Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Great Majority


Life is the desert, life the solitude;
Death joins us to the great majority.

- Edward Young 1721


Long before English Poet, Edward Young wrote those words in his play The Revenge, the  great majority, was a common idiom referring to the dead.  There had simply been many more people who had died than were currently living.  Life was a side show to the real event, and when we died, we entered the big tent.  Perhaps it is easier for us in the New World to forget this home truth than it is in more continually populated places in the world, where one literally cannot take a step that was not trod by countless deceased predecessors.  As bracing as this thought is, it puts our human situation into sharp focus.

Now we have another bracing thought.  As our population skyrockets, will there come a day when there are more of us alive than have ever died?  Is that day here?

BBC news published an article yesterday that does the math for us.  Many very interesting variables are taken into account, but visit the article yourself to appreciate what goes into the equations. The numbers come out like this; currently there are approximately seven billion of us alive.  A whopping big number, and more that have ever walked the earth at once, but calculations also reveal that over 107 billion have come before us.  This is certainly an overwhelming majority, and one that the earth's resources could never maintain at once.  Souls aside, that's a hell of a lot of dead people.  In order for that many bodies to have been absorbed by the earth, some serious recycling has been going on.  The building blocks of all of those bodies must be all around us and may even be a great majority of what makes up our own bodies.  





Which brings us to another bracing thought, and another quote; this time from George Romero, creator of the Living Dead series, and pioneer of the zombie genre.

When there's no more room in hell, 
the dead will walk the earth.
-George Romero 1978


In light of the BBC article, Romero seems to have gotten things backward, since there seems to be much more room for the dead in hell than there is on earth.  But what does this staggering number mean to us metaphysically?  We may accept that a higher power can make a place for a million souls, and it requires only a small additional leap of faith after that to accept that there is room for over a hundred billion in the hereafter.  But what happens when the saints come marching in?  How do I find grandpa when I get to heaven, hold up a sign? 

There is some comfort in the idea of reincarnation.  That could go a long way to explaining where everyone is coming from and going to; it would mean that there is a more fixed number of souls that keep passing through, resulting in a much smaller number of dead.  If this is the case, however, how did we go from 500 million in 1500 AD up to seven billion in 2011?  Unless we've got an ever increasing number of new souls, it doesn't look like our chances of breaking out of the cycle are very promising.

These are questions that are clearly beyond me, so let's come back where we started.  Life may not be the desert  of solitude that it once was, now that seven billion of us walk the earth, but we're still just a sideline.  The great majority is still on the other side.  Let's hope they stay there!

2 comments:

Tomme Blue said...

Bravo, Patrick. Great article.

Sister Shirley said...

Fascinating. Someone at the Digital Death Conference in Palo Alto last year pointed out that someday on Facebook, the Dead with outnumber the Living.

I wonder how we'll deal with this segregation between the living and the dead online.

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