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.
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 food will 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) 11m 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.
And definitely very stupid.
Ian Jack, for the first time I’ve read him, manages to frame the review well: this is very much part of an eschatological religion, the coming of the end times.
And it’s pure bollocks as well.
I agree entirely that there are limits to the population that the Earth can support. At the most obvious, there’s a limited (even if very large) number of atoms of the planet from which to make human beings. Before we get there there’s dumping the waste heat generated by mammallian physiology and before we get there there’s enough surface area for everyone to stand on and so on.
That there are real physical limits does not mean that we’re going to get anywhere close to them. Which is where our computer scientist needs to have a little look at economics.
The first is that the great expansion of the population is over. Those who are going to have the grandchildren which lead to the peak population of 10 billion or so already exist. And it’s not really the increase in children that’s going to lead to that 10 billion anyway: it’s the failure of people to die before old age that is. What’s left of this last surge of population, from tiday’s 7 billion to that 10 billion or so peak is much more about the demographic transition than it is out of control birth rates.
That rural peasantry is stopping dying at 40 and living to 60, 70. That’s the real underlying story of the blow out.
And what is it that is reducing the number of children being born? It’s wealth: we can see this, we know this to be true in fact. Get incomes past a certain level (and it’s not all that high a one either, $6,000 to $8,000 GDP per capita, around the current global average in fact, seems to do it) and fertility declines precipitately. As it has done everywhere it has happened, starting oddly enough in France and that was long before effective artificial contraception was known of (various natural forms long being known of of course, from rhythm through buggery to to acidic vaginal douches like a sponge soaked in vinegar).
The population problem is done and dusted.
His numbers on resources required are also very odd indeed. 3,000 litres of water to make a burger? I’ll bet that’s based upon US feedlot operations for beef cattle. Simply not relevant to pasture operations. But more than that, 10 billion burgers in the UK a year…..what? We’re each eating, among the 60 million of us, 166 burgers a year? Don’t think so really. But even then, 30 billion tonnes of water required. What’s UK rainfall then?
Hmm, looks like 500 ml per year….meaning 500 kg per m2, with 130,000 km2 that’s 500 kg x 1 million x 130,000 erm, 65 trillion tonnes of water that falls free from the skies each year.
Dear God, we’re such bastards for turning 0.05% of our water into burgers.
As I say, there are indeed limits to how many people we can have doing what but they’re not obviously limits that are relevant to anything that we’re doing now.
I’m willing to agree that climate change might be but we know how to deal with that. A carbon tax in a globalised market economy.
And usefully, it’s exactly that globalised market economy which is going to reduce that population growth that our Professor is so frightened of.
Which leads to the obvious question. Why is it that these very clever people, when they step out of their knowledge base, never quite grasp that there are other very clever people in other fields who have already considered the questions they are asking? And come up with answers to them too?
After all, economists, geographers, agronomists, they’re not writing their own compilers or constructing logic chips, are they?