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Ten Billion Reasons to Demand System Change

Has the international community left it too late to prevent runaway climate change and widespread ecological degradation? Does the typical citizen and career politician have the inclination to accept the severity of the ‘planetary emergency’, let alone make the lifestyle changes and policy decisions needed to address it? And can the upcoming UN climate negotiations in Paris really signal an end to the unregulated dumping of carbon emissions, or mark a shift away from the business-as-usual approach to economic development?

These are among the many troubling questions that emerge when watching a new documentary written and presented by one of the world’s foremost scientists, Professor Stephen Emmott. The film –  Ten Billion –  draws on a bewildering array of statistics to paint a grim picture of humanity’s future prospects on Planet Earth. As the title suggests, the narrative emphasises the overwhelmingly destructive impact that human ‘progress’ is having on the natural world, especially as the global population heads towards the ten billion mark at the end of this century. Given the ongoing failure to reduce population growth and curb ever-increasing levels of consumption, Professor Emmott argues that governments appear to be completely incapable of adopting a more sustainable socio-economic model, even in the face of an impending ecological catastrophe.    

Notwithstanding its bleak message, this is a powerful and compelling documentary that can help raise much-needed awareness about the environmental dimensions of the planet’s interconnected crises. It’s therefore a film that (like many others) should be compulsory viewing at this critical juncture in human evolution. While the style of the documentary is reminiscent of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, the Professor’s presentation takes the form of a theatrical performance rather than a public lecture, and the director Peter Webber has made full use of cinematic special effects and graphical illustrations to add context and a genuine sense of drama to the final cut.  

There is much in the film to commend, including the way that a wide range of complex and interrelated issues are considered through the lens of humanity’s endless appetite for material consumption. However, many environmentalists will (rightly) be perturbed by Professor Emmott’s brief but notable statement in support of nuclear energy as the only pragmatic short-term solution to the energy crisis. Others might berate him for suggesting that the fear of reaching ‘peak oil’ is unfounded: he makes the undeniable point that new and plentiful reserves of oil are being discovered regularly, and that there is little sign that oil companies will want to shift away from fossil fuel production in the foreseeable future.  

A broader concern is that the film lacks a robust political analysis of the structural injustice and unequal power relations that are the true cause of our environmental and social ills. For example, central to any discussion about ecological overshoot must be the recognition that the richest 20% of the world’s population are responsible for 80% of all consumption. But there is little emphasis on how unfettered consumerism in industrialised countries poses the real ecological threat, and not population growth in the Global South. Nor is there any mention of the role that neoliberal capitalism or the ceaseless pursuit of economic growth and corporate profit plays in maintaining a highly unsustainable global economic system. And despite framing the crisis as a ‘planetary emergency’ only fleeting attention is paid to the reality of world poverty and life-threatening deprivation, which is a substantial oversight given that 4.2 billion people are struggling to survive on less than $5 a day and 17 million people die needlessly every year – mainly in developing countries.

As well as failing to explore these critical systemic issues, Professor Emmott offers no guidance for those who (having been moved by his presentation) might want to get actively involved in an environmental cause, and he purposefully avoids presenting a vision of how the ecological crisis should be addressed. On the contrary, he scorns the argument often put forward by so-called ‘rational optimists’ that we can “technologise” our way out of these problems; he dispels the notion that politicians and UN conferences are capable of implementing the policy changes that are now so urgent; and he suggests it is unlikely that the general public will ever be willing or able to change their consumption habits.  

With no vision of hope or tangible solution offered at any point in his presentation, the audience is left somewhat bereft by the end of the documentary. Indeed, nothing sums up the film’s essential message better than the melodramatic remark that Professor Emmott uses to conclude his sweeping analysis: “I think we are f****d!”. Although this depressing assertion is perhaps appropriate in the context of a theatrical performance, many will find it unnecessarily negative, disempowering and hyperbolic – especially at a time when the majority of people have no appetite for ‘system change’, or are disinclined to demand such change having convinced themselves that ‘there is no alternative’ to their present way of life.  

When pressed during the Q&A session after a preview screening of the film in London, Professor Emmott conceded that he didn’t understand why more people – especially young people – are not protesting relentlessly in the streets to demand radical reform. On this note, the Professor’s personal views are in line with those of Share The World’s Resources (STWR), who have consistently called for ordinary citizens to unite through widespread, continual and peaceful protests for sound environmental stewardship and an end to the iniquity of poverty in a world of plenty.  

In light of the scale of the crises that Ten Billion brings to life, it is safe to assume that mass public protest is now the only option left to the many millions of people who yearn for a more just and sustainable future. As STWR’s Mohammed Mesbahi argues, “The real question we should ask ourselves is not why our governments are failing to save the world, but why are we failing to compel them to take appropriate action as our elected representatives?” With government leaders preparing to meet for the concluding round of UN climate talks in Paris, let’s hope that this uncompromising documentary does ultimately encourage more people to take to the streets in unprecedented numbers – even if it is out of sheer exasperation with a perilously outdated model of human development and economic progress.

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Rajesh Makwana is an activist and writer at www.sharing.org (STWR), a London-based civil society organisation campaigning for a fairer sharing of wealth, power and resources within and between nations. He can be contacted at rajesh@sharing.org

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