Stephen Emmott’s ‘Ten Billion’: “In truth, I think we are already ****ed.”

The Guardian reports on Stephen Emmott’s sold out Royal Court show in London. Emmott is Microsoft’s head of computational science and part of the 2020science research group. In his show, ‘Ten Billion’, he lays out what we’re doing to the planet in an exact replica of his office ‘right down to the slowly ageing tangerine that he has left in one corner’. He doesn’t offer much in the way of the hopey-changey stuff: “In truth, I think we are already fucked”. He’s teaching his son how to use guns.

As Robin McKie says:

There is nothing explicitly new in this analysis. What is fresh is its measured, uninterrupted exposition. There are no Paxmans to quibble over details and no climate gainsayers to make arcane or inaccurate objections. And that is the real lesson of Ten Billion. Without the clamorous voices of climate change deniers who constantly question the minutiae of scientists’ research or cherry-pick data, Emmott has shown that it is possible to make a straightforward, telling demonstration of the dreadful problems we face.

In a New Scientist interview, Emmott talks about the narrow range of options that exist for telling this story. Contrast to the implicit story told by the urban environment that most of us are exposed to daily. Car adverts in particular, of which there are as many as ever, seem to say ‘everything’s basically OK, don’t worry. Look, we’re even adding some extra green features and telling you the carbon output per mile. As you were’. The real story is of course much closer to Emmott’s, but we’re unlikely to see that finding its way onto billboards any time soon.

Just this weekend, for the first time, me and my partner started wonder whether the survivalists might be onto something. Emmott seems to think so. Is it a reasonable contingency response given the level of uncertainty we face? I’m a long way from the point where I’m willing to give up on politics, but others think differently – summed up by this neat little sentiment: ‘should we start the revolution now… or wait until the UN troops arrive after the food/financial collapse?’

This mode of thinking even has its own neologism, collapsonomics. Some of its thinkers are off to the wilds to find new stories (though presumably not to find new shooting skills at the same time); deeply suspicious of what some see as the ‘dictatorship of reason’ that got us into this mess (while also accepting the story the logos-merchants tell about the causes of the emerging darkness).

I hadn’t come across the term jeremiad until MT used it recently. Emmott’s theatrical performance certainly seems to fit into that category – but as the years pass, it seems scientific reality must increasingly segue into jeremiad. Are we all going to end up wearing sandwich boards – ‘the end of the world actually is nigh and I have the data to prove it’.

Much argument about ‘the message’ is thrown about – but is the problem that its too harsh and needs sugarcoating, or is it that Emmott and others’ work is a quiet but insistent squeak drowned out by a cacophony of comforting illusion?


  1. OT, maybe: It's funny, some local climate activist was talking in a printed interview about learning to shoot. Plus somebody a couple years ago was talking about scientists privately preparing escape cabins. Anybody understand what any of that is supposed to do against a drought? Can you think of any historical examples?

    "I thought," he said, "that if the world was going to end we were
    meant to lie down or put a paper bag over our head or something."
    "If you like, yes," said Ford.
    "That's what they told us in the army," said the man, and his eyes
    began the long trek back down to his whisky.
    "Will that help?" asked the barman.
    "No," said Ford and gave him a friendly smile. "Excuse me," he said,
    "I've got to go." With a wave, he left.

  2. Afeman, quite. (Here's Ford and the Barman). I wonder whether Emmott might have been the bean-stockpiling type anyway. Gun-toting bean-hording bombshelter-building behaviour seems like a reckless answer, built on a libertarian-ish notion of looking to yourself. I suppose it could work for some rich enough able to build a proper fortress, but clearly for the vast majority of people - especially the now 50+% citydwellers worldwide - it seems a pretty dumb idea. We have to find ways to be able to function as a social group. Not to mention, it's from those social groups that all of our innovations come. What use are hunkered down survivalists gonna be to the species?

    So should we `build resilience?' (cf. the Stockholm Resilience Centre working on Ostrom-like ideas). But resilience is expensive. Favourite historical example, from 1979 so don't know if this is still happening: in Rajasthan in India, the Monsoons bought unreliable quantities of rain. To cope, farmers cultivated many, distant plots to hedge bets over flood and dryness. It'd be interesting to see what's happening now, but the point being - keeping those many plots going is clearly more expensive in time and resources than living in a more certain world.

    Reminds me of a comment my partner made about the difference between industrial agri and agroecology: there's perhaps a zero-sum relationship between yield and resilience that goes right down to the genetic level.

    A lot of people seem wedded to specific notions of what resilience means too, e.g. resilience = localism. Really?

    It still seems obvious to me that you need LARGE organisations (probably state organisations) to build large-scale defence infrastructure like levees. Levees = effective. Shooting at hurricanes, not so much.

  3. Pingback: Another Week of GW News, September 16, 2012 – A Few Things Ill Considered

  4. Exceptionally for a show at the Royal Court, “Ten Billion” is not being published. We’ve looked at Emmott’s assertions as quoted by critics and find them all to be false or wildly exaggerated. see’s-a-fct-we’re-fcked.html

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