Not the End of the World: How We Can Be the First Generation to Build a Sustainable Planet

Image of Not the End of the World: How We Can Be the First Generation to Build a Sustainable Planet
Release Date: 
January 9, 2024
Little, Brown Spark
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“What does matter, for us and for the rest of the world’s species, is to remember that ‘We are not doomed. We can build a better future for everyone. Let’s turn that opportunity into reality.’”

Who would have thought our world, and humanity along with it, is doing well? Yet around the globe, child and maternal mortality rates are falling while life expectancy and education are rising, as are access to energy, clean water, and sanitation. The number of people (not just the percentage) living in extreme poverty is also falling, and despite hunger and malnutrition in some parts of the world, we produce more than enough food to feed everyone. We are halfway to living the long-standing definition of sustainability as meeting present-day needs without harming future generations’ ability to meet their needs. Little wonder, then, that British data-scientist Hannah Ritchie persuasively argues that we can make true the other half of the definition and create a sustainable world.

Unfortunately, quite a few people disagree, especially the angst-ridden younger generations. Public opinion surveys show mainly fear for the future. “The feelings of pessimism were widespread, from the UK to the US to India and Nigeria. Regardless of wealth or security, young people in the world over feel they’re hanging on for dear life,” writes Ritchie. This doomsday thinking “leaves us feeling paralyzed . . . Far from making us more effective in driving change, it robs us of any motivation to do so.”

Ritchie presents (arguably inundates) the reader with data-drive arguments and real-world solutions to seven core challenges standing in the way of achieving the second half of the sustainability definition: air pollution, climate change, deforestation, food production (“Look at any of the world’s environmental problems and food lies close to the centre. It really is the nexus of sustainability.”), biodiversity loss, ocean plastics, and overfishing in the world’s oceans. She immediately and forcefully argues against two false cures: depopulation and degrowth.

Some of her solutions are simple, such as adding scrubbers to existing coal-powered energy plants to prevent sulfur dioxide from polluting the air. Walking, using public transportation, and driving electric vehicles to reduce reliance on fossil fuels are hardly radical ideas. Other solutions challenge common assumptions and trusted answers.

Want to end poverty? Promote economic growth, not frugality. Won’t that mean more carbon emissions driving climate change? What matters, Ritchie argues, isn’t so much the amount of energy produced but the source (especially since today’s gadgets are increasingly energy-efficient and developing countries are leap-frogging past fossil fuels to low cost, effective solar and renewable energy). Ritchie argues in favor of nuclear power, yet in a book seemingly filled with answers for everything, two questions are never raised: What to do with nuclear waste? How to prevent the existing problem of nuclear proliferation from worsening?

Clearly, solutions are not the same as easy answers. Agriculture is a leading driver of habitat loss for wildlife, as well as deforestation, which in turn promotes climate change, making changesin food production pivotal for sustainability. Ritchie argues for plant-based diets alongside genetically engineered, high-yield, drought-resistant, and high temperature-tolerant crops that will yield more food on less land. Organic farming, in contrast, promotes biodiversity but needs more land only to produce lower yields.

Similarly, grass-fed beef is more humane than factory farming, but it requires more land (potentially leading to deforestation) than does grain-fed beef. Eating chicken or fish is more calorie- and protein-efficient than beef, and produces far fewer greenhouse gas emissions, but more of these small creatures need to be killed to produce an equivalent amount of meat.

What to do when sustainability conflicts with animal welfare or other values? Ritchie eschews moral hectoring and environmental blame for a succinct, refreshing answer: “How you balance that moral quandary is up to you.”

Ritchie’s fact-based, pragmatic optimism is grounded in recent history; too few people remember or bother to teach the younger generations. We have ended acid rain as an international environmental disaster. We have closed the atmosphere’s ozone hole. Forgetting successes and denying progress cause us to “lose out on important lessons about how we keep moving forward . . . [and] robs us of the inspiration that change is possible.”

Readers willing to be shocked into hope will appreciate Not the End of the World, as will those far too many weary souls ready to put aside feeling virtuous for acting effectively. Some of Ritchie’s proposals require individual effort, while others will take public-wide engagement to change national and international practices. Yet what Ritchie calls for is already feasible, never utopian, or requiring a redesign of human nature. Nor is it necessary to accept all of Ritchie’s arguments and solutions. What does matter, for us and for the rest of the world’s species, is to remember that “We are not doomed. We can build a better future for everyone. Let’s turn that opportunity into reality.”