Not the end of the world

Hanna Ritchie is a Scottish researcher with a PhD in environmental science, and one of the editors of “Our world in data”. In  the book “Not the end of the world” she confronts the widespread pessimism regarding the future of humanity. Following the data-based methodology pioneered by the Swedish researcher Hans Rosling, Ritchie demonstrates, convincingly, that there has been a huge change to the better along a number of social, economic and environmental dimensions in recent decades. She suggests that we may learn from these success-stories when dealing with important challenges facing humanity today. The contemporary challenges discussed (in separate chapters) in the volume include air pollution, climate change, deforestation, biodiversity, food supply, overfishing, and ocean plastic pollution.


According to Ritchie, the handling of air pollution is in many ways a success story. Air pollution is, just as greenhouse gas emissions, caused by burning stuff, especially coal, and letting the waste dissipate through the air. This became a big environmental and health hazard, especially in big cities, in the previous century. However, as Ritchie points out, by reducing the amount of such pollution substantially, air quality in many cities around the world has vastly improved. The air in London, for example, is much cleaner today than, say, fifty or hundred years ago. Technological progress, regulatory change, and international cooperation (e.g., the treaty from 1987on the phasing out of ozone-depleting substances) all contributed to  reduce the hazards from air pollution, she explains. Ritchie argues that these factors may also help with the other environmental challenges considered in the volume. For example, technological progress in renewable energy (and, she argues, nuclear), electrification of processes currently powered by burning fossil fuels (by switching to EVs, for instance), national politics (for example Germany’s “Energiewende) and international cooperation (e.g. the Paris-treaty from 2015), have according to Ritchie already contributed to curb the growth of greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, in per capita terms global emissions have already peaked, Ritchie shows, and she predicts that total global emissions will soon start to fall as well.


A key message in the book is that many of the environmental challenges facing humanity today, climate change included, are related to how we produce, distribute and consume food. For example, according to Ritchie, the main threat to the world’s remaining virgin forests, or biodiversity, does not primarily come from urbanization, industrialization or energy, but from clearing land for agriculture, in order to feed the global population. This is a paradox, she notes, since, measured in calories, the world actually produces the double of what is necessary for feeding a global population of the current size. The explanation is that about half of the output is wasted, primarily because much of it is used to feed livestock, not humans. In fact, as Ritchie shows, for cows and sheep, only about 3-4 % of the feed is converted into meat (when measured in calories). Hence, producing beef and lamb requires many times more land, and  emit vastly more greenhouse gases, than the production of other types of food with a similar nutritional value (including other types of meat, e.g., pigs and chicken).  Ritchie therefore concludes that “to build a food system that feeds everyone without ruining the planet, we need to rethink our relationship with meat.” A lot of innovation – and policies supporting it – will be required to make this possible, she argues. The implication seems to be that food innovation, in production as well as consumption, deserves a much higher place on the research and innovation policy agenda.


What I particularly liked about this book is its constructive, fact-finding approach.  The author Margaret Atwood  summarizes it well on the back cover: the book is “an inspiring date-mine that gives us not only real guidance, but the most necessary ingredient of all: hope.”  Nevertheless, some of the conclusions that Ritchie offers may well prove to be controversial. For example, she praises palm oil, because its yields are much larger than the alternatives. Nuclear energy is welcome (along renewables) since it requires little land, and safety problems are overrated. Organic food is not necessarily better for the environment (since it is very demanding in terms of land). The same goes for short travelled food (because emissions from transport is a very small share of total emissions, while productivity may differ a lot across locations). And so on. Many may disagree. But Ritchie has put the bar high: Show us the facts she would say. By doing this she has done research and discussions about how to promote sustainability transitions a big service.

Hannah Ritchie (2024) Not the End of the World. How We Can Be the First Generation to Build a Sustainable Planet, Chatto & Windus: London