Holding court with the language of doom

If a giant asteroid was hurtling towards planet earth, the world’s governments, scientists and engineers come together to focus and save the world without any hesitation at all.

So says Stephen Emmott, the head of Microsoft’s computational science laboratory at Cambridge, and the star of a play that recently closed at the small and, recently sold-out Royal Court Theatre in London. Called 10 Billion, the performance is actually more of a lecture on the perils of consumption, climate change, and the sky-rocketing global population (which is predicted to reach 10 billion by the middle of this century).

Standing at a mock-up of his office, in front of a laptop and with a screen of various graphs behind him, Emmott told his audiences of the harsh future they could look forward to: the living hell of life on earth after a six degree temperature rise (potentially by the end of the century), mass starvation, and no water for the luxuries we take for granted today, like chocolate (27,000 litres to produce one bar, according to his statistics).

Emmott teamed up with director Katie Mitchell, because he struggled to find ways to tell people about the full picture of a world affected by climate change:

...outside of the scientific community the only way anyone gets to hear about anything is usually the media. On [BBC] Radio 4, for example, there’s some 2-minute thing on the Today programme - that ocelots are not breeding this year, or there are not as many bats. And I can just imagine someone saying, “Oh Doris! Bats are in decline! Guess what, ocelots are not breeding this year!” There’s no sort of context to that. There has got to be a better way of communicating.

The audience for Ten Billion has, apparently, been made up of the young. Does this also mean that the audience are already convinced of the doom-filled future Emmott lays out for them? And if they are, will the grim statistics he sites convince them to make the major collective behavioural changes he tells them are required to save us? Hard to know. However, what Emmott’s play does prove, is there is a place for one-sided conversation, and even a very depressing one can hold an audience and have them coming back for more. As writer Robin McKie writes in The Observer:

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.

The stage, then, has provided a rare opportunity to silence conflicting voices. Whether the message can reach the unconvinced is another matter altogether.

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