Get Invoved with WCTM:
Overpopulation as Drama

Overpopulation as Drama

(Clicking any of the underlined text in blue will take you to a reference on it.)

A few days before Queen Elizabeth opened the London Olympics, a play called “Ten Billion” opened at London’s Royal Court theatre. Stephen Emmott, the play’s author and sole actor, is a professor of computer science at Oxford University who, among other accomplishments, heads a laboratory examining global problems such as the carbon cycle. An English newspaper, the Guardian, interviewed Emmott shortly before the play opened and published almost 100 responses from Guardian readers. The article and comments have a lush range of English opinions on population and environmental controversies rivaling America’s.

The 90-minute play’s thesis is that too many people on our planet means big troubles. The “ten billion” refers to projected 2100 world population, and Emmott characterizes having ten billion people on Earth as the “greatest scientific experiment of all time.” Emmott put it this way to the Guardian: “Those swelling numbers are destroying ecosystems, polluting the atmosphere and the sea, raising temperatures and melting ice caps and we have no idea what the outcome will be. That is some experiment.” For Emmott, overpopulation “lies at the heart of all our environmental problems today.”

A few Guardian reader comments rejected the idea that overpopulation is a problem: one contrarian opined that “Increasing population is at the root of all the planet’s progress.” Others said overpopulation was a big threat but, as one woman asked, “What the hell do we do about it?” She wrote that “all the obvious, definite solutions are, quite rightly, utterly unpalatable and could never be implemented.”

Another thrust was that the problem is not too many people overall, but rather too many people like Emmott who “probably earns as much as 100 ordinary people together” and “probably flies by plane 100 times per year, has a huge house and so on.” Another put it more generally: “The biggest problem is overconsumption by small affluent populations all too happy to blame the poorer majority for the world’s ills.” One likened overpopulation concern to “a small group of drivers who want to drive their formula 1 cars on the roads” and complain that road safety problems come from other people’s driving too much.

Several nominated world poverty as the basic problem. One commented that “As societies improve their material wealth, and as the human rights of women are increasingly respected, birth rates always fall but there is a cultural lag” and that “It is only economic growth and elimination of poverty that will slow population growth.” She asserted that “There are no reasons why the planet cannot support life styles for the whole world similar” to Western Europe’s and that “All progressives should abandon Green politics. It is human material poverty which is the enemy of humanity.”

Other readers judged that infinite growth in Earth’s finite system doesn’t work; one warned that “we can make it uninhabitable for humans through stripping it of its resources or polluting it beyond human habitation.” One real politic man was clear that “human population will be controlled one way or another. The question is whether we let the burden fall on the poor for the excesses and failures of the wealthy.” Another wrote that “Continual growth is the philosophy of the cancer cell. There has to be a limit – the question is what will bring about that limit, and how grim will things get before we get there.”

I had a guilty pleasure in reading the buzz saw attacks on Emmott’s ideas; it made criticisms this blog has attracted seem normal and expected.

Image by pnooomPnooom [CC-BY-2.0 ( or CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


No comments yet.

Add a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Subscribe to Newsletter