Six Questions for Hannah Ritchie, Our World In Data

Our World In Data is one of our favorite resources. It’s brought data and visualization to some of the world’s hardest problems and pressing needs – health, food, climate, and agriculture.

Hannah Ritchie is Our World in Data’s Head of Research, with a Ph.D. in GeoSciences at the University of Edinburgh. We recently asked her six questions.

What aren’t we talking about enough?

Two things: one is broad, and the other is specific. First, we need to talk about sustainability as an opportunity, not a sacrifice. The current messaging is about stripping our lives back to have the lightest environmental footprint that we can. This isn’t a vision that most people want to get on board with. In reality, working towards sustainability opens doors to prosperity: imagine what we could do with abundant clean energy, efficient transport technologies, new ways of building cities, and affordable ways of producing healthy foods. We need a vision that can get excited about.

The second is more specific but one of the biggest problems the world faces this century. Improving agricultural productivity across Sub-Saharan Africa. Low crop yields mean farmers earn very little, and more food production has to come from cutting down forests and expanding into wildlife habitats. We won’t end global poverty without it. We should be pouring finance, focus, and resources into this problem, but hardly anyone is talking about it.

What have you changed your mind about in the last decade?

I change my mind a lot. It’s my job to take big questions, dig into the research and data, and understand what it tells us about the answers. The data often doesn’t match up with my preconceived ideas. One recent example has been my attitude to palm oil.

Palm oil is the devil for most environmentalists. It was for me too. I used to avoid it, and recommended the same to others. But I changed my mind after looking at the data and research in detail. It’s a much more productive crop than the alternatives. If every company was to boycott palm oil for a replacement, it would be an environmental disaster. We’d need a lot more land, and that would mean chopping down a lot more rainforest. No question, there are problems with palm oil and how it’s sourced, but in the realm of vegetable oils it’s one of the best among a bad bunch.

At a higher level, my perspective and framing of the world has done a complete 180º. I used to be a fierce pessimist that thought the world was doomed. I’m now an impatient optimist. I owe a lot of this change to the work of Hans Rosling. And, the practice of looking at the world through data – doing so helps me to see that many of my perceptions were wrong.

What do you want to know that we can never know?

The state of the world if everyone had equal opportunities. The biggest determinant of your success, income, and quality of life is where you’re born. Some of us have gotten a lucky draw, and have the opportunity to get an education, pick a career, and have a shot at shaping the world.

But there are a lot of ‘Lost Einsteins and Lost Marie Curies’ out there. Kids that could have made a breakthrough but never got the opportunity, purely down to circumstance. Talent is everywhere, but opportunities are not.

Maybe (hopefully) in the future we will see what a world looks like with little poverty, good universal education, and abundant opportunities. But we will never know where we could be as a species if everyone had this chance in the past.

There are quite selfish reasons for this vision. These breakthroughs benefit us all. The lost talent could design a cure for the disease that kills you or they could engineer a technology that transforms your life. Humans have achieved incredible feats, but this is only a fraction of our potential.

What company do you think is doing the most good in the world?

I won’t name specifics. But there are two groups of companies that are changing the world for the better. Those that are making sustainable living cool. And those that are making it cheap. The special ones can do both.

That’s how we get people to adopt sustainable technologies and solutions. Even the biggest environmental skeptics will pick low-carbon products if they’re cool. And making low-carbon technologies cheap opens up a whole new development pathway for poorer countries. They don’t need to follow the fossil fuel-powered path that rich countries have done.

Who impresses you the most these days?

I don’t know about ‘most’: there are lots of people that I’m impressed by, for different reasons.

But I’ll give two: one in the environmental field, and a group of others.

In the environment space, it’s Boyan Slat, the founder of The Ocean Cleanup Project. They design and build technologies to stop plastic from going into the ocean, and pull out the stuff that’s already there. Boyan – and the project – have had a lot of flak. People assume it’s going to fail. Maybe it will. But I like people that identify a big problem and have a go at solving it. We know that millions of tonnes of plastic leak into the ocean every year, but the number of concrete ideas on how to solve it (no, banning plastic straws doesn’t count) is few and far between. The world would be a better place if there were more Boyan Slats.

My second – if this is allowed – are my colleagues at Our World in Data. It’s a diverse team of disciplines and backgrounds. But everyone shares the core motivation: using data and research to make the world a better place. The expertise is different, but the values are the same. Since we have such different backgrounds and skills, I’m endlessly impressed by what they produce. I’ve worked on the project for years, but I still learn something every single day.

Optimism as the default long-term forecast: Smart or oblivious?

It’s definitely not smart to see optimism as the default long-term forecast. That’s a passive attitude, and one that can get us into trouble. It makes us complacent. If you just assume that the future will be better, then you don’t do any of the work to make it so. A lot of the big transformative trends are going in the right direction, but only because innovators, policymakers, and investors are driving them forward.

I’m actively optimistic, instead. The future can be better if we work to make it so. But there’s no rule that says that things need to, or will, get better.

What’s definitely not smart – but sounds like it – is default pessimism. Pessimists often sound like the voice of reason but contribute very little to moving us forward. They leave us stuck with the status quo. That’s a stagnation that we can’t afford.

When it comes to optimists and pessimists, I like to make the distinction between sounding smart and doing smart things. I’d much rather be the latter.