books sustainability

Book review: 10 Billion, by Stephen Emmott

10 billion10 Billion is one of the books I’ve heard mentioned a few times this summer. It’s a short and shouty warning about the scale and speed of environmental collapse. Some have been saying it’s an unusually frank and much needed kick up the backside, others say it’s alarmist and doom-mongering. I decided I’d read it for myself.

It’s not hard to do. This is one of those conceptual books that puts one paragraph on each page, or even single sentences, so that you can motor your way through its 200 pages in an hour or two. The author also favours short sentences. Very short sentences. For maximum impact. Whether or not they’re grammatically correct.

Said author is Stephen Emmott, systems thinker and head of an interdisciplinary Microsoft Research laboratory at Cambridge. He’s great at pulling together issues that are normally addressed in isolation, and building a big picture of an unraveling ecology. Climate change, species loss, population, food, energy, it all gets bundled into this bird’s eye view of the 21st century’s biggest problems and how they interconnect. Dramatic graphs and well chosen news photos punctuate the text, and it clips along at a fair old pace towards its depressing conclusion.

The earth can’t support 10 billion of us at anything like a developed-world standard of living, and Emmott basically says we have two ways out of the dilemma. One is a technological miracle. He doesn’t think this is likely, which leaves only one other solution: “We need to consume less. A lot less. Less food, less energy, less stuff. Fewer cars, electric cars, cotton t-shirts, laptops, mobile-phone upgrades. Far fewer. Yet, every decade, global consumption continues to increase relentlessly.”

Exactly. I reached the same conclusion myself a few years ago, and working out how to scale back consumption without dooming anyone to poverty is the main motivation of my writing. Emmott even remembers to mention that “‘we’ here refers to the people who live in the west and the north of the globe” and that there are plenty of people who need to increase their consumption.

Unfortunately, despite agreeing with the basic conclusions above, the book itself is a shambles.

For starters, it isn’t referenced. You have to take Emmott’s word for everything. You would be unwise to do so, because he exaggerates things and takes the worst possible view of everything. Data is misinterpreted to make things look as bleak as possible. There’s a graph showing the percentage of fish stocks that are overfished, but the label on it says it shows fish stocks that have collapsed and have “no fish”.

There’s another line that says “right now 40% of the entire surface of our planet is being used for agriculture”. That’s obviously false, since 70% of the planet is covered by water. But assuming he means land surface, is that the case? There are no references, so I don’t know. I do know that he’s exaggerating when he says “we are already using all the agricultural land on earth that there is.” The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation believes “there is still potential agricultural land that is as yet unused“. They mention parts of Africa and Latin America that are only using a fifth of their potential cropland, and there are areas of Eastern Europe where agricultural land was abandoned and could be restored.

The book is highly selective about examples, taking the worst case and extrapolating from there rather than looking at overall trends. So Emmott is pessimistic about chances of slowing population growth, but the only example he cites is Niger. Sure, efforts to reduce the birth rate in Niger have failed, and the average woman still has 7 children. But Niger is an outlier. It’s a highly conservative Islamic country where women marry at 15 and procreation is seen as a religious command. Globally, the fertility rate has almost halved since the 1950s. Even Niger isn’t a lost cause. Bangladeshi women had 7 children in the 7os and have an average 2.2 today.

There’s more. Emmott makes the teeth-gnashingly common mistake of dismissing peak oil theory because we’re not about to run out of oil, thereby proving he’s not understood it. Renewable energy is written off on the basis of solar PV alone, with no acknowledgement that there may be any other forms. He implies that the 1984 drought in Ethiopia alerted the world to the fact that water could become scarce, as if there were never droughts before that. He says that “it’s not just the Arctic” that’s melting, “it’s everywhere”, when any climate sceptic will joyfully tell you that the Antarctic is behaving quite differently.

That’s not an exhaustive list of the question marks I scribbled in the margins, but you get the picture. It seems to have reviewed okay elsewhere, but this is a bad book. It’s actually counter-productive, because those looking for excuses to ignore environmental concerns will find everything they need here.

To add insult to injury, there’s the ending to contend with. Emmott concludes that there are solutions out there, but we won’t take them. “I think we’re fucked” he says. Perhaps he’s just being attention seeking, but he completely undermines his own point. Having already lost the sceptics, he then loses the convinced with shrugging defeatism. Whatever motivations its author might have had, 10 Billion ends up being a doubly unhelpful book.


    1. Well there’s that side to it too – I think it was originally a talk, and perhaps it worked better as a kind of exasperated soliloquy. As a book, certainly a print edition, it feels distinctly padded out.

      Will look up those briefings.

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