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Ten Billion: Too Many

July 31, 2012 | By Microsoft blog editor

Posted by Rob Knies

Stephen Emmott (Photo by Stephen Cummiskey) 

The set was simple: a simulated office, with a desk, a chair, a floor lamp, a wall calendar, a row of bookshelves packed with scores of academic journals, a scraggly-looking plant at stage right—“a depressingly faithful reproduction of my office,” said Stephen Emmott.

The latter, head of Computational Science at Microsoft Research, based in Cambridge, U.K., was greeting a July 14 audience, 80 strong, in the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court Theatre in the Chelsea area of West London for the third of 27 performances of noted in this space back in May, Mitchell is one of the United Kingdom’s pre-eminent theatrical figures. Emmott, also a professor at the University of Oxford and University College London, leads the Computational Science Lab, which focuses on developing a new kind of precise, predictive science of complex systems.

In short, Ten Billion reflected nothing less than a rarely visited intersection of science and art, reflected in Emmott’s comment about the engagement: “It’s not a play, it’s not a typical scientific talk. It’s an experiment.”

Whatever it is, it clearly seems unique and enticing. The entire run has sold out, including six shows in France in late July as part of the prestigious Festival d’Avignon.

At the outset of the July 14 performance, Emmott declaimed: “I’m here because I’m worried,”—an ominous violin underscoring the sentiment—“worried about the state of our planet.”

He proceeded to outline a cautionary tale about the challenges the world’s rapidly accelerating population growth is posing to the continued viability of our species, and his discussion was accentuated with theatrical touches: swelling music, projected animation, artistic representations of factors critical to the future of human existence.

Interestingly, though, as Emmott’s logical examination of the issue at hand gained momentum, the stage trappings seemed to fade into the background. The force of his presentation became the focus, providing the drama the setting demanded. Science, for the moment, had become art.

That science was compelling. Emmott began by tracing a graph of population growth, a billion at a time. Mankind numbered 1 billion in 1800, and it took 130 years for that number to double. Over the last half-century, though, the graph turns nearly vertical, to the point where population is increasing by roughly a billion per decade—and is on pace to surpass 10 billion by the end of the century, possibly sooner.

Such growth has placed unseemly demands on finite resources and vital global systems. Emmott singled out five factors to examine—food, water, energy, transportation, and land. He provided a synopsis of where we stand with each, then peered into the future.

It was not a pretty sight, though there was an element of black humor in the presentation. It was difficult not to chuckle uneasily at some of the facts Emmott shared, such as the 3,000 liters of water it takes to produce a Big Mac—or the four liters of water necessary to produce … a plastic, one-liter bottle of water.

Such moments were rare, though. More sobering was Emmott’s pessimism regarding mankind’s ability to succeed in addressing the challenges of an ever more populous Earth. He pointed to a couple of potential saviors—technology and radical behavioral change—but both, under scrutiny, were revealed as unlikely to work.

“Certainly, the rational-optimist view would say that even if we don’t currently know how, our cleverness and inventiveness simply means we don’t have to worry—we will invent our way out of this,” he stated. “I have to confess, it is immensely tempting to believe something so appealing. But it’s a staggering leap into fantasy.”

Instead, Emmott painted a picture of a future in which rising temperatures would lead to the British Isles becoming a destination for “climate migrants.” He also offered a grim statistic: If the current rate of population growth were to continue, the number of humans could reach 28 billion by 2100.

The message didn’t go unheeded. The Times of London gave the performance a five-star review, calling it “utterly gripping, terrifyingly lucid.” The Financial Times described it as “disturbing” and “hair-raising.”