Source: Royal Court Theatre
Date: 09/08/2012
Event: Stephen Emmott Q&A: "the thing that we all need to do is radically change the way we live..."
Credit: Royal Court Theatre

  • Stephen Emmott
    Head of Computational Science, Microsoft
  • Chris: International department, Royal Court Theatre

[Chatter and applause.]

Chris: Thank you for staying on. My name's Chris, I work in the international department [inaudible.] I’d just like you to know that this is being live-streamed - I hope - so when asking your questions, it would be great if you could speak up so that we can hear you, and also if you could keep them quite concise, so that we can move this on, as I'm quite sure that Steve would quite like to have a cup of tea before his next gig. So I guess I will start the ball rolling by asking what were your [inaudible] together, why this project?

Stephen Emmott: Katie and I were introduced [inaudible] by someone. I was a scientist and he knew that she was interested in working with scientists [inaudible] and looking at the arts and science, so when we met we got chatting about how science works. So then I told her about what we did in my lab, and why we did what we did, the kind of science that we did and she was really fascinated by this and I think she was extremely concerned about environmental issues, so we quickly turned to a conversation about how scientists and artists could work together, to expand that into how can we do something together about the kinds of issues we work on in the lab, how you work, all the issues I talk about in the talk. So after a long series of discussions we ended up here doing, and me talking about this..

Chris: I have a question actually here which maybe you’ve answered already but it was tweeted earlier, from Richard Loftus. It says why did you feel that theatre was the best medium for communicating your concerns about our futures? Which I suppose is two questions, which is why theatre, what brought you to the theatre, and do you think it is a good medium for [inaudible]?

Stephen Emmott: Right. I mean, I think it’s possibly the question [inaudible] answer. So it's on in the theatre principally because of Katie and Dominic Cooke who helped, was brave enough to put it on, I suppose.

Chris: Dominic, for those who don’t know, is our boss, our artistic director, the head of the Royal Court.

Stephen Emmott: And I think - so that’s the first part of the answer. The second part of the answer is: because this was effectively an experiment in whether it was possible to communicate a set of complex issues, principally scientific issues - issues related to science, also economic and political issues - and show how everything was interlinked in all these issues in a way, to a non-scientific audience in a way that doesn’t dumb it down and insult the audience but doesn’t just make the [inaudible] issues rather loony. [He possibly didn't say "loony" but I can't think of anything it sounds more like.]

And I'm not the one really to say whether the experiment's been successful or not - the audience really say if it's successful - but hopefully it’s gone relatively [inaudible] it’s been successful, and I don’t think the theatre is actually the best medium to communicate this to the maximum number of people [inaudible] into an audience.

And what's been interesting in this little experiment is that the universal response of everyone that I speak to afterwards, usually some people waiting outside or in the bar, is: you must find a way to make every politician on the planet see this so this isn't gonna happen. Or millions more people to see this. So the theatre’s not a good way to do that. But there’s really one good thing about the theatre, I think it’s a sort of liveness, a sort of personal aspect to it, and you know in some sense I suppose that’s one of the reasons why Katie and I got together is that art - theatre is a form of art - is meant to inform, inspire, provoke, I suppose and I think that's what science should do a better job of.

Chris: [Inaudible] questions [inaudible] interesting [inaudible] one quick precisely about the technology. We had one tiny glimmer of hope, in your talk, and that was artificial photosynthesis. Suppose we had it, tomorrow? What would you do?

Stephen Emmott: Well, I don’t think it would solve all problems. It would help solve - it could be potentially revolutionary solving energy problems, bearing in mind that’s not the only problem we face. It wouldn’t solve water, and it wouldn’t solve over-consumption and resource allocation, ecosystem loss, but nonetheless it would solve part of those problems, and if we’d had it we could - it's an interesting question because, I mean, the labs looking at artificial photosynthesis - with, possibly, the exception of mine - are basically treating it precisely how plants treat it which is split water and keep the hydrogen and then ship - and then store hydrogen in large containers and then ship it round the planet. And they’re treating it as a consequence of splitting water, as a purely materials problem, and the problem with that is that, we haven’t got - the materials don’t exist to split water in the way that would be required by artificial photosynthesis.

There's a different way of doing, it I think, which is not so literally trying to reproduce what plants do, but trying to do some of the things that plants do in terms of thinking about cellular processes, rather than just this phenomenon of splitting water, and the problem with hydrogen is finding a way to produce either electricity for example or a different energy source - it could be something like ATPs, a useable form of ATP directly from this artificial plant.

And in that case, you know, you could imagine there being, you know, a trillion artificial trees generating artificial photosynthesis, you know, just around our environment rather than massive power plants, but, as I say, if that would be a possibility if it was available now - but I think it’s going to be quite a way before it happens, and it may never happen, in the form of, certainly just as a materials problem.
But the Department of Energy, most of the other labs are in the U.S., and they’re nearly all funded at Berkeley, nearly all funded by the Department of Energy, who are putting in, it’s like 25 million dollars which, in the scheme of things, is not very much.

Chris: The U.S. Department of Energy?

Stephen Emmott: The U.S. Department of Energy.

Chris: Yes - the lady - sorry, I'm -

Woman 1: Given the thing that you said, do you think there's any point in an of us doing anything? [Laughter.]

Stephen Emmott: Um, yes, I mean, you know..

Woman 2: Excuse me. Sorry - can you repeat the question?

Chris: Sorry. Can you just repeat the question just a bit louder, so that we can just pick it up?

Woman 1: Given everything that you’ve said, do you think that there is any point in any of us doing anything?

Stephen Emmott: Um, yes. I mean, I think, I think my personal view, as an individual, not so much as a scientist and I suppose from my knowledge, scientific knowledge of where we seem to be heading - where we are heading [inaudible.] I mean, even I haven’t given up. I'm responsible - I have a responsibility as a scientist to do things, that I think I can contribute, so for example, get an artificial photosynthesis research programme going. We’re also working, and I did allude to, on the radical new kind of science going to solve the food problem, and that’s going to possibly be our biggest, so ah, that kind of science is being done in my lab, using DNA strand displacement, so, but, then ultimately, I think that the thing that we all need to do is radically change the way we live, and I personally, honestly don’t see any of us doing it.

Chris: Lady just here.

Woman 3: On the basis that the financial resources seem to be -

Chris: Sorry, I think you may need to repeat the question, please.

Woman 3: On the basis that a lot of financial resources are used to extend life, at the moment, and I believe statistically we are skewed - certainly in the Western world - to an ageing community, do you feel that at some point, from a medical, ethical point of view, that we should perhaps at some point give an end point to which we should not be extending life?

Chris: Well, I'll repeat that, sorry. Given the financial resources that we have expended on extending human life, medical resources, and given how this [inaudible] can be skewed towards an aging population, do you think that there is a point beyond which we shouldn't be extending life?

Stephen Emmott: I mean I think these are kinds of questions that I think it's not for ordinary individuals or a scientist to answer or anything. I think that's a discussion that we need, on how we want our society to run. I mean, that level of debate, about that and every other issue, needs to be had, and I don’t personally speaking, I don’t think that we should be switching off everybody at the wall past some age, sort of pillow over the face, to be honest with you...

Woman 3:  - more that we’re getting to the point where we can extend life for someone who has no quality left - 

Stephen Emmott: Right, so the issue there is not [inaudible] the quality of life but - you know, all these are issues that we need to, I think everyone has a responsibility to be more engaged with in the debate about how we want all these things, because there isn’t a simple prescription for solving these things, and, you know, it requires much more debate, and treating these issues more seriously.

Chris: This gent, sorry, this gentleman.

Man 1: Apart from the photosynthesis, I did think it was unremittingly pessimistic, but the one thing I picked up towards the end which was very positive was when you said that if we carry on at our present rate of reproduction, we'll be at nearly 30 million - sorry, 28 billion - population at the end of the century. But you're forecasting that we’re going to be at ten or so... That's the title of the ..

Stephen Emmott: It's the title, but what I want to say about it is ten billion or more. I mean, we don’t know.

Man 1: ‘Cos what I was taking from that was that you believe we’re going to be restricted to about ten billion or so, in which case, if we could achieve that much of a reduction, or a little more reduction, even if our present level of reproduction is bad, we’re at six billion or so, seven billion on the planet, it wouldn't be the end of the world, if we could encourage people to reproduce at two to a couple?

Chris: So are you asking Steve if he thinks if we can keep the population growth, however, down below ten billion or whatever, that means that...

Man 1: .. have misunderstood, but if it’s not really 28, we’re going to be at ten, it's not much further to bring it down from ten to a sustainable [inaudible] reproduction.

Stephen Emmott: Um, well, I might agree with that, but I'd say that even at seven billion we're consuming the planets resources at a far greater rate than is sustainable.

Man 1: But it's a far better outcome than 28 billion, isn’t it?

Stephen Emmott: Er, it's a far better outcome than the 28 billion, certainly. Ten billion is the sort of mid-UN projection. It's nearer eleven now. It was 10.1, it was then 10.4 it was like 10.8, and that is based upon a whole range of assumptions, none of which are occuring, like the education of women in a very large number of countries, and a whole range of issues that simply aren't happening. And so personally, I mean the UN’s upper population estimate is between 16 and 22 billion, and there again these are all projections based upon a number of parameters or assumptions, and their lower projection is that it peaks at just over 9 billion, and then it declines to our current level at seven billlion, because people stop having children by the end of the century, and I think that’s absolutely not only implausible, but reckless to even assume that's going to happen.

Ten billion, personally speaking, I think ten billion is pretty conservative. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see it considerably more than that, simply because, to get it to asymptotal, let alone to decline slightly after ten billion would require a degree of change in reproduction habits in a very large number of countries, and there’s not all that [inaudible] that is happening. In addition I don’t think the UN has done a good job, by the way, of factoring in the decline in infant mortality in the future and extending life expectancy. If you factor that in, you get to 28 billion.

Chris: A gentleman here.

Man 2: Taking your rational pessimistic stance, I think a lot of the clues as to what probably will happen were probably all in your lecture, you're talking now about the politicians they'd not agreed on anything in the past thirty years, we've talked about the military...

Stephen Emmott: Don’t forget this chap has to summarise this question.

Man 2: It’s not a question, I'm just making a statement.

Chris: - to keep it to questions.

Man 2: - the military attending all your conferences and the guy in your lab telling you that he’s going to teach his son to use a gun, and I think that’s the way we’re going, and that’s the way the population will get reduced, and through disease...

Chris: Sorry, this ...

Man 3: [Inaudible] to see you again... [inaudible] but I’m serious of course, and some of the points about population control and the debate we're just having, isn’t there at least a possibility that some of the scenarios you've explained, in terms of what will happen  - with the food, the decline in availability of food, the decline of water and so on - that actually people will stop having so many children, simply because they won’t be able to sustain those children, and that actually population decline might potentially happen more quickly than you imagine or that you explain from the UN figures, because the crazy experiment that you describe we're caught up with, might [inaudible] itself.

Stephen Emmott: Would you like to summarise that?

Chris: If I could. To summarise, the question is: do you think that, as people come across the difficulties that have been thrown up by population growth, you gave them [inaudible]...

Stephen Emmott: Yes. Well it’s interesting, and no I don’t think that, and the reason why I don’t think it is, firstly, and again, population, with the exception of the Middle East, population which is [inaudible] many countries [inaudible] population increasing sharply - the population of Afghanistan, of all places, is set to double in the next fifty years - that, in most of the places where population is increasing most sharply, there is a lot of tropical forest left, and so there’s a lot of land which isn't agricultural land, and if we use that tropical forest, it's is just going to create enormous longer term problems for ourselves. That’s almost certainly what will happen, and the reason is because it’s happening now. And the same with water. The water table is declining every year in those areas, but there still is a water table where you can get water. I mean the average family in the Punjab had to drill about ten metres a decade ago to get to the water table. It’s 150 metres now. There’s still a water table, and you can get water, but at some point there won’t be one [inaudible] but that might be a very long time from now. I realise that doesn’t answer all your questions but, can I ask Peter to ask his question [inaudible.] 

Peter: It seems to me that from what you say, science has got to change its model profoundly if any progress is going to be made, so I’d be interested in your thoughts about what changes in that model should look like, and how we should set about trying to achieve it.

Chris: So how we should create a model of science that achieves the change that you feel that we need to make.

Stephen Emmott: By the way, for those who don’t know, Peter was my lecturer 25 years ago, so it’s a bit intimidating having him being here. [Laughter.] So, it’s a good question, I mean, it’s interesting because as you know, science funding is a pretty conservative game, and it tends to be a game of, sort of, be a measure of central tendencies, so that risky science, science should be risky, and risky science almost always gets rejected in funding because it seems too risky, and even now, our grant proposal to PDSRA [?] or Merck or Wellcome, they want to know what the outcome is going to be, and you’re thinking: well, I wouldn’t be doing science if I knew what the outcome is going to be. And so I think there needs to be more risk-taking in basic science, there needs to be far more basic science, rather than doing science that business wants. I think this intersection of science and business has gone far too far, and I worked in it, one of my day jobs was in a corporation, where I was forced to [inaudible] but I think it’s just gone far too far, because business is short-term, doing science that business wants, long-term blue-sky is three years. Yes, we need to be doing far more radically different, far more radical kinds of science if we’re going to have any chance of solving some of these problems. So, I don’t know what the model is, other than - oh sorry, I’ll tell you the other thing is that there’s far too little focus on supporting people rather than projects, and I think that letting people, giving people, people the respect, whether they’re young scientists or well-respected scientists ten years of funding - just get on with it - yes, some of that money will end up in nothing, but there’s a very good chance that some of it will end up in amazing science coming out of that long... [inaudible].

Chris: This gentleman here, sorry...

Man 4: A few months ago I hosted a lecture at my own institution by Professor Sarah Harper, who’s professor of demography at Oxford, and she took a much more reassuring view than you, not of climate change - that's not the subject - but population growth. She said that changing lifestyles in every part of the world, with a few pockets of exceptions in Africa, would lead us to conclude that the portrait you portray of relentless expansion of population is not the case. I'm confused now, having heard your wonderful talk tonight.

Stephen Emmott: No, I’m not quite as optimistic as Sarah, but - and I do share most of her views. Er, but I didn’t actually say we would be 28 billion, I said if the ... rate continues at the current rate - and even I don’t think it will - we would be 28 billion, and she would say the same. She might argue that it could be 22 billion, but neither of us would disagree that it’s twenty-something. I just happen to not be quite as optimistic as Sarah about lifestyle changes and how soon they will occur and their consequences in the short term.

Man 4: She ended up by saying "It’s a wonderful world for young people", the complete opposite to producing guns...

Stephen Emmott: By the way, I should say, this gun thing, I was quite surprised when this guy in my lab said this, because he’s very, very level-headed. And he said so because, you know, we have a lab of forty people working in this area, and you know, everyone shares the same view as he does, and it’s simply on the basis of a) the science, and b) if we're heading for trouble, of some sort, the scale - I mean I basically reported the facts of where we are, and the science of where we’re going. It’s not my view. Comparing our head in the sand if we want to ignore that[?] you know, only the last two minutes were my opinion, you know, of what I think of the situation. Given all, given the science, he believes, and I believe, and everyone else believes that we’re heading for trouble, and we argue about the extent of that trouble. The issue is, if everyone were to behave rationally, ... it’s possible that the worst ... but neither he nor I think that people behave rationally. And he’s of the view that when trouble does come, he’s not going to be alive, in sixty years’ time, and his son is four, and I think he’s of the view that, you know, "I would like to know that if I’m not around, my son has been well-equipped to defend himself if he has to", as an insurance policy, not someone advocating his son going out and killing people.

Chris: ...in the white t-shirt.

Chris: Gentleman here in the ... t-shirt.

Man 5: What changes would you like to see, if any, in schools - apart from mandatory shooting lessons? 

Chris: Well, it’s a good short question, thank you. What changes would you like to see happening in schools?

Stephen Emmott: You mean in terms of education generally? Well, that’s an entirely different subject for an entirely different talk. I won’t bother going into my - I think that lots of things are needed, but in terms of ... of the issues we’ve been talking about here, I think having a much better underst-, finding ways of being able to communicate some of the issues that we’re increasingly facing, and why, is necessary, and I think, you know, lots of teachers and lots of schools would be very worried about doing that, fighting ... - maybe that’s true, but to not communicate these ideas and still - in young people, I don’t know what young means, certainly not six but say eleven or twelve year-olds, I think it should be vital that they’re better informed abut the problems that we face. I do think, I have to confess, it’s not every young person but I do have to confess there’s a worrying lack of idealism and wanting to change, passion about wanting to change things. And more interest in [inaudible] celebrities, being on Facebook, and I think that’s quite alarming really.
I mean, you know, in many respects, although it didn't eventually end up changing the world, I'm not advocating rioting, but it was quite amazing to look back and say, you know, the late sixties and the Paris riots and sort of Woodstock and the sort of a view, whether it turned out to be right or wrong, the view that collectively, there was a generation growing up who could change the world, and in some sense some of it is and some senses it didn't. I'm not gonna poke fun at Greenpeace, but I think Greenpeace which emerged in 1971 probably would not have emerged had it not been for that culture of "we can change this world". It was sort of just a group of hippies and sort of, you know, drop-outs and intellectuals and ecologists and - I have a respect for Greenpeace but it probably wouldn't have happened had it not been for that culture around that time. So I don’t know what the education answer is but I think, I mean there’s a whole range of, there’s a whole different issue there about, you know, whether we should have ... renaissance of education so again the focus in education on very silo’d [?] - I think we should teach - people should be taught as people were in Eton and public schools and universities as the people were in the renaissance period.

Chris: Um, we are running out of time so I am going to take maybe three more questions if that’s ok. Can I this lady at the back and then you, and then..

Woman 4: Thank you. There are people in the UK who are passionate about communicating subjects to a vast number of people, and some of them are prepared to do extraordinary things to get that publicity, for example climbing cooling towers and camp out for weeks on end at [inaudible]. And a few years back, one of the ways they did that was to march into lines of police with placards saying: "We are only armed with peer-reviewed science". So they’re quite clearly on the side of the scientists on this one. And yet, yes, I accept that you approve of people [?] Do you think there needs to be a stronger alliance, however, or do you feel that climate activists in the UK and elsewhere damage the cause in some way?

Chris: Are you asking, do you think there needs to be a stronger connection, collaboration between activists - climate change activists -and the science community? 

Woman 4: The science community on whose authority they are, or rather the authority of the science -

Chris [to Steve]: - or do you feel that perhaps activism is causing more damage?

Stephen Emmott: Well I think scientists themselves should be more active, first of all,and then I think that scientists and others with the same aims in mind should work, find ways to work more closely together. I think it is quite interesting that many - no, "many" is too far - that some scientist do have a - and I’m not one of them - do have a distrust of non-scientific activists, sometimes because they make a claim that simply isn’t true, or is not well-founded, or sometimes some of those bodies do have ways of trying to get their point across that are seen by some scientists as, you know, undemocratic or un-something or other, that you know, scientists wouldn’t normally do, and don’t, and so therefore don’t want to be associated with it, but I think everybody needs to be more active in trying to press on governments that are having to deal with that.

Chris: [Inaudible.]

Man 6: You mentioned Malthus in passing and as you know Malthus was a most misanthropic individual particularly concerned by population growth among undesirable people and undesirable races. Are you not concerned that you are rehabilitating that outlook when you talk about women in Niger having too many babies, uneducated women in the third world having too many children, too much energy consumption in India? Aren't we focussing too much on people who, at last, are coming out of poverty in the same way that Malthus did, and isn't it time to old-fashioned beliefs?

Stephen Emmott: I would be the first in the queue to say that just about all of Malthus’s views are not ones that any sane individual would want to be associated with .. but we can’t escape the fact that he did say that at some point, you know, population would exceed the ability of the planet to carry that population, and here we are. And that’s because his basic tenet - all the other stuff, yes, no sane person would agree with. Instead of rehabilitating Malthus in some way I’m just stating a fact that he did say that the carrying capacity of the planet, at some point, if we continue reproducing, we will go past it, and the consequences will be catastrophic, at that point.

Chris: One last...

Woman 5: I’m sorry I’ve got one question from Twitter as well, which, sorry, I’m - a gentleman called Richard Bean, he’s interested in knowing if this play will be published or why isn’t it already published, in terms of the content?

Chris: This gentleman is asking - Richard Bean - if this, why hasn't this play been published ....?

Stephen Emmott: Um, because, two reasons. One is I’m trying to, I am going to be figuring out what to do with it next, and doing that in discussions with a number of people, and, I thought, you know, what next may look significantly different. It might be longer with some more science in it. It might need to be a lot shorter, depending upon the audience that you would want to aim for. But until that decision has been made about what to do with it next, I think releasing this, say on my website or my last website, would be - I think is not the right thing to do. I mean, it isn't as if I’m trying to prevent people from getting the concept, because I’m here every night and every day, but I just think that in deciding how - I think there’s one opportunity after this, because this was an experiment in communication - I think there’s one opportunity to get right the ability to reach the maximum number of people, to have the maximum communication effect, to communicate the issues in this talk, and that requires a lot of thought. 

Doing it in a way that, in a way you just send a bit of paper out - I mean, you know, something like - I’ve seen the consequences of that things I’ve done for, or even an interview that I did about this talk just generated just thousands of blogs and comments within you know, a handful of days, half of which were, just, you know, half of which were interesting, and sort of illuminated the discussion, and half were, you know, just rantings, and I I’m thinking that’s the recipe for disaster, in the making, in releasing, without any sort of thought about what the consequences and the aims are of communication for this in the longer term to reach lots of people. 

So for example, some people say: "You must find a way to turn this text into something that every schoolchild sees", and some other people say: "You must find a way to turn this into something that every politician on the planet is forced to watch" and then some other people say "You must find a way to convince the BBC or Channel 4 to make this into a documentary" and I’ve got all manner of documentary makers and film makers saying "Have I got a programme for you?" and I’d quite like to think carefully about what best to do here to have the maximum effect, and positive effect, because you know it’s not particularly positive at all, that generates the right kind of message, I think.

Chris: OK, we’re going to have to wind this up very soon, so I think, unless there is one person who wants to ask -

Man 7: After the apocalypse, let’s suppose that there is an apocalypse, and the world population collapses, economy [inaudible.] How long before [inaudible] circulating [inaudible]?

Stephen Emmott: I've got no, I mean absolutely no - I mean, I don’t think anyone knows the answer to that, really, to be honest. I mean, I don’t know that there would be an apocalypse. As I say, I think if we radically changed our behaviour we could avoid some of the worst consequences of some of the problems that we’re going to face, but, you know, we do have to, sort of - partly, it comes down to this chap's point, behind you, asking about Malthus. Now initially in my talk - radically changing our behaviour, to consume less, a lot less, and conserve more, we already [?], we need to consume more if we’ve got any chance of reducing inequality, and it’s about, you know one of the issues is just about the quality of life, or have the right to I think, on the one hand, you know, could, should we criticise those people who look towards Europe and the United States and say "I would like to live like that" who don’t have any water, or have to travel twelve miles to get a jug of water or even a box of water or who have to travel sixteen miles just to get enough twigs or wood to do for their cooking or whatever? No, we shouldn’t criticise them, but I think, nonetheless, everyone living like that would be absolutely disastrous. And so we have to on the one hand, try and reduce inequality, but at the same time could we avoid - is there going to be enough .. apocalypse, any time - I don’t know - is there going to be something where the consequences of such a - of the track that we’re on, on everything, population, consumption, resource depletion, ecosystem loss, climate change [inaudible] you've heard it...