The Triumph and Tragedy of Environmentalism

I have just read the best book on the environment. But like many great books, it provokes introspection: There is a deep divide within environmentalists, even among individuals – including me – that can’t be bridged solely through reasonable argument or sound data.

The book is Hannah Ritchie’s Not the End of the World: How We Can Be the First Generation to Build a Sustainable Planet. Ritchie, only 31 years old, is a Scottish data scientist who is a senior researcher at the University of Oxford and head of research at Our World in Data. As a researcher, curator, organizer, interpreter, and explainer of environmental data, she has built a strong reputation for reliable information and revealing charts and comparisons. She uses this information in her book to build a compelling case for her thesis: Though sustainability’s definition has become muddled, by its original definition we are living in the most sustainable environment ever.


We see the word “sustainability” everywhere. Most lamentably, it has been co-opted, without clear definition, by the investment management industry to peddle “ESG” and “sustainability” funds charging fees that average seven times those for an index fund, without being clearly distinguishable from the latter.

Yet the word has a clear and precise definition. Ritchie, to her great credit, invokes and explains that definition, and leans on it heavily to make her argument.

In the earliest days of the modern environmental movement, from the 1960s to the 1980s, there was a strong belief that economic growth and the environment were at odds, combatants in a zero-sum game. The only way to avoid destroying the environment, many believed, was to slow or stop economic and technological growth and reduce the population. Desperate population growth abatement strategies were proposed, such as offering transistor radios to men in India if they would get a vasectomy.