Graphic showing a man leading a rooster - both the same height - 50cm.

+ The Incredible Shrinking Man proposes to shrink the human species to 50 centimeters.

Wouldn’t it be better if people were smaller? Two years ago this simple question initiated The Incredible Shrinking Man: a speculative research project investigating the downsizing the human species to better fit the Earth.

It is a long established trend for people to grow taller. As a direct result we need more resources, more food, more energy and more space. But what if we tried to turn this around? What if we used our increasing knowledge of the human body to shrink mankind? If the 20th century was all about growth, perhaps the 21st century is about downsizing. And that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

Most of us are aware that the world’s population now stands at a staggering seven billion when compared to the five million people that lived on Earth at the dawn of agriculture. Increasing body size is also a big challenge. Auxologists like Robert Fogel and John Komlos continue to point out that global increased body height is the result of better food, better hygiene, better medicine and better living circumstances. And although increased height may indeed be the result of such improvements, the question is if it is still a desired result in an age of increasing scarcity.

If your height increases by 20%, your body grows proportionally in all directions (1.2 x 1.2 x 1.2 = 1.73). That means your weight actually increases by 73%. All that extra weight needs extra food, extra water, extra energy. From an evolutionary perspective being taller at some point in history undoubtedly represented an advantage. In this day and age however it’s a burden, on ourselves and on the planet. That’s why The Incredible Shrinking Man proposes to shrink the human species to 50cm.

At 50cm we’d only need about 2% to 5% of what we need now, and although it is an extreme goal it’s somehow familiar because most babies are born this size. Also the world’s smallest person, Chandra Bahadur Dangi, is a little over 54cm, which means genetically speaking, 50cm seems attainable. In any case, if we want to find the limits of what may be physically possible, and if we really want to stimulate our thinking beyond what is already known, then it is necessary to set extreme research goals.

There will be many challenges in achieving a universal human height of 50cm. For example, our brain size wouldn’t be much bigger than a walnut. One of the researchers for The Incredible Shrinking Man, Don Platt, is collecting evidence that brain cells could be much smaller without losing their function. It might even make us smarter since the distance an impulse has to travel is shorter.

Other things are more difficult to control. How threatening would your cat become and what kinds of problems would large insects pose? What about the weather? Hail storms would become extremely dangerous. But we’re human. If anything, we’ve an established track record with proving our ingenuity in overcoming even the most difficult challenges.

Still, the immense problems facing us now will take all of our courage and imagination. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is evolution itself that shows us a way out. In remote areas, like the Valley of Sindh in Pakistan, the jungle of Congo, and the island of Flores in Indonesia, evolutionary experiments with a smaller human species are underway. The unlikely heroes of this growth resistance are the Larons, Homo Floresiensis, the Rapasasa, and Meier-Gorlin dwarfs. Within their genes we find pieces of the genetic puzzle towards a more balanced, much smaller, future for mankind.

One of the most rewarding results of our shrinking would be the overwhelming and sustainable abundance of the natural and cultured environment. Renewable energy produced today would be more than enough to satisfy our demands. One tomato will make a decent soup and one chicken will feed a hundred. A Boeing 747 can transport thousands of passengers, not to mention trains and ships.

Redesigning the already built environment would take all of our imagination and inventiveness. Up to 98% of the cities could be recycled, condensed, 're-wilded', or just left as a cultural resource for future generations. The Incredible Shrinking Man calculated that at 50cm the entire world population would be able to live in the six largest agglomerations, Tokyo, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Mumbai, Delhi and New York/Newark - leaving the rest of the world empty, or turned into agricultural lands. This redistribution of the human race would ask us to think of density versus emptiness in ways we’ve never considered possible.

As a matter of fact, the six billion city scenario has led to a new speculative research called 8 Billion City, which investigates if it would be possible to build an island city able to facilitate the entire world population, not shrunken in this case. Over the next years this research project, initiated by urbanist Vincent Schipper, writer and researcher-at-large Christiaan Fruneaux, and myself, seeks to create the ultimate reference city, where we can stage, visualize and investigate the challenges the urban environment is throwing at us and hopefully find some inspiring solutions.

Let’s shrink our way into abundance.