Insights Maryellen Stohlman-Vanderveen

Effective Environmentalism & Communication – Eterna’s Book Club

By contextualising environmental data, we can better understand the realities of climate change, the progress we have already made, and how we can continue to develop sustainably

This might be the sustainable future portrayed by the media, but Oxford researcher and Deputy Editor of Our World in Data Hannah Ritchie has a different vision. Her new book, Not the End of the World, challenges common understandings of climate change. She argues that economic growth can coexist with effective environmental practices and that our generation can be the first to reach true sustainability – meeting the needs of the world’s present population without compromising future generations’ ability to do so.  

Ritchie’s definition of sustainability, based on that of the UN’s 1987 Brundtland Report, differs from popular understandings that frame it as a purely environmental issue. Ritchie surveys global developmental achievements of the last century – reduced mother and infant mortality, improvements in education, access to food and clean water, among others – as well as seven major environmental challenges – air pollution, climate change, deforestation, food, biodiversity loss, ocean plastics, and overfishing. In doing so, Ritchie illustrates that environmentalism can accompany economic growth. We have made massive strides across these seven areas already and are better positioned to continue to do so than ever before. While things seem awful now, they have been worse in the past and – crucially – we have the power to continue making them better. 

Understanding that development and sustainability go hand in hand is crucial to achieving environmental progress. Taking air pollution as an example, Ritchie argues that it is likely close to its global peak; death rates from air pollution have halved since 1990 by some estimates. Yet, air pollution tends to occur on what is known as a Kuznets Curve, it gets worse as a country begins to develop and then begins to improve once development reaches a certain level. While many developed countries have transitioned away from wood and coal as energy sources, many in developing nations still rely on them for heating their homes or cooking food. More development, not less, is needed for these countries to reach sustainability. 

Technological innovations mean developing countries are now reaching peak air pollution much quicker than in previous centuries, with solar photovoltaic and wind now cheaper energy sources per unit than gas or coal. While countries used to have to choose between economic development and environmental conservation, leaders are no longer presented with this black and white choice. Leaders, corporations, and individuals now face the challenging opportunity of developing sustainably. 

Effective Environmentalism 

The theme of effectivity runs throughout Not the End of the World. While this seems like an obvious position for an environmentalist, Ritchie argues that many sustainability efforts are misguided. From the anti-palm oil crusades of companies like Iceland and Ben and Jerry’s, to the restaurant industry’s near total rejection of plastic straws, the all-or-nothing messaging of corporate climate activism fails both to properly inform the public and generate meaningful impact. It is not obvious whether these brands are ignorant of the complexity of sustainability issues or if they consciously choose overly simplistic messaging to exploit public environmental concerns. 

Ritchie encourages us to consider the wider environmental impact of palm oil compared to its alternatives. Palm oil accounts for just 2% of global tree loss at most. Furthermore, this number has decreased in recent years. Three quarters of palm oil plantations planted in the last fifty years were planted on land that had already been deforested for other uses. Palm oil is also a high-yield plant, with one hectare of palm producing 2.8 tonnes of oil. Because olives, coconuts, and groundnuts are all lower-yield plants, replacing palm oil with one of these alternatives would require 5 to 10 times more land, as well as more water, energy, and labour. Rather than vilifying particular products, Ritchie encourages us to look at the bigger picture. Can crop yields be improved to reduce overall environmental impacts? How does the full lifecycle of a product – from production to transport, use, and disposal – measure against substitutes? 

Key Takeaways  

Ritchie’s debunking of big-picture misconceptions about climate change and optimistic roadmap for the future is a refreshing contrast to predominant environmental narratives. The Eterna team agreed that public debate around climate issues tends to be disappointingly binary. People must follow the latest sustainability trends or risk being perceived as anti-environment. Ritchie acknowledges her own anxieties about being seen as a ‘bad’ environmentalist for not jumping on the eat-local bandwagon, despite the fact that how a food is produced and transported is more important than where. Indoor, out-of-season farming uses massive amounts of energy while most food grown in-season is transported by sea and produces relatively low-emissions. 

Might Ritchie’s book usher in a new era of more nuanced and data-driven debates around environmentalism? Perhaps not. Sensationalist news outlets are likely to continue to cherry-pick numbers that lend themselves to alarmist climate change headlines. Still, the success of Not the End of the World illustrates that there is an appetite for such conversations. While Ritchie does not provide a guide for how we will become the first generation to achieve sustainability, her message is clear. We must contextualise environmental data to understand the gravity of climate change, how much progress has been made, and what we can do to continue that momentum.  

Perhaps we would be in a better position now if the campaigners behind Iceland’s and Ben and Jerry’s palm oil campaigns had looked closer at the numbers and provided a more nuanced view of ingredient sourcing. Rather than vilifying palm oil, they could have sparked a conversation about sustainable land usage and the importance of prioritising high-yield crops. Communicators in the media, government, and corporate board room alike have an opportunity to utilise data to create new narratives around environmental action. Whether it is a narrative of climate doom or roadmap for progress is up to the storytellers.