Ten Billion: A Kick in the Ass We’ve Needed

[Note: You can join Professor Stephen Emmott for a @reddit AMA TODAY Friday 04-DEC-2015 at 4:00 pm (UK) / 11:00 am EST.]

If we learned a cataclysmic, extinction-level event was hurtling toward our planet, how would we respond? How should we respond if we know we can minimize the threat?

This is in essence the question asked of us by Ten Billion, a film based on Professor Stephen Emmott’s eponymous book. The film premieres this Saturday at 22:00 UTC on SkyTV.

I was fortunate to screen Ten Billion recently. Crafted by director Peter Webber, it deftly evokes Koyaanisqatsi (1982), its name based on the Hopi word for “life out of balance.” Ten Billion similarly shows us a world even more off kilter, its resources relentlessly consumed by humans. Where Koyaanisqatsi‘s Philip Glass score was reflective and elegiac, Ten Billion‘s Alex Heffes’ score underlines the mounting urgency of crises.

These crises are many, pegged directly to population growth and its corresponding rate of consumption. The film’s use of a timeline depicting past and future projections of population are effective, like watching the tipping point of a virus infecting its host.

Effective, too, are comparisons between recent and archival photos depicting the changes wrought by humans. Evidence of glaciation loss is horrific, as one example.

Photos of earth from the International Space Station remind us that we are all in this together. There is no escape, no way around this; this is home, and we must work together to save it.

My sole critique is about the diversity of “climate migrants” — so-called in the film, but we know now that many who flee political instability are really “climate refugees.” Ten Billion depicts the plight of peoples affected most by climate change. Most live closer to the equator, and are therefore darker skinned. They have been too easily ignored by light-skinned northern cultures. We see that now with the response to Syrian refugees, whose home country began to fall apart due to severe drought long before overt military action began against Bashar al-Assad’s regime and ISIS.

We also see the same blindness in western response to world-record typhoons Bopha, Haiyan, Hagupit, Koppu hitting the Philippines year after year; cyclone Pam nearly wiping away Vanuatu this past March; and the combination of severe drought and catastrophic flooding affecting Chennai, India even now. There is little if any news coverage here in the U.S., and a nominal amount in the U.K. and EU, as if Asians and Pacific Islanders don’t even exist though they number in the billions. We ignore our role in exporting not only manufacturing jobs but associated air pollution to India and China.

Ten Billion would have been more effective holding a mirror up to the pale faces of northern climes, forcing them to see they, too, are affected. Whites fled both New Orleans and the Gulf Coast ahead of hurricanes like Katrina. They fled the coast of New Jersey and New York after Hurricane Sandy — some who stayed and returned to the affected area are still dealing with post-storm damage years later. There will be more internal climate refugees again whenever the next Category 4 or 5 hurricane hits U.S.

And there will be refugees from drought, when the need for water in states like California finally exceeds the ability of other states to sell and ship enough to meet the shortfall. We are not prepared to deal with this generation’s version of the Okies fleeing a new Dust Bowl.

Until the west — especially the U.S. based on its consumption habits and political reach — realizes its own pale skin is invested in these crises, it may continue to look the other way while making idle greenwashed gestures like COP21 in Paris this week.

I am on the fence about Emmott’s understatement about his own background in this film. If he had been more explicit about his role as a scientist, would the public take his plea in Ten Billion more seriously?

It’s important to note this film may be part of a growing trend — scientists bypassing the suffocation of politicized corporate media, in order to reach the public.

We’ve seen this recently with the op-ed by NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Caltech senior water scientist Professor Jay Famiglietti, warning California only had one year of water left in its reservoirs. Famiglietti didn’t wait for a report issued from either NASA or academia to filter its way into the stultifying news reporting process. He cut out the middle men and wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times to convey urgency and effect immediate action.

Some will criticize this film as expository and hortatory, failing to provide solutions to the crises we’ve created. This is not that film. This is not meant to guide us toward help, when so many other scientists have already told us for decades what is wrong and what action we must take to minimize the threat to our planet and ourselves.

This film is meant to be a much-needed kick in the ass, to propel us to action appropriate to a cataclysmic, extinction-level event.

Because as Emmott says, in concise terms familiar to civilians and scientists alike, we’re fucked if do not take immediate, appropriate action.

You can join Professor Emmott for a @reddit AMA TODAY Friday 04-DEC-2015 at 4:00 pm (UK) / 11:00 am EST. Emmott also has an op-ed today in The Guardian.

9 replies
  1. haarmeyer says:

    Sounds like a great film, good piece.

    My one criticism is about your one criticism about the diversity of migrants. Syrians are not particularly dark skinned, and they don’t even live in the tropics, let alone close to the equator. Neither do Afghans, for that matter.

    In another great film, the POV film, “Beats of the Antonovs,” there’s a commanding officer of the SPLM-N who comments, “We’ve been out in the field, and we all look black, but you get us inside for a while and you would see we are really a salad.”

    • Rayne says:

      Once below or above the 35th parallel, western world and closest allies go blind to its affect on the folks sandwiched between, because its most populous and most politically powerful cities are north of that point — London, Paris, Berlin, New York, Washington DC…allies in Tokyo, Canberra also below 35S.

      Even inside the U.S., you don’t see traction in NYC and Washington (north of 35th) about Los Angeles and drought, or Florida and hurricanes (south of 35th).

      Want to claim skin color has nothing to do with it? Great. But until folks with political clout above/below 35 degrees are forced to take action, it’s the folks between 35N and 35S who’ll take the initial brunt of climate change. And it will eventually catch up to the rest of the world in one way or another.

      BTW: Damascus 33N, Baghdad 33N, Chennai India 13N, Visayas Philippines 13N, Sahara 23N…

  2. haarmeyer says:

    Look up the Tropic of Cancer and get back to me. I didn’t claim that “skin color has nothing to do with it.” I just said that you can’t take all the prejudices in the world and lump them into equatorial and skin color. Because you can’t.

    • Rayne says:

      We’ll have to agree to disagree about the affect race and colonialism have on western attitudes about climate change and population control. I have a different POV on this, being of mixed race. Try asking POC/non-Europeans how they feel about the west’s action on these issues.

      • haarmeyer says:

        I do. I showed that para to someone who was non-European, non-white, and really and truly from the tropics/”global south.” She thought your para was racist. Please don’t immediately go to personal unless you really wanted to hear that.

        We don’t disagree that much about the world that we would have to agree to disagree. I just don’t agree with you that Syrians are dark skinned and close to the equator. They’re white, Syrian-Americans register on the U.S. Census as white, and if you look at the streams of refugees and other migrants moving up through the Balkans, you can clearly see they’re white. They live in a country that gets snow in the winter time. I’m not sure how much more clearly I can say it to you. Some prejudices are not about race. Even when they are, they’re frequently not, as the example I gave you from Blue Nile, Sudan shows in the movie. And maybe that latter is why so many people think so much is about race.

        Those are motifs and political memes that fit well here in this country. Not so sure they help solve real problems in the rest of the world.

  3. bevin says:

    ” We see that now with the response to Syrian refugees, whose home country began to fall apart due to severe drought long before overt military action began against Bashar al-Assad’s regime and ISIS…”

    No doubt this is true. But to put the matter of Syria’s current refugee crisis into proper perspective it has to be understood that the war on Iraq and, in particular, the “surge” of sectarian cleansing in Baghdad pushed millions of refugees into Syria. It is important that the consequences of the 2003 invasion and the decade or more of sanctions before it are always borne in mind And especially so as another escalation, to the brink of thermonuclear war takes place.

    • Rayne says:

      Choir. Preaching. You act as if I haven’t been here (and while I don’t write and post here much of late, I have been along for this thrilling ride, here and at the former Firedoglake and more). All the last decade of violence in Iraq and neighboring countries has been made exponentially worse by drought. Syria had been more stable due to governmental continuity (albeit tyrannical) until Assad failed to help his people effectively through the same drought affecting Iraq. Had the U.S. not fucked up its occupation of Iraq and destabilized it, ISIS would not have had as much opportunity among the suffering citizens of Syria.

      But then you have to ask yourself, Is this what they wanted all along, to destabilize the entire region? Is this why the Five Eyes — among the worst in terms of fossil fuel consumption — haven’t made a serious effort to free themselves from a petroleum-based economy? Are they still playing out Cheney’s dream, the Ledeen-ian universal fascism predicated on creative destruction?
      And then we look further afield, to all the places that 2010’s Arab Spring touched, and note how countries across the African continent have been affected by drought…has climate change been relied upon as a destabilizing agent more widely than the Middle East?

      Is this why both China and India while attending COP21 are pushing back at demands they reduce/eliminate fossil fuels for development, knowing they must keep their populations’ demands for increasing modernity satisfied, while trying to prevent more destabilization by the west?

      My point was that the Syrian refugee crisis and the EU’s (and US) response reveals an inability to accept their responsibility in causing the crisis to begin with. But it’s not just Syria. There will be more crises like this, and we are floundering around now just as we have been for +30 years, blind and unprepared. We can either deal with the root causes, including our energy, environmental and foreign policies, or batten down for the blowback.

  4. haarmeyer says:

    Syria’s crisis with water is pretty much like the crises with water all over the Middle East, most pronounced in Yemen. Robert Mardini’s team documents this as having many components, not the least of which are decaying infrastructure and deliberate targeting of water facilities in armed conflict. (Mardini likes to remind people that in the average armed conflict, the average casualty is a civilian dying of thirst.)

    A better comparison would be the typhoons in Phillipines, and the Somali drought and famine a few years ago, together with the flood/drought crises in Malawi, include if you want the California drought, juxtaposed against this year’s crisis in Ethiopia, Papua New Guinea, Tamil Nadu. The first is La Nina behavior, the latter is El Nino behavior, but it didn’t used to be that we had one or the other all the time as we now seem to.

  5. Halle Bally says:

    You can kick that ass all you want but it won’t accomplish anything.  “Climate change” may be anthropogenic or it may not be, but it will make no difference.  Someone could figure out exactly what needs to be done to set us on the right course, but it will never happen because political gridlock & the simple inertia engendered by runaway overpopulation will prevent it.
    Beware consensus:  “97 percent of climate scientists agree.”
    The only thing that will come of the “climate crisis” will be a massive money-grab scam perpetrated by bogus NGOs & poor nations with the tin cup out.  Cataclismicism, catastrophism & the stampede to “immediate action before it’s too late” only feed into that.
    At least there’s a funny angle to it.  The next mini-ice age will arrive approximately 5,000 years from now, independent of what humans do in the meantime.

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