Ten Billion by Katie Mitchell and Stephen Emmott

In the performance “Ten Billion” at La Chartreuse de Villeneuve-lès-Avignon Stephen Emmott, a scientist, performed a soliloquy about the state of the world and the environment. He took a message we already have known since the Club of Rome and rehashed that in front of a theater audience over the course of ninety minutes.


Standing in a reproduction of a contemporary scientist’s office, Emmott did a reasonable Al Gore impersonation. He monotoned a large barrage of numbers supplemented by custom projections with moving graphics and graphs. The entire thing was put together to a high standard but that did not prevent it from devolving into a standard university lecture. Emmott stood there saying mostly: “Look at me. Aren’t my numbers big!?”

The performer started by disclaiming that he is not an actor but a scientist. That needn’t be a big problem. For this kind of non-fiction presentation having actual knowledge about the topic is much more valuable than any kind of acting skills you could bring to the table. The piece then only came alive in those moments where Emmott made some off the cuff remarks or recounted a personal experience. Techniques from page zero of Presentation Zen that weren’t used (intentionally?).

Targeting this kind of broad audience, it turns out it is altogether too easy to fall into the trap of patronization. ‘We may not have heard’ some things, discounting that we may have and simply reached different conclusions about them. I’m not detracting from the truth or importance of the message presented. In the Q&A afterwards some people influenced by Russian propaganda in fact disagreed. This is a message that bears repeating, but for those that already know it, this play does not offer anything new. Scaremongering does not seem the best way to get people to act where earlier scaremongering has failed.

I have been thinking about the possibilities of collapse and thrivability myself recently and I came upon this model by Venkatesh Rao that I think very effectively captures many of the things we are trying to do with society. Faced with uncertainty, the most rational outcome is to create social/economic structures that feed on that uncertainty to become more resilient. I agree with Emmott that many of the global systems currently are too fragile, but that is a solvable problem.

Emmott himself discussed the two solutions in the top quadrants: behaviour change (the Spore narrative) and technological progress (the Hydra narrative). He dismissed both rather summarily. So the play consists of presenting an audience somewhat convincingly with a well-known fact and then not giving them an actionable solution. All this in the hope that people will be so disconcerted that they will become wholesale activists when they get home.

This seems something of a leap of faith to me stemming from a partial understanding of the underlying problems. Emmott said that he did not know why people faced with these insurmountable truths do nothing. Current thinking on cognitive theory, communications and behavioural economics quite competently explains this behaviour. If you ignore that, you may well throw up your hands into the air and reach the conclusion Emmott reaches (the Dark Euphoria narrative): that anything we attempt right now will either not work or be too late.

I’m an optimist myself out of necessity, but not a ‘rational optimist’ as described by Emmott. I count on the pools of irrational illegibility both in the world’s systems and future developments to work together cushioned by social measures and capitalist balancing of supply and demand. When talking about Hydras we are not talking about purely technological solutions (that are indeed easy to dismiss), but about a complex set of systems in media, politics, science, technology and the arts that work together in blind concert to deal with system problems. It may not be pleasant, but it is too early for despair.

2 thoughts on “Ten Billion by Katie Mitchell and Stephen Emmott”

  1. What a strange piece. Several questions:

    – what exactly do you mean by ‘a partial understanding of the underlying problems’? Do you claim to have a full understanding? If so, what precisely are the ‘underlying problems’? In my opinion, Emmott is quite successful in describing the underlying problems, which are our dependance on fossil carbon and population growth. Simple physics and biology.

    – you mention: ‘Current thinking on cognitive theory, communications and behavioural economics quite competently explains this behaviour.’ Really? In that case you would do the world a big favour by actually explaining it! It might even make you some bucks in the publishing department. I don’t see any explanation in the review you offered.

    – the same applies to your: “I’m an optimist myself out of necessity” and the “irrational illegibility”. As Emmott demonstrates himself, it is not necessary to be an optimist simply as an act of psychological self-preservation. To have any chance of a succesful adaptation it may be more fruitful to stare these problems in the face – unless adaptation and survival is not what you desire, just psychological self-preservation.

    – I could well ask the same about the following pretentious gobbledygook: “cushioned by social measures and capitalist balancing of supply and demand”. Social measures? The current social measures mainly consist of denial and doubt – I take it you must aware of Oreskes’ Merchants of Doubt (if not, it is quite an interesting read).

    The capitalist balancing of supply and demand has at its’ core the essential inability to price in *future costs* of resource depletion and of ecosystem destruction, since these do not figure in the pricing mechanism at all. Even worse, these costs are deferred to ‘the state’, where future tax-payers have to cover for cleaning up the mess instead of the suppliers. The only defense mechanism ‘the state’ has, is actually regulation: trying to limit damages and depletion by setting rules for those on the playing field of ‘supply and demand’. The state might try to price in these future costs and liabilities by taxation of e.g. carbon emissions and resource depletion, which would set it on a direct collision course with these players… as we are now witnessing.

    Finally, you close with: “a complex set of systems in media, politics, science, technology and the arts that work together in blind concert to deal with system problems.” That is a particularly naive thing to say, since media, politics and a section of the arts currently conspire to HIDE these problems and to safeguard the interests of those who benefit from the current state of affairs.

    In closing, I find Emmott’s approach of single-handedly facing the public on stage for one-and-a-half hours particularly courageous, while I find your review particularly facile and pretentious.

    Beste groeten,
    Bob Brand

  2. The above writing was an off the cuff review of a theater piece I saw (NRC reviews it from a distance). I am not going to apologize for any rhetoric or shortcuts, many of which were also present in the theater production.

    I don’t really need to add to the large body of work that explains how self-interest and cognitive bias influence decision making both on the personal and super-personal scales. That work from the not so hard sciences is largely ignored by Emmott. The fact that people are human may very well be the inconvenient truth of the environmentalists.

    I will admit that I engage in more than a bit of psychological self-preservation, but probably less so than most. I am aware of the problems Emmott lists. I am not convinced that this rhetoric will lead to them being solved.

    If you bother to read the piece by Venkatesh (I fixed the broken link), you may find a more in depth treatment of the various options ahead of us instead of caricaturing them based on my writing. Emmott himself dismissed the idea of innovating ourselves out of the problem as naive but it was the only option that got any credence from him.

    What I mean by a blind concert is that we need to innovate not just technologically but on all fronts available to us (so also in media, politics and art) in ways that don’t hard code outcomes but contain the seeds to grow into full-fledged solutions. That may sound like a stretch, but its unpredictability is the whole point. It may also be a more rational approach than trying to convince a billion Chinese people and a billion Indians not to buy a car.

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