‘Downsizing’: Shrinking humans is possible, and offers real benefits

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downsizing paramount
Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig star in “Downsizing” the
Dec 22 release from the director of “Sideways” and “The
Descendants.”

Paramount

  • The movie “Downsizing” imagines a world where a small
    percentage of the population elects to shrink themselves to 5
    inches tall.
  • In the downsized world, people are richer, and their
    environmental footprint is smaller.
  • Scientists say it’s not really possible to shrink
    people “at the cellular level” like this, but there are real
    ways to make humans smaller that could help offset carbon
    emissions. 

No matter what Matt Damon does in the movies, you can’t actually
shrink yourself down to 5 inches. 

The producers of the new film “Downsizing” admit they had to
ignore a lot of science to tell the story of a future where
people elect to get much smaller in order to live large. The
movement starts when a Norwegian scientist discovers a novel way
to miniaturize people, in a move he hopes will save humanity by
reducing the amount of waste and pollution humans produce. And
the little life is cheaper, too.

In the film’s downsized world, a “conflict free” diamond earring
and necklace set costs just $83, which is about twice the amount
a “small” family spends on groceries each month. And the
steakhouse chain Tony Roma’s has also been shrunk and imported to
the land of the small.

Screenwriter Jim Taylor bluntly put the kibosh on anyone’s dreams
of living in a cheap, small world like this after a screening of
his movie at the
Museum of the Moving Image.

“It’s never going to happen,” Taylor said. 

In the movie, Matt Damon’s character works at a call center, but
in reality his tiny voice would be way too high-pitched to answer
calls from the world of normal-sized folks. Plus, at roughly the
height of an iPhone 6, he’d likely be small enough to get swept
away by a strong gust of wind. And the mini humans in the movie
mostly ignore the huge risk that the protective net around their
colony could rupture, allowing a runaway cat or a street rat to
gobble them up.

But NYU bioethicist S Matthew
Liao
, who joined Taylor for the post-screening discussion,
has highlighted some very real ways that shrinking people down —
though to levels much less drastic than in the film — could help
mitigate the effects of climate change.

In
a 2012 paper
in the journal Ethics, Policy &
Environment, Liao spelled out a few of his ideas, which
he said could be less risky than other last-resort options like

geoengineering
.

One idea Liao pushed for is to shrink people back down to the
15-centimeter-shorter heights of humans like Albert Einstein who
lived 100 years ago. 

“It turns out that 15 centimeters of reduction in height
translates to 

around 23% mass reduction for men
and 25% mass reduction for women,” Liao said during the
talk. He believes that’s “

enough to offset the
effects of climate change.”

Technology that could hypothetically make this shrinking process
possible is already in use in fertility clinics. It’s called
“preimplantation genetic diagnosis” and it allows future parents
to screen out embryos that have genetic diseases. With around 500
genes coding for height, Liao says, “that’s a way you can
actually select embryos for size.”

Of course, it doesn’t take much of a mental leap to realize some
of the ethical problems that selecting embryos for size, among
other traits, would quickly create.

Another possible way to shrink people would be to give them extra
estrogen. This technique has been used in kids with profound
developmental disabilities to keep
them small
enough for their parents to continue taking care
of them as they grow up. 

While such ideas might seem draconian, Liao said there’s no
denying the effects that taller people have on the planet. 

“It takes more energy to transport a larger person than a
smaller person,” he said, adding
 that making humans
smaller could also come in pretty handy if we decide to
colonize Mars.

“To get off the planet, size is going to
matter a huge deal,” Liao said. “J
ust think, per
person, 
how much resources you need to sustain
people in space.” 

Many of us would probably never opt to give up our
21st-century height boost, no matter how warm the planet gets.
But it does seem like the change could offer more benefits than
we realize.



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