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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Bibi van der Zee

Not the End of the World by Hannah Ritchie review – an optimist’s guide to the climate crisis

A palm tree plantation in Phang Nga, Thailand.
A palm tree plantation in Phang Nga, Thailand. Photograph: Panya Kuanun/Alamy

Data scientist Hannah Ritchie has written a good-hearted, generous book that tries its very best to reassure us about the various environmental crises we face. Which, obviously, is much appreciated: God knows we need all the optimism we can get.

Ritchie is lead researcher at the groundbreaking Our World in Data, a website run out of Oxford University. She begins by describing the moment of revelation she experienced when, after years of feeling helpless and anxious about the state of things, she discovered the Swedish professor Hans Rosling, and “everything changed”.

Rosling, who died in 2017, was one of what you might call the “big optimists”, alongside cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker. Like Pinker, he tried to present a counterpoint to the creeping sense of global doominess – what he called the “overdramatic worldview” – that has overtaken many of us in the past couple of decades. He argued, with plenty of good evidence to back it up, that poverty was declining, global health improving, and that many of the things we thought were wrong with the planet are actually fine.

Rosling’s positive outlook proved infectious for Ritchie, and she reoriented her work in a similar direction. With this book she wants to do for environmental problems what Rosling did for social ones – zoom out from the daily news stories, which are a “terrible way to understand the bigger picture”, look at the long-term data in order to get a clearer view of what is really going on, and then explain that to people. “If we take several steps back, we can see something truly radical, game-changing and life-giving: humanity is in a truly unique position to build a sustainable world,” she writes. And thus, with some sensible caveats in place, she addresses air pollution, climate change, deforestation, food, biodiversity loss, ocean plastics and overfishing.

I would love to say that I came away from this book as convinced and optimistic as Ritchie. I was genuinely excited about reading it, as someone who spends my days editing and commissioning the daily news stories that Ritchie is so concerned about. And it’s certainly true that there is lots of interesting information in here. In the chapter about deforestation, for example, she explains that palm oil is actually an extremely productive crop, with yields of 2.8 tonnes of oil per hectare compared with, say, 0.34 tonnes for olives, 0.26 tonnes for coconuts and 0.7 tonnes for sunflowers – so if companies turned to alternatives because of palm oil’s bad reputation, that could actually lead to far more deforestation. In the same chapter she presents a wonderful graph showing the way that forests have come and gone in the US, France and Scotland over the past 1,200 years.

In the section about climate change she points out that her carbon footprint is on average smaller than her grandmother’s: when her grandparents were in their 20s the average footprint was 11 tonnes of CO2 per year – and it’s now just five, thanks to the way that the UK’s carbon emissions have gone down in the past 30 years. The chapter about food and the problems caused by farming (Ritchie’s specialism) includes the interesting observation that the world has most probably passed or will soon pass peak land-use for agriculture. “That is … momentous,” says Ritchie. “The world’s wildlife has been waiting thousands of years for us to stop expanding.” She is incisive about the damage caused by the amount of meat and dairy we consume.

She brings this pragmatic approach to bear on possible solutions for each challenge, and every chapter includes a list of actions that would make a difference. On farming, for example, we need to improve crop yields around the world, eat less meat, invest in meat substitutes, replace dairy with plant-based alternatives, and waste less food.

Fires burn off logged virgin rainforest in Aceh province, Indonesia in June 2019.
Fires burn off logged virgin rainforest in Aceh province, Indonesia in June 2019. Photograph: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

But although it’s helpful to gather these remedies, many of them are familiar. And Ritchie’s determinedly upbeat tone when presenting them – “we just need to put a price on carbon and make sure the rich pay most”, she writes, as if environmentalists have not been fighting to achieve these measures for decades – can be infuriating; at points my notes in the margin became fairly exasperated.

Most frustratingly, although Ritchie provides recommendations for specific problems, she doesn’t tackle the things that really keep me awake at night: the domestic and geopolitical barriers, together with the inbuilt biases and quirks of our brains, that combine to make environmental issues so difficult to address. We know now that humans don’t like to give things up; we are afraid of losing what we already have and afraid of change. We are brilliant at inventing things and making great leaps of imagination, but we are terrible at looking into the future, and at understanding the risks attached to those inventions.

This applies equally to world leaders and business executives. Of course the heads of huge fossil fuel companies and petro-states are going to be reluctant to give up the things that make them rich and keep them in power, something we saw play out again at Cop28 in Dubai. For many of us, it seems as though the wealthiest people in the world are constructing a different universe, with their own taxes and banks and legal systems, and they will not be handing their private jets over either, thank you very much. Yes, vast numbers of us do want to work towards the beautiful sustainable society that Ritchie has in mind. But there are other groups, fuelled by anger or fear or greed, that really do not, and Ritchie does not suggest any tools we can use to get round that colossal obstacle. I understand that it is beyond the scope of her book, beyond the power of most of us, even. But it seems bonkers not to even mention it.

She doesn’t really touch on tipping points, either – the idea that there may be thresholds beyond which we encounter abrupt and irreversible climate change. Some of the weather records broken this year, for example, have taken even climate scientists by surprise. We don’t actually know for sure how the huge changes we are making to the atmosphere will play out, and nature is not particularly interested in our political timetables.

Ritchie’s book is extremely useful as far as it goes, and we urgently need her and people like her – optimists who’ll say: you know what, we can turn this around; look at these numbers, look at these solutions.

But we need the pessimists too; the climate scientists, journalists, activists and even artists with Rosling’s “overdramatic worldview”. It’s important not to discount the upside, but we also have to keep the worst possibilities in mind. We need people who will carry on frantically waving red flags, trying to warn us all of what could be coming.

• Not the End of the World: How We Can Be the First Generation to Build a Sustainable Planet is published by Vintage (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at From Friday 8 December 2023 to Wednesday 10 January 2024, 20p from every Guardian Bookshop order will support the Guardian and Observer’s charity appeal 2023.

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