Book Review: Ten Billion

Ten Billion by Stephen Emmott is based on the author’s lecture run at the Royal Court Theatre in London. Emmott leads the Microsoft Computational Science Laboratory in Cambridge and is a professor of Computational Science at Oxford University.

There is a children’s book entitled “There Was An Old Woman” about a woman who swallowed fly and from there swallowed a spider to catch the fly and goes on to a bird to catch the spider to cat, dog, goat, cow, and a horse (she’s dead- of course!). We, humanity, are forcing the earth to swallow thing after thing to try and fix the problem’s we are causing.

Human’s emerged as a species 200,000 years ago. 10,000 years ago there were a million people on earth. In 1800, population reached 1 billion. By 1960, human population reached 3 billion. 5 billion in 1980 and today there are 7 billion people. By 2050, the the population will reach 9 billion. And 10 Billion by the end of the century, that is with restraint. If we grow at the current rate, by the end of this century there will be 22 billion people on the planet. Population, people, not flies or spiders will be the death of the planet as we know it.

We have recognizable damaged on the planet now and with the rise of the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China) and there demands for a Western lifestyle of meat, cars, technology will put a huge burden on the planet. Emmott is not worried that we will run out of oil to fuel this growth; he is worried that we will continue to use it at an accelerated pace and the damage that will do.

In 1960, there were 100 million cars in the world. By 1980, there were 300 million cars on the road. This year we will produce the 1 billionth car and over the next 40 years we will produce another 2.5 billion cars. The price of cars extends beyond the price tag; there are roads, pollution and pollution related diseases, environmental damage from oil production, transportation costs of parts, raising of animals for leather, and the list goes on.

Food and water will see increased demand. The Green Revolution, the author says, is a myth. There was nothing green about it. Petroleum based fertilizers and irrigation allowed increased production. As petroleum becomes scarce and water becomes scarce, food will become scarce. To increase food production new crop lands will be needed. This will come at the expense remaining forests and protected lands. Climate change will move crop lands. Climate change is not weather: because it snows one day in March in Dallas, Texas does mean global warming is wrong.

Emmott paints a picture of earth reminiscent of Isaac Asminov’s story 2430 AD. It is is a scary picture and it will be here in our children’s life time, if not ours. We are not trying to change the path we are on, most are happy to speed down the road to oblivion. Even those who try aren’t really doing much. I don’t drive a car. I bicycle everywhere I can; I take the train if I need to go farther. I am a vegetarian who shops local. My technology consists of a laptop, a phone and a Nook (no TV, stereo, X-box…). But even all that won’t be enough in the future. Emmott is much more blunt about it, let’s just say, the old woman is starting to swallow the horse.

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