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Good News! The World Isn’t Ending.


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Good News! The World Isn’t Ending.

Commentary by Pete Haug | FāVS News

That’s the view of Dr. Hannah Ritchie, and she has the facts to support it. Ritchie is a senior researcher at Oxford and deputy editor at Our World in Data. In January she published “Not the End of the World: How We Can Be the First Generation to Build a Sustainable Planet.”  Ritchie’s book has attracted widespread media attention, perhaps because of its refreshing optimism. Her articulate, data-based conclusions contrast with contemporary environmental doom and gloom outlooks.

But she’s no Pollyanna. Ritchie told the BBC, “Climate change has always been a part of my life.” As she explained to The Guardian, “I grew up with climate change.” She doesn’t remember a time “when it wasn’t talked about.” She was “obsessed with it … worrying about it.” University didn’t help. “That was all I was studying … environmental metrics were getting worse.”

She credits the late Hans Rosling with inspiring her, “a key turning point.” Ritchie says Rosling’s Ted Talks focused on human metrics, “where he would show how the world was changing.” He demonstrated, through data, how “human wellbeing metrics … were actually getting better.”

Despite that, “We need to get across a sense of urgency,” Ritchie says, “because there is a lot at stake.” But the message that comes through is, “there’s nothing we can do about it: it’s too late, we’re doomed …” Ritchie calls this message “very damaging … – because it’s not true.” She cautions that this perspective is “a dream for climate deniers.” They “weaponize poor forecasts.” They say, “Look, you can’t trust the scientists, they’ve got this wrong before, why should we listen to them now?”

A logically defensible approach

When the Guardian challenged Ritchie about capitalism’s influence on climate change, she conceded, “… there are definitely flaws with capitalism.” But she questions “the notion that we can just dismantle capitalism and build something else. The core reason,” she says, “is time.”

Because we need to act on environmental problems in the next five to ten years, Ritchie says, it’s not feasible, within that timeframe, to dismantle capitalism and build a new system. “Capitalism does drive innovation,” she adds, “which is what we need to create affordable low-carbon technologies.”

Humanity is doomed!

That’s the belief of half the interviewees in a “global survey of young people’s feelings about climate change,” Ritchie told the BBC. She once believed that way herself. In her book she writes, “I used to be convinced I didn’t have a future left to live for.” Although still worried, “she believes there’s hope humanity can turn things around.” But she also notes that her optimism is sometimes used against her.

 Six key points for reading her book

Recognizing the complexity of the issues, Ritchie suggests six points for readers to keep in mind when reading her book:

1. We face big and important environmental challenges.

2. The fact that our environmental issues aren’t humanity’s largest existential risk doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work on them.

3. You will have to hold multiple thoughts at the same time.

4.  None of this is inevitable, but it is possible.

5.  We cannot afford to be complacent.

6.  You are not alone in this.

Sustainability: A tale of two halves

“The world has never been sustainable,” Ritchie observes. “What we want to achieve has never been done before.” After reviewing existing definitions of sustainability from many sources, she comments, “we assume there is an unavoidable trade-off … It’s human well-being or environmental protection.” This assumption suggests we must prioritize one over the other, and for sustainability, “it’s the environment that wins.”

Recognizing that “this trade-off existed in the past,” Ritchie points out the central argument throughout her book: “This conflict does not have to exist in our future. There are ways to achieve both at the same time,” she says, “which means there should increasingly be less conflict between the definitions. So, if you still want to adopt an environment-only definition, then think of human flourishing as a nice add-on.”

She writes, “We need to make sure that everyone in the world can live a good life and we need to reduce our environmental impacts so that future generations can flourish too.” That challenge “puts us in uncharted territory.”

Why the optimism?

Ritchie observes, “No previous generation had the knowledge, technology, political systems, or international cooperation to do both at the same time. We have the opportunity to be the first generation that achieves sustainability. Let’s take it.”

As an ecologist, I find Ritchie’s data-based perspectives refreshing and uplifting. Her transformation from teen-age pessimist to hard-science optimist mirrors my own struggle throughout decades of involvement with environmental issues. It also supports one of the visionary statements I’ve clung to during six decades as a Baha’i: “The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.” Implications of this simple statement embrace global problems far beyond climate change.

The views expressed in this opinion column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of FāVS News. FāVS News values diverse perspectives and thoughtful analysis on matters of faith and spirituality.

Pete Haug
Pete Haug
Pete plunged into journalism fresh out of college, putting his English literature degree to use for five years. He started in industrial and academic public relations, edited a rural weekly and reported for a metropolitan daily, abandoning all for graduate school. He finished with an M.S. in wildlife biology and a Ph.D. in systems ecology. After teaching college briefly, he analyzed environmental impacts for federal, state, Native American and private agencies over a couple of decades. His last hurrah was an 11-year gig teaching English in China. After retiring in 2007, he began learning about climate change and fake news, giving talks about both. He started writing columns for the Moscow-Pullman Daily News and continues to do so. He first published for favs.news in 2020. Pete’s columns alternate weekly between FāVS and the Daily News. His live-in editor, Jolie, infinitely patient wife for 62 years, scrutinizes all columns with her watchful draconian eye. Both have been Baha’is since the 1960s. Pete’s columns on the Baha’i Faith represent his own understanding and not any official position.

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