Ten Billion: The Silence of the Sheep

[This is a summary of all the publicity for Stephen Emmott’s “Ten Billion” that I’ve been able to find. I’ve put all links at the end of the article, for ease of reading]

The print edition of Stephen Emmott’s “Ten Billion” was officially published in Britain on Thursday, July 11th (the e-book has been available for a week or so).

American and German editions are still scheduled for September. An American  book tour is apparently planned, since Emmott is talking in Seattle on September 17th in  and Toronto on October 10th.

Traditionally, the serious papers review books the day of publication on their special Thursday or Friday review pages. The Guardian jumped the gun – three times – with a review by John Gray on the book pages on July 5th  [1] and another on the environment pages by Chris Goodall  on July 9th [2]. (Chris’s review originally appeared at Carbon commentary on July 8th [3]  – more on Goodall’s review later). The Guardian had already discussed the book in Andrew Simms’ latest bout of his monthlies on July 3rd [4] in which he calls Emmott’s mention of a possible population of 28 billion by the end of the century:  “..a dangerously loose and wildly unlikely figure to use for someone with a scientific reputation”, which he follows up by saying: “It’s welcome to have such a senior, corporate figure concerned about the prospects for life on earth”.

Simms welcomes all worriers into the fold, especially corporate figures with scientific reputations, however loose and wildly unlikely their figures.

The book had already been launched by the Guardian’s Sunday sister paper, the Observer, with a long extract from the book June 30th [5]  and an interview of Emmott  by Tim Adams [6].

Then July 1st there was an appearance on BBC Radio4’s “Start the Week” [7] which I shall finish trascribing for Alex’s Mytranscriptbox as soon as I can. There was another interview in the Times July 2nd by Giles Whittell [8] reproduced July 6th in the Australian [9].

Apart from Goodall’s review, I found just two comments which were mildly critical, by Tim Worstall in Forbes June 30th [10] and by Tom Chivers in his Telegraph blog on July 2nd [11] .

There have also been comments and reviews at the booksellers’ blogs, beginning with Amazon[12]

Mark Carter (July 1st ):

“Having read the Guardian article I thought I would give the book a go. It appealed to me as taking on a topic such as the problems faced with a rapidly expanding population seemed a wothwhile cause. What I got was something not that much longer than the article for which I had to pay nothing. The book told me nothing new. There was some pretty pictures and graphs. The old rhetoric on climate change (of which I am neither ardent believer or denier) and some dubious figures about how much water you need to make a burger or a chocolate bar. The advice given by the author in relation to what to do about the impending disaster – teach your children how to use a gun. Please do not buy this book.”

Kipugandit (July 12th):

“This is more a pamphlet than a book and you will find it alarmingly thin if you are expecting a proper book with a coherent argument based on a deep understanding of the evidence. This is more like a manifesto. The author is anxious to convince us of his case and doesn’t allow anything to appear that is at all contradictory for fear that it might just blur the issues. So there are no shades of grey or any alternative analysis to be found. This inevitably weakens the work and the result is over simplistic and in the end somewhat bland. I’m sure the author is a sincere and well meaning individual but these important issues require much more serious and penetrating discussion than anything being offered here.”

and  at goodreads [13]

David Bayon (July 2nd):

“I read the Guardian article which was supposedly an “extract” of this book, seemed interesting so I paid a fiver for it. Turns out “extract” actually means 90% of the book. It’s basically a short essay, half an hour’s reading.”

George Guven (July 11th)

“This is the most phenomenal, hard hitting, profound books I’ve read in a very long time. It’s a quick, punchy read that really drives home the real costs of the unsustainable decadence of the human race at the expense of this planet’s fragile ecosystems.

I feel genuinely guilty for what I can only view as a “debauched” lifestyle (intensified more so perhaps by the fact that tomorrow I will be flying 4,000 miles to the USA…) 

I already want to do something to alleviate the issues identified in this book, to reverse the catastrophic discrepancies in our attitude to global warming and so on. 

But Emmott sums it all up pretty clearly: “I think we’re fucked”, he writes. And that is why this book is terrific. Emmott does not care for namby-pamby reassurances and hopefulness. He is blunt, and to the point, and that is what makes this a simply enlightening read. Everybody should read this book, especially anybody with an interest in (international) politics, ecologism and so on.”

I spent a lot of Thursday and Friday googling for reviews in the mainstream press. Nothing. I speculated in a comment a few days ago (which I’ve edited a bit here) that:

“Publishers, newspaper editors, and book reviewers are different [from tenured academics]. John Gray, who passes for an eminent thinker, has given Emmott a favourable review in the Guardian. No doubt  other serious papers have handed out “Ten Billion” for review to other eminent professors. If these professors google “Ten Billion” they’ll find articles by me and Alex Cull on this blog, by Donna Laframboise on July 3rd, [14] Jo Nova on July 7th, [15] Willis Eschenbach on July 7th, [16] and me July 7th [17] [and by Chris Goodall at Guardian Environment] It might just make them hesitate before endorsing Emmott’s nonsense”.

The silence of the sheep in the mainstream media suggests I might be right. To the above list of sceptical blog comments which might make reviewers hesitate to come out in favour of Emmott, one must add Chris Goodall, whose review is admirably thorough in its fisking of Emmott, and is all the more surprising in that it comes from an ardent climate activist, and is published at Guardian Environment.

I did find one review, at the Microsoft Research site [18] which says this:

“It isn’t meant to shock,” Emmott says. “It is meant to help inform and, hopefully, generate debate.”

“The aim of the book,” Emmott says, “is to get us to think about the situation we are in, in a way that, typically, we are not thinking about it now. My hope is this will be a wake-up call.” […]

Rest assured that no punches are being pulled in the book. Emmott was asked if there were any step that could be taken—by industry, by government, by individuals—to move things in the right direction. He, though, was having none of it.

“Part of the problem,” he stated, “is that we typically look to or hope for some kind of ‘magic bullet’ to solve our problems, from individual well-being to the planetary-scale problem I try to outline in Ten Billion. I don’t think there is any ‘one step’ solution to the problems we face.”

Now, we all have an opportunity to access this provocative thesis. Pull up a chair—but first, you might consider pouring yourself a stiff drink.

Emmott ‘s claim that the book is “meant to generate debate” is extraordinary. What, debate as in:

“We’re fucked.”

“Oh no we’re not.”

“Oh Yes we are..” ?

He hasn’t the foggiest idea what the word “debate” means. The  idea of listening to the opinions of others and acknowledging the existence of alternative views of the world which might have a bearing on his arguments is entirely foreign to him. A guy who works seventeen hours a day with a team of scientists who “all think the same” and goes out once a week to the supermarket is at a huge disadvantage when it comes to understanding the real world, compared to an idle sod like me (or you) who takes time off time to read obscure blog articles, water the garden, and listen to a concert of Indian classical music in a village hall in the South of France (which is part of the reason that this article is a day late).

Meanwhile, from another part of Microsoft, on the same day,  July 1st, there appeared a list of errors in the book (about fifteen, I think) [19]. I can’t tell you for sure, because the link was taken down a few hours after I noted its existence at Wattsupiththat. Here’s one error, that I quoted in a comment on Chris Goodall’s blog:

p.109, final paragraph: “If, as seems likely, melting sea ice, triggered by our activities, is now causing the release of this methane, it will go on for centuries” should read: “If, as seems likely, melting sea ice, triggered by our activities, is now causing the release of this methane, it will go on for decades” (A biogeochemist colleague has kindly pointed out that we don’t actually have an accurate estimate of how much there is, so althought indeed it may well go on for centuries, probably safer to say ‘decades’).

The last part in parentheses looks like Emmott’s comment to the Microsoft blogger, explaining the error, and left in by mistake. As so often with Emmott, where there’s an error, it’s out by a magnitude or two. Methane plumes have been observed for two years running. So let’s call it centuries. A colleague objects, so let’s call it decades instead. This is a scientist speaking? Sounds more like Pinocchio in seven league boots.

Emmott appeared on BBC2’s Newsnight on July 11th interviewed by Fred Pearce. I look forward to hearing more about that.

Finally, on Saturday July 12th there was a review by Clive Cookson in the Financial Times [20]

Cookson repeats without comment or analysis many of Emmott’s claims:

“He writes vividly about the inputs of energy, water and materials needed to manufacture and transport the comforts of modern life. The figures for “hidden water” consumption are staggering. For instance it takes 3,000 litres of water to produce a beefburger, 9,000 litres to produce a chicken – and 27,000 to produce a kilo of chocolate…

I do not believe that Emmott is quite as pessimistic as he seems on stage or in print. If he really did believe it was too late, he would not have devoted so much time and energy to trying to change people’s perceptions and behaviour.”

So Clive Cookson, science correspondent, believes Emmott is lying. Instead of exposing his lies, he goes on to explain why he thinks he is lying. But his explanation makes no sense. Emmott hasn’t  “devoted .. time and energy to trying to change people’s perceptions and behaviour.” He’s written a short book saying he doesn’t think it’s possible to change our behaviour. The book contains dozens, possibly hundreds, of errors. Apparently, Microsoft’s happy with that, Penguin’s happy, and the science correspondent of the Financial Times is happy (or more likely, simply oblivious).

The next event will be Emmott’s talk at the Science Museum July 18th, which is sold out [21]


[1] http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jul/05/ten-billion-stephen-emmott-review

[2] http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/jul/09/stephen-emmott-population-book-misanthropic

[3] http://www.carboncommentary.com/2013/07/08/3141/

[4] http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/jul/03/planet-earth-resources-population

[5] http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/jun/30/population-growth-wipe-out-life-earth

[6] http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/30/stephen-emmott-windfarms-not-the-answer

[7] http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0367dzs

[8] http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/life/article3805225.ece

[9] http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/world/ten-billions-reasons-to-be-scared-of-climate-change/story-fnb64oi6-1226674957020

[10] http://www.forbes.com/sites/timworstall/2013/06/30/the-latest-environmental-scare-were-running-out-of-water-to-make-burgers-with/

[11] http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/tomchiversscience/100224390/the-end-is-nigh-in-either-2100ad-or-20000002100ad/

[12] http://www.amazon.co.uk/Ten-Billion-Stephen-Emmott/dp/0141976322

[13] http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17288621-ten-billion

[14] http://nofrakkingconsensus.com/2013/07/03/more-on-stephen-emmott-author-of-ten-billion/

[15] http://joannenova.com.au/2013/07/fake-polite-guys-and-fake-skeptical-scientists-stephen-emmott-tries-it-on/

[16] http://wattsupwiththat.com/2013/07/07/alexander-the-great-explains-the-drop-in-extinctions/

[17] http://wattsupwiththat.com/2013/07/07/the-thirteen-worst-graphs-in-the-world/

[18] http://blogs.technet.com/b/inside_microsoft_research/archive/2013/07/11/ten-billion-people-208-pages.aspx

[19] http://research.microsoft.com/en-us/projects/ten_billion/default.aspx

[20] http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/a7e5ba20-e7e4-11e2-9aad-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2Yt4MXz2m

[21] http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/sitecore/content/Home/visitmuseum/events/talks/tenbillion.aspx

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3 Responses to Ten Billion: The Silence of the Sheep

  1. que sais je says:

    Temporarily, you still can — insofar for instance no computer virus or the like has fucked the system — find via Google’s Cache the Microsoft web page containing the list of corrections to Ten Billion:


    To start with one point, we can read there for example with regard to page 58 of Emmott’s book: “It should definitely not read (no fish left)“. But on another occasion, on November 17th 2010, in a recorded lecture/power point presentation for Kista Green ICT in Stockholm (see http://vimeo.com/17118350 (respectively see the alarmist ClimateGate denier news/web site at Süddeutsche http://jetzt.sueddeutsche.de/texte/anzeigen/553288/Stephen-Emmott-Director-of-Computational-Science-Microsoft-has-bad-news)), called “Error and Truth: Modeling future Carbon and Climate”, at 06:30 minutes, Emmott claimed while showing an upsetting photo:

    “This, by the way, is a river in Indonesia. It doesn’t look like a river. This river in Indonesia just as little as twenty years ago sustained an entire community of several hundred thousand people on fishing, and now there is no fish left and all these people do is recycle typically western waste that we export — which is appalling.

    Unfortunately already often quoted and appallingly still up-to-date: In Walt Disney’s film Chicken Little from 1943 Foxy Loxy tries to convince his neighbourhood of a coming doom, the falling sky. The fox wonders why he should just get one when he can get ’em all and he seeks advice from a book named Psychology, originally Hitler’s (or whoever wrote the books) Mein Kampf:

    “To influence the masses, aim first at the least intelligent. […] If you tell a lie, don’t tell a little one, tell a big one.”

    So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish!

  2. que-sais-je
    Sorry your comment got held up. WordPress does that to any comment with multiple links.
    Many thanks for the links to the Emmott talk, which I’ll maybe transcribe when I’ve plucked up courage.
    (Brian the Rhetor, if you’re there, this is one for the record books. From the shirt to the nimble way he bends down to scratch his leg during the preamble, Emmott exhibits a range of rhetorical devices which will stretch your Greek to breaking point).
    The link to webcache doesn’t work. Any ideas? Or did you save the contents of the page? I remember the comment about “It should definitely not read (no fish left)” which was another of Emmott’s comments to the corrector which seem to have got left in by accident.

  3. Poptech says:

    You may find this interesting,

    Who is Willis Eschenbach?


    As of 2012 Mr. Eschenbach has been employed as a House Carpenter.

    He is not a “computer modeler”, he is not an “engineer” and he is certainly not a “scientist” (despite all ridiculous claims to the contrary).

    “A final question, one asked on Judith Curry’s blog a year ago by a real scientist, Willis Eschenbach…”

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