Environmental myths debunked in “Not the End of the World”

In this post, I list most of the environmental myths debunked in Not the End of the World by Hannah Ritchie. Click through to read my summary of the book, and for the solutions discussed in it (both good and bad).

Myth: the fishing industry is largely to blame for plastic in the oceans (claimed by Netflix documentary Seaspiracy)

Our best estimate is that around 80% of plastics in the ocean come from land.

That’s not to say the fishing industry is completely blameless. Ocean animals commonly get tangled up in fishing ropes and gear, so Ritchie still thinks we need to impose penalties when they dump ropes and gear overboard.

Myth: there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050 (claimed by Washington Post in 2016)

This claim is not supported by the original sources. We don’t really know how many fish are in the ocean because they’re very tricky to count. But it’s also beside the point—plastic waste in the ocean is bad; why does ratio of plastic to fish matter?

Myth: the world’s oceans will be virtually empty by 2048 (claimed by Seaspiracy)

This claim is based on a statement by marine ecologist Boris Worm, who noted that the trend of declining fish stocks pointed towards “global collapse” by the mid-21st century. The Seaspiracy documentary interpreted this to mean the oceans would be virtually empty by this time.

However, there are two problems with such an interpretation:

  • First, that’s just not what “global collapse” means. It means that the amount of fish we catch falls to 10% of the highest recorded levels of catch in history. So it’s not about the number of fish in the ocean (which is really hard to measure) but about catch sizes.
  • The second is extrapolation. Worm’s estimate was based on the data available in 2003, and he just did a simple extrapolation that assumed fish stocks would continue to collapse at a constant rate. It was more of a thought experiment than an actual prediction, as there’s no scientific basis for such an assumption.

Today, we have more data. In 2009, Worm and others published a paper showing that on average, there was no decline in fish stocks. This doesn’t mean we don’t need to worry about overfishing at all. The “no decline” finding was on average—there was variation across different regions. Many countries have learned to manage their fish stocks sustainably but others have not.

Myth: the Amazon produces 20% of the Earth’s oxygen (claimed by Emmanuel Macron, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kamala Harris, Cristiano Ronaldo and other prominent people)

On net, the Amazon and other forests provides almost none of the oxygen in the atmosphere because they also consume oxygen at night. Most of our oxygen came from the Great Oxidation Event around 2.5 million years ago.

Myth: soil degradation is so bad that we only have 30 or 60 harvests left (claimed by the UK’s environment secretary and Scientific American)

If this were true, this would be a massive cause for alarm—it would make almost all our other environmental problems pale in comparison.

Luckily, the claim is nonsense. The world’s soils are very diverse—some are degrading, some are improving, and many are stable. This doesn’t mean soil loss isn’t a problem, but the idea that we have some relatively low, finite number of harvests left is just wrong.

Myth: two generations of humans have killed off more than half the world’s wildlife populations (claimed by Washington Post 2018)

Ritchie herself admits she made a similar mistaken claim on US National Public Radio once. She said something like “the world’s animal populations have declined by 68% since 1970”.

Her claim was based on the Living Planet Index (LPI), which measures the change in how many animals there are across over 30,000 animal populations. The LPI did say that populations did decline by 69% on average between 1970 and 2018. But a “population” is a species within a geographical area, so one species across multiple different areas can count as multiple populations.

If you looked at the direction of change, around half the populations were increasing while half were declining. Since the 69% decline is an average, the populations that were declining must be doing so at a faster rate or a bigger magnitude. So it’s still not great news, but it doesn’t mean we lost 69% of the world’s species within a few decades.

Myth: our food system would collapse without insects to pollinate them

Our staple crops (wheat, maize and rice) are pollinated by wind. Only around 1/3 of the food we produce depends on insects for pollination. But that is still a significant proportion and some foods like chocolate do depend on pollinators.

Myth: we’re running out of space for landfills

Landfills can be a good waste management solution if they’re sealed properly and deep in the ground. They can even help with climate change because trash emits greenhouse gases as it decomposes. If it’s deep in the ground, it won’t get into the atmosphere.

We have enough space for landfills. For all plastics ever produced, the total area we’d need is small—around 0.001% of global land area, or the size of a city or two.

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