Monday, July 21, 2014

Ten Billion by Stephen Emmott

We have an emergency and are doing little about it, according to computational scientist Stephen Emmott in his book Ten Billion. Everyone talks about global warming, but our troubles are much greater than climate change. As the world population grows, demand for food and water grows, but our resources are limited. Serious planning for the future needs to be done now, but Emmott believes little has been accomplished so far and there are few signs of any action in the near future. By the time enough people notice our situation, it may be too late to avoid catastrophe.

Take the subject of food production. The reason there are so many of us is that humans have succeeded in greatly increasing agricultural production three times in the history. We seem to assume that we can do it again, but Emmott says that it will not be so easy. Most of the land good for agriculture is already being used, and some of it is in bad shape because of soil depletion and erosion. The Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s is not a good model for the future as it required great amounts of water (a declining resource) and steady use of artificial fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, which have polluted water.

Next take water. Many aquifers are being rapidly depleted. People who believe we can invent our way out of every problem say there is plenty of ocean water to desalinate. The problem is that it takes a lot of energy to remove salt out of water to produce quantities needed by large communities or for agriculture. Desalination produces waste and pollution, and ways to delivery great quantities of water inland has not been planned.

With more people, there will be more demand for many consumer items, increasing the demand for water, energy, and metals for manufacturing. Every aspect of life on earth will be stressed. What can we do? Emmott thinks we either have to 1) technologize our way out of the situation (possible but unlikely) or 2) radically change our behaviors of consumption and procreation (again possible but unlikely). Seeing that there will soon be ten billion of us, he thinks that there are bad days ahead.

Ten Billion is a very scary book. As a rule, people do not like to read very scary books without zombies. In Emmott's book, we are the zombies. Passionate and eloquent throughout, the author tries to wake us from our sleep. Ten Billion is a slim volume with much to report and would be a great book discussion choice.

Emmott, Stephen. Ten Billion. Vintage Books, 2013. 216p. ISBN 9780345806475.

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