“I think we’re fucked” and other reasons not to publish a book

Last night saw the launch at the Science Museum of a new book called Ten Billion, by Stephen Emmott. I’m not sure I can recall another book that’s annoyed me this much.

Emmott is head of computation science at Microsoft Research. He’s smart, and clearly makes full use of his mandate at Microsoft to think about big issues. And his book, as the blurb puts it, is “about the potential consequences of the collective activities of the human population as we continue to grow towards ten billion. Its message is simple: We are in real trouble, are heading for deeper trouble, and are failing to do much about it.”

His analysis, in a nutshell, is that: a massive resource scarcity and climate change crunch is rapidly approaching; we’re kidding ourselves if we think that technology is going to let us off the hook without having to face up to any change in our lifestyles; developed world publics are in no mood to consume less; and since we’re not willing to face up to the questions about fair shares in the context of environmental limits, it’s most unlikely that emerging economies will do so any time soon either.

While he gets some of his data wrong, I agree with the broad thrust of this argument 100%. So why the fury? Because of how he finishes the book. Here’s his conclusion (and I’m quoting verbatim):

“We urgently need to do – and I mean actually do – something radical to avert a global catastrophe. But I don’t think we will.

I think we’re fucked.”

Now, I agree that we’re in for a bumpy ride. I agree that it’s going to take something nonlinear and spectacular to make the transition successfully. And it’s fair enough if Emmott can’t imagine what that might look like; I can’t predict it either.

But the point here is that anyone spinning ‘collapse’ stories like this – and especially anyone who is, like Emmott, an opinion former of considerable influence (as I type, his book is the #1 bestseller on global warming or climate at Amazon) – is creating narrative frames that other people are going to use to make sense of what’s going on, how we get here, and what happens next.

And Emmott’s story is not helpful. It’s toxic.

Stories – myths – are deeply, deeply powerful things. They create our reality as much as they describe it. And the more opinion formers get behind collapse narratives, the more likely these narratives are to become self-fulfilling prophecies, contributing to a mood of despair rather than resolve when shocks open up moments of opportunity.

Thinking that we’re “fucked” is a legitimate intellectual position – but if that is what you genuinely believe, then the responsible course of action is to shut the fuck up about it – and leave the narrative bandwidth to others with something more hopeful to say than you.

What have you got to lose by doing so, if you already think it’s all over? And conversely, what are you adding to public debate if you don’t have the imagination even to admit the possibility of success? Either lead, or get out of the way, as a climate negotiator once put it to the US delegation.

All of which begs the question of what I think a more hopeful narrative would look like, given that I buy Emmott’s analysis of the severity of the situation and the lack of obvious answers. I don’t think there’s a single answer, but I’m personally pretty interested in stuff like this. It’s the transcript of a talk I gave earlier this week, and is a first attempt to put together some thoughts that have been bubbling away for over a year.

The talk was at the annual conference of the very cool Modern Church movement - they were founded in the 19th century to oppose religious fundamentalism from within the church, and these days work on areas like religious pluralism, defence of science, and gender equity. Anyway, work in progress – feedback very welcome.