When Hannah Ritchie arrived at the University of Edinburgh in 2010, she was eager to learn how to solve the world’s biggest challenges. But over the next four years, she became convinced – through college lectures and following the news – that more existential environmental issues were only getting worse. Like so many people, including many climate activists today, she believed she was “living through the most tragic period of humanity”. When she graduated with a degree in environmental geosciences, Ritchie was ready to find an entirely new career path.
Fortunately, she found Hans Rosling first. Swedish physician and statistician, Rosling was known for using data to prove that across so many metrics of human well-being, despite common misconceptions, the world it was making progress. His life and work have tremendously influenced mine-and just a few pages from Ritchie’s essential and hopeful new book, It’s not the end of the world: how we can be the first generation to build a sustainable planetit was clear that she was continuing her tremendous legacy.
Like Rosling, Ritchie has a perspective shaped less by the news than by the facts – something she’s honed through her work as principal investigator at Our World in Data, an online platform that publishes some of my favorite data-driven articles and charts about global issues. today. (The Gates Foundation is a funder.) Also like Rosling, she uses these facts to tell a surprisingly optimistic and often counterintuitive story that completely contradicts the apocalypse in most conversations about climate change.
After reading his entire book – which will be released in the US on January 9, 2024, and in the UK on January 11 – I can safely say that Ritchie has done for the environment what Rosling spent his life doing for public health and for global development.
One important way to do this is to tackle head-on a word I don’t normally love, sustainability. As she explains, there is a misconception that the world was once sustainable and that it has become less and less sustainable over time. But from the UN definition – “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” – it is clear that this concept has two parts. Sustainability requires ensuring that everyone today can live a good, healthy life It is not degrade the environment in a way that takes away people’s opportunities tomorrow.
Ritchie convincingly argues that the world has never been sustainable because the two halves of the definition have never been achieved simultaneously.
The first half was never reached, period: for most of human history, half the population died before adulthood; Although this statistic has improved dramatically, five million children a year still do not reach their fifth birthday.
Still, the progress that has been and will continue to be made on child mortality – along with six other measures of human well-being, including hunger, maternal mortality, life expectancy, education, extreme poverty and access to basic resources like clean water, energy and sanitation – this is why Hannah argues that there is no better time to be alive than the present. This does not negate the violence and instability we see around the world. But compared to the past, we are closer than ever to meeting people’s needs today and achieving the first half of the definition.
As for the second half, Ritchie looks at seven major environmental problems we face today: air pollution, climate change, deforestation, food, biodiversity loss, ocean plastics and overfishing. On most of these fronts, things are worse today than in the distant past. But on all of them progress has been made recently and we are on a better trajectory than most people assume – although this rarely causes headlines about the end of the world to dominate the news.
In the United Kingdom, where Ritchie lives, individual carbon footprints have fallen to 1850s levels after peaking in the 1960s, thanks to much more energy-efficient technologies and much less coal. In rich countries, per capita emissions are falling, and around the world we peaked in per capita emissions in 2012. The other “peaks” that people have been told to fear – peak population, peak fertilizer and agricultural lands, peak whaling, peak deforestation in the Amazon – they are either already behind us or will be soon. In many regions, threatened wildlife species are repopulating. Electricity, which many of the world’s poorest live without, was cheaper in 2019 than in 2009 – and in that decade, solar and wind energy went from the most expensive per unit to the cheapest. And so on, and so on.
This doesn’t mean things aren’t bad or that there isn’t cause for concern. For example, global air pollution still kills nine million people a year. And if we don’t take combating climate change seriously and dramatically reduce emissions, the consequences for people and the planet will be disastrous. The world is bad, but much better: both of these things can be true at the same time. The same can happen with a third: “The world can be much better”.
In each chapter, Ritchie presents tangible actions that people, businesses, and governments can take to build that better world—a world where tradeoffs between human well-being and environmental protection, between life today and life tomorrow, are not need to be done more. . It also places the responsibility on rich countries, those that have built their wealth on fossil fuels, to continue investing in clean energy, making it cheaper, eliminating Green Premiums, and deploying these innovations in poor countries that would otherwise they could not be expected to “overtake” a long path of development powered by fossil fuels.” I couldn’t agree more.
I wrote my own book about climate change and work on clean solutions with Breakthrough Energy every day. Still, I was surprised by how much Ritchie’s book—packed with every number and graph a math nerd could dream of—managed to surprise me. I think everyone who reads it will feel the same, even those who consider themselves aware of environmental issues.
The reality is that it’s easier to follow the latest news than trend lines. But if we don’t zoom out and look at the bigger picture, we won’t just miss out on learning what there was progress. We lost the learning as. That’s why so many people’s intuitions about issues like lab-grown meat, dense cities, and nuclear power—all very good for the planet—are, in Ritchie’s words, “so wrong.”
Perhaps this is also why so many people believe the world is ending – and why even those who believe we can build a better world don’t know where to start.
My recommendation? This book.