Sustainability Bites

There is no such thing as a free lunch

It’s not the end of the world… according to the sirens of BAU

by | Jul 8, 2024 | 0 comments

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The sirens of BAU (Business as Usual) are singing a seductive song that everything will be okay if we just apply a bit more technology, a bit more efficiency and a lot more optimism. Well, the wheels are starting to come off ‘spaceship Earth’ yet the siren song is still being sung, to great applause. Consider the latest offering: Hannah Ritchie’s ‘Not the End of the World: How We Can be the First Generation to Build a Sustainable Planet’. It’s a Pollyanna potion we should think carefully about before taking.

At the beginning of 2024, data analyst and science communicator Hannah Ritchie published a book designed to inject a little hope and optimism into the fraught debate currently infecting the world on climate change, sustainability and collapse. In it, Ritchie acknowledges the raft of environmental challenges facing humanity.

However, rather than throwing up our hands and giving up, Not the End of the World encourages us to take a fresh look at the situation, reflect on what the numbers really say, and turn the situation around. As the book’s title trumpets, if we’re honest and really engage with the issues confronting us, ‘we can be the first generation to build a sustainable planet’.

C’mon, I thought, she’s either a denier in sheep’s clothing, deluded or horribly naïve (and possibly all three). These were my first reactions as I began reading. How could she possibly believe this. So, I continued reading, interested in seeing how her arguments developed.

Well, right up front in the book’s intro (p6) she rejects one of my suspicions: “I’m no climate denialist or minimiser,” she claims.

Ritchie then sets out why she has taken the approach she has. She believes that the climate doom being broadcast everywhere is not helping at all in our quest for sustainability. Much of it is preposterous in any case, she says, doing no service to the science. And, importantly, rather than galvanising an effective response, climate doom is actually paralysing people or causing them to turn away.

She’s probably right about climate doomers causing people to turn away. Doom scrollers (and doom posters) get me down too (and I’m sure I’m seen as one of them).

The secret of sustainability success?

Ritchie believes technology, rationality and good will should enable us to be the first generation to build a sustainable planet. And her prescription to achieve this? She sums it up in the conclusion: “Move to renewable or nuclear energy to improve air pollution and climate change; eat less beef to improve climate, deforestation, land use, biodiversity, and water pollution. Improve crop yields to benefit the climate and humans.” (p. 291) She spends some 300 pages expanding on the details around these solutions, but the nub of her message is simple: change our energy base, eat less beef, and be more efficient in the way we produce food. And be way more optimistic!

Her book includes chapters on sustainability, climate change, deforestation, air pollution, food, biodiversity, ocean plastics, and overfishing. For each chapter, she highlights the positive trends and uses this as evidence that the ‘doomsayers’ are wrong.

And I say: Beware the simple solution to a complex problem. Sustainability is one of the most complex problems humanity has ever had to face, and Ritchie ignores the rich history of humanity’s efforts to foster sustainability and counter environmental decline. We’ve breached six of nine planetary boundaries that define a safe space for humanity and are failing on most of the Sustainability Development Goals agreed to in 2012. Does she think this is simply a failure of will and technology?

The flaws in Ritchie’s analysis go way beyond a failure to acknowledge the rich history of sustainability. Among other things, she cherry picks the facts that support her arguments while ignoring counterfactuals, is loose with context, and fails to acknowledge the critical importance of irreversibility in many of the stories she tells. Together with my colleague Quentin Grafton*, I reviewed It’s not the end of the world in the journal Ecological Economics where you can find more details on these arguments on Ritchie’s thesis.

Pollyanna potions

Ritchie is a skilled communicator and a master at telling stories with data visualizations. Her book is easy to absorb, and her arguments are engaging. I expect Not the End of the World will be widely read, maybe even a bestseller.

Her ‘Good News’ has found favor with both the powerful (Bill Gates, known for his techno-optimism) and the influential (Margaret Atwood, known for her dystopian future gazing), both of whom have enthusiastically endorsed the book.

But I fear its simple optimism will be misused by some to forestall action on climate change and get in the way of efforts to change our unsustainable status quo – the opposite of what Ritchie intends.

In our review (Grafton and Salt, 2024), we described Ritchie’s book as a ‘Pollyanna potion’, a formula that brims with irrepressible optimism and a tendency to find good in everything. Back in 2001 a Danish political scientist and statistician named Bjorn Lomborg published a book titled the ‘Skeptical Environmentalist’. Lomborg used selective facts to argue humanity never had it so good and that eco doomers were just wrong.

Strangely, despite the many similarities, Ritchie makes no reference to Lomborg’s ‘Skeptical Environmentalist’; perhaps because that particular ‘Pollyanna potion’ has gone down in history as a toxic brew. In 2010, Jeroen van den Bergh reviewed all the reviews on the ‘Skeptical Environmentalist’ (of which there were many) and concluded that the book is “sure to go down in history as an unreliable source of information and argumentation, being one of the most severely criticized texts issued ever by a prestigious academic publisher” (p. 48). Van den Bergh finished his article with a quote from a letter from E. O. Wilson to Lomborg: “The greatest regret I have about it all is the time wasted by scientists correcting the misinformation you created” (p, 48).

To be clear, I don’t believe Ritchie’s Not the End of the World will suffer the same fate as Lomborg’s infamous tale, or that her chosen facts are fraudulent. But her simplistic framing, selective use of facts, lack of context, and her glaring sins of omission do seriously undermine her desire for us all to become urgent optimists.

Rather, I fear Not the End of the World will feed the growing chorus of doubters, deniers and those who wish to misinform us. They say that real change costs too much (while ignoring the much greater costs of business as usual), that we should transition slowly (while ignoring the real risks of crossing irreversible, damaging climate tipping points), and that technology (somewhere down the ‘yellow brick road’) will fix it for us. Such messages were delivered in 2001 by Lomborg and he’s still preaching it.

But as climate change increasingly incinerates our forests, bleaches our coral reefs, and pushes a growing chunk of humanity (and other species) out of its ‘safe living space’, the post-truth messages of Lomborg and others of his ilk desperately need to be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Thing we can’t afford to ignore

Each chapter of ‘Not the end of the world’ has a section on ‘things to stress less about’, where Ritchie discusses behaviors and beliefs that most people think are critical to sustainability but which, in the scheme of things, she believes aren’t that important, and shouldn’t distract from more important things. So, for example, in the chapter on climate change she says we shouldn’t worry too much about whether we leave our computers on standby (p. 112), but we should worry about cutting down a tree, eating steak and driving EVs. All well and good.

What she doesn’t include is ‘things we can’t afford to ignore’. This would include items such as irreversibility, tipping points, extinctions, the time it takes to solve complex global problems, and the unintended consequences that we can’t walk back from.

Yes, we need to stay hopeful. But we also need to keep it real.

*I’d like to acknowledge Quentin Grafton’s assistance in preparing this story and for taking the lead in our review of ‘Not the end of the world’ in Ecological Economics. He came up with several of the idea here such as ‘Pollyanna potions’.

Banner image: The future of the world is in our hands. Conceiving of the challenge as a mere issue of technology and improved efficiency ignores irreversibility, tipping points, extinctions, and the time it takes to solve complex global problems.

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