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November 16, 2010 5:14 PM   Subscribe

Could a society possibly sustain itself solely on a culture of systematized cannibalism?

Don't freak out, I'm asking for a story I'm writing.

In a place with no livestock or agriculture, would it be possible for a people group to survive by eating their own? What would need to be done to keep the population stable? Assume water is readily available and not a concern.

The story is a dystopia of sorts... How could rabid nationalism be employed to keep the system going? How might a dictator encourage "good citizenship" while punishing "bad citizenship" with ovens and cutlery? Would positive reinforcement work better, to reward mothers for producing lots of offspring specifically for consumption? What sort of justification would people tell themselves to feel proud to live and participate in such a society?

Or would it simply be impossible to maintain without a steady stream of outsiders to eat as well?

Bonus points: What are some sanitized political euphemisms (think "collateral damage" or "enhanced interrogation techniques") that could be used to mask the awfulness of this kind of system?
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis to Society & Culture (31 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
No, because it would violate the first law of thermodynamics. But I suppose such laws may be suspended within the scope of a story.
posted by polymodus at 5:21 PM on November 16, 2010 [5 favorites]


It would not be sustainable only with internal cannibalism, because the trophic pyramid would have an ever-shrinking available biomass. See trophic dynamics for more on this.
posted by Paragon at 5:22 PM on November 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


Like any livestock I'd think that it would be incredibly inefficient to use people as food. I read somewhere that it take 5 pounds of grain to equal one pound of meat. I'm sure that probably varies from animal to animal, but feels about right.

People also don't get that big for quite a while. I think you'd want to wait until adolescence before harvesting, but that seems like a lot time to wait (especially if you're hungry).

The younger the child
the better the meat.
The less the years
the better to eat.

posted by cjorgensen at 5:23 PM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well I sure eat a lot more over the course of my lifetime than my body would be worth as food. Are you okay with a rapidly decreasing population size?
posted by you're a kitty! at 5:23 PM on November 16, 2010


Kuru and other diseases will eventually catch up to you. Eating people is a great way to spread viruses and prions.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:23 PM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


It seems weird to me that you're writing a story and yet haven't done even the most basic estimations for this.

Let's assume wildly optimistic conditions. If 99% of the population is female and fertile, and every one of those women has a normal-sized child every 9 months that's about 3 kilos of meat per person every 9 months. Not possible.
posted by ripley_ at 5:26 PM on November 16, 2010 [5 favorites]


How might a dictator encourage "good citizenship" while punishing "bad citizenship" with ovens and cutlery?

Punishment won't work. More likely, I should think, would be a society based on class, where those to be consumed are considered a priestly and probably mysterious (say) White Caste. That is, being raised to be eaten makes you better than others.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 5:26 PM on November 16, 2010


When you say "solely" do you mean, without any other source of calories?

If that's what you mean, then the answer is no. Having more kids wouldn't help at all. At each eating "generation" (i.e., meal?) most of the calories locked up in the "food" are lost to thermodynamic waste. You might get 10% efficiency. 100% efficiency is what you'd need and is literally impossible.

A more interesting question is, say, how long could a society of 1,000 people survive with only each other for food? (How fast does population decline when you can only eat other people?) However, I'm pretty sure the answer is "not very long" -- you'd hit 500 people in well under a year. So you couldn't really have a sustaining society with its own myths and legends and institutions, people raised in it, and so on.
posted by grobstein at 5:26 PM on November 16, 2010


There was an RPG way back in the day that was set in a future dystopia where the over-populated world turned to cannibalism to buttress the food supply. Most popular restaurant? Tastee Ghoul.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:29 PM on November 16, 2010


Punishment won't work. More likely, I should think, would be a society based on class, where those to be consumed are considered a priestly and probably mysterious (say) White Caste. That is, being raised to be eaten makes you better than others.

Or Livestock, per Lovecraft's The Rats in the Walls, though the human livestock were raised on "coarse vegetables".
posted by Artw at 5:33 PM on November 16, 2010


Mother, shall I sleep?
posted by msali at 5:36 PM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Sorry, my link was via the ever fertile metachat.

NucleophilicAttack is one of our most prolific and interesting posters.
posted by msali at 5:39 PM on November 16, 2010


what comes to mind, upon suspending reality -

huge compound skyscraper buildingsfull of women kept under anesthesia their whole lives and re-imprengnated every 9 months. men and women with genetic history of having multiple births in their family paired together and preferred.

men are given money for sperm donation - a good living can be made doing this if you have history of multiple births. this is explained to them as being "used to further medical research"

invitro is illegal/ does not exist(outside birthing centers)/ the art has been lost

how the coverup is done - fusion is discovered, replacing all other forms of energy, but no one is told. the powers that be instead tell the world that they have found a new energy source that generates a sustainable nutritional source to replace the diminishing food supply and the waste is able to sustain all the world's energy needs. birthing centers are slowly populated with testtube babies raised to be the first batch of unconscious mothers, etc etc, with the populating the centers in proportion with the outside food decline. humans eventually only eat the other humans produced by this "energy source", and the centers keep growing exponentially over time so it can be sustained.

wow, now i kinda want to write a book about this too haha!
posted by assasinatdbeauty at 5:51 PM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


They could be vegetarians except for occasional human "harvest" feasts, maybe religious ones in the style of ancient Greek hecatombs.
posted by oinopaponton at 5:56 PM on November 16, 2010


What are some sanitized political euphemisms (think "collateral damage" or "enhanced interrogation techniques") that could be used to mask the awfulness of this kind of system?

Margaret Atwood's Year of the Flood touches on this, but her book's near-future narrative has corporations running everything. So instead of governments, you have businesses coming up with euphemisms for dubious works. In the case of her book, specifically, a fast-food chain resells scarce and expensive protein under the trade name SecretBurger™.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:56 PM on November 16, 2010


From a purely practical perspective, you'd either need a steady supply of outsiders to feast on or be fine with the fact that your population has to shrink steadily.

Even if you could keep the birth rate high enough to replace all the people who donate to the cause, we need to take in far more nutrients than are stored long-term in our bodies. The most obvious examples are sugars, which we break down by reacting them with oxygen to form carbon dioxide and water plus a load of energy. While some of this energy is used to build new stuff that gets stored and could conceivably be used as an energy source by a cannibal, much of it gets used to keep our bodies running and ultimately escapes as heat. So while I might eat 2,000 kCal in a day, I'm burning most of that off by moving around etc. rather than investing it in building stuff like muscle, or storing it by synthesising fat; at the snd of the day, my body doesn't contain 2000 kcal more of chemical energy than it did at the beginning.

The same principle applies to all sorts of stuff. For example, we can't really store excess dietary protein; any excess gets broken down to ureaic acid and excreted in urine and sweat. We also constantly lose minerals, e.g. iron is lost when we dump dead red blood cells. In the case of iron, you can get more by drinking their blood, but you'll never get as much out of a person as originally went in: much of the brown colour of faeces is thanks to rust-coloured iron in partially oxidised haemoglobin in dead red blood cells (maturing red blood cells dump certain organelles required to keep them alive in favour of carrying more haemoglobin to ferry oxygen, so they can only survive for a few handfuls of days. So you're constantly dumping old cells and making new ones. Obviously, menstruating women dump a lot of blood and therefore iron - actually enough to be completely protective from a couple of metabolic diseases that lead to excess iron accumulation in men and post-menopausal women.)

Of course, unlimited energy, water and some very clever chemists could undoubtedly reclaim a lot of this lost stuff from our excreta, purify it and get it back into a state where it's chemically useful to our bodies. Heck, you can even reclaim CO2 from the atmosphere and use it to synthsise sugar (And N2 as a base for proteins, given that you lack crops to fix nitrogen), but that feels like cheating.

If you force your entire population to live in a tightly closed environment where all their exctreta are available for processing, it might be sustainable for a short time given sufficiently clever (bio)chemists, a lot of cheap energy, and a willingness to have a lot of synthetic food in addition to the cannibalism. But even then, you're effectively asking for a perpetual motion machine; even if energy supply isn't an issue, tiny losses and inefficiencies in your system will add up over time.
posted by metaBugs at 5:59 PM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


It doesn't make any sense. What do the people being raised as meat eat? The thing about cows is that they are very good at converting things people can't eat (grass, etc.) into things people can eat (delicious hamburgers).

If you're positing a dwindling society (either by design or as a draconian response to something like "all the biosynthesizers on the space station failed, must eat each other") then OK, but it's certainly not sustainable for the reasons everyone has already mentioned.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:05 PM on November 16, 2010


Not possible, as many have stated, due to physics (damn you, physics!). You may want to read Michel Faber's "Under the Skin" - a SUPREMELY creepy book in which human meat is something of a rich-person delicacy.
posted by julthumbscrew at 6:09 PM on November 16, 2010


Of course, boring old physics didn't prevent the (non-cannibal, unless pod person chow is people) people farms in The Matrix being a hit, so it may not matter too much.
posted by Artw at 6:18 PM on November 16, 2010


This story idea is a bit like asking "what would happen if the sun extinguished itself and how would we sustain life in that situation?" because the same problems would ultimately apply I think. I disagree that you'll be able to get away with a perpetual system of canlibalism because many people's suspension of disbelief won't buy into your world.

I think you can write a similar story though if you just accept the above as a given. Take into account the diminishing amount of energy over time in the system. You can pretend the rate of energy loss is lower than it would probably be in reality (ie., effectively only 5% population loss year over year with a large starting population means starting at 1,000,000 people it would take 90 years to go below 10,000 people. If you chose 1% rate you'd still have 400k people after 90 years).

If you want some ideas for such a system I suggest looking at the Great Outdoor Fight from Achewood to show how gangs can form even if it is supposed to be literally every man for himself. And maybe The Highlander for good measure. There can only be one (person who is never eaten).

I think you could have a religion in place that made people desire to be the Final One Alive (signifying that they are some sort of Chosen One). But this would be kept in check by other people with a similar desire in some sort of society wide Mutually Assured Destruction scenario. People could team up in gangs to protect each other from other gangs. Sometimes gangs would group together in other gangs. Sometimes a single gang would canibalize its weakest members. That kind of thing.

Hope this helps.
posted by Green With You at 6:27 PM on November 16, 2010


It is possible to have a sub-class (or super-class) of people who subsist solely on the dead of a larger group. Religious belief would be the obvious motivator - like the Aghori - but it could be socio-political instead (that would keep the cannibalism thematics without the scientific problems).
posted by Paragon at 6:27 PM on November 16, 2010


In a place with no livestock or agriculture, would it be possible for a people group to survive by eating their own?

No, because of thermodynamics.

I'm astonished other answers have got past this.
posted by pompomtom at 6:48 PM on November 16, 2010


How could rabid nationalism be employed to keep the system going? How might a dictator encourage "good citizenship" while punishing "bad citizenship" with ovens and cutlery? Would positive reinforcement work better, to reward mothers for producing lots of offspring specifically for consumption? What sort of justification would people tell themselves to feel proud to live and participate in such a society?

Ah hell, just make'em Naziesque type soldiers/outsiders who exist in a larger society. They kill and eat others as a way defeating their enemies. Since they're a very small subset of the populace, everyone is an outsider, so it's like a buffet:

"What are you feeling like tonight, a little soul food?"

"Nah, I'm thinking Asian. That Korean grocery on 44th street? That guy's been getting hefty, we could make it last a while"

Or go the South Africa during Apartheid era route: a small group of rulers with control of a larger group. I think the numbers were 3mil vs 20 mil in SA, or something crazy like that. That's a lot of eatin' for that 3 million, you know? Bonus: easy racial breakdown makes things simple. Of course you can eat 'them', they look different! Note: you don't HAVE to make it white vs black.

But really, your story sounds silly. There's no other plants or animals? That sounds really contrived. Wait, wasn't there a nomadic African tribe that had scarce resources so they bled cows and drank their blood? That way the cows lasted longer and the people go nourishment.

What you need is limb regeneration. That way you can hack off a limb and grow it back the hack it off again. Hey, it is the future.

I've thought about this too much, have to go now. I'm hungry.
posted by nomadicink at 7:00 PM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Your question as asked is impossible due to the constraints of thermodynamics - however, I vaguely remember reading that the parts of New Guinea where cannibalism was endemic also had limited protein sources, especially for women and children. Maybe in your distopian future, all that grows is some low nutrient potato, which must be supplimented with X lbs of human flesh a year. Something else to riff on in your story is also that you could write it two ways - that the people being eaten are enemies/criminals or that the people being eaten are revered ancestors.
posted by fermezporte at 7:42 PM on November 16, 2010


What you need is limb regeneration. That way you can hack off a limb and grow it back the hack it off again. Hey, it is the future

No, because of thermodynamics.
posted by pompomtom at 7:50 PM on November 16, 2010


No, because of thermodynamics.

The limb regeneration could be assisted by outside energy.

(this is turning chatfiltery)
posted by ripley_ at 8:04 PM on November 16, 2010


I can't add to the physics side of things, but one story that discussed cannibalism as a way of life was Through Darkest America by Neil Barrett Jr: a boy tries to find his missing sister, in a post-apocalyptic America where farmers raise mute human-like creatures as food.
posted by Joe in Australia at 12:11 AM on November 17, 2010


I once read a short story on this very subject in an anthology which I have somewhere in this apartment and cannot find! The anthology is a thick "50 best short stories of the 20th century" sort of thing, and this is now officially driving me crazy... Which is ironic considering the plot of the story.

It's an epistolary story, a mid-level government functionary writing letters to his wife/girlfriend while he's away helping to set up this relocation camp somewhere in the US south. The letters cover seemingly mundane details of his life and work. No details are given about the nature of this camp. One day on a walk around the countryside where the camp is being built, he sees this huge building being constructed. So huge he can't even imagine what it could be used for I believe at some point it is mentioned that the letters of his department's acronym stand for something something Negro Resettlement something. Another common feature of his letters home is about how awful the general conditions are (stuck in the middle of nowhere, coworkers are assholes, nothing much to do, existential ennui), but the one great aspect of life is how fantastic the meat in the commissary is. This is at first dropped as an inconsequential detail, of course. But the narrator keeps returning to it. As he keeps dwelling in this huge building and what it could possibly be. He starts going a little crazy - the wife/girlfriend is apparently pregnant, aforementioned existential ennui, something about the situation at the camp just isn't adding up...

The final "letter" is the reveal - it occurs to the narrator what's really going on. It's a concentration camp to turn African-Americans into meat for human consumption.

So your idea is at least plausible enough for an obviously well-regarded writer to use as the premise of what is apparently one of the great short stories of the 20th century. Even if I can't remember that author's name, or the title of said story.
posted by Sara C. at 12:35 AM on November 17, 2010


You could do this if you allowed some form of edible but repulsive food that the "farmed" people could be forced to eat.

In some kind of future dystopia we can imagine a scientific breakthrough allowing us to fake photosynthesis in a factory, so (like plants) we can make edible matter directly from a mess of solar (or other) energy, carbon dioxide and various trace elements. So far this is old hat; I believe they do something like it in Star Trek. I always thought that stuff they ate in Star Trek must taste pretty bad.

Intensively rearing humans on the stuff and then eating people-steaks would undoubtedly be tastier.
posted by emilyw at 3:12 AM on November 17, 2010


I remember reading some Alien fantasy novel when i was a teenager set in a world where the elderly and especially young were cannibalized in times of famine or food shortages to preserve the greater productive society.
posted by mary8nne at 6:25 AM on November 17, 2010


Thanks all for your great responses! I couldn't get back on here last night to say anything as they were coming in. It's not really fair to mark anything the "best" answer in a thread like this but I appreciate all the ideas and the regrounding I needed in thermodynamics. I hadn't started writing yet — still working out all the concepts — and it looks like I'll need to modify them a bit. You guys have given some excellent suggestions as to how I might do that. Thanks again!
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 6:34 AM on November 17, 2010


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