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Leading scientist says world is totally fucked in new film

Ten Billion is a new documentary that explores the planet’s rising population and the alarming fact that we’re speeding into an apocalypse

“I don’t know why 20-year-olds aren’t out there rioting on the streets,” says Oxford scientist Stephen Emmott, whose work is the basis for Ten Billion, a documentary made by Peter Webber about the direct correlation between the way we live and the predicted death of the planet. “I think we’re fucked,” Emmott admits in the film.

As the Paris climate talks begin, Emmott tells it like it is in Ten Billion, a film that shows us how bad things are going to get. In case the full effects of climate change have escaped you, things are going to get bad, really bad. Ten Billion makes that clear, and the fact that it’s coming out at the same time as the UN climate talks is no coincidence.

In just over 40 years, the world’s population will hit ten billion – and, as Emmott points out, the planet might not be able to sustain us. But don’t take this as documentary about overpopulation. It’s about how we live. The film shows how our first world lifestyle is killing the Earth’s systems. Thanks to climate change, temperatures look set to rise 4-6°C – add in loss of biodiversity, mass extinction, water and food shortages and unprecedented consumption, and the not too distant future looks grim. Vast swathes of the world will be uninhabitable and some countries – like Bangladesh – will be completely under water.

For a scientist to talk so emotively in public is unusual. In 2013, Emmott’s book, Ten Billion, was turned into a one-man play of the same name. Both the book and play had rave reviews but were also dogged by controversy. “A lot of people in the scientific community have said, ‘Someone had to do this, and I’m glad it was you,’” he says, laughing. “It’s a risk. People will poke holes in everything, but at the end of the day, the main message, that we are the problem, is something no one has attacked.”

Ten Billion director Peter Webber (the man behind Girl with the Pearl Earring and Hannibal), has taken Emmott’s research and made it into the kind of film that wakes you at night. Using epic footage of droughts, changing weather patterns, flooding, and hauntingly beautiful images of the planet from space, Webber’s documentary can often feel like a Hollywood disaster film, but it’s all real. These visions of the future under climate change are already happening around us.

The UN climate talks in Paris represent our best chance to diverge from the future outlined in Ten Billion. If countries can agree to reduce C02 emissions so that we don’t pass the critical mark of a rise in 2°C, then there is hope. It’s not going to be an easy task. Like the film clearly shows, we won’t able able to carry on as usual and technologise our way out of this. But it’s doable – green energy, restoring biodiversity and oceans, new forms of agriculture and radically reduced consumption are the transformative shifts we need.

On the eve of the release of Ten Billion, Dazed spoke with Webber, who also provided us with an exclusive clip. Watch and read below.

Why is this a pivotal time – what needs to happen at the Paris climate talks?

Peter Webber: I have mixed feelings. I think these talks can be the beginning of something. But they can’t be the end. Even if everyone signs up to the agreements that are on the table now, that still can’t get us below 3.5°C of warming - and everybody, everybody, agrees that anything above 2°C would be absolute disaster.

They’re making commitments thinking about the next electoral cycle, five years away, and they need to be thinking about the 30, 50-year time scale. That’s one of the things that is leading us headlong into disaster. I hope desperately that something is agreed, because you can always build on an agreement. But look at the forces against it – the Republican Party has signed up to a platform of climate denial, and the Russians said they are not going to do anything. It makes me think that just sitting back and waiting for these governmental processes isn’t going to be the answer.

Has making the film changed your worldview?

Peter Webber: Yeah, it definitely changed the way I see the world. It was quite dark working on that material every day – you definitely need to find the mental resources to still find joy in life and the world. It made me realise that all these things are interconnected, it also made me start to ask questions about personal agency and collective action.

Why do you think the message in Ten Billion is difficult to hear?

Peter Webber: At the moment, the vast majority of people seem to be either uninformed or they just ignore the information. I’m as much to blame as anyone, I live a 21st-century kind of western lifestyle which has a big impact on the planet. What the film tells us is that politicians on their own are not going to do anything until we make them do something.

It’s difficult for people to respond to a slow-moving apocalypse, our brains are not really built to do that. We think ‘Oh, we can muddle along, we’ll be OK,’ but working with Stephen made me realise that muddling along is what got us to where we are at the moment, and it’s only going to slowly send us down the river into trouble.

When people are this comfortable, it’s difficult to consider reducing their level of comfort. There is also the issue that people don’t want to hear bad news. And there are others who say you need to sugar-coat it. There is definitely a strong, beautiful message to take from this film, but it’s implicit more than explicit. That’s probably why Stephen shares the information but he won’t proselytise about potential solutions. That’s another film, and maybe a film I should make.

What do you want people to take from Ten Billion?

Peter Webber: I guess what I’d like the film to do is give the people the information they need to realise the house is on fire. It’s up to the next generation to take action, because the world that they are going to live in is not a pretty sight. I think there are a small number of people who seriously grapple with these problems, and a larger number who accept it, but carry on with their daily life and are waiting for others to do something. That is not that surprising, we shouldn’t be that judgemental, people have busy lives. To take on the future of the planet is a big burden.

There needs to be a vanguard, we need people who speak in very loud voices. We live in this vast, modern technological world – it’s taken 150 years of industrialisation to get to this point, and it’s going to be very difficult to slam on the brakes. This is not something that is going to happen overnight.

Ten Billion will premiere on December 5 on Sky Atlantic