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High on hope, but low on capacity to convince

  • from Shaastra :: vol 03 issue 04 :: May 2024
Not the End of the World: How We Can Be the First Generation to Build a Sustainable Planet; By Hannah Ritchie; Published by Little, Brown Spark; 352 pages; $30

A data-rich, feel-good message on sustainability falls short of being persuasive.

Data scientist Hannah Ritchie's Not the End of the World is as straightforward as its title: all is clearly not well with the planet, but doomsday narratives are an exaggeration, perhaps even untrue. Ritchie works through the premise with a missionary zeal, picking up seven environmental challenges enmeshed with apocalyptic predictions, and argues that they are overstated. The hottest year on record, observed by the World Meteorological Organization, is just behind us; oceans have warmed to levels of heat likely irreversible for thousands of years. Lived reality makes the lay reader sceptical about Ritchie's book — but she is prepared for it.

Ritchie, Science Outreach Lead at Our World in Data, a U.K.-based online scientific publication, aims for a fine line: not climate change denial or impact minimisation, but cautious optimism despite it. Her hope springs from numbers, and the big picture. She does not undermine the gravity of challenges or the urgency of action, but knocks the idea that we are toast as a species. She does this by zooming out to the hilt: showing the ravaging of the planet, but also its mending, over centuries. The fixes shape her hope.

Ritchie does not undermine the gravity of challenges or urgency of action, but knocks the idea that we are toast as a species.

Despite the havoc of a stridently warm 2023 on lives, livelihoods and health, humanity has, unevenly but largely, stayed put. That is Ritchie's point. Are we going to breach the 1.5° Celsius mark? Most likely. (Countries at COP15 in Paris sought to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5° Celsius from pre-industrial levels and hold it well below 2° Celsius.) Will the breach wipe us out? Not likely. Is there a way out still? Yes.
That is her trope.


Ritchie begins at fear. Not long ago, she was convinced there was no future to live for. She left university with a degree in Environmental Geoscience but got bogged down by the "deadweight of endless unsolvable problems". The reader is aligned with Ritchie at this point; foreboding about climate transcends geographical boundaries.

But Ritchie exits this space for hope. Listening to Swedish statistician Hans Rosling was her epiphany. Rosling used long-running data to show that while poverty, inaccessibility to education and healthcare persisted, gaps had closed in over the centuries. Ritchie is convinced that the best way to holistically understand environmental problems is through Rosling's method.

India is on the brink of peak pollution; access to cleaner technologies can make the transition faster.

Like Rosling, she urges readers to recalibrate. The complexity of climate change or environment degradation cannot be determined by the latest headline on a heat wave, hurricane, wildfire or flood. Individual stories and events are important, she admits, but not for understanding the big picture.

This is a massive theoretical shift for readers. After all, awareness of climate change on the ground is honed by lived experience and news reports.

Ritchie ferrets out the back files on human life on the planet to suggest we might be the first generation to achieve a sustainable world. Humans, she observes, have never been sustainable, definitely not centuries ago when they hunted, deforested and burned to survive, indigenous communities being an exception. Misconceptions — such as the belief that air pollution is a modern problem — are addressed. Air pollution was widespread enough in the ancient world for Seneca and Hippocrates to write about it, and evidence of it was found on Egyptian mummies.

For all the wastefulness of her generation, Ritchie says, her carbon footprint is less than half of her grandmother's because of cleaner energy, sharper technology and efficient gadgets. "In the U.K., we now emit about the same as someone in the 1850s," she says. It does chip away some guilt, but Ritchie is quick to ring the complacency bell and prioritise sustainable development.

Economic growth is the talisman on which Ritchie's sustainable world is built. Chapters on air pollution, climate change, deforestation, food, biodiversity loss, ocean plastics and over-fishing follow a narrative structure deconstructing 'how we got to here', 'where we are today', 'what can we achieve in the future' and 'what and what not to stress about'. Each chapter starts with a headline that whipped up doom frenzy and went viral. Ritchie neutralises it by picking at the misreading or data analysis.


Not the End of the World works when it sets the context. It does so by presenting not just the historicity of a problem, but solutions that made a difference. London's triumph on air pollution is a precedent for the developing world. Indiscriminate coal use in the 18th and 19th centuries had made the city more polluted than the most toxic regions in the world today, and would easily have toppled Delhi from the top on suspended particulate matter levels. The information indeed raises hope, for Delhi is yet again the most polluted capital in the world. If London can mend, so can Delhi.

London cleaned up through environmental action and policies. But Ritchie charts the link between air pollution and the growth trajectory of countries. Pollution rises when a country moves out of poverty, spikes in its industrial boom before reaching the tipping point, and then declines. India, she says, is on the brink of peak pollution. Access to cleaner technologies can make the transition faster.

Ritchie's solutions are not new. But she pushes forth the interconnectedness beneath diverse challenges. Burning fossil fuels and altering land use have wreaked climate chaos, depleted forests, impacted biodiversity, worsened the air and warmed the oceans. Rethinking our relationship with meat, primarily beef, for plant-based alternatives is a plausible and prominent solution Ritchie offers. Energy transition, already underway, is another broad option. She quells long-held notions along the way. With cold numbers, she clinically bats for nuclear power, maintains that palm oil got an unfair deal, reasons that eating local food does not make much difference, and that endless recycling is a con. "Being an effective environmentalist might make you feel like a 'bad' one,'' she assures herself.

The book's data-driven approach overlooks people's lived experiences; the big picture may induce hope, but for those living the impact, it's a tough trade-off.

Ritchie assiduously adheres to the Common but Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities (CBDR–RC) principle governing climate change negotiations. It acknowledges the negligible historical role of developing and least-developed economies in generating emissions and keeps their avenue for fossil-fuel-powered growth for a while longer even as developed nations take responsibility and act faster.

Yet, much of how we read Ritchie depends on where we read her from. Perspectives tend to skew for those from developing and least-developed economies, especially for people from vulnerable islands. Climate change truly vexes the most deprived; when the author vouches that humans as a species have a future, though many people "could be severely impacted, or even have (their) future taken away from them", it is much too close for comfort for many. Ritchie's top-down, data-spurred approach steers clear of people and their stories; the zoomed-out big picture may induce hope, but remains a difficult trade-off for those living the impact.

Disproportionality in leveraging solutions between the developed world and other countries is stark. For much of the developing world, clean air or regrowing forests is still a complex work in progress. Coal may almost be dead in the U.K., but is far from it in India. Consequently, clean air is still out of reach.

The solutions offered – access to cleaner fuels, curbing winter crop burning, controlling vehicular traffic – are still long-term or theoretical for developing economies. Sealed landfills to manage waste and monitoring overfishing are nascent possibilities. The gap between problem and solution remains much too wide and textured by ground realities for most. Conservation and protection of biodiversity and forests are fraught with challenges. The latest Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act, for instance, has been challenged in the Supreme Court of India for limiting the definition of forests. Ritchie's optimism is fuelled by an adherence to and amping up of climate commitments by countries; the brief exit of the U.S. from the 2015 Paris Agreement is indicative of all that could go wrong.

The author's primary tool is data, and the analysis is anchored in number crunching. Data access, generation and reliability are not without challenges, more so in the developing and least-developed economies. Ritchie acknowledges the trickiness of data, particularly biodiversity metrics, which perplex scientists. Scientists, as she points out, have revisited their analyses to arrive at different conclusions. Numbers, definitions and interpretations have high stakes in Ritchie's book; despair and hope hinge on it. Not the End of the World earnestly seeks to deflect doomsday narratives, but hope will take its time to rise.

P. Anima is a Delhi-based journalist who writes on climate change impacts, energy transitions and migration.


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