Friday 20 December 2019

Ten Billion and One

by Nick Gisburne

We all signed up for this. I just never thought it would happen so soon.

Ten billion is enough. That’s what they told us. Ten billion. That’s the limit. One less, what’s that? Something with a lot of nines. That number, we can live with it. And we’ll take one more, to round it up. But another one, one over the top, the one that takes it over ten billion? No. Can’t be done.

Ten billion and one is too many. Too many people. We can all fit, of course we can. Pack us all together, side to side, up and down, and you can fit that many people into a small piece of land. Not small, but you see what I mean. There’s plenty of land. But there isn’t plenty of food.

It’s too many. Too many to feed. The rich, they get to eat, they always do. But we’re not all rich are we? And if we were, who would we buy the food from? We can’t all be rich. You couldn’t have ten billion rich people, and we don’t. We have ten billion ordinary people, and they all need food, and there’s just not enough. Not enough to go round. Not enough to feed us all.

Why did they pick that number, ten billion? Was it just the roundest number they could find? Why not nine billion? No, nine billion, that’s how many of us there were when we decided that ten, ten billion, yes, that’s the number. We all got together and we signed up for it and we said ‘ten billion and no more’.

I didn’t sign it of course. That’s not how it works. The nine billion didn’t sign anything. The rich ones signed it, the ones in charge, the ones who come up with these ideas. They told us it was something we had to do because if we didn’t we wouldn’t get very far. We all agreed though, because we were all hungry, and we didn’t want to be more hungry than we were then. It was hard enough with nine billion of us, they told us, so imagine how bad things would get if there were ten. ‘Do you want to be more hungry?’ they said. And we said no. So that was decided.

Ten billion. That would be the limit. But that was just a warning, a marker. Like a sign: ‘Danger! Do not pass this point’. You need to know what the limits are because then you know you can’t go any further. We’d never cross it because we knew what would happen if we did. There wouldn’t be enough food for ten billion people. Ten billion was the danger point. We’d stop.

Of course, you can make rules for anything, but not everybody follows the rules do they? I’ve seen plenty of Stop signs, and I’ve seen plenty of people going straight through, without stopping. Red lights are supposed to make you stop, but not everybody stops. Sometimes when you go through a red light you end up dead. That’s the danger. There are consequences. Ten billion was our red light, and we were sure we were going to stop.

We all decided on the limit, but what about the consequences? Mr or Mrs Ten-Billion-And-One, you have broken the limit and... and what? We take one bean away from everyone? No, that wouldn’t work. Nobody would take any notice of that. Consequences? That’s not a word to make you sit up and take notice. Penalties. Yes, penalties. That’s a word to open people’s eyes. We should impose penalties. Impose. That too – another strong word. They made that a big part of their decision. The rich people told us we needed a limit, and there would be penalties if we went over that limit, penalties they would impose on us. And we all agreed.

But really we agreed because we thought we didn’t want to be any more hungry than we were already, and having more people was going to make everyone more hungry. No need for penalties because we had something else to stop us getting to ten billion. Rules. Rules help you achieve a big result by telling the small people what to do. Lots of small people, people like me, all needed to follow the rules, and if we did that, all nine billion of us, well of course those penalties wouldn’t be needed.

They didn’t make too many rules, because you don’t need many. If you don’t want more people living in the world, the one big rule you make is that you can’t have children. Someone actually suggested that, back when they were deciding on the rules, but no, no, no, that was never going to happen. Without new people who would do all the work? So people could make more people, but they just weren’t allowed to make quite so many.

Two people could have one child, but no more. We’d see how that worked out, and if it did work, all well and good, but if not, we’d change it. Make a rule, change a rule. That’s how it’s always been. That’s why the people in charge, the rich people who make the rules, always have a lot to say. If it all stayed the same, what would the rule-makers do all day? So, one child per couple. If you broke that rule, you’d be in trouble. Consequences again. Penalties. All part of the agreement.

The rule worked, it really did. It worked if you fed it into a computer, if you made projections, if you produced figures and charts, and if you analysed all the data. People would be born, people would die, and we would never get to ten billion. So we’d never need the penalties. It would all work... if.

People don’t follow rules. Have I mentioned that? Some people had more children, more than one. Many countries were very strict. After one child, they would make it so it was impossible to have another. The mother would be stopped. You know how that works. I don’t have to tell you. There’s a procedure, and they used it. Now I think about it, I don’t remember them ever using a procedure on the men. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s something to do with how many rule-makers are men. They probably voted on it, amongst themselves. The rich men decided.

So that was some countries, but not all of them. Other countries, if they found out that people had had more than one child, they would bring them in, sit them down, and tell them they’d been very naughty, that they shouldn’t do it again. I don’t have to tell you how that worked out. Then the strict countries would tell the not-so-strict countries to change their ways, and they’d all talk, and they’d all agree, and after a few more years when nothing happened they’d do the same thing all over again.

The rules never worked. More babies were born. We’d already decided that ten billion was too many, and that was when we were nine billion. And then we were nine-point-something billion. I don’t remember there being much big news about nine-point-one, nine-point-two, nine-point-three or nine-point-four, but for some reason when we got to nine-point-five that was big news. We were already halfway there, they told us. Halfway between nine and ten billion. Stop now, or we’ll reach ten billion and there will be severe penalties! That’s what they told us.

Well, I remember what they said when it was nine. There wouldn’t be enough food for ten. But I didn’t feel any more hungry later than I did before. Nine-point-five hungry seemed a lot like it had always been that way. A good sign. Maybe we did have enough food after all. No, no, no, they said. That wasn’t right at all. It was all there in the agreement. We had to stick to it. It was the only way. Try harder, they told us. Try very hard not to reach ten billion.

Some of the not-so-strict countries tightened up their rules. But some of them didn’t, and one or two did the opposite. A few countries said no, we’re not even going to be part of the big ten-billion agreement now. We have enough food of our own, so if we keep it and feed the people who live here, that’s more for us and less for you, but that’s your problem. It was more complicated than that, I’m sure, but from the outside it looked like the big plan was fraying at the edges.

I remember hearing about threats (penalties again), military threats from compliant countries, directed at those who wanted out. That worked for a while, until they found out that when a threatened country says ‘we’ll do what you say’, they sometimes mean ‘we’ll look like we’re doing what you say’. By the time that difference was obvious, the world had moved on. It was a nine-point-eight world by that time. And nine-point-eight is when things really started to happen.

Someone set up a big clock, a countdown clock. Not really a clock. It was just a number, counting from 200 million down to zero. That was when nine-point-eight would become ten. I remember thinking it wasn’t moving very quickly, so I stopped watching it. But then a month later the number was a lot lower than I remembered, so after that I took more notice.

At some point the people who made the rules realised that ten billion was going to happen, whatever they said, whatever they did. And all the leaders, the rich leaders who had plenty of food for themselves, told us again that we would not have enough food for ten billion, and that we should remember that they’d all signed an agreement, and that we would have to face the consequences. The penalties would be imposed, and there was now nothing we could do about it.

August the 23rd. I remember the day clearly. It was a beautiful, clear, blue-sky day. Not cold, not hot, nothing you’d even notice. One of those days when you don’t even feel the air around you. Not so much as a breeze. I’d taken my dog for his morning walk and he was pulling me back home, because he pulls me everywhere, but today I wanted to take my time, because before we left I’d seen the numbers. When I’d looked at the clock, the countdown clock, it was only a few hundreds, and I knew what that meant. By the time we got home the clock would be zero and we, the human race, would be ten billion people.

In the end, I didn’t need to see the clock at all because I could hear the alarms. Everyone with a phone, all of them had the alarm, and they all went off together, all ringing when we reached ten billion. And for a minute, the longest minute I can remember, we all looked at each other and wondered what to do next. And then the alarms stopped, and we all went home.

I wasn’t expecting them to be there waiting for me, not right away, but I knew they would come. They looked very unsure of themselves, which I suppose is because they were doing this for the first time. They let me put the dog inside, even let me top up his water bowl. Even in difficult circumstances I’ve usually found that most people are decent human beings. We have to be – there are ten billion of us now.

I said I didn’t need the handcuffs, but they apologised and explained that they weren’t allowed to break the rules. More rules. The ride to the detention centre should have taken us through the city centre, but they told me the roads were cordoned off because of some trouble there. Demonstrations. People angry about the situation we were in. Angry about something we all knew was coming.

When the countdown clock started, every person on the planet was given a number, a random number. Once the population reached ten billion, the agreement we’d made, which we’d all voted for long ago, was that they would use those numbers, one after the other, to choose the people who would face the consequences of a population too big for this world to feed.

My number was easy to remember. It was ten billion and one.

Ignore the ten billion. For me, the one is more important.

The police car didn’t make it all the way to the door. There was a huge crowd gathered outside. Photographers. TV cameras. Media. The duty sergeant came out to meet us, then stood beside me to make a statement. No questions were allowed. I was taken inside and put into my cell very quickly, very efficiently. Maybe that was because I am the first. The first of the consequences. The first of the penalties.

I’ve been given a meal, which did make me smile. They’re doing this because they say there isn’t enough food for all of us. I wonder about the people in charge, the people who made the rules. I wonder about the numbers they were given, their random numbers.

I have one more hour. There are maybe a dozen of us here, but we’re not allowed to see each other. I’ll be the first, but there are thousands like me, all over the world, so the order for them isn’t important. So long as they get the population back down below ten billion, nobody will go hungry.

They’ll do this every day now. Every time someone is born, someone else will have to be processed.

These are the consequences, the penalties. We all signed up for this.

Ten billion and one is one too many.

That’s what they told us.