As to be expected, Not the End of the World takes a systematic and methodical approach to the issues analysed in the text. Each chapter follows the same clear format of: ‘How have we got to now?’; ‘Where we are today?’ and finally ‘Things to stress less about’, which guide the reader through these dense topics. Sustainability, air pollution, climate change, deforestation, food, biodiversity loss, ocean plastics and overfishing are the chapter headings and all of these have had countless books written about them in turn.
Not the End of the World is not there to diminish those other books, but to change the prism through which we understand the data. It uses precise, clinical language – almost too blunt at times – but it should not be criticised for this. Ritchie challenges us that the purpose of data is to be a catalyst for action. “It’s to understand what we already know. Or could know if we studied the information we have properly.”
Not the End of the World
The extracts that were released before publication have been held up as a shield by the climate-denying right and slammed by the left for not being ‘truthful enough’, while Ritchie constantly repeats in the book that the truth is bad enough and that ‘doomist’ headlines can create paralysis in climate action.
Part of the reason why this book has been so heavily criticised is perhaps the lack of a defined target audience and reader. This feels like a deliberate choice by Ritchie to simply present what the data and facts are. Facts don’t have an audience – they are simply there. As Ritchie notes, “If you believe people have the right to the truth, then you should be against those exaggerated doomsday stories”.
Reading new releases which simply confirm your thinking already doesn’t necessarily move you on as an individual in understanding. We all bring our baggage and ideologies to bear on all topics, especially environmental ones. We are reminded in this text that multiple contradictory statements can be true simultaneously – even if we find this difficult to accept. We are also reminded of the words of Max Roser: “The world is much better; the world is still awful; the world can do much better.”
Humans can solve real global problems
This book is challenging and is rooted in ‘long-termism’, so I understand why it is an unsettling read. Ritchie takes the clear stance: “I’m no climate change denier, or minimiser. Bringing attention to the magnitude of potential impacts is essential if we want things to change. But that is a long way from telling kids they’re ruined.”
In every chapter, Ritchie echoes that the impacts on the climate are happening now, but also stresses that climate scientists themselves are driving, and have driven, the necessary change. She draws on examples like acid rain and the damage to the ozone layer to evidence that global change can happen quickly and that this is a positive aspect to action. Collective international action can bring stunning results. “And when countries want to tackle it, with the right political will and investment, they can do it incredibly quickly.”
The three aspects that Ritchie identifies as being the levers to pull on are: “a demanding citizenship, the money and political will.”
“The time for debating whether climate change is or isn’t happening is over.”
Ritchie addresses the well-known climate denying trope of the decline of deaths from disasters. It should also be noted that Ritchie uses the complete data set and not an edited version. “The decline in deaths from disasters does not mean that disasters are getting weaker or less common. Deniers often misuse this data to downplay the existence or risks of climate change. But that’s not what the data shows us at all.”
She notes the climate-related floods and droughts which killed millions at a time and displays awareness that the infrastructure, monitoring and response systems have become more resilient and that this is a good thing; fewer people die now than before.
Ritchie does not shy away from some of the more controversial topic areas – instead she uncovers and explores what the data demonstrates. In the current ‘blame game’ of who is responsible for emissions, Ritchie makes the point that both total cumulative emissions and per capita emissions are equal metrics to use and that nominating blame doesn’t really move us on globally:
“But when we turn climate change into a blame game, there is no end to it. People are not really fighting about the numbers. They’re fighting about what numbers they should be using in the first place. If they don’t agree on that – which they often don’t – the fight goes nowhere useful.”
What are the tools we need to reduce emissions?
Often, climate books are criticised for not offering sharp clear solutions. Ritchie offers a detailed section on high-impact actions that can help save emissions and challenges the narratives we have – that recycling and upgrading light bulbs will be enough to reduce emissions. Ritchie cannot be criticised for repeatedly stressing the key action that is needed.
“We need to stop burning fossil fuels.”
“It doesn’t have to be this way.”
Ritchie is clear that we already have the solutions and the tools to make meaningful change to ensure that we leave the environment in a much better state than we found it.
“Air pollution kills millions of people every year, but it doesn’t have to be this way. We know how to get levels of air pollution very low.” Ritchie takes the view that although the environmental issues overlap and are linked, this could be a blessing in disguise, as “these interdependencies mean we can solve the lot in one go”.
Ritchie concludes by acknowledging that there will be those who disagree with her, but she comments that internal fighting only slows down climate action. “A good principle, then, is to be wary of attacking others that we’re broadly aligned with.”
She finishes by imagining what could be done if serious global action from all of us is focused on one goal and hopes that delay doesn’t become the enemy. We have the tools and we know how to use them. “We could be the first generation to build a sustainable planet.” What a legacy that would be for future generations.
She warns though, that, “A sustainable future is not guaranteed – if we want it, we need to create it. Being the first generation is an opportunity, but it’s not inevitable”.