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‘Ours could be the first generation that leaves the environment in a better state than we found it’

Hannah Ritchie used to be convinced that she didn’t have a future to live for. Now, a new book by the myth-busting data expert and climate ‘solutionist’ shows how we can all replace the ‘deadweight’ of endless unsolvable problems with useful, urgent optimism

Hannah Ritchie used to be convinced that she didn’t have a future to live for. Now, a new book by the myth-busting data expert and climate ‘solutionist’ shows how we can all replace the ‘deadweight’ of endless unsolvable problems with useful, urgent optimism

Posters in hand, a 13-year-old Hannah Ritchie stood before classmates at Falkirk high school gloomily forecasting runaway global warming and rising oceans. This much of the planet would be flooded at two degrees, this much more at three degrees. The world was slipping into a watery abyss, she told them.

Now 29 and a renowned environmental scientist, Ritchie’s work speaks to audiences of hundreds of thousands, and instead of being laden with doom it is radically hopeful.

After diving deep into the data on some of the world’s most pressing problems, she’s surfaced as a rare, positive, fact-based voice. For the first time in humankind’s history, Ritchie argues, true sustainability is tantalisingly within reach.

“I know things are really serious, but what I’ve tried to push back on is this message that there’s nothing we can do,” Ritchie explains. “We very clearly can do something, and good stuff is happening – we just need to push it faster.”

Ritchie’s first book, Not the End of the World: How We Can Be the First Generation to Build a Sustainable Planet, maps her data-led journey of discovery from angsty teen to climate solutionist. It has reaped accolades from the likes of Bill Gates, Margaret Atwood and Rutger Bregman.

Across eight chapters, Ritchie scrutinises a raft of environmental crises through the lens of data. She busts myths on topics including deforestation, biodiversity and ocean plastics. In their place she offers an invigorating tour of human progress, along with practical guidance on making it faster and better. In place of the heavy shame of our collective ecological sins, there emerges a building sense of what Atwood describes as “the most necessary ingredient of all” – hope.

“We need to see the historical perspective,” she says. “To understand that we actually have made progress, and we can drive more of it, because we know what we need to do next.”

Many changes that do profoundly shape the world are not rare, exciting or headline-grabbing

On leaving school, Ritchie was torn between studying journalism or science. She plumped for the latter, embarking on an environmental science degree at the University of Edinburgh and, later, a PhD examining global food systems.

Her studies only compounded the eco-anxiety that had set in years earlier. Outside the lecture theatre, she immersed herself in news reports on climate disasters, believing that was the best way to stay informed.

“It was an avalanche of endless problems,” says Ritchie. “It felt like we were doing all this environmental damage and it was actually for nothing, because all of the human metrics were also getting worse. It seemed so unsolvable.”

A turning point came when Ritchie discovered the work of the late Swedish physician Hans Rosling. Something of a data guru, Rosling had showed that on key human wellbeing metrics like poverty and child mortality, the world was in far better shape than, say, 200 years ago. For Ritchie, it was an awakening – “magic”.

Hannah Ritchie

“Rosling made me realise that on these human metrics my worldview was completely upside down,” she explains. “It clicked that to understand environmental problems, I needed to step back and look at the data – I couldn’t just keep looking at the news headlines.”

Individual events and stories are important, Ritchie clarifies. But focusing on them is a terrible way to understand the bigger picture. “Often the stuff that’s happening day on day on day – often positive things – doesn’t make headlines because it’s not new,” she says. “Over time that has a profound impact on the world, but if you only looked at the headlines you would completely miss it.”

The revelation roughly coincided with Ritchie taking on a role at the then-nascent open access online resource, Our World in Data, which is based at the University of Oxford. Here, Ritchie and her colleagues mine datasets from trusted sources like the energy thinktank Ember Climate, the World Health Organization and the Global Carbon Project, explaining trends with patient clarity and consistently accessible visuals. Our World in Data is now seen by many as the last word on pressing global issues like war, disease and the climate crisis, but it wasn’t always that way.

“I think people thought it was just a couple of kids doing a blog at first,” says Ritchie, who is now the site’s deputy editor. “That’s changed a lot over time, and we obviously take that responsibility very seriously. People do come to us expecting to find the truth.”

Ours could be the first generation that leaves the environment in a better state than we found it

Ritchie began her climate deep dive by reframing the meaning of ‘sustainability’, arguing that we almost always equate it with a healthy environment. But for Ritchie there’s a vital, second component: decent living standards.

Our ancestors of 400 years ago may have lived more harmoniously with nature, but they were lucky if they scraped into their 30s. Meanwhile in modern times, our stunning progress on standards of living has come at a crippling cost to the environment. It’s only now, equipped with cheap, low- carbon technologies and vastly more effcient food systems, that Ritchie believes we have the potential to balance both sides of her sustainability equation.

“We’re at an infection point where we can continue to improve living standards, but we also have the solutions we need – and they’re cheap, and available – to protect the environment,” Ritchie offers. “We can achieve both at the same time.”

Take air pollution, for example. “People think that, in rich countries in particular, our air is the most polluted it’s ever been,” says Ritchie, pointing out that in reality, strict pollution policies have largely undone years of historical damage. “This stuff has worked and is saving lives.”

Contrary to common belief, strict pollution policies have significantly improved air quality in many countries. Image: Henry Be

Or the transition to clean energy. “People underestimate how quickly things are moving,” Ritchie explains. “If you’re looking at solar energy data from 2019, you’re already really out of date.”

In Not the End of the World, Ritchie tears to shreds some common misconceptions that have made for juicy environmental news headlines. Like the one about overfishing emptying our oceans by 2048, which spawned the hit Netflix documentary, Seaspiracy. “The whole documentary was riddled with falsehoods,” Ritchie writes.

She shows how, far from accelerating deforestation, palm oil might actually help prevent it, thanks to its incredibly high yields. Where would a boycott lead, Ritchie posits? To a less productive, more land-hungry alternative. In almost every chapter of the book, she lists doomsday claims that turned out to be completely untrue.

It’s this sort of unconventional stance that has made Ritchie a target for both sides of the climate crisis debate. There’s occasional hate from climate deniers on X, the site formerly known as Twitter. “It’s just a bubble,” Ritchie responds, easily. At the same time, climate activists say her positive outlook downplays the crisis. With flak from both sides, does she feel like a misfit?

I try to remind myself there’s a positive impact there, and that’s why I do what I do

“Yeah, a little bit. I often feel like people think I’m a betrayer of the movement,” she says, adding that her optimism shouldn’t be read as a lack of understanding. “Where my perspective differs is that I think it’s really clear we have the opportunity to get this on track: the solutions are there, countries are implementing them, they just need to do it more quickly.”

She holds on to that thought when her own climate anxieties rise to the surface, but it’s the sheer number of people working towards solutions that give her the most hope. “I do feel concerned and often scared about the future. That’s perfectly normal,” she reflects. “In the past, I felt very isolated, that there weren’t many people who had the same level of concern that I did. And that’s just not the case. So many people are paying attention to it and working really hard to fix it.”

Ritchie’s profile – she writes for the Guardian, the Washington Post and Wired among others – combined with the buzz around her book has thrust her uncomfortably into the spotlight.

At times, her cautious optimism has been the source of embarrassment. So it’s at 4am when she’s sitting alone at her desk, writing of brighter futures at a time when most of us are still dreaming them, that she feels happiest.

“I don’t think I naturally fit into the public figure role. I don’t like personal attention, but I think it’s important,” she says. “And I know from the feedback I get from people who say they’re at the end of their tether, that through discovering my work they feel more optimistic they can make a difference. “I try to remind myself there’s a positive impact there, and that’s why I do what I do.”

Read more: Not the end of the world: nine data-driven reasons to look beyond doomsday headlines

Not the End of the World: How We Can Be the First Generation to Build a Sustainable Planet, by Hannah Ritchie, is out now, published by Chatto & Windus

Main image, Hannah Ritchie with her kitten, Cricket: portrait by Simon Hird

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