“Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children.”
– Ancient Kenyan proverb
Straw or Burger?
When I go to Culver’s or Five Guys for a juicy cheeseburger and french fries, I sometimes feel guilty using a plastic straw in my drink. I want to be a responsible citizen of the earth, after all.
But after reading Not the End of the World, I realize I’ve been focusing on the wrong thing.
This is a book review I’ve dreaded writing.
Sometimes a book feels too weighty to sum up in just a few words or blog post. This is one of those books for me.
So in case you read no further here, I encourage you to find a copy of Not the End of the World: How We Can Be the First Generation to Build a Sustainable Planet by Hannah Ritchie and read it. See what you can do to be a better neighbor to fellow earth-inhabitants.
Eat Less Beef
I’ll start this review with one of the actionable take-aways for me: eat less beef.
If this seems like a weird to-do item, listen to what Hannah Ritchie says about environmental problems.
“Changing what we eat is not going to solve climate change. We need to stop burning fossil fuels to do that. But only fixing our energy systems, and ignoring food, will not get us there either.
. . . Eat less meat and dairy, especially beef. It’s one of the most effective things you can do to cut your carbon footprint.”
Food is connected to climate change? Definitely.
While there are many layers of work we can do to stop harming our environment, making slight adjustments in our diet is one place we as individuals can begin (as we advocate for better laws and have more discussions about climate science).
“Look at any of the world’s environmental problems and food lies close to the centre. It really is at the nexus of sustainability. The food system is responsible for one-quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.“
Save the Forests
I used to think that the rise of cities is what is eating up our land and causing deforestation. But I’m learning I was wrong. Again, the culprit is food.
“Our cities and urban areas take up just 1% of the world’s habitable land. Agriculture takes up 50%. Our biggest footprint on the world’s land is not the space that we ourselves take up, and build our house on; it’s the land that’s used to grow our food. This is the biggest driver of deforestation, not the rise of urbanisation. In fact, the migration of people from rural areas to cities has mostly been good for protecting our forests.”
We need better agriculture practices. Bad agriculture practices are a huge contributor to deforestation. Because deforestation releases carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, it causes even more global warming.
Thankfully, we’re making progress in improving our agriculture practices in many regions around the world. The progress just isn’t happening fast enough. Our global equilibrium is greatly offset by the reduction of the world’s forests.
Back to the Burgers
How does this relate to my hamburger?
“Beef is the largest driver of global deforestation. The most obvious way to reduce deforestation, then, is to eat less of it. Raising cattle is a very resource-intensive way to make food. Cows need a lot of food, water, emit a lot of greenhouse gases and need a lot of land.”
I see a lot of cows in Alabama. We have approximately one cow for every three people here. Beef production is a multimillion dollar industry for our state. You’ll find cows in all 67 of our counties.
But while these cows do produce tasty food for us (I do love a tender steak!), they require far more food than they give. Ritchie says that, “For every 100 calories we feed a cow, we get just 3 calories of meat back in return; 97 calories are effectively wasted.”
And they take up for more land than forests. About three-quarters of the world’s land (not including deserts or land covered in ice) is “used for raising livestock—either land for grazing or for growing crops to feed it. . . . We put a lot of resources into livestock, but the returns are not great.” I didn’t know.
As a comparison, Ritchie asks,
“Can you imagine buying a loaf of bread, cutting a slice, and throwing the rest—more than 90% of it—in the bin? When it comes to calories, that’s pretty much what we’re doing with meat.”
She’s not suggesting we eliminate meat entirely from our diets (although that’s not an impossible idea either, as many global citizens prove daily). But finding and implementing the best policies for producing, transporting, distributing, and storing our food (including meat) is more critical than ever.
An Optimistic Book
Not the End of the World is about far, far more than just burgers and land, though. Ritchie also writes very plainly (yet also very data-driven) about air pollution, biodiversity loss, ocean plastics, overfishing, etc.
And surprisingly, she’s not pessimistic. She sees a lot of reasons for hope because she’s seen a lot of changes that the world is already making as we grapple with our climate crisis.
We just need to make the most effective changes the quickest before it’s too late. Together we can do this.
And plastic drinking straws? While Ritchie isn’t an advocate for them, naturally, she doesn’t think plastic straws make much of a difference in the grand scheme of things. In rich countries like the U.S., the odds are very, very small that my plastic straw will end up in the ocean. It will probably end up in a landfill (which is another topic in the book).
So instead of foregoing the plastic straw—and for the record, I’d rather have no straw than a paper straw, ugh—perhaps I should more often forego the burger. My cholesterol would also appreciate it. (I’ll address my bacon consumption another day.)
I didn’t tell you enough about this book; there are so many treasures in it. I learned SO much from it. I knew this would be hard. I highly recommend you read it yourself.
Share your thoughts in the comments.
My thanks to NetGalley + Little, Brown and Company
for the review copy of This Is Not the End of the World