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Making Graphs to Flatter the Global Elite


Two new books argue that capitalism will solve the climate and ecological crisis. While making such an argument with different styles and focuses, Bloomberg journalist Akshat Rathi’s Climate Capitalism: winning the race to zero emissions and solving the crisis of our age and data scientist Hannah Ritchie’s Not the End of the World: how we can be the first generation to build a sustainable planet bring the reader to a similar conclusion: our existing social and economic system (capitalism) will deliver the necessary technological change due to market forces, cheaper machines and government incentives to bring about an age of abundance, human progress and the world’s “first sustainable generation.” Both Rathi and Ritchie are techno-optimists and political-pessimists who skirt social and political change for technological substitution.

Climate Capitalism is more explicit about its endorsement of capitalism to solve the climate crisis than Not the End of the World (though, as I argue, each cheerlead capitalism to one degree or another). Divided into 12 chapters, Rathi describes the scope in which climate capitalists are trying to tackle climate change and “win the race to net zero.” He does so by most often profiling an individual entrepreneur or capitalist, using his journalism background to craft a narrative about capitalism’s attempt to become “green” and avoid the worst of the climate crisis. Such green capitalist solutions will be familiar to anyone paying attention: from electric vehicles, renewable energy and carbon capture to the individuals and institutions who tout their green capitalist credentials like Bill Gates and Unilever. It is through a combination of private enterprise, government policy and international institutions who can scale up the technological change that will ultimately win the race to net-zero, according to Rathi. 

Ritchie takes a different approach. Rather than profile any individual or organization, Richie puts forth carefully selected data to tell her story of human and environmental progress. Ritchie is concerned with achieving sustainability on two fronts: both environmental and human well-being. For her, no generation has been able to achieve both of these halves at the same time. Previous generations might have had less of an environmental impact while not being able to provide a healthy and sustained life for humanity, whereas today we have made progress in human well-being at the expense of the natural world. In light of this, says Ritchie, people (especially young people) have resorted to “doomism” and the belief that humanity is not making progress in social or environmental goals. Ritchie describes Not the End of the World as the book she wished she had when she was a teenager. 

She writes in order to relieve young people’s worries and fears by starting each chapter with a news headline, pointing to data that might contradict such “hyperbolic” claims and tries to offer readers hope in the face of our present ecological crisis. Ritchie wants to be the Hans Roling of environmentalism, though she often has the tone and approach of a Steven Pinker. Whereas Rathi narrows in on climate change, Ritchie focuses on the broader ecological crisis including biodiversity, ocean plastics, deforestation, and more.

Each book has its strengths. Rathi is at his best when he is using his journalistic skills to provide the longer story about how we got here, or through profiling an otherwise obscure individual who has or is playing an important part in capitalism’s “green” transition. For example, while most know who Elon Musk is and his influence on electric vehicles, many might not be familiar with China’s former Minister of Science and Technology, Wan Gang, who  was instrumental in getting China to invest in electric vehicle manufacturing and ultimately scale to what it has become today. Rathi’s book reads as if he was writing a series of articles for Bloomberg, ultimately deciding to consolidate twelve different stories into one book.

Ritchie’s strength is her commitment to numbers and data. She offers interesting factoids about phenomena such as the per-capita emissions of her versus her grandparents, the land requirements of palm oil compared to coconut oil, the benefits of landfills, among more. Ritchie’s attempt to try to relieve some anxiety and stress of younger generations is welcome. I agree with her that we should be inspiring young people to take action and not resort to believing nothing can be done. In addition, where most books on the current ecological emergency solely focus on climate change, Ritchie uses her book to explore multiple, interlinking environmental issues. While most of the conclusions Ritchie comes to seem to suggest that the worries about the climate crisis or plastic pollution are exaggerated, she is honest in that politicians and the larger public are not taking the mass extinction of species seriously enough. I agree.

However, beyond these strengths, I remain unconvinced of both books’ central aims.

For a book about “climate capitalism”, Rathi relies on a lot of untraditional economic formations that could not be purely described as capitalistic. In fact, Rathi’s opening chapter of the book is on China and how they came to dominate EV manufacturing. While reading this chapter, one quickly comes to realize how much state subsidies, state research, and state-owned car makers were essential to the rise of electric vehicles in China and therefore, around the globe. While there is an ongoing debate about how to properly characterize China’s economic and social system (such as “state capitalism” or “socialism with Chinese characteristics”), Rathi does not even bother taking on these major problems or approaching the question of whether he agrees that the Chinese Communist Party’s model is what climate capitalism is or should become. Similarly, the offshore wind company he profiles is Orsted — a renewable energy developer whose majority shares are owned by the Danish government. Rathi calls Orsted a “poster child of the energy transition.” It’s awfully confusing to call a state-owned energy company the poster child of the energy transition while also writing a book defending so-called “climate capitalism.” Does Rathi think existing or emerging energy companies would be willing to sell their shares to governments and have energy systems become publicly owned in order to provide the rapid clean energy transition we need? Again, Rathi never even entertains such a question.

Part of this confusion is because Rathi never clearly defines climate capitalism or capitalism more broadly. Where he does, it is not exactly a glowing endorsement or positive vision for the supposed “only available option.” The closest we get to any kind of definition of capitalism is one described as “unlimited economic growth” and an “extractive economic system…set up to maximize profits.” Throughout the book, Rathi is quick to tell readers that “unfettered” or “uncontrolled” capitalism will not solve the climate crisis. But what fettered and controlled capitalism is or looks like is beyond Rathi’s imagination. Rathi simultaneously tells us there is no alternative to capitalism, while also not showing us how the only option we have is either clearly defined or actually capable of solving the problem it is supposed to.

This leads to another major criticism of Climate Capitalism. What would it mean for climate capitalism to “win the race to net-zero?” As it stands, emissions and fossil fuel production are at an all-time high, with some models projecting no end in the near term. We are heading towards 3 degrees Celsius of warming by the end of the century under current policy deployment (and even this presumes  massive, unreasonable, and unscaled capture of carbon dioxide). There remains little to no will among the capitalist and political class to transform our food system away from intensive, industrial and corporately consolidated agriculture to something more democratic, biodiverse and sustainable for people and land alike (Rathi does not mention agriculture or food throughout the book, even though it generates roughly one-third of all emissions). This is happening despite record increases in renewable energy supply, electric vehicle deployment and the distribution of other green technologies.

The thing about “winning a race” and reducing emissions fast enough to avoid catastrophe is that both exist under tight time constraints. Thus far, capitalism has shown no ability to move fast enough. To put capitalism’s failure into perspective, nearly all the major capitalist countries of the world agreed to the Paris Agreement’s 1.5C threshold, which we are now set to pass by 2030 (Rathi calls this temperature goal “arbitrary”). If we reach 3 degrees Celsius, that is double the temperature increase compared to the capitalist and political classes’ own standard that they agreed upon. That is not winning the race: that is absolute failure and greenwashing. Rathi has jumped to the finish line.

At one point, Rathi endorses a carbon tax. While carbon taxes have thus far shown to be insufficient to reduce emissions and are not the greatest political mobilizer amongst the public, it’s important to ask what would happen to the capitalist classes’ profits if an effective price on carbon emissions were implemented. According to a first of its kind study on “corporate carbon damages”, firms would lose 44% of their profits if they had to pay for the damages attributable to their climate pollution. When one of the researchers was asked what the total amount in dollars would be for such damages, co-author Christian Leuz revealed that “At $190 [the U.S. EPA’s current cost per ton of carbon], the utility industry averaged damages more than twice its profits. Materials manufacturing, energy and transportation industries all had average damages that exceeded their profits.” An additional analysis from 2013 that focused on pricing in environmental externalities came to a similar conclusion that does not bode well for “climate capitalism.” Influential climate analyst David Roberts, writing for Grist at the time, concludes: “Of the top 20 region-sectors ranked by environmental impacts, none would be profitable if environmental costs were fully integrated. Ponder that for a moment: None of the world’s top industrial sectors would be profitable if they were paying their full freight. Zero.” Not paying for the damages their production systems cause — what are often called “externalities” — whether related to the health of people or the sustainability of ecosystems, has been a way for capitalism to escape a falling rate of profit and maintain its dominance despites its obvious damage to people and biosphere. This is the system, including its extreme inequality, undemocratic nature, and psychopathic tendencies, that Rathi defends. 

Whereas Rathi explicitly defends capitalism, Ritchie’s Not the End of the World takes a different approach for defending business as usual. For Ritchie, despite a few cracks here and there, capitalism remains a progressive force. While admitting that certain things do need to change — a switch from fossil fuels to renewable and nuclear energy, more plant-based diets, and reducing overfishing, Ritchie relies on highly-selective data to tell a story of seemingly endless progress while ignoring studies, phenomena and alternatives that counter the kind of green capitalism she is selling.

Before discussing some of the implications of her argument and the policies it endorses, it is important to dissect some of Ritchie’s claims regarding her selective use of data. 

First, despite the arrogant tone Ritchies uses discussing poverty reduction, Ritchie omits data that contradicts her claim that capitalism has been good for poverty reduction. Ritchie suggests poverty is going down. But as Ritchie notes, how poverty is measured can change the results. In the book, Ritchie uses the “extreme poverty” line of $2.15 (2017 PPP) per day. But as many scholars have pointed out, this threshold is far too low to achieve even necessary nutrition, to say nothing of things like decent housing and healthcare. Scholars have argued that at least $8.40 is required to achieve normal life expectancy, and $14.70 is required to achieve a “permanent escape” from poverty. At these levels, 4.1 to 5.5 billion people are in poverty and the number has increased since 1990. Poverty is anything but close to being eliminated. In fact, at the present rate of change, it would take over 200 years to solve poverty when measured at $8.40 a day (2017 PPP). In other words, by Ritchie’s own standard, we will not be the first generation to build a sustainable planet because poverty will persist many generations into the future. This is not progress — this is an indictment on the economic and social system Ritchie (and Rathie) defend. And rather than present her readers with this data, Ritchie ignores it to sell a narrative.

Beyond her willful omission on one of the most telling indicators of progress (or lack thereof) on poverty, Ritchie’s narrative on our ecological emergency is also suspect. Ritchie is a defender of the green growth narrative: the idea that technology and efficiency will allow us to decouple environmental impacts from economic growth. In fact, this is what she says will “allow us to be the first [sustainable] generation.” What Ritchie fails to account for is that green growth does not exist in a form that’s up to the task. Multiple studies and literature reviews have assessed the current and projected rates of decoupling needed for environmental sustainability and all have come to similar conclusions. To quote just one: “In a 2019 paper the authors reviewed 179 articles published on decoupling between 1990-2019, finding no evidence of the kind of decoupling needed for ecological sustainability,” at a sufficiently fast rate. What’s more is that many of these green growth narratives rely on unreasonable carbon capture technology or vast inequality between the Global North and South to allow us to sufficiently decouple growth from environmental impacts. While very few countries have achieved a cursory decoupling of carbon dioxide from GDP (Ritchie’s employer Our World In Data needs to fix their headline), resource use has shown no signs of decoupling. The United Nation’s own Resource Panel has indicated that 90% of biodiversity loss and 55% of CO2 emissions are attributable to the extraction and use of resources. 

But the false green growth narrative only gets worse. For Ritchie and other green growthers, they are projecting today’s world onto tomorrow’s future despite the fact that the climate and ecological crisis will fundamentally reshape our lifestyles, politics and economies. This change in the global economy is perhaps best shown by how much climate change and environmental damage will impact GDP over the coming century. According to a recent study, 19% of global GDP is expected to be lost despite projected emissions reductions over the coming century. In other words, the carbon already in the atmosphere is setting us on a path of “decoupling by disaster.” Couple this with the fact that 55% of global GDP is dependent on highly functioning biodiversity (which is being killed and starved at alarming rates) and a green growth future is nothing more than a fairytale. Ritchie and her green growth propagandists are ensuring a future of permanent economic recession by continuing to defend the ethos of grow or die. Somehow, despite a book dependent on data and studies to make the case, Ritchie once again ignores data and evidence that contradicts her own faith-based, techno-optimist beliefs.

Finally, one of Ritchie’s most central claims throughout the book is about the importance of maximizing agricultural yields. Her argument goes that farming is the most impactful practice we do to the land. By increasing agricultural yields (mainly through GMO’s and other “Green Revolution” practices) we can reduce the need for more farmland and thereby reduce land use which will allow more carbon sequestration and wilding for biodiversity. This is known as land sparing. Ritchie often makes this argument by pointing to counterfactuals about how different food systems may or may not require more land than the intensive, industrial and corporate controlled agricultural system that she defends.

However, does maximizing agricultural yields in and of itself indicate sustainable land use? Not necessarily. Throughout the book, Ritchie assumes that increased agricultural yields translates to reduced farmland — as if by doing one thing the necessary outcome is the other. But there are a couple of reasons why this is not true. For one, if a farmer (or corporation) increases yields, this will likely result in a higher income or profit for said entity. Rather than pocket all of the profit, the farmer will try to expand their operation — investing in more technology or land to increase yields again and again, thereby tending to increase the amount of land used and wiping out the “land spared”. This is a normal occurrence in a capitalist system dependent on capital accumulation. Somehow, Ritchie does not even entertain such a proposition.

Rather than looking at counterfactuals as Ritchie does, what does the data say about the relationships between increased yields and land sparing? In a 2009 study, researchers examined 23 crops from 1979-1999 in 124 countries to see what effect increased agricultural yields had on cropland. They found that in developing countries, there was a weak tendency for land to be spared amongst all cropland even as staple crops land use decreased. In developed countries, they conclude that “there was no evidence that higher staple crop yields were associated with decreases in per capita cropland area.” Here, we see the direct result of efficiency savings in one area (staple crops) being wiped out by increased land use elsewhere. This phenomenon of efficiency gains in one area while the aggregate increases is known as Jevons Paradox.

The problems only get worse for Ritchie and her land sparing thesis. A 2013 study found that across six tropical South American countries from 1970-2006, increased agricultural yields did not result in a decrease in agricultural land use, but in fact increased. A third study published in 2023 in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation also found that the land sparing thesis did not yield the result it promises, concluding: “Greater yield increases lead to higher deforestation rates in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America and Caribbean and increasing yield average induces agriculture expansion in East Asia and Pacific, giving support to the Jevons Paradox hypothesis.”

The Jevons Paradox can be found all around us, and not just in agriculture: cars are more efficient but transportation emissions are up; energy efficiency gains are being wiped out by the large size of homes in the US, and according to the US’s own Energy Information Administration, energy consumption is going to outpace energy efficiency gains over the next several decades despite increases in renewable energy and efficiency upgrades. Rather than examine counterfactuals, we should pay attention to the systems we have in place and how they are or are not achieving sustainability. Despite Jevons Paradox being such a well-known and verified phenomena, it escapes Ritchie’s attention. It’s Jevon’s world and Ritchie is trying her best not to live in it.

For a book sold as so dependent on data, Ritchie doesn’t help her case by ignoring so much readily available evidence. In fact, one of the problems I have with the book is how many seemingly scientific claims Ritchie makes without providing any citations for readers to examine for themselves. I was so confused by this that I reached out to the publisher to get a PDF copy of the book, thinking that I had some kind of advanced copy that may not include all of the citations. I was disappointed that the PDF also did not have the citations I was looking for. Readers are largely stuck with Ritchie’s word without any way to cross-reference many of her claims based on the studies she draws her conclusion from.

This is suspicious behavior. What is even more suspicious is how Ritchie claims to have written an “apolitical book.” Despite her supposed intentions, her impact and argument is deeply political. In fact, questions and conflicts surrounding nature are arguably the most political of all subjects. As Bruno Latour and Nikolaj Schultz write, “Talking about nature doesn’t mean signing a peace treaty; it means recognizing the existence of a whole host of conflicts on all subjects involving everyday existence, at all scales & over all continents. Nature doesn’t unify — it divides.”

To put it plainly: Ritchie is naive. Throughout the text, she repeatedly retreats back to the apolitical notion that “we’re all in this together.” I hate to break it to Ritchie, but we are not all in this together. We are not all pulling in the same direction, for the same technologies, under the same ownership systems, with the current levels of distribution of resources, energy and wealth. These are fundamentally political questions, and like all political questions there are winners and losers: who makes what decisions? Why were they made? How will that impact certain kinds of people versus others? In a world facing increasing forms of conflict, inequality and a heightened green colonialism, these political questions are sidelined by Ritchie. I am not on the same side as Ritchie’s biggest applauders like Bill Gates, William MacAskill or Stewart Brand. These people are seeking to dominate and own the earth, with little regard for democracy, strong sustainability or economic equality. By not making her political ideology or position clear, and allowing the arguments, information and endorsement of these capitalist criminals, Ritchie has positioned herself on the side of the wealthy and the elite. Saying you are for “sustainability” is not a political position, as much as Ritchie would like to silence the outside noise and move past politics. For all of her talk about optimism, Ritchie is a pessimist at heart. She allows markets, the capitalist class and technology to take the reins of our transition rather than the social and political movements that would be required to allow us to be “the first generation to build a sustainable planet.”

It is not hard to fill in Ritchie’s ideological blanks when reading Not the End of the World. From her defense of the Green Revolution despite its extreme colonial and undemocratic dimensions, her lack of attention (and shallow criticism) of any different kind of eco-social civilization, and the book’s endorsements from some of green capitalism’s most popular defenders, Ritchie’s book is anything but apolitical. For example, throughout the book, Ritchie barely ever entertains any alternative to her projected future, and when she does, she provides unhelpful strawman and red herrings. Take the increasingly popular economic theory and environmental philosophy degrowth, for which Ritchie dedicates all of two pages. 

First, to correct Ritchie — degrowth does not believe in no economic growth, especially for the poor. Even a cursory reading of most popular degrowth literature would ease her concerns. Degrowth is aimed at the globally wealthy both within and between countries. The fact that she makes this false claim as a way to critique wealth redistribution is telling in and of itself. Second, growth as measured by GDP is a poor measure of well-being. This is why countries like Spain, Chile, and Italy can all have longer or comparable life expectancies than the US or UK despite having significantly lower GDP per capita. Third, if Ritchie was concerned with progress she would welcome the insights the degrowth camp has offered us. Especially that developing a society independent of the economic growth imperative is a good thing in and of itself. Rather than accept the inevitable recession that is a cyclical part of capitalism’s growth cycle, degrowth seeks to improve human and nonhuman well-being regardless of whether the economy grows or not. Ritchie, like all green growthers, accepts the inevitable recession as an outcome of our growth dependent system. This is an inherently conservative and anti-progress position. And finally, Ritchie claims there is no future where we can use less energy than either today’s bloated and unequal energy use or what is projected in the future. Such a premature conclusion on Ritchie’s end is one way of taking a tool out of our belt before we’ve even tried to use it. There is an increasing amount of studies and research that concludes that we can use less energy than we do now while still improving the quality of life for the majority of people. Of course, this would depend on taking political action on redistribution of wealth, scaling down or eliminating sectors of the global economy that don’t achieve wellbeing, and prioritizing forms of behaviors and technologies that require lower levels of energy use compared to higher ones. 

But these thorny political questions are evaded by Ritchie in order to achieve the path of least resistance and business as usual. Degrowth is just one of the alternatives Ritchie ignores — one can find inspiring, ecologically regenerative and socially just alternatives in agroecology, the municipalist movement, or internationalist Green New Deal’s, just to name a few. Ritchie may act like there is no alternative, but it is quite obvious that she supports the system as it is playing out. Otherwise she would not be writing a book defending the apparent “progress” capitalism has brought and supposedly will bring. 

Oftentimes, it is unclear who Ritchie’s audience is or what she is critiquing. She suggests doomism has run rampant, but beyond a news headline at the beginning of each chapter, it’s hard to know who these doomers are. Not once does she specify an influential individual who is a doomer, an institution that is peddling doomism, or a political movement that is predicated on saying we are doomed. The closest we get to Ritchie’s understanding of doomism comes near the end of the book where she writes: “Doomsayers are not interested in solutions. They have already given up.” This is odd. If doomism is predicated on giving up and not solving problems, then you would be hard pressed to find any doomers of influence. Even the most alarmist activists (Ritchie references Roger Hallam in one interview) surely would not be characterized as a “doomer.” Ritchie may disagree with these people politically or how they communicate environmental problems, but to suggest doomism is a major problem when you can’t provide any examples that survive past scrutiny, you are really just arguing with a position you have made up. For someone so supposedly dedicated to facts, data and objectivity, at least on the surface, Ritchie is going off of feelings, vibes, and her own subjective discomfort at our planetary emergency. 

I applaud Ritchie for trying to relieve young people’s anxiety and stress about the environmental crisis. However, as someone similar in age to Ritchie, I find it entirely unconvincing that pointing to some selective graphs and presenting herself as “apolitical” will inspire or ease young people. This is especially the case in that what young people need to understand is that the ecological crisis is fundamentally a political problem that will only be solved by a mass mobilization of people regaining democratic power and steering society towards decarbonization, species abundance and wellbeing. In other words, young people don’t need a narrative that “this is the best of all possible worlds” but need to be channeled in radical political directions and organizations. Ritchie may leave the reader with interesting factoids, but beyond becoming better consumers in capitalism, she leaves young people with hardly any direction to take their anger, distrust or anxiety about their futures. For me, the thing that has relieved my stress, made me feel most accomplished, gave me purpose and helped me feel less lonely (something young people are also suffering from) is when I started doing activism and political organizing. None of this is to be found in her book. In fact, her recommendations for how to take action and make “systemic change” are to vote and buy green products in order to send market signals. Ritchie is seemingly not trying to make large-scale systemic change (despite the very vague gesture at the slogan), otherwise she would pay a lot more attention to political power and social movement building.

Fortunately, Ritchie does not speak for my generation or those that will come after. More young people understand that capitalism is unfair and outdated, and instead are seeking alternative systems and ideologies, such as socialism. Ritchie makes graphs for global elites and the billionaire class to ease their fears and concerns. Her politics is one of placation: rather than promote class and ecological war, Ritchie wants to tone down the temperature, even as young people’s present and futures are taken away from them in order for the capitalist class to continue to make a profit. 

In the end, Ritchie and Rathi’s books provide insight on how the capitalist class will continue to defend our destructive economic and social system. For those seeking alternatives to green capitalism, these books will help you understand the arguments of the entrenched powers and how we might counter them. While a debate continues on whether or not we need to abolish capitalism to solve the ecological emergency, the much more interesting question is whether capitalism will achieve the green transition sufficiently and in time, given its perverse incentives. Whether or not capitalism is abolished by 2050 may be beside the point. Our only options are not to abolish capitalism or accept green capitalism. Rather, we should be building up the alternatives that are not reliant on the capitalist maxims of grow or die, of profit and domination, for those that build democratic power, strong ecological sustainability and wellbeing for all. I know which side I am on. Which side are you on?