Ten Billion – a scientist’s one-man show on environmental woes – has been an unexpected sell-out hit
- The Observer, Sunday 12 August 2012
Stephen Emmott is an unlikely candidate for a star of a sell-out London theatre hit. He currently uses crutches after recently losing a disc in his spine and until last month he had never trod the boards. Yet the 52-year-old academic has just completed a majestic run at the Royal Court. For the past three weeks, he has filled the seats of the company’s Jerwood Theatre Upstairs with audiences, mostly young, flocking to see his solo performances of Ten Billion, a brutal but careful dissection of the likely impact of humanity’s swelling numbers on our planet.
People queuing for return tickets have been turned away in their dozens and a restaging of the show now looks inevitable, possibly in the Royal Court’s main theatre next year. Emmott, a professor of computational science at Oxford University and head of Microsoft’s Computational Science laboratory in Cambridge, has also been besieged with offers from TV companies and documentary makers who want to put his work on screen. We have not seen the last of Ten Billion, it would seem.
And that can only be good news. Ten Billion – a co-operation between Emmott and the distinguished director Katie Mitchell, whose past works have included A Woman Killed With Kindness at the National Theatre – is the most effective theatrical work that has attempted to illustrate our planet’s environmental woes that I have seen. It is spare, chilling, moving and cunningly staged and unravels with compelling, impeccable logic.
Forget the hunt for the Higgs boson, Emmott tells audiences. Scientists may think that this was the greatest experiment ever performed, but it is nothing compared to the one humanity is now carrying out on our own planet as we pump more and more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, melt icecaps, destroy precious ecosystems and eradicate species in their thousands. The end result is “one of the most disturbing evenings I have ever spent in a theatre,” wrote the Guardian’s Michael Billington.
By contrast, previous theatrical attempts to tackle the issues of global warming, rising sea levels and the ecological mayhem we face have been confused and tame. The National Theatre’s Greenland, staged last year, was chaotic and unfocused, for example, while the Bush’s The Contingency Plan, a double bill by Steve Waters, although highly enjoyable and intelligently written, only touched on the depth of the crisis we face.
Certainly neither work produced the gasps that greeted the close of Emmott’s Ten Billion. We face a future in which billions will starve, he states. Britain, which could come off relatively lightly when 6C rises in global temperature take effect, will be turned into a military outpost dedicated to preventing waves of immigrants reaching our shores. (Disturbingly, senior army officers have recently become a common sight at climate conferences, says Emmott, although this at least suggests that the military perceives the dangers we face, even if politicians do not.)
So can we do anything to halt the devastation that lies ahead? Emmott asks as he reaches the end of his show. “In truth, I think we are already fucked,” is his answer. Then he quotes the response he got when he asked one of his younger colleagues what measures he planned to take to ward off the worst effects of the mayhem that lies ahead. “Teach my son how to use a gun,” he was told. Cormac McCarthy would be proud.
The fact we have had to wait so long for a stage production that effectively tackles the most important issue now facing our species – the destruction of Earth’s entire ecosystem – is perhaps surprising. The theatre has never shied away from facing up to hard or awkward subjects as the Royal Court’s history attests. Edward Bond’s Saved – an attack on modern poverty in which a baby is stoned to death – was first staged here in 1965, while Bruce Norris’s scorching indictment of middle-class racism, Clybourne Park, had its UK premiere at the Royal Court two years ago.
So why the lack of dramatic action when it comes to planetary degradation? The answer has much to do with the complex nature of the subject. When you are trying to outline the impact of swelling populations, rising middle-class aspirations, increases in carbon dioxide outputs and melting icecaps, the issues of character and narrative can get confused. Ten Billion succeeded by simply avoiding them. There is no action.
Emmott merely stands in front of a desk within a set that is a recreation of his own office, right down to the slowly ageing tangerine that he has left in one corner. “I am a scientist, not an actor – as will quickly become clear,” he announces. Then he proceeds with his analysis with the help of some neat video graphics. The result is more lecture than play, though I would argue that this is a perfectly reasonable theatrical mechanism, one that has been deployed recently in London by the Tricycle theatre in its staging of the public inquiry into the Stephen Lawrence case and by the Finborough theatre in its depiction of recent events in Syria.
In Emmott’s case, his main concern is the ecological costs that underlie our daily lives: the billions of barrels of oil drilled each year, the billions of passenger miles flown and billions of tonnes of carbon pumped into the atmosphere. Two years ago, Russia halted its grain exports after its harvest failed. As a result, there were food riots in many countries, including several in the Middle East. The Arab Spring erupted in their wake. Today, an even great harvest failure is threatened in the United States, where scorching temperatures have devastated crops. The implications for civil unrest across the planet are profound. Add to this the prospect of even greater temperature rises, triggered by increasing emissions of greenhouse gases that are in turn fed by our undiminished urge to burn fossil fuels and you begin to get a feel for the troubles we face. Populations are soaring but our capacity to feed ourselves is dwindling as the heat is turned up on our planet.
There is nothing explicitly new in this analysis. What is fresh is its measured, uninterrupted exposition. Emmott remains remarkably calm throughout his performance although you can still sense his concealed fury at our failure to take action. There are no Paxmans to quibble over details and no climate gainsayers to make arcane or inaccurate objections. And that is the real lesson of Ten Billion. Without the clamorous voices of climate change deniers who constantly question the minutiae of scientists’ research or cherry-pick data, Emmott has shown that it is possible to make a straightforward, telling demonstration of the dreadful problems we face. We need a lot more sober, pithy work like this.
Emmott believes it is too late now to prevent our planet burning. Others, myself included, believe there is still time to take action. Making sure that the message of Ten Billion is not lost would be a very good starting point.
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