The Future with 10 Billion People

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Just over 200 years ago, there were one billion humans on Earth; now there are seven billion, and, sometime this century, the world population is expected to reach ten billion. Stephen Emmott, head of Computational Science at Microsoft Research, explains what this steadily growing human population means for the earth: deforestation, desertification, species extinction, growing threats to food and water. His book Ten Billion analyzes the issues our growing population will bring about.


Stephen Emmott

Comments [30]

Matt Moran

We've gone from less than 400 million going to bed hungry to about a billion going to bed hungry since Borlaug's green revolution and an estimated 50,000 die every day for want of food, water or basic medicine. Interestingly, Borlaug during his nobel prize acceptance speech echoed Malthus' caution, we were 4 billion then. In the meantime, we are eradicating 200 species a day and rapidly depleting resources as well as creating massive dead zones in the oceans of equivalent size to the forest we are clearing. It's remarkable that we can bring down rainforests and wipe out ocean life from the simple everyday act of eating an ice cream or a biscuit or opening a can of tuna. In recent findings, the air is so polluted now in many places, it is the leading cause of cancer. I suppose, that may be self-balancing but who wants to die of lung cancer?

On the other hand, we know that slow/low/no population growth is a pre-requisite to economic recovery/prosperity. Population growth is largely lobbied for by the wealthy who benefit from ever more customers and/or cheaper labour but it's bad for everyone else particularly in the long-term.

There are a lot of arguments against shoving masses of people in sky-scrapers. For one, cut off the power or water or food for a short time and it's an inconvenience, over a longer period, they become death traps and emergency services nightmares as was the case recently in New York.

The argument that as we become wealthier we have less children is actually the wrong way round and is often used by governments to throw foreign-aid into development which ends up throwing increasing amounts of money at a never-ending problem. As it turns out, money invested in family planning that lowers fertility rates is the precursor to lifting people out of poverty. e.g. investment in family planning, education, health etc over the past 30 years has resulted in the lowering of fertility rates in Tunsia/Botswana from 6 down to 2 while purchasing power has increased 10-20 fold.

Desalination plants are expensive to build and maintain and the cost is invariably socialised on the tax-payer as are all costs.

At the end of the day, it's really about whether people want to continue to avoid actually taking time to see what options we have available. The reasons why the global population is still growing at around 80 million a year are because of things like:
a) an estimated 220 million women are crying out for, yet are denied access to family planning
b) 100s of millions of people still believe having 7+ children is a good family size even though they are unable to feed themselves well let alone children
c) right-wing religious groups poison the water on family planning often erroneously linking it to abortions when family planning has been shown to reduce abortions by orders of magnitude.

Oct. 22 2013 06:07 AM
Gerald from Tokyo

It is not DEforestation that is attracting the deer and coyotes to East Coast suburbs, but REforestation. The Northeast was pretty much entirely deforested 150 - 200 years ago. Game animals and predators were hunted to extinction - locally if not totally. But the forests are back - at least the animals see it that way. Leafy, semi-forested tracts within and between cities and towns attract animals of all kinds, and even the predators are now finding plenty of nourishment to sustain larger populations. And since the human population no longer hunts for food (especially in the suburbs) the wild animal populations are getting way out of control.

Sep. 11 2013 05:42 PM
JJ cook the planet from western OC NY

Leonard, you are too snarky and it derails the earnest interviewee everytime. Do some stand up on the side and get it out of your system

Sep. 11 2013 11:38 AM

This guy is a misguided nut. From Guardian review...say no more!
"Emmott's book is error-strewn, full of careless exaggeration and weak on basic science. Its reliance on random facts pulled from the internet is truly shocking and it will harm the cause of environmental protection. As might be expected, the best sceptic bloggers are already deconstructing its excesses line-by-line."

Sep. 10 2013 01:11 PM

I applaud Stephen Emmott for waking us up to a crisis of mankind that most people
are in denial of. Even if humans were able, remote as that is, to artificially sustain
a planet with 10 billion people, that is a world I would not want to live in. We are
rapidly ruining the paradise that is mother earth.

Sep. 10 2013 12:56 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

If we are worried about family size, then let's abolish marriage and let's produce children in factories, ala "Brave New World." The corporations will produce the number of consumers and workers they think they will need.

And stop picking on meat. People love meat, and have been hunting it for hundreds of thousands of years. Even apes love meat when they can get it.
Soon we'll be able to "grow" meat the way we grow vegetables. It's already being done. WE can produce meat without producing animals.

Sep. 10 2013 12:39 PM
Marco from Manhattan

Shouldn't we start educating people about this subject and start advocating for smaller families and number of children?

Sep. 10 2013 12:35 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

To Penny

Venice has been doing that for centuries with no major problems. We can live on top of water.

Sep. 10 2013 12:35 PM
Penny Jones from Downtown

Maybe our future in New York will be boating between flooded buildings, with individual solar panels and desalinators for our apartments and gardens in the floors of the abandoned buildings.

Sep. 10 2013 12:34 PM
Amy from Manhattan

What's Mr. Emmott's opinion on whether eating much less meat would allow more people to be fed w/fewer resources? If he agrees, how does he think this transition can work?

Sep. 10 2013 12:33 PM

Ed's point seems to be that God gives man the ingenuity to feed himself - so if millions die of starvation (as they have done in India and China and elsewhere) it's not God's fault but man's.

I'm not sure what could be more sinful than a deity that petulantly refuses to use its omnipotence to alleviate the suffering of millions of innocent human beings.

How odious.

Sep. 10 2013 12:33 PM
James R.

Another point about scientific research in the US. The threat to public funding of scientific research is so great under years of budget cuts to the sciences and (worse) cuts from the sequester that foreign scientists who might have come to the US are staying home or going elsewhere. A growing number of American scientists are looking abroad to do research.

The US has been the greatest leader in human history in terms of scientific research of exactly the kind that Emmott and other advocate. Something Americans can really be proud of. But such research is facing lasting damage because of the pettiness of Republicans _and_ Democrats.

Sep. 10 2013 12:32 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

About vertical farming, go to SIngapore and see it in progress. Not that we would need many if the suburbs were turned back into farmland as more people learn to live in skyscrapers.
Meanwhile, despite all the droughts, my food costs have not risen all that much. As for water, many countries, especially Israel will be desalinating sea water more and more cheaply.

There are solutions for everything. All this is false hysteria going on since Malthus published his rubbish. Just like Karl Marx's rubbish.

Sep. 10 2013 12:31 PM
Henry from Manhattan

Question for Stephen Emmott:

Any top three list of priorities we can or should take action to address a population of 10 billion?

Sep. 10 2013 12:30 PM
James R.

I think it's great that Microsoft welcomes the research that Emmott does. But _nobody_ (except Microsoft people) would say that Microsoft is doing the greatest software development in the world. Nobody. And Prof. Emmott himself worked for a time at Bell Labs. There was a time when Bell was the home for Nobel Prize-winning research. As far as I know, IBM Research Labs still leads the corporate world in numbers of patents awarded.

Plenty of firms are housing good research. Sadly, they used to do a lot more (before the Harvard MBAs really made their poisonous influence fully felt).

Stephen Emmott sounds very much like he's in the same camp as Jared Diamond. Economists like Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (but _not_ some like Jeffrey Sachs) disagree strongly in their own research.

Sep. 10 2013 12:28 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

Microsoft never innovated anything. It STOLE or bought out whatever made it "great," assuming you consider Microsoft to be "great." Like Blackbeard the Pirate was "great." So no surprise Microsoft would fund such idiotic nonsense.

And if we all live in skyscrapers, we won't need all that land, and the suburbs can be turned back into natural wilderness or farmland again.

Your guest is totally UNCONVINCING and rambling all over the place. Neo-Malthusian nonsense.

Sep. 10 2013 12:27 PM
Sheldon from Brooklyn

This reactionary hysteria has been shoveled since the days of Ricardo and Smith by their colleague Malthus.

As people get wealthier and better educated, they tend to have less children.

The main threat to the world's natural resources is not the amount of people that's on it but how much its wealthiest citizens consume.

Sep. 10 2013 12:27 PM
Henry from Manhattan

Thank you for further demonstration to confirm my original statement.

Sep. 10 2013 12:23 PM
Jeanine DeNitto from New Jersey

Glad to hear the topic of overpopulation addressed on the radio!

Sep. 10 2013 12:23 PM
Hollis from New York City

I tuned in late but and heard to comment of population's impact on our environment. This subject was in the forefront many years ago. Why did we stop addressing it? I find the consequences of population growth very frightening.

Sep. 10 2013 12:20 PM
Ed from Larchmont

'If the mountains fall into the sea, even then would I trust.' Psalms

Sep. 10 2013 12:20 PM
Ed from Larchmont

If you've got 'em, smoke 'em.

The question is, given this situation, what does God have in mind?

Sep. 10 2013 12:18 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

The Malthusian arguments have proved to be wrong, wrong, wrong time and time again. The Leftist idea that man is the problem, and keeping the human population small or even making it non-existent to "save the planet" only exposes the disdain that Leftists have for other people in general. This planet can support tens of billions, and by that time we'll be able to reach other planets just in case we do run out of room. More people live better and longer today than all of history, unless you believe the Biblical myths of some living to over 900 years in age. Otherwise, more people today are materially doing better than ever, and when robots come into full bloom, we'll live even better yet!

Sep. 10 2013 12:18 PM
James R.

In principle, 3 billion people living very inefficiently could do all the damage Mr. Emmott mentions, while in principle, 10 billion might live very efficiently and do less damage. That's mathematical biology (and atmospheric physics, etc.)

Sep. 10 2013 12:16 PM
Ed from Larchmont

The problem soon is going to be not the number of people, but that there will be an imbalance of older people.

Sep. 10 2013 12:15 PM
James R.

To echo Peg's response to Ed from Larchmont, I think it's strange that the same source of "the meek shall inherit the Earth" seems to have it in for poor people. In no country do the 1% suffer when famine strikes (maybe pestilence is a little more democratic). Was it insufficient Irish faith that brought the potato famine? And what about those devout Pilgrims who would have starved or frozen to death if not for the aid of the heathenous natives of the Americas?

Question for Stephen Emmott: Given current technology, does he have a number for the Earth's carrying capacity? And what role does technology play in changing the equation?

Sep. 10 2013 12:14 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

Putting theology and eschatology aside for a moment, it is quite possible for 10 billion to live quite comfortably and in a civilized manner on this planet if things are done right. A thousand cities of 10 million people each equals ten billion. Assuming 500 square miles per city, that amounts to less than a million square miles, or an area less than 1/3rd the size of the US or China. Skyscrapers a half mile or more high, containing thousands of inhabitants, and containing hospitals, shopping malls, police stations, fire stations, and the like are already being planned in Singapore. Using solar panels and other alternative means energy production make all of this quite feasible. Even vertical farming is being done now in many places. If done right, it's no problem.

Sep. 10 2013 12:11 PM
Henry from Manhattan

Theology, the reason why humanity can never have a rational conversation about anything.

Sep. 10 2013 12:07 PM

Re Ed: Given that humanity has not been able to get rid of its sinners for all of recorded history, how do you propose that we get rid of them now and in the future?

...starvation (of sinners only)???

Sep. 10 2013 09:17 AM
Ed from Larchmont

It sounds daunting, but in theological terms God told man 'Go forth and multiply', which means that the earth can support, with man's ingenuity, whatever population God allows us to reach. It is a theological principle that God supplies the food necessary, again, directly, and with man's given talents and ingenuity.

If we try to live without the living God, however, we will starve, if we have 10 billion people or 10 people. With the living God, there is enough. The problem is not the number of people, but sin.

(At the start of the Book of Numbers David wanted to take a count of the number of people he was governing and Nathan told him not to do it, in essence that this was God's business. David did it, and later repented of it.)

Sep. 10 2013 08:15 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.