[Update 15th December: Stephen Emmott’s “Ten Billion” is being published as a paperback on the 1st May, 2013]
I’ve just come across another interview with Stephen Emmott (and his director and co-author Katie Mitchell) at
It’s in French, and was obviously conducted before the performance of “Ten Billion” at the Avignon Theatre Festival in July, 2012. The interview must have been in English, so this is a translation of a translation, so any awkwardness in the expression should be put down to my clumsy retranslation.
Emmott makes some extraordinary claims which I haven’t seen before, for example, that scientists from different disciplines don’t communicate with each other. Perhaps he hasn’t heard of the IPCC?
There are also also two interesting differences of emphasis. He makes it clear that climate change is the central issue, which is rather obscured by the play’s title – deliberately, one imagines, to avoid the problem of “climate fatigue”. Also, here he expresses the “can do” attitude appropriate to someone whose salary is paid by Microsoft, for instance when he says: “We need to know what are the right questions to ask, in order to quantify the uncertainty where we can”, which is in stark contrast to the punchline of the play itself – “We’re f*cked”.
The interviewer is Jean-François Perrier.
[Stephen Emmott is giving a talk at the Institute of Engineering and Technology, Savoy Place, London, at 1730, 12th December 2012 on: “The Future of Life: From Biology to the Biosphere”].
Interviewer: For several years now theatre directors have been working with scientists to create plays performed by actors. Why did you decide to put Stephen Emmott, the scientist who works with you, on stage?
Katie Mitchell : Stephen Emmott and I had proposed to the National Theatre a show about global warming and its effects on the environment, in the short, medium, and long term, as far as we understand them today. It was the result of a huge joint effort, and it quickly became obvious that the subject treated was so huge, so complex, that it was impossible to do within the framework of current theatrical methods, with actors. So we tried to find a new format for this show.
We tried different scenarios, including, for example, imagining a kind of post-apocalyptic world. But we realised that there were already loads of films, mostly American, which did a good job of treating the subject as disaster movies. So we came back to the idea of a very traditional kind of play with dialogue, then we decided on a monologue… Nothing worked. So we decided to put Stephen on stage, because that would force the audience to take the script seriously. If we’d used an actor, the public could miss the point, as often happens,. It was the Royal Court that put the play on in the end.
Interviewer: So is the subject of the show the present and the future of our planet?
Stephen Emmott: Yes. We’re going to try to show what we know and what we don’t know about the future of the planet, but also what we’d have to do to find out what we don’t know. The first question we have to ask ourselves is quite simply: “What will be the impact of a population of ten or eleven billion people on the planet before the end of the 21st century?”
Interviewer: Lots of scientists are working together on these subjects, and publishing in the specialist press. Is your aim to get the results of their research over on stage?
Katie Mitchell: The show arises directly from what I’ve learned from talking to Stephen, and I think that his point of view is very original, compared with what one generally hears. But not many people know about it. So this is the message that I wanted to get across to the public.
Interviewer: What’s different about his message?
Katie Mitchell: Stephen Emmott thinks that the question of the environment needs to be seen as a whole. It’s one single problem with several ramifications which are too often treated separately, without showing the connections between them.
Stephen Emmott: Scientists are generally very bad at communicating with people outside the scientific community. So often, what you read in the papers or in novels, or what you hear on the radio, in films, or at the theatre doesn’t allow you to grasp the seriousness of the situation, or to understand the challenges that we’re facing, even though we talk about them a lot, but not in an effective way.
Interviewer: Stephen Emmott, what’s your position in the scientific world? What fields are you working in?
Stephen Emmott: To start with, I’m not really a specialist in global warming. I’m a neurobiologist, but I run a lab in Cambridge where there’s a team of scientists working on this subject. This team is beginning to be known world-wide as the best in the field, because the members of the team have devised a new way of thinking about the problems facing us. For my part, I’ve spent twenty five years working on the modelling of the human brain, which is an extremely complex system. Most of the scientists working on the problem of global warming concentrate on the physical state of the planet, which is fairly well understood, while the researchers in my lab in Cambridge have also studied the biological systems which control the planet, whether they’re humans, animals, plants, or micro-oraganisms – everything you find in the water, the soil, or the air. You have to study the group of systems, together with their interconnections, as a whole, which is much much more complicated. We try to model all these factors, which is where my experience as a neurobiologist comes in.
Interviewer: How do you envisage presenting this complex research on stage?
Katie Mitchell: It’s not just a lecture. We worked together to devise a structure, a skeleton, with the essential points, around which Stephen will improvise a little. So it will be at the same time very structured and fairly free. There’ll be graphics, visual aids, films – technical means which will oblige him to stick to a certain presentation format. So Stephen won’t be just a loose cannon. He’ll need a lot of intellectual precision so that we can really get over everything that he has in his head, all his knowledge which isn’t usually communicated well to the general public, which is something he complains about a lot. So with all these theatrical tools, we’re going to explain to the general public the size and complexity of the problem. It’s a novel format, something between theatre and the lecture hall.
Interviewer: Why do you have the feeling that your message isn’t being heard?
Stephen Emmott: Because these subjects are only discussed in detail in scientific conferences. Because many non-scientists treat this subject, borrowing from the scientists, but without really understanding what it’s about. So we have to find other ways of treating these subjects, and what we’re trying out with Katie Mitchell is an experiment. We don’t know whether it will work, but we’re trying to overcome these communication problems.
Interviewer: Don’t you think that a lot of people don’t want to know about what’s going to happen, for fear that the future’s going to be too bleak?
Stephen Emmott: That’s a good question, which is linked to something we were talking about just now, I mean the hyper-specialisation in scientific research. There are scientists working on ocean currents, others on atmospheric physics, still others on deforestation, but there’s no contact between them. There are very few laboratories attempting to create mathematical models at the level of the entire planet. From the point of view of the general public, the problem is that the information available is incomplete and dispersed. You’re told that you should switch your mobile off at night, have a car which is eco-friendly, a house which meets environmental standards, a “green” refrigerator, but it doesn’t solve the problem. Few people know, for example, that human activity emits six gigatonnes of carbon every year, while plants alone recycle two hundred gigatonnes. And we’re in the process of changing the way that plants react, without the least idea of what effect that might have in the future. So how can the general public get a correct view of things, how can they behave in a rational manner, when they don’t have the essential facts?
Interviewer: Will Stephen Emmott the man be on stage, as well as Stephen Emmott the scientist?
Katie Mitchell: Of course, because he’s got a real-life personality. An actor would take years to construct a character as he is in real life, with his history and his activities. He’ll be revealing himself in this show as a person. It’s inevitable. But I don’t yet know what the balance will be on stage between what he is and what he knows. I think it might be interesting if sometimes there were a pause, as if someone in the audience had asked a question, something like: “How do you, Stephen Emmott, manage to go on living, knowing everything that you know about our environmental problems and about our future?”
Interviewer: Is it really possible to know what the future will be?
Stephen Emmott: We know certain things. We know that the climate is changing because of global warming. On the other hand, we don’t know what effect that will have in the future. So we need to know what are the right questions to ask, in order to quantify the uncertainty where we can.
Interviewer: Katie Mitchell, do you see a link between this work and what you’re doing with W.G. Sebald’s “Rings of Saturn”?
Katie Mitchell: Stephen Emmott and W.G. Sebald are both asking big questions: How can we live with what we have done and what we continue to do on this planet? Both of them share a real fear about our inevitable extinction, if we don’t do what is necessary to avoid the catastrophe which threatens us.