Review of Hannah Ritchie's book "Not the End of the World"

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Keskiviikko 31.1.2024 klo 14.14 - Mikko Nikinmaa

Environmental headlines have recently almost invariably been doomsday prophecies. Billions of people living on the coasts will die in climate change-induced floods. Deforestation accelerates temperature increase. Insect pollinators disappear with devastating effects on vegetable food production. Fishes are soon becoming extinct in many parts of the world. Often people reading such headlines start thinking that since catastrophe is coming anyway, it doesn’t pay to try to fight environmental destruction. Instead, they think that they can live as comfortably as possible today since the end of the world is coming tomorrow anyway.

Instead of only doomsday prophecies, true environmentalists should bring forward possible solutions to environmental problems. Based on her strong knowledge of environmental data, this is what Hannah Ritchie does in her book. Or, actually she presents data indicating that many things are not changing towards ultimate doomsday. She argues that we can make choices which make sustainable life for humankind possible. Often the things to be done, based on their environmental impact, differ from what the preconceived ideas of important environmental actions are. Further, focussing on only a couple of the most important changes can make the goal of sustainability feasible.

The two things that will change virtually everything are drastically decreasing the use of fossil fuels and minimizing the use of beef. One thing I noted when reading the book was that Hannah Ritchie virtually never said that one should stop doing something completely. Instead, she advocates marked reductions in the most harmful practices. With regard to energy (heating and electricity) production, fossil-free alternatives have already become cheaper than coal and oil. Thus, global efforts can be directed towards making energy production fossil-free. If burning can be stopped, also air pollution, presently killing millions of people especially in developing countries, will diminish markedly. While electrifying car transport appears to be quite good, the use of biofuels is not advocated by Hannah Ritchie, mainly because then agricultural land is used for cars instead of food production.

Cattle ranching is using up a large part of land and most of the agricultural crops go to animal feed. Thus, if the overall beef eating decreased by three quarters, so much agricultural land would be freed up that deforestation could be stopped completely, and consequently biodiversity loss would largely disappear. This is just one example of how environmental problems and their solutions are intertwined.

It is clearly possible to get us through the population peak, probably occurring in the latter part of this century. However, personally I think that we should aim to a total human population of 3-4 billion at equilibrium. This will probably be the end result after advances in (especially women’s) education. Such lowered human population is needed, as many of the natural resources are overused, and may become limiting in 100-200 years. (Overuse of mineral resources was not included in the book.) Also, I cannot share Hannah Ritchie’s optimistic view about pesticides – they and other pollutants will pose a problem, if we cannot get the equilibrium population down. However, a transition period of 100-200 years with higher population will most likely be feasible, whereafter we can truly reach sustainable state. And as Hannah Ritchie points out, many of the solutions require governmental actions. We, as individuals, must pressurize governments and companies to carry out such actions in order for them to remain successful.  

Avainsanat: climate change, biodiversity loss, fossil fuels, cattle, agriculture, energy production

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