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By: Holly Ellyatt Assistant News Editor
Is that a must-heed warning from a learned academic? Or can technology, engineering, and the human spirit rise to the challenges posed by population growth?
Step forward Stephen Emmott, who heads Microsoft’s Computational Science Laboratory at Oxford.
Professor Emmott became an overnight media sensation last summer after delivering a terrifying vision of an overpopulated world in a lecture entitled “Ten Billion.”
Devised with theater director Katie Mitchell, Emmott's lecture was an unlikely hit in the West End and sold out for its two-week run at the Royal Court Theater.
“I’m here because I’m concerned,” the computer scientist began his presentation in somber tones to hushed, expectant audiences in London. “I’m concerned about the state of the planet.”
He proceeded to narrate his vision of a world that is a “living hell” in which we are at war over land, food, and water as a world population of 10 billion scrabbles over resources.
Indeed, migration will be motivated not by choice or economic necessity by the end of the century, but by human survival.
“By 2100, the terms ‘climate conflict,’ ‘water wars,’ and ‘resource conflict’ will become highly likely in parts of the world,” Emmott told CNBC. “I envisage a world of severe land, agricultural and water stress as a result of population growth, land degradation, and climate change.”
Emmott believes global average temperatures could rise by as much as 6° Celsius (42.8° Fahrenheit) by 2100, an “utterly catastrophic” possibility.
As people flee to cooler climes, Britain will develop militarized borders to stave off mass immigration. “Climate migrant” could become an everyday term, he said.
Indeed, "we are screwed” when the world population hits 10 billion unless we stop having children and curb our rampant use of energy and water, Emmott said, reeling off everyday facts to exemplify the energy use we take for granted every day.
The production of a single cup of coffee requires 100 liters (26 gallons) of water, while a chocolate bar draws upon 27,000 liters (7,132 gallons).
Emmott won over audiences with statistics that related to our everyday lives. The Times newspaper called the lecture “utterly gripping,” while a reviewer at the Financial Times called the performance "one of the most disturbing shows I have seen on a stage."
Emmott impressed reviewers precisely because, far from being a radical climate commentator or environmental campaigner, he and his team at Oxford use measured, scientific methodology to research and model climate change.
He said the idea for a public lecture came about in order to communicate to non-scientific audiences the “inter-connected” nature of ecosystems and our consumption.
For instance, when Russia suffered its worst drought in 50 years in 2010 — losing some 40 percent of its expected 100 million ton output — the nation restricted exports to ensure it met domestic demand.
That led to food shortages and riots in nations dependent on imported Russian wheat, particularly India and Pakistan. Such market-warping measures will become more common, Emmott said.
“People say we can ‘technologize’ our way out of this, but I am unconvinced of this ... to avoid some catastrophic outcome, we are going to radically change the way we live, and our economies, principally, consuming much, much less."
He added: "[I’m not] confident at all, to be honest.”
image: © Shayne Kaye