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Ten Billion

By • West End
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It's not often at a press night that you ask the critic next to you who they're writing for and receive the reply "the New Scientist". But such was the case at the Royal Court Upstairs, where Katie Mitchell is the surprise director of possibly the most down-to-earth, no-nonsense production you'll see all year.

Mitchell has asked Stephen Emmott, a professor of computational science at Oxford University, to deliver, in his own words, "a discourse on the biggest experiment ever carried out by humans" - the exponential expansion of its own population.

The 65-minute lecture is delivered on a stage made up by designer Giles Cadle to replicate Emmott's office at Oxford, the walls of which host projections of graphics illustrating some frankly terrifying statistics (the title refers to the projected global populatation by the end of the century).

It takes 3,000 litres of water to produce a single Big Mac; animal species are currently going extinct at a rate 1,000 times their natural level; the temperature of Greenland has risen three degrees since 1950; a Google search uses as much energy as boiling a kettle.

All are delivered in Emmott's endearingly nervy, nerdy, northern burr (the endearment is enhanced by the crutches he uses as a result of a recent back injury). Although he's clearly simplified the science - the level is roughly equivalent to GCSE - he nevertheless speaks with the urgency and anger of a man with something important to say who has been ignored by his own community.

Comparing the population crisis to a pending asteroid collision, Emmott scythes down everything from governments who refuse to take unpopular but necessary action to Brian Cox raving about the importance of the Higgs Boson discovery.

In presenting the material in such a straightforward way, there is a sense that Mitchell has eschewed the usual elements of theatricality lest they undermine the central message. The implications of that will no doubt be explored in more detail elsewhere, but it's refreshing to witness such an unfussy marriage of science and art.

And there is a sharp irony here, that Emmott acknowledges, in that it was largely the advancements made possible by science that got us into this crisis in the first place. But whether those same advancements can now undo the damage seems doubtful. So what's the answer? In the words of Larkin: Man hands on misery to man / It deepens like a coastal shelf / Get out as early as you can / And don’t have any kids yourself.


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