actually watch Downsizing, you wouldn’t be able to hear it too. “That has to do with the frequency that we hear,” says Taylor. “If you shrink down our ears then its hearing apparatus would be so small that it wouldn’t be able to detect sound waves at that frequency”.
Fortunately, your smell just might work but, just as it is now, it’ll be mostly useless. However, judging by your current situation – strapped to a treadmill while wolfing down baby food without use of your sight or hearing – this is the least of your worries.
Sure, you’d be rich and you might even be helping full-size people become richer while you’re at it. But would downsizing really be worth it? Best answer us after your next pot of rice pudding.