Why Stephen Emmott fears the next pandemic could kill a billion people

The UCL professor and author believes Covid-19 offers only a "small glimpse" of our possible future.

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In 2012 Stephen Emmott, then head of computational science at Microsoft and a professor of computational science at Oxford University, was persuaded to stage a one-man show at London’s Royal Court Theatre by theatre director Katie Mitchell, who wanted to encourage collaboration between scientists and the arts. It was called Ten Billion, and the Guardian and Financial Times reviewers both described it as “one of the most disturbing” productions they had ever seen.

Standing in a re-creation of his cluttered laboratory, Emmott described the “unprecedented planetary emergency” that humankind faces as the global population – a mere three billion in 1960 – soars rapidly towards ten billion, plundering the planet’s resources, devastating the environment, spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and triggering the sixth mass extinction of life on Earth as we pursue ever more voracious lifestyles.

The sold-out show was turned into a best-selling book with the same title and the same set of graphs – all resembling L’s tipped leftwards on to their sides as humanity’s destruction of the natural world took off properly with the Industrial Revolution. “We’re fucked,” Emmott concluded, and he ended by recalling the reply of a highly intelligent young scientific colleague when asked what he could do about the situation: “Teach my son how to use a gun.” 

At the time the genial, unpretentious scientist was accused of scaremongering, exaggeration and scientific distortion, but one consequence of mankind’s recklessness that Emmott predicted with absolute certainty was a global pandemic exactly like Covid-19. Indeed, he had collaborated with Neil Ferguson, the Imperial College epidemiologist, on developing the modelling framework for global pandemics that Ferguson would later use to persuade the government to order Britain’s lockdown in March.

[see also: Neil Ferguson: the Covid modeller]

A coronavirus-type pandemic was inevitable, Emmott, presently professor of biological computation at University College London, tells me by telephone from his home in Camberwell, south-east London. “This one is a very small glimpse – thankfully not as severe as it could be – into a potential and likely future.” The next pandemic could kill a billion people, he warns.

“The population is set to increase from 7.7 billion to at least ten billion, and possibly more, before the end of this century. Urbanisation is increasing rapidly. ‘Wet markets’ have proliferated over the past two decades. The proliferation of habitat destruction, forcing animals into direct contact with humans, is increasing rapidly,” he says.

[see also: Steven Pinker interview: How does a liberal optimist handle a pandemic?]

All that, allied with the relentlessly escalating movement of people and goods around the world, means “we are increasing every day the likelihood of a Spanish flu-type pandemic that would make this one pale by comparison... We have no idea whether that’s around the corner in a month’s time, a year’s time or two or three decades’ time, but it’s almost certainly going to happen and that one is going to be really quite deleterious to the human species.”

Of course, there have been plagues and pandemics in the past, he adds, but “this burying our heads in the sand, this view that we have this once a century so we just have to get over it, I think that’s nonsense”.

Nor are zoonotic pandemics – those caused by pathogens jumping from animals to humans – the only threat to modern man. There could well be a “crop pandemic”, Emmott says.

The “Green Revolution’” of the late 20th century vastly increased food production, but it did so by breeding genetic diversity out of cereal crops, leaving “monocultures” of wheat and corn. At the same time fungicides are becoming less and less effective. That means a range of novel plant pathogens has the potential to destroy much of the world’s food supply. “The consequences of that on political stability and forced migration are unforeseen, unknowable and probably unprecedented,” he says.

Yet another potential threat comes from the melting of the world’s northern permafrost due to climate change. That could release a whole range of ancient pathogens that may have been locked in the ice for thousands of years. “Who knows what the consequences of that could be,” he says. 

***

The coronavirus pandemic has generated much criticism of governments for acting too late or doing too little, but Emmott says we should really be asking whether mankind is to blame. The answer, in his view, is an unequivocal yes.

“We are largely continuing to ignore, and failing to understand or to attempt to understand, the impact of our behaviour collectively on our future selves and on the environment and ecology on which we and many other species depend,” he says.

In his book he saw only two ways to avoid an apocalyptic scenario of not only pandemics, but also searing heat, famine, drought, mass migration and wars resulting from our ecological and environmental vandalism.

One is technology. He fears it is already too late for that, though we should still urgently pursue radically new and different technologies. “The general view is we are so clever we can technologise our way out of this. Well, unfortunately we have technologised our way into it.”

The other is drastic behavioural change on a global scale, by which he means ending our all-pervading “culture of consumption”.

“No one needs a dress from Zara every two weeks,” he says. “We all seem to think it’s a right to have two or three holidays abroad every year. Eating has become a recreation. Everyone is changing their car every three years. No one needs to get the next model of iPhone every six months.

“All this stuff has to come from somewhere. Ninety per cent of everything we consume gets shipped around the world. That has a tremendous ecological impact, let alone digging stuff out of the ground, and the vast majority of it is stuff we don’t even need.”

***

Making do with less does not make life dull, says Emmott, who is largely vegetarian, wears old clothes, has few possessions other than books and drives his 16-year-old car less than 100 miles a year. 

People have been conditioned to equate consumption with happiness, he says, but “anyone who thinks that happiness is buying a T-shirt in H&M every two weeks is deluding themselves... Enlightenment or enjoyment in life can come, and I’m speaking personally here, from reading or walking. It doesn’t have to involve consuming something or getting in your car or going to Oxford Street every week.”

But Emmott, who served as a scientific adviser to Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling when they were chancellors of the Exchequer, sees no prospect of the dramatic change needed.

“Governments don’t want to do anything that won’t enable them to get re-elected, and nearly everything that’s required here, whether it’s to do with pandemics or climate change or ecological degradation, would make politicians unelectable.” On the contrary, they encourage consumption because “it creates jobs, it creates employment, it creates economic growth”.

[see also: Covid-19 should be a wake-up call to get serious about the climate crisis]

Emmott becomes noticeably more guarded when I raise the sensitive subject of population controls. He readily agrees that even the present population exceeds “the carrying capacity of Earth based on our current consumption and behaviour”, and that fewer humans would mean less damage. He says it is “unfathomable that talking about population at all remains a taboo subject. I just can’t understand it.” But it is not for him to say whether people should or should not have children, he insists.

“I would prefer to say the issue here is that we’ve collectively got ourselves into a situation where everything seems to come back to human rights and the rights of individuals. I think that’s a mistake. It makes it impossible to say people should have fewer children.

“Personally speaking, I think there should be no such thing as human rights. There should be a charter of human responsibilities, and if we were focused on human responsibilities rather than human rights we would be in a totally different place to where we are now. The root of this is about our collective responsibilities to each other and to other species we share the planet with.”

For that reason he has chosen not to have children himself.

***

Emmott, who is 60, is amiable, cheerful and level-headed, but readily admits to being a “rational pessimist”, or what Boris Johnson would call a “doomster and gloomster”.

He disagrees with green activist Greta Thunberg, who wrote a book called No One Is Too Small To Make A Difference in which she contends that determined individuals can bring about the sort of collective behavioural change required to save the world. He has “no faith whatever in governments doing the right thing”, and sees even supposed triumphs of international cooperation, such as the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement, unravelling. He believes there is no prospect of the Covid-19 pandemic changing our destructive ways – on the contrary, “governments will encourage us to resume our consumption in order to ‘get the economy back on track’ and ‘stimulate recovery’".

In his book Emmott argued that if an asteroid was on a collision course with Earth everyone would be marshalled into action, but faced with an equally certain man-made catastrophe, humanity is doing practically nothing. 

Eight years on, as we approach those environmental and ecological tipping points beyond which there is no return, he sees no reason to change his bleak conclusion that the world is “fucked”. “Everyone chose to ignore, and still does, the warnings in the book, even though almost every single thing I predicted is unfolding yearly before us.”

Martin Fletcher is a former foreign editor of the Times and a New Statesman magazine contributing writer and online columnist.

This article appears in the 21 August 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Failed

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