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Globalization

'Pandemonium around the planet'

"Ten Billion" recently finished a successful run at London's Royal Court Theatre. The lecture play is a wake-up call on future scenarios for the planet. DW spoke with co-writer and star, Stephen Emmott.

Deutsche Welle: Your performance is called "Ten Billion," referring to some population estimates for the end of the century… does this suggest that overpopulation is at the root of all the world's problems?

Stephen Emmott: No, you could fit all the ten billion people on the planet into Cornwall, and the rest of the planet would be totally empty. So it's not the number of people, but the way we live. "Ten Billion" is the title, because it's obviously related to the population. But "overpopulation" is a loaded term - "overpopulated" according to what? The rate at which we consume, or are running out of space? It's about consumption, really. It's quite conceivable that by the end of this century, the US breadbasket will not be able to produce food - both as a consequence of climate change, and as a consequence of land degradation or pollutant run-off, loss of topsoil. And areas of land where people who have never known food shortages, like in the US and Europe, may well start to suffer toward the end of the century, though probably not in the immediate term.

I'm really glad you mentioned American food production. I have a friend from the area in the US known as the Corn Belt. But I am speaking with you here in Europe. If we wake up one day on different continents, in different countries - each with ten billion - and open our newspapers and discover what kind of a world, what kind of a country we are living in, what the government's like, what the militarization of our country has become, where we're getting our food from, how different are our two worlds?

They may not be that different at all, just because the entire food system is so globalized. You know, much of the American grain and corn production is exported and it's the same with the Russian grain harvest. Which is why, in 2010, when there was a Russian and Eastern European heat wave - which destroyed 40 percent of Russia's 100-million-ton grain harvest -, Russia issued an embargo on exports and that caused absolute chaos in the global food commodities market. That, in turn, caused an unprecedented food price spike and that, in turn, caused food riots in Asia and North Africa because people couldn't afford basic food commodities, and that in turn led directly - just a number of weeks later - to the violence of what we now term the "Arab Spring." I think that is a glimpse of what we can expect increasingly around the world. Of course there were other aspects in the Arab Spring - to do with dictatorships and one thing or another, but its principal origin was an inability to be able to afford the steep prices in food as a consequence of the chaos in the commodities market, purely as a consequence of the destruction of the Russian harvest.

Now, had there not been the destruction of 40 percent of a 100-million-ton Russian grain harvest, but a destruction of 40 percent of a 400-million-ton, US grain harvest, it would have been complete pandemonium around the planet.

And that's what makes what's happening right now - with the drought in the US Corn Belt - so interesting…

Yes, we've got another record heat wave and yet another record drought in the US, which currently threatens 30 percent of the entire US corn and grain harvest. Let's also bear in mind that, in addition to the fact that we're currently just weeks away from knowing whether or not we have absolute calamity on our hands as a result of the destruction of the US grain and corn crop, 60 percent of Manila is currently under water. I mean, can you imagine? It's a capital city of a very populous country - the Philippines. Can you imagine if 60 percent of London were under water, or 60 percent of Washington, D.C.? It's just unimaginable. And yet, it was only just recently that 600 million people in northern India were without electricity whatsoever for two days as a consequence of demand, out-stripping, and the inability of the Indian government to supply energy. The Indian government's response to that is to simply go and build more power stations, which is just going to accelerate the problem even further.

Stephen, you're not just a member of the scientific community now. You're also a member of the theater community and in the theater community, they say "break a leg" before a performance. But you seem to have broken your back for your performances.

Yes, [laughs], broken my back, but I'm coping.

And in fact, you coped all through the two-week run, you managed to make it to the Royal Court Theatre every night.

It was actually a month. It was on for a month with a break in-between where I gave the same talk at a festival in Avignon, which I thought was a small affair until I got there and realized it was a pre-eminent, massive festival in France where all the great and the good in that sort of world all go every year.

The title of "Ten Billion"  refers to population estimates for the end of the century. The lecture play, co-written and directed by Katie Mitchell, starred Stephen Emmott, Head of Computational Science at Microsoft Research and Professor of Computational Science at University of Oxford. His lab is recognized for its pioneering approaches to tackling fundamental problems in science - in particular, outstanding problems in predicting the future of the climate of life on Earth. During the run at the Royal Court Theatre, Stephen Emmott stood in a replica of his own office, and presented the audience with a stark vision of the future - a vision based on science.

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