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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The unvarnished, highly unpleasant truth, 3 Aug. 2013
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This review is from: Ten Billion (Paperback)
Who would buy a book like this? Presumably anyone who thinks it is important that there will be at least 10 billion human beings on our planet by the second half of the 21st century. This book is not amusing or exciting (not in a good way, at least), and it is certainly not escapist literature. Indeed, it is the exact opposite. If you want to have fun, enjoy your life, and not be worried, don't even think of opening this book - you won't like what you find inside. It's short, pungent, and stuffed with hard facts and figures and their logical implications, leading inexorably to the most unpleasant conclusions. For instance, Dr Emmott points out that, if the current rate of growth continues, by 2100 there will not be 10 billion of us. There will be 28 billion.

As Dr Emmott notes, he leads a team of scientists dedicated to studying complex systems, such as climate and ecosystems. So he is as well equipped as anyone, probably, to make sense of the waterfall of raw data about population, pollution, resource demand, global warming, and other interlocking problems that face humanity. Nevertheless, the overall complexity of our environment and the changes it is undergoing are so great that no one seems able to comprehend them fully. These problems need to be faced with respect - not ignored, belittled, or explained away with superficial, short-term, sticking-plaster "solutions". Some facts stand out starkly: for example, when I was at school there were about 3 billion people in the world, whereas today there are over 7 billion. The salient trends, perhaps, are increasing population - a trend that apparently no one can do anything about - and industrialisation driven by (and dependent on) ever-rising energy consumption. Industrialisation, in turn, theoretically drives up standards of living and resource consumption. These trends interact in vitally important ways, which it is easy to ignore if you want to paint a rosy picture. The famous "demographic transition", for example (based on a theory published in 1919) supposedly causes birth rates to fall as industrialisation and higher standards of living spread. Unfortunately, to maintain everyone in the world even today at the average US standard of living would require at least 2.5 planets the size of Earth. Moreover Peak Oil, Peak Gas, and other hard limits to the energy we can extract mean that industrialisation and standards of living are bound to fall in the future.

This is a very short book, which does look rather as if it arose from a slide presentation filled out by some notes. It is none the worse for that; at least it can be read very quickly, and will not be abandoned a third of the way through in favour of something more stimulating. It does suffer, in my opinion, from the lack of contents or index; but one can quickly find any particular topic by skimming through. It is not true to say that Dr Emmott does not offer any answers; he analyses two possible responses: "technologizing our way out of it", and "radical behaviour change". Unfortunately, he concludes that neither will work, so we are all in for it. (At least, those of us born after about 1970).

There are many intelligent and well-educated people around these days, and (largely thanks to the Web) a lot of them say their piece about topics like population growth - early and often. I have just read a typical article recently published in The Guardian, entitled "Stephen Emmott's population book is unscientific and misanthropic" by Chris Goodall. Mr Goodall is described as a "businessman and author", and stood (unsuccessfully) for parliament as a Green Party candidate in 2010. The Guardian headline criticizes "10 Billion" as being "unscientific and misanthropic". However Dr Emmott, head of Microsoft's Computational Science research team, has a BSc in biology and a PhD in computational neuroscience plus a very distinguished scientific track record. Mr Goodall is a graduate of Harvard Business School. Which, do you think, is better qualified to judge or conduct good science? As for "misanthropic", like several Amazon reviewers, Mr Goodall seems to think that is a valid criticism. But a book about science and engineering should not be judged on whether it presents the human race in a good light, or a bad one. The only valid criterion is correctness, and - to my regret - I couldn't find anything in this book that looks untrue or inaccurate.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 7 Aug 2013 10:38:58 BDT
ZSL says:
You haven't said anything about the fact that Emmott's book (you don't need to keep reminding everyone of his doctorate) is set in ludicrously large type, and wastes far more paper than it needs. Were your review set as per this book, it would need dozens of pages. It stands to reason that a book on this subject should itself be as economical as possible. And should sell for less, so that no-one has an excuse for not reading it.

In reply to an earlier post on 7 Aug 2013 11:33:53 BDT
T. D. Welsh says:
I was brought up to accord everyone the same level of courtesy. If Dr Emmott did not have a PhD, I would call him Mr Emmott as a matter of course. But, as it happens, he does have a PhD - as part of an impressive scientific background. Why not remind readers of that fact? Of course, a scientific background does not necessarily prevent a person from writing things that are completely wrong-headed (or simply wrong). But it is worth knowing about. As for the large type, I have reached an age where I find many pieces of writing are set in "ridiculously small type" so that I have to strain to make them out. While this book goes to the opposite extreme, I didn't see anything wrong with it. As for your arguments about the book being wasteful and overpriced, it was more important to make it accessible and attractive - which I think it is. The amount of waste involved is quite small; and its potential readership is also very small, no matter if it were given away free.

Posted on 5 Jul 2015 10:51:17 BDT
wzr says:
Anyone interested in this book should also consider reading The Last Hours Of Ancient Sunlight by Thom Hartmann. Although Hartmann's is a much older book (2001), it is an excellent read, offers some solutions, and (sadly) has become even more relevant now than it was back then.
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Location: Basingstoke, Hampshire UK

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