Ten Billion

think we’re fucked.” That’s Professor Stephen Emmott’s stark conclusion at the end of Ten Billion, which reveals in fascinating and horrifying ways the true nature of the damage we have inflicted on our climate in the past 300 years. Ten billion is the estimated world population by the end of the century – and the situation will be globally catastrophic.

In its way, this is a format-busting show. Don’t come expecting a flashy multimedia experience or stylised staging. Director Katie Mitchell has wisely put away her usual bag of techno-tricks to let, as he informs us, non-actor Emmott – head of computational science at Cambridge University – tell a story that needs no embellishment to be dramatic. The lure of Mitchell is also a clever way to attract audiences who might never go to something like this in another setting.

The only directorial flourish is at the end, when a shutter plunges the room into darkness as Emmott recounts a colleague’s recommendation to the next generation: “learn how to use a gun.” But by then, this production, which deserves to be seen by as many people as can cram themselves into the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, has earned the right to employ such an effect.

Giles Cadle’s set transplants every mundane detail of Emmott’s Cambridge office to the Royal Court, blurring performance with lecture and adding gravitas through its unobtrusiveness. What effects there are, are subtle: graphs veer off white boards unable to contain the scale of what they represent, and a soundtrack of panicky strings accompany Emmott’s description of the quickening pace at which we are exhausting the planet’s resources.

Emmott, a specialist in interdisciplinary science and complex natural systems, spins a dense web of cause and effect out of ecology, industrialisation and social changes since 1800. Animations – powerful in their primary-school simplicity – show us swarming like yellow locusts across the globe, eating up every inch of useable agricultural land, wiping out species and triggering climate changes that could see Bangladesh under water by 2100.

But if you think you know this narrative, think again. Emmott – a wry, down-to-earth and sometimes terrifying guide – has no time for climate change’s hackneyed tropes. The polar bear is on thin ice for him in more ways than one, as a cuddly-looking symbol distracting us from the far more serious environmental consequences of the rapid loss of plant life.

He is frustratedly amused by celebrities who ‘go green’ and smiles grimly as he describes an encounter with a Greenpeace volunteer who tried to get him to sign a petition against a ‘non-eco-friendly’ car manufacturer – as if a distinction could be drawn. We are paddling in the shallows, making token gestures, and not wading deeper into the problem out of wilfulness or ignorance.

Emmott argues that we mistake effects for causes and misunderstand the actual connections between our daily activities and climate change. For if natural processes are inextricably linked, so too are manmade ones. Forget the health dangers of junk food – just producing a Big Mac requires a staggering 3000 litres of water. A Google search uses almost as much energy as boiling a kettle. Even as I type these sentences, I’m contributing to the crisis.

This barrage of shockingly unfamiliar information is bewildering, a bit like being told you’ve wandered into quicksand: your every action is probably making the situation worse. But don’t expect Emmott to throw you a life-line. He dismisses most suggested technological solutions to the climate crisis as impractical or equally destructive in different ways. Filling the sea with iron filings or sending reflective umbrellas into space elicits black humour mixed with incredulity.

Emmott’s only answer is a radical attitude change by world governments, mobilised by public demand to work together. But he points to bank bailouts, a squeezed NHS and ever-more lucrative deals to drill for oil and gas – which will run out long after the world becomes uninhabitable – as evidence that no one at the top is really listening. The ‘rational sceptic’ in him bubbles to the surface as he describes a disaster movie scenario with no convenient asteroid to scare us out of our complacency.

Too little, too late, unless we actually properly re-evaluate how we live on this planet. That’s the warning of this eye-opening show, unvarnished by glossy stagecraft and too honest for tidy optimism or redemptive metaphors. There is no grander truth, just the one staring us in the face, conveyed with educated anger and authority by Emmott. As scientists quibble over uncertainties and “bloody Brian Cox” sings the praises of CERN, he imagines famine and global deprivation – our legacy to the near future as we careen towards extinction.

First published by Exeunt magazine