Review: A theatre of facts

The veteran journalist Ian Jack is stunned by a minimalist production on a famous London stage about one of the greatest challenges of our time: population growth.

Ten Billion
A play by Katie Mitchell

I first came to the Royal Court theatre more than 50 years ago to see Luther, a hugely ambitious play about a major figure in European history by John Osborne, who at the time was the enfant terrible of British theatre.  The contrast between Luther and Ten Billion, which I have just seen, couldn’t be starker. Luther was intensely theatrical – as gorgeous as a pantomime – the stage filled sometimes with pious monks and at other times with flag-waving knights. Ten Billion, on the other hand, is a piece of theatre only because it occurs in a theatre. And yet, in many ways, it is a much more dramatic work, as well as a more important one.

The curtain rises on a reconstruction of a modern office; we hear the melancholy sound of a cello; a middle-aged man walks on stage, opens his laptop and begins to talk. He says he’s a scientist and not an actor – that will become obvious – but that the set is a "depressingly accurate" reproduction of his office in Cambridge. His name is Stephen Emmott. He’s head of computational science at Microsoft Research in Cambridge and professor of computational science at Oxford, and what he wants to tell us about is the future of life, particularly human life, on Earth. And for the next 75 minutes that’s what he does, moving just a little around the set with the help of a stick (because a disc in his lower spine has popped out) as visuals appear on screens to illustrate what soon becomes a tide of frightening facts and predictions.

Taken singly, few of these facts would be new even to those who only follow issues of environment and development casually. But their accumulation and the connections between them are terrifying. Rarely can a lay audience have heard their implications spelled out so clearly and informally: a global population that was 1 billion in 1800 and 4 billion in 1980 will probably have grown to 10 billion by the end of this century; the demand for foodwill have doubled by 2050; food production already accounts for 30% of greenhouse gases – more than manufacturing or transport; more food needs more land, especially when the food is meat; more fields mean fewer forests, which means even more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which means an even less stable climate, which means less reliable agriculture – witness the present grain crisis in the US.

On and on he goes, remorselessly. It takes 3,000 litres of water to make a burger and the UK eats 10bn burgers a year. A world population of 10 billion will need 960 new dams, each of them the size of the world’s largest in China’s Three Gorges, plus 15,000 nuclear power stations  and/or (my note-taking in the dark isn’t up to his speed) 11 million wind farms. The great objective of intergovernmental action, such as it is, has been to restrict the rise in average global temperature to no more than 2C, but a growing body of research suggests a warming by 6C is becoming more and more likely. In which case, Emmott says, the world will become "a complete hellhole" riven by conflict, famine, flood and drought. Go to a climate change conference these days, he says, and as well as all the traditional attendees there will usually be a small detachment of the forward-looking military.

What’s to be done? Emmott takes us through the ideas offered by "the rational optimists" who believe that, faced with the species’ near extinction, human inventiveness will engineer a solution. Desalination plants, a new green revolution, seeding the oceans with iron filings to absorb more CO2: all of these threaten to produce as many problems as they solve. He believes the only answer is behavioural change. We need to have far fewer children and consume less. How much less? A lot less; two sheets of toilet paper rather than three, a Prius instead of a Range Rover – that kind of sacrifice won’t really do it. And does he believe we’re capable of making this necessarily far bigger curb on our desires? Not really. He describes himself as a rational pessimist. "We’re fucked," he says. If a large asteroid were on course to the Earth and we knew when and where it would hit – say France in 2022 – then every government would marshal its scientific resources to find ways of altering the asteroid’s path or mitigating its damage. But there is no asteroid. The problem is us.

Recently he asked one of his younger academic colleagues what he thought could be done. "Teach my son how to use a gun," said the colleague.

The speed at which our likely future has arrived is the frightening thing. How little we realised, leaving Luther in 1961, that the atmosphere’s carbon content had been increasing since the industrial revolution (which you could argue was itself a by product of the Lutheran/Calvinist revolution in Europe). We had our worries, of course, but the cold war and nuclear weapons didn’t seem intractable threats. They produced protest rather than the fearful depression that touches some of us from time to time, when every distraction has failed. Emmott sees his performance as a wake-up call and it has apparently had that effect on its young audiences (its entire run is sold out). But it would be just as easy to see it as a well-articulated piece of despair, a scientist’s soliloquy in front of the final curtain.

Copyright © Guardian News and Media Limited 2012  

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