Home » Insights » Beyond Doom and Gloom – A Book Review of Hannah Ritchi…

Beyond Doom and Gloom – A Book Review of Hannah Ritchie’s “Not the End of the World”

Hessel Meinderts is a Consultant at Steward Redqueen. He supports clients understanding their impact on society and contributing to addressing the world’s pressing environmental and developmental challenges. In this blog he reflects on how Hannah Ritchie’s bookNot The End of the World’ provides a refreshing perspective in a world seemingly dominated by a doomsday narrative – and how her approach resonates strongly with his work at Steward Redqueen.

When I share with people at a party that I work in sustainability, I often encounter the question of why I willingly immerse myself in what seems like a world of doom and gloom for the better part of my workweek. It’s a valid inquiry, and Hannah Ritchie’s book, “Not The End of the World,” has equipped me with compelling insights to address it.

Ritchie recounts her personal challenges as a student and researcher in environmental sciences, grappling with the weight of seemingly insurmountable environmental issues. She is certainly not alone in her worries, as surveys indicate that over half of young people believe the world is heading towards catastrophe due to climate change, reflecting a state of paralysis around the topic.

Inspired by famous statistician Hans Rosling, Ritchie, serving as a lead researcher for Our World in Data, has made it her life’s mission to challenge the prevailing sense of global pessimism that has gripped many of us in recent decades. Rather than fixating on sensational news stories, which she deems a “terrible way to understand the bigger picture,” Ritchie advocates for zooming out and examining long-term data to gain a clearer understanding of global trends, which she then communicates to others.

Ritchie’s work offers surprising insights, such as challenging the negative perception of palm oil by highlighting its high productivity compared to other oil crops – so that if companies turned to alternatives because of palm oil’s bad reputation, that could actually lead to far more deforestation. She also debunks the notion that our generation’s carbon footprint is inherently larger, explaining that her carbon footprint is almost half of her grandma’s despite technological innovation and improvements in living standards. Additionally, she describes the remarkable successes in terms of combating air pollution, noting how 19th century London was far more polluting than current-day Delhi.

Ritchie’s approach resonates strongly with my work at Steward Redqueen, emphasising fact-based, pragmatic and research-driven advice that challenges conventional notions of sustainability.

Critics have validly raised concerns about Ritchie’s selective use of data and her seemingly optimistic stance on technology. Ritchie argues that there are early signs of economic decoupling* in the Global North, yet the evidence for this hypothesis is weak, especially when considering material use rather than just GHG emissions. Another critique centres on Ritchie’s oversight regarding the repercussions of reaching critical tipping points in the climate.

Despite these concerns, the central message of her book remains powerful. Ritchie offers a refreshingly hopeful perspective on environmental issues, which is particularly relevant for our generation, growing up surrounded by a doomsday narrative. Still, she does not advocate for complacency but provides evidence on which concrete actions make a difference and which not.

For all the debate on consumption choices like plant-based diets and flight behaviour to combat climate change, Ritchie points out that one of the most effective individual decisions is often overlooked: one’s career choice. In this way, the book serves as a beacon of inspiration, showing that a career in sustainability can be both meaningful, optimistic and impactful. So that next time sustainability becomes the topic of conversation at a party, it’s not a mood killer but rather the life of the party.

*This refers to the idea that economic growth can occur concurrently with a decrease in overall environmental pressure