Milestone: Our Generation’s Potential to Leave the Environment Better Than We Found It

6 min read

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.”

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.

“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”.

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

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.”

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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