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Getting Better All the Time

Hannah Ritchie’s new book offers reasons to be cheerful about the present and the future.

· 12 min read
Getting Better All the Time
Happy students in Namu Keeling, Indonesia. Photo via Yannis H on Unsplash.

A review of Not the End of the World by Hannah Ritchie, Chatto & Windus, 352 pages (January 2024)

Humanity is doomed. A 2021 Lancet global poll of 100,000 16-to-25-year-olds found that more than half those surveyed believed this. Dr Hannah Ritchie is a researcher at the University of Oxford and deputy editor of Our World in Data, and in her new book, Not the End of the World, she sets out to debunk this pessimistic view. Her aim is not to dismiss environmental issues as overblown or fraudulent, but rather to point out they are serious but solvable. Technology has caused us many problems but technology and policy can fix them. As she shows, humanity has solved many such problems before. 

One of the main targets of her criticism is the “doomsday thinking” often featured in news reports. As an undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh, she made “a conscious effort to keep up with the news.” As a result, she says, “I became convinced that I didn’t have a future to live for.” Reading news stories and studying Environmental Geoscience, she felt the “deadweight of endless unsolvable problems.” Each day was “a constant reminder of how humanity was ravaging the planet.” Stories about global warming, sea-level rise, ocean acidification, dead coral reefs, starving polar bears, deforestation, acid rain, air pollution, overfishing, oil spills, and the annihilation of the world’s ecosystems left her in a very dark place.

And then, one evening, everything changed. She saw a small man chasing bubbles across a television screen. It was Hans Rosling, a Swedish physician, statistician, public speaker, and author of the 2017 book Factfulness. In a few minutes, Rosling persuaded her of the fundamental long-term truth obscured by the doom of the daily news. To understand the world, she says, you need to zoom out and look at the data. The news, she says, tells us “something new—an individual story, a rare event, the latest disaster.” Watching the news, we are led to believe that “unlikely events seem like probable ones” but they are often not. Focusing on the rare and dramatic, as the news does, is a “terrible way to understand the bigger picture.” What we should do instead is focus on “persistent things that happen day by day and year by year until decades pass and the world has been altered beyond recognition.” 

When we concentrate on the most important metrics of human well-being—the percentage of people living in extreme poverty, the number of children dying, how many girls did or didn’t get to go to school, and what percentage of children are vaccinated against diseases—a more optimistic picture emerges. Yes, there are bad things in the world, but compared to 200 years ago, things are much better. And things are getting better, not worse. 

Ritchie reminds us that doomsday thinking is damaging for various reasons. First, doom narratives are often untrue. If you believe people have a right to the truth, then you should oppose exaggerated doomsday stories. Second, doomsday thinking makes scientists look like idiots. When the prophecy of doom fails to arrive, it plays into the hands of deniers who think there’s no problem at all. Third, doomsday thinking leaves us paralysed. If there is no future, what is there to do but give up on having children. Far from motivating action, Ritchie writes, “doomsday attitudes are no better than denial” and “accepting defeat on climate change is an incredibly selfish attitude to take.”

Ritchie’s view is straightforward. “If we want to get serious about tackling the world’s environmental problems, we need to be more optimistic. We need to believe it is possible to tackle them.” Her book aims to show that “things are changing and we should be impatient about changing them faster.” The Last Generation is a German activist group similar to Extinction Rebellion. They believe that our present unsustainability will push us to extinction. Conversely, Ritchie argues that we have the opportunity to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it. Indeed, we can be the first generation to build a sustainable planet. 

Ritchie’s definition of “sustainability” comes from a 1987 UN report: “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Indigenous hunter-gatherer lifestyles (much in vogue at the moment) succeed on the second half but fail abysmally on the first. Having half of children born die before they reach puberty is not sustainable on this definition. Science-informed policy can make the present generation the first to achieve both halves of sustainability so defined.

Ritchie points out that spectres of exponential population growth are simply wrong. Globally, rates of population growth peaked decades ago. In the 1950s and 1960s, women typically had five children. Today, the global average is just over two. In many of the most advanced economies, women have fewer than two children. The world is simply not facing an uncontrolled “population explosion” as argued by Paul R. Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb

As for degrowth, Ritchie acknowledges that the Industrial Revolution polluted and caused a lot of environmental problems. However, in the 19th and 20th centuries, humanity got richer as a result. Back then, we burned a lot of fossil fuels, we had a higher carbon footprint, we used more land, and we ate more meat. In a world without technological change, we would be stuck with fossil-fuel power, petrol cars, and energy-inefficient homes. However, new technologies will allow us to “decouple a good and productive life from an environmentally destructive one.” We do not need to make seven billion people “disappear” or return to a prehistoric hunter-gatherer or medieval craft-based economy. As she points out, “in rich countries carbon emissions, energy use, deforestation, fertiliser use, overfishing, plastic pollution, air pollution and water pollution are all falling, while these countries continue to get richer.” Economic growth, she writes, is “not incompatible with reducing our environmental impact.” To get all countries in the world up to the level of Denmark, we need a global economy that is five times bigger than it is today. 

Ritchie positions her book as something like a sequel to Factfulness. The focus of Factfulness was on social issues (the first half of sustainability). The bulk of Not the End of the World focuses on environmental issues. She selects seven for detailed treatment: Air pollution, climate change, deforestation, food, biodiversity, ocean plastics, and overfishing. Each is a serious but solvable problem.

‘Factfulness’—A Review
Factfulness identifies ten instincts we all share, which tend to over-dramatize the world as we see it.

Contemporary air pollution is not as bad as historic air pollution. Ritchie describes the Great London Smog of 1952 (memorably depicted in the Netflix series The Crown). The UK passed laws to solve this problem. The Summer Olympics of 2008 in Beijing were smoggy and attracted negative global headlines. The Winter Olympics of 2022 were not smoggy because the Chinese government declared war on pollution in 2013. As a result, Beijing dropped out of the list of the 200 cities with the worst air in the world. Ritchie also relates how governments passed laws that solved the problem of acid rain in the 1980s. And in 1987, governments signed a treaty that dramatically reduced the production of CFCs. As a result, the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica stopped growing and is now gradually closing. 

On climate change, Ritchie acknowledges serious problems but argues that they are not insurmountable. Most narratives of doom are based on straightforward assumptions that humans will not change their emissions habits. However, she points to the increasingly wide adoption of solar and wind power and electric cars. And unlike many environmentalists, she does not think nuclear power is the Great Satan. Environmentalists, she writes, should not engage in solar/wind vs nuclear arguments. Rather, both solar/wind and nuclear are better than coal, oil, and gas. The reduced cost of solar/wind power and electric cars is driving increased adoption. Governments are setting dates for phasing out fossil-fuelled cars. Manufacturers are already stepping up their offerings of hybrid and electric vehicles. These were an expensive and impractical novelty in the 2010s, but they are now common on showroom floors and appear on the roads in increasing numbers.

One of the best features of the book is Ritchie’s willingness to deflate common media myths. She swiftly debunks the notion that the Amazon rainforests are “the lungs of the planet.” In reality, she tells us, “The amount of oxygen the Amazon consumes is almost exactly the same as the amount it produces.” As for deforestation, she points out that it is an historic phenomenon that occurred in France and England in the Middle Ages. However, it is reducing. Rich nations and private individuals are helping to preserve rainforests and deforestation is slowing down. The prospects for reforestation are good, mainly because agriculture is getting better at producing food and needs less land. 

Ritchie describes herself as neutral on organics, which are not the ecological panacea many people think. Allowing pests (because pesticides are not organic) and banning fertiliser (except for naturally excreted organic fertiliser) results in lower crop yields. Consequently, to feed the same number of people, you need more land which has to be cleared of trees. She points out that modern agricultural techniques that use genetically modified crops, pesticides, and fertilisers enable us to feed more people with less land. 

Ritchie is a vegan but she is realistic about the mass adoption of veganism. Beef and lamb have the heaviest carbon footprint, pork and chicken are better. She quite sensibly advocates for the eating of less meat and more vegetables but she is not preachy about it. There are medical benefits as well as environmental ones. She simply presents the facts in easy-to-understand graphs so you can see the impact of your choices. Rather than go cold turkey on meat, you can swap beef for chicken and lamb for pork and eat more greens. This will reduce your carbon footprint and also your risk of heart failure.

So-called “food miles” are not that significant either. Ritchie points to Swedish tomatoes grown in heated hothouses that have a higher carbon footprint than tomatoes shipped from places they grow naturally, such as the Mediterranean. She points out that what you eat is far more important than where it comes from. She avoids food transported by air and notes that food delivered by ships contributes relatively little in terms of carbon emissions. Living on nuts and fruits shipped from the tropics is far more efficient in terms of getting protein than eating locally raised, grass-fed beef. Overall, she says, transport represents just five percent of emissions related to food. Food that is shipped from places where it grows naturally has a lower environmental impact than food that needs a lot of energy to stay warm and grow close to home.

Biodiversity loss is “the trickiest environmental problem” covered in the book. This has been a problem for a long time. Ritchie describes the wave of mammal extinctions between 52,000 and 9,000 BC known as the Quaternary Megafauna Extinction. Much of this was due to human hunting. During this period, there were less than five million humans on earth. So, a global population less than half the size of London drove hundreds of the largest mammals to extinction. With the rise of agriculture 10,000 years ago, wild mammals started to lose their habitats to farms—forests were cut down and grasslands were taken over by domestic species such as cattle and sheep. Wild mammal biomass is down to just 15 percent of what it was 100,000 years ago. 

Even so, decline is not extinction. While many species have already become extinct, governments have introduced measures to arrest the decline of many others. African governments have taken measures to reverse the decline in elephant numbers; the Indian government has done likewise. Ritchie takes issue with claims about a “Sixth Mass Extinction” made in headlines. The five previous mass extinctions occurred 444, 360, 250, 200, and 65 million years ago. In each case, over 75 percent of species went extinct in relatively short geological periods (less than two million years). On current trends, we are heading for a sixth event, but unlike previous extinction events caused by volcanic eruptions and asteroid impacts, there is a handbrake—humankind can act to prevent further extinctions. Besides elephants, bison populations have recovered in many places. European badgers have doubled in numbers and otters have trebled. The Eurasian beaver has made the most remarkable recovery—there were only a few thousand left in the early 20th century, but now there are over a million. Measures such as complete bans on hunting, quotas, designated areas with legal protections, patrols to catch poachers, compensation schemes for the reproduction of certain species and breeding and reintroduction programmes have contributed to these recoveries. 

To reduce biodiversity loss, Ritchie recommends we do the following: 

  • Increase crop yields to reduce farming land.
  • Bring deforestation to an end.
  • Eat less meat and reduce our need for livestock.
  • Improve the efficiency of—but don’t eliminate—chemical inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides.
  • Slow global climate change.
  • Stop plastic leaking into our oceans.

Ritchie’s solution to the problem of plastic in the ocean is not to stop the production of plastics. She points out that plastic packaging does a lot to reduce food waste. Less wasted food means less land needed to grow it. We have to consider the effects of the effects. Banning plastic shrinkwrap would increase food waste, so we just need to focus on preventing plastic waste from getting into the ocean. She cites a Gapminder survey that asked people what percentage of plastic waste ended up in the ocean. The choices were: 

A) Less than six percent.
B) Around 36 percent.
C) More than 66 percent.

Eighty-six percent of those surveyed got it wrong. The correct answer is A and the actual figure Ritchie provides as “our best estimate” is 0.3 percent. She also debunks the notion that rich countries simply ship their plastic to poor countries. Only about two percent of global plastic waste is traded. The other 98 percent is dealt with domestically. While some years ago, rich countries were able to dump their plastic waste on poorer ones, the latter have stopped taking it. Today, the biggest plastic exporters are also the biggest importers. Her conclusion is that banning the trade in waste plastic will not solve the problem of plastic in the oceans: “Only a small fraction of the world’s plastic waste is traded, and most of that waste ends up in countries that leak very little plastic into the ocean.” The actual solution is not glamorous and high-tech: “It’s the grimy but necessary investment in waste management. If every country had the waste management systems rich countries have, almost no plastic would end up in the ocean.”

One of the more eye-popping parts of the book comes when Ritchie downplays the importance of recycling. This is the “universal brand of a conscientious environmentalist” but she debunks the myth that recycling has a “massive impact” on people’s carbon footprint. The reality is that it’s “pretty tiny.” Recycling has an energy cost and high-grade plastic gets recycled to low grade plastic. Recycling only defers the landfill, it does not eliminate it. The plastic bag in the supermarket is not that terrible a thing. Ritchie recycles, but she points out that if recycling is “the only thing that you do or even one of the biggest things you do for the environment, then you need to up your game.”

Ritchie says we should stop stressing about minor things like plastic straws, the occasional plastic bag at the supermarket, and landfills. Landfills are not as bad as they seem. Straws and bags are small change in the environmental scheme of things. She notes that people often think what they are doing is making a huge difference when in reality it is not.

The solution to overfishing is prosaic. She points out that most of the claims made in the 2021 Netflix documentary Seaspiracy —for example, “We will see virtually empty oceans by 2048”—are false. The actual truth was known back in 2009. However, a headline like “not getting much better, not getting much worse” is not as catchy as “global fish stocks will soon collapse.” In reality, nations have been managing fisheries for decades. There are quota systems and conservation zones where commercial fishing is banned. However, these systems mostly exist in rich countries. Poor countries spend less on them. The solution is for poor countries to copy the policies of rich countries by introducing quotas and having patrols to stop illegal fishing, the marine equivalent of poaching. Farmed fish is on the rise. She says this solution “seems icky” in that fish farming goes against our idea that natural is best. However, she points out that “if the world wants to keep eating as much fish as we do (or more) consumers need to get comfortable with it.” 

Overall, Ritchie’s argument is simple. Sustainability is making sure that current generations have the opportunity for a good life, reducing our environmental impact so that future generations have the same (or better) opportunities, and allowing wildlife to flourish. This is the way toward global human flourishing in the 21st century and beyond. The present generation of humans can become the first generation to achieve sustainability. Our ancestors did not achieve this: “Half of all children died, preventable disease was common and nutrition was often poor.” But we can. Over the last century, humanity has made great progress in metrics such as literacy, education, health, and life expectancy. Things are still bad in some places, but overall the trend is improving. The world is getting better. We know what to do. Many countries have done it already. 

The thing I most like about Ritchie’s book is that it is impassioned but not histrionic. It is meticulous in backing up its claims with data. She is willing to debunk well-intentioned environmental myths as well as sensationalised media ones. Not the End of the World is easy to read, thoroughly researched, and clearly illustrated with informative graphs. I recommend it without reservation, especially for parents of teenage children and young adults. Humanity is not doomed. There is a future. 

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