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Denial, Doom, Or Informed Optimism

Hannah Ritchie, lead researcher at Our World In Data, has a new book on the world’s environmental problems. It is a great read packed full of lots of interesting information. There are a few things I wouldn’t have done but the book is impressive and has a clear theme. Ritchie wants us to know that the problems we face are solvable. We have a lot to do, but we have achieved quite a lot already. It is a useful take. How then does Ritchie navigate the treacherous (plastic-filled) waters of denial, doom, or informed optimism?

Denial, Doom, Or Informed Optimism

You can see a tension that is common within much of the writing about environmental issues. The author wants to highlight that the issues are serious. The author must avoid seeming to be denying problems. That said, just issuing doom-laden cries without any plans to address the problems hardly seems constructive. Hannah Ritchie aims for informed optimism, turning to data about the world to note that progress has been made. I think this is critical if we are to persuade people to take action — why bother if we are doomed anyhow? As such, I must confess that the general tenor of the book appeals to me.

Is It Okay To See Success When Problems Remain?

Ritchie clearly has been accused of not being properly committed to improving the environment. This is always likely to happen. In any group the most dramatic doomsters always seems the most concerned. (I am pretty sure that we have a bias towards seeing those who worry the most as cleverer. They are presumed to see the world more clearly but that is just a hunch as I haven’t tested it).

I also worry that it can be hard at times to recognize success when problems so obviously still remain. Yet, it seems important to recognize success or else how can we hope to repeat it?

Ritchie trie to thread the needle between genuine concern over the problems, with a recognition that progress has happened.

I’m no climate change denialist 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 we’re ruined.

Ritchie, 2024, Page 6
Denial, Doom, Or Informed Optimism

Why Not Just Use Doomsday Meassages If We Want Action?

It isn’t clear that doom-laden messages are the best way to go even if we only look at it from a change-driving perspective. Why not?

There are several reasons why I think these doomsday messages do more harm than good. First, the doom narratives are often untrue. [Ritchie gives data on this]… Second, it makes scientists look like idiots… Third, and perhaps most important, our impending doom leaves us feeling paralysed. If we’re already screwed, then what’s the point in trying?

Ritchie, 2024, Page 6

Who Will Suffer Most?

Part of the problem with the current debate is that many environmental problems hit the poorest most dramatically. They may see the issue but they tend to have less ability to do much about it, at least at a global level. Those of us in richer countries do suffer, but often less, and so it is easier to dismiss the problem if you live in a richer country.

Unbearable heat is tolerable when you can keep the air conditioning running all day.

Ritchie, 20204, page 108

The challenge for the most doom-laden arguments is that those who are insulated won’t see the very real problems as clearly. The arguments need to be pitched at a level that the person receiving the argument can appreciate. A view of the problem informed by meaningful stats is not only a more scientific approach but I’d say it is more likely to be effective.

The three true statements from Our World In Data can be useful.

For a few (mostly) positive views of the world see here, here, here, here, and here.

Read: Hannah Ritchie (2024) Not the End of the World: How We Can Be the First Generation to Build a Sustainable Planet, Hachette

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