Geoff Chambers

It’s a F*ct – We’re F*cked

Posted by Geoff Chambers on August 28, 2012
Aug 282012

This is a guest post by Geoff Chambers and Alex Cull.


“Ten Billion”, described as  “a new kind of scientific lecture” by scientist Stephen Emmott and director Katie Mitchell played at the Royal Court theatre in London for three weeks in July and August, and at the Festival d’Avignon in France. It was a huge critical success, and in a post-show discussion Emmott said that he had been bombarded with offers from film makers to turn it into a tv documentary, and claimed to have received thousands of requests from the public to have it shown  to schools and to politicians.

So what’s in it? Only a few thousand people lucky enough to have seen the show know, since it was shown at the Theatre Upstairs, which only seats ninety, and, contrary to normal Royal Court practice, a playscript has not been published.

Since the critics seem to be unanimous about its importance, and the stage show is likely to be transformed into a tv film which will be watched by millions, we decided to try and piece together  the contents from quotations in press reviews, rather like that lost Satyr Play by Sophocles, known only from fragments found on scraps of papyrus wrapped round  a mummified crocodile.

Besides the reviews by theatre critics, our main sources were two filmed interviews, one by  the director Katie Mitchell given at the Avignon theatre festival, the other a question-and-answer session by Professor Emmott after a performance at the Royal Court. Both these, plus an item on Radio’s Today programme, have been transcribed and are available at Alex’s site:

https://sites.google.com/site/mytranscriptbox/home/20120722_km

https://sites.google.com/site/mytranscriptbox/home/20120809_tb

The title “Ten Billion” refers to Emmott’s estimate of the likely world population at the end of the century. Most of the reviews speak of “overpopulation”; Whatsonstage talks of the “exponential” population expansion and Time Out talks of Emmott’s prediction “that the global population is spiralling out of control”.

The reviews were full of superlatives. The Times’ critic calls it “utterly gripping, terrifyingly lucid”; Time Out: “monumentally sobering”; Billington in the Guardian: “one of the most disturbing evenings I have ever spent in a theatre”; the Financial Times: “one of the most disturbing shows I have seen on a stage”; the Mail on Sunday “certainly the most scary show in London”. Almost all of them cite Emmott’s conclusion: “We’re f*cked”.

Here are some of the key “facts” (or “f*cts”) cited by Emmott and picked up by critics. (It is of course impossible to check whether the critics have quoted Emmott correctly, since no record of what he says exists):

1) A google search uses as much electricity as boiling a kettle.

2) It takes 3,000 litres of water to make a hamburger, (that’s 10 trillion litres of water annually to sustain the UK’s burger industry).

3) It takes 27,000 litres of water to make a bar of chocolate

3) Animal species are currently going extinct at a rate 1,000 times their natural level.

4) Bangladesh will be under water by the end of the century.

Taking them one by one:

1) A cup of tea is worth a Google search

The New Scientist has an interview with Emmott in which the Google/kettle anecdote is repeated and in which Emmott says:

the goal was simply to inform and give people an opportunity and a framework for thinking differently about the nature of the problems that we face. You might say it’s quite stark, but 99 per cent of the talk is just the science and the facts.

The article has an update pointing out that Google disputes this figure, saying it’s a hundred times too large. So who to believe? Google, or the Microsoft professor of Computational Science at Oxford? Or should we split the difference?

2) How moist is your hamburger?

The figure of  3000 litres of water to make a hamburger dwarfs average daily consumption of 150 litres per day. Even if you accept the concept of “virtual” water, (incorporating water used in the manufacture of products consumed) as explained in a Guardian article – according to which the true figure for UK water usage is 30 times greater than the official amount — you would need 10% of total water usage in the UK, including  “virtual” water, just to keep us in hamburgers – an unlikely result.

Googling “3000 litres of water to make a hamburger” leads us to sites like waterfootprint.org, which cite the peer reviewed articles (e.g. Mekonnen & Hoekstra: A Global Assessment of the Water Footprint of Farm Animal Products) which are the ultimate source of these figures. The high water content of hamburgers is explained by counting the rain falling on the grass or other crops consumed by the cow. It could be pointed out in defense of the Big Mac that even if you abolished livestock rearing and went back to hunter gathering, the same amount of rain would still fall on the same amount of grassland, and your voleburger would still have the same water footprint, though presumably without mustard and mayonnaise. It really doesn’t matter whether Mekonnen and Hoekstra have done their sums right; it’s not science – just a Reader’s Digest-style factoid to bring out to impress your dinner party guests over the home-grown roquette quiche.

3) Homeopathic chocolate

27,000 litres to make a bar of chocolate, cited by reviewers here and here also seems a bit steep. The Urban Times website quotes 27,000 litres per kilo as the water footprint of chocolate, (perhaps Emmott likes big chocolate bars?) and adds:

there is a simple reason behind the large water footprint. The natural habitat of the cocoa bean is the lower storey of the evergreen rainforest and the plant requires vast amounts of water to thrive. It needs rainfall of between 1,500mm and 2,000mm per year with consistent levels throughout the year. Compare this to the 650mm per year as an average in London.

By converting some of their rainforest into cocoa plantations, countries like Ghana can transform natural resources such as their ample rainfall into valuable cash crops and become wealthier. One day the may even become wealthy enough to hold dinner parties where they can worry whether the stuff they import from Europe has been ethically and sustainably produced.

3) Animal extinctions a thousand times the background rate.

Wikipaedia  says “the rate of species extinctions [not just animal species] at present is estimated at 100 to 1000 times “background” or average extinction rates in the evolutionary time scale of planet Earth” and cites J.H.Lawton and R.M.May, Extinction rates, OUP.  Given that new species are being discovered faster than current ones are going extinct, any figure is bound to be highly suspect, even one as vague as that cited by Wiki. Has Emmott simply taken the higher of two vastly different estimates for overall species loss and applied it to the tiny proportion of species which people care about – the four-legged ones?

Willis Eschenbach points out that, according to the Committee on Recently Extinct Organisms, of the 61 mammal species known to have become extinct in the past 500 years, 58 were island dwellers, hunted to death by European colonisers. He says:

Of the 4,428 known mammal species (Red List 2004) living in Asia, Europe, Africa, North America, South America, and Antarctica, only three mammals have gone extinct in the last 500 years.

Clearly, any idea of animal species loss being multiplied a thousandfold by climate change, or anything else, is nonsense.

4) Is Bangladesh disappearing?

A quarter of the land surface in this huge river delta is flooded every year. Thousands die, but, as the 2008 Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan explains in some detail, great progress is being made to limit the damage and loss of life. This progress is due to the impressive economic and social development the country has experienced:

Since Bangladesh achieved Independence in 1971, GDP has more than tripled in real terms , food production has increased three-fold, the population growth rate has declined from around 2.9% per annum in 1974 to 1.4% in 2006 and the country is now largely food secure. Over the last 20 years, growth has accelerated and the country is on track to become a middle income country by 2020. In four out of the last five years the economy has grown at over 6%. Between 1991 and 2005, the percentage of people living in poverty declined from 59% to 40% … Child mortality has fallen substantially and gender parity in primary education has been achieved.

If you google “Bangladesh surface area”, the first few results all cite a World Bank report which gives the surface area of Bangladesh as 144,000 sq km, unchanged since 1961. The round figure and the lack of change over 50 years look suspicious. Could it be that the Bangladesh government is too poor or too incompetent to measure its own surface area?

Not so. A few minutes’ research show that it’s the World Bank which can’t be arsed to get its facts right. The Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics’ 2010 Pocketbook gives a figure from the 2001 census of 147,570 sq km. -considerably more precise, and 5% up on the World Bank’s vague out-of-date estimate.

The impression that the area of Bangladesh is actually growing is confirmed by the experts working on land reclamation. From:

http://pulitzercenter.org/articles/bangladesh-fights-survival-against-climate-change

“The Bangladeshi rivers carry silt unlike any others and an intervention is all that is needed to create new land,” said S.R. Khan, a government water engineer. “Bangladesh is the only country in the world that can physically grow.” [...] “Our understanding is that the process of siltation, particularly when you are supporting it through creating dams, that the process is much faster than the increase in sea levels,” said Alphons Hennekens, the Netherlands’ ambassador to Bangladesh.

*    *    *

The key prediction, contained in the title of Emmott’s piece, is that  the world’s population is due to grow from its current seven billion to ten billion by the end of the century.

According to the 2010 revision of the UN’s World Population Prospects this figure will be reached on 18 June 2083. It represents a radical increase from that given in the last full report, “World Population to 2300” published in 2004 which predicted:

world population peaks at 9.22 billion in 2075… [A]fter reaching its maximum, world population declines slightly and then resumes increasing, slowly, to reach a level of 8.97 billion by 2300, not much different from the projected 2050 figure.

The 2010 update is not a proper report like the 2004 document, but a bunch of graphs for internet browsing, and is therefore much more difficult to evaluate. There is, however, a set of FAQs in the 2010 document which explain the upward revision as being due largely to a revision of estimates of fertility rates. My BS detector shot off the dial when I read in FAQ3 that the figure of ten billion is due to be reached on 18 June 2083, (what? during Wimbledon?) and that FAQ9 cites a reversal of declining fertility rates in Estonia and the Channel Isles among the reasons for the upward revison – but that’s another story. Even if one accepts the revised figures, there is no basis for describing population growth as “exponential” or “spiralling out of control” or even “overpopulation” as many critics did. Were they citing Emmott, or did they make it up? There’s no way of knowing.

Of the checkable facts cited by critics quoting Emmott, only the Ten Billion has credible official support. But even this apparently solidly based projection came under fire in the discussion after the show, when a member of the audience mentioned:

a lecture at my own institution by Professor Sarah Harper, who’s professor of demography at Oxford, and she took a much more reassuring view than you … of population growth. She said that changing lifestyles in every part of the world, with a few pockets of exceptions in Africa, would lead us to conclude that the portrait you portray of relentless expansion of population is not the case. I’m confused now, having heard your wonderful talk tonight.

Stephen Emmott: 

No, I’m not quite as optimistic as Sarah, but – and I do share most of her views. Er, but I didn’t actually say we would be 28 billion, I said if the … rate continues at the current rate – and even I don’t think it will – we would be 28 billion, and she would say the same. She might argue that it could be 22 billion, but neither of us would disagree that it’s twenty-something. I just happen to not be quite as optimistic as Sarah about lifestyle changes and how soon they will occur and their consequences in the short term.

Man in audience:

She ended up by saying “It’s a wonderful world for young people”, the complete opposite to producing guns…

So Emmott agrees with fellow Oxford professor Harper – even though she thinks “it’s a wonderful world” and he thinks “we’re f*cked”.

The reference to guns concerns an anecdote which greatly impressed the critics concerning a scientist colleague of Emmott who, when asked what he intended to do to prepare for the future, said “make sure my children know how to use a gun”.

Emmott was at pains to dispel any idea that his colleagues were given to violence. He explained:

I was quite surprised when this guy in my lab said this, because he’s very, very level-headed. And he said so because, you know, we have a lab of forty people working in this area, and you know, everyone shares the same view as he does, and it’s simply on the basis of a) the science, and b) if we’re heading for trouble, of some sort…

Now there’s nothing surprising about someone saying something daft and dramatic in the course of a casual conversation. What is surprising is Emmott’s assertion that the forty people working with him (all top brains doing avant-garde science, according to Katie Mitchell) “all share the same view”. Of course, there’s no more reason to believe this assertion than any of the others offered by Emmott as scientific truth, given his tendency to be out by a factor of ten or a hundred in his estimates. But supposing he’s right. A lab of top flight scientists employed to do Blue-Sky thinking on behalf of the British and American governments, all thinking the same.

Isn’t that rather worrying?

Postscript: In the post-show discussion, Emmott claimed: “an interview that I did about this talk generated just thousands of blogs and comments within you know, a handful of days…”

We’ve done a lot of googling, and come up with 94 comments to an article by Robin McKie in the Observer and 23 to the interview in the New Scientist. Can anyone come up with any more, or is this another  example of an Emmottic – a statistic that requires a downward revision of several magnitudes?

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