Hannah Ritchie is a data scientist and science communicator working on the largest problems that shape our world, and how to solve them.
She lives in the UK and serves as a researcher at the Oxford Martin Programme in Global Development, at the University of Oxford — and is well-known as the Deputy Editor and Lead Researcher at Our World in Data.
Our World in Data is essentially a treasure trove of well-researched data, covering a broad spectrum of global issues. The platform tackles topics like poverty, disease, climate change, and inequality with a research-driven approach. It cuts through the noise and provides statistics and data visualizations that inform and empower.
Our World in Data doesn’t just point out what's wrong with the world; it offers readers the tools to understand the problems deeply and identify where change is possible. It’s data for good.
Hannah was invited to give a TED Talk at TED2023 — which was just released online today. We’ve embedded it here:
While in Vancouver, British Columbia for the conference, I got to sit down with Hannah for a conversation about human progress, media, positive news, and ways to make a difference.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In Conversation with Hannah Ritchie
Branden Harvey, Good Good Good: Hannah, I’ve followed you on Twitter for quite some time now and I just love Our World in Data.
My background was as a humanitarian photographer. I had no business being in the world of media. I was just really interested in these inspiring stories of people making a difference in the world, and I was getting the job of documenting it. So all of my experience was anecdotal. And we started Good Good Good to share those anecdotal good news stories of people creating amazing solutions to the world’s biggest problems.
And then I discovered the work of Our World in Data and found it so compelling to think about the world beyond anecdotes.
Since then, we as an organization have fallen in love with the way that we can just zoom out and look at things through the lens of data and history — and I think that’s such a compelling way of feeling more hopeful about the world.
I’m curious about your background and your journey of becoming interested in data and then somewhere along that way, finding that the data oftentimes pointed towards progress.
Dr. Hannah Ritchie, Our World in Data: My background is very much environmental science. I did environmental degrees and I definitely didn’t see myself as a data scientist.
I did science, but I wasn’t specifically looking at data.
I think as I said in my TED Talk, I was very much in the camp of doomsday.
I was just doing environmental stuff. I thought the world was falling apart, all the environmental trends were going in the wrong way. And I was watching the news a lot. I just extrapolated that all of the human progress metrics were going in the same direction.
Poverty was rising, hunger was rising, child mortality and health was getting worse — because I never looked at the data, I was just looking at the news.
These stories seem to be getting more and more frequent. I was like, “well, obviously it’s going up.”
Then I discovered the work of Hans Rosling. And then I was like, “Okay, I don’t have a good tune on the world and I need to start looking at the data to get in that tune.”
So then that led me to turn my human metrics upside down. And then I thought, maybe if I apply the same to environmental data, I might get a slightly different picture from what I’ve been taught or what’s coming through in the media.
So then when I took a step back, looked at the really long-term picture, looked at this pace of change, etc. — I started to see a lot of the environmental trends were maybe not exactly as I perceived coming from the media or my classes.
Branden: I’m curious how you perceive yourself. Because with a background in the more technical side of things — I could imagine that you see yourself with the identity of a researcher.
But by focusing on these stories that are being under-told, you’re essentially playing a countercultural role as well.
As a result, I see you as somebody who is on the forefront of sharing good news — even though you may not.
I’m curious if you ever feel like you do serve that role.
Hannah: I think on a personal level, I put myself in the good news camp. It makes me quite uncomfortable because I see myself as a scientist.
I think I view it as I’m not trying to tell good news stories. I’m just trying to tell the truth. And I use the data to understand the issues and try to tell what’s really going on.
I think they are a big part of my reputation and credibility comes from the fact that I’m going to be honest about what the data shows. I’m not going to blow up the truth and say everything’s fine and nothing’s going to line in bad as happening, or we’re just going to sweep into the future and make amazing progress.
But at the same time, I’m not going to just pile on the idea that everything’s getting worse because that’s not what the data says and that’s not true.
So I try to see myself as a truth-teller or showing what the data shows us.
And I think the point is that in environmental camps, that’s often quite counter to the culture because I think environmentalists have been battling for a long time to try to get people to take these issues seriously.
I think that to some extent has pushed us into believing that telling any good news is bad because then people might get complacent about it and they might think, “Oh, everything’s fine. We don’t need to worry about the environment anymore.”
And I think that’s how we’ve ended up with this culture where all of the environmental news is negative.
So I’m trying to push back a bit against that and say it’s fine to say that these are problems and we don’t need to underplay them. But it’s also fine to admit that we’re making progress.
Actually, for environmentalists, that’s a good thing. That means they’re being successful.
If we’re starting to make progress, then people are taking them seriously and trying to develop solutions.
Branden: Do you have a favorite story of that where you go, “This was bad news for a long time — we could see it in the data — and the world became aware of that bad news. Then, we did something about it, and now we can see that trend reverse?”
Hannah: There are some big ones there. One of the biggest and most obvious is the ozone layer — where that was just the dominant environmental problem actually before my time.
Branden: I remember growing up and just hearing about how it that was “the biggest problem.”
Hannah: Yes. And then the world got together and we’ve slashed emissions by more than 99%. And while the ozone layer is not completely recovered — because that will take time — our emissions of these substances that deplete the ozone layer are basically zero.
And now it’s just a waiting game to wait for those on there to recover. But that problem is essentially solved.
The other big one is — and it’s not a completely solved problem — the progress in many countries in the world on air pollution.
Their air pollution levels — especially in rich countries, but now also in many of many low-income countries — has completely plunged.
You’re talking about falling 70%, 80%, 90% in a really short space of time. And that’s because people have taken it seriously.
Branden: Wow, that’s so compelling. This is so interesting because I was just talking with Steve [Long], but in your TED Talk, one of the metrics that you shared was how crop yields have skyrocketed, and produced more food on the same amount of land. And I’m curious, what has contributed to that growth in yield? Where is that progress coming from?
Hannah: There are a couple of variables. One is better seed varieties and crop varieties, which is what Steve was covering in his talk.
Another big one has just been historically, the problem with agriculture and the struggles of farmers was getting enough nutrients in the soil at the right time.
Because there you were just relying on natural organic inputs and they were often just not there exactly when you needed them.
We pretty much solved that with synthetic fertilizers, which gets a bad rap in environmental discussions because everyone thinks fertilizers are bad and there are definitely bad elements to it. You get run off, it goes into rivers and pollutes land.
But the key point there is there is a trade-off that by putting fertilizers on the soil, you increase yield, you can use less land, you’re not encroaching on forests.
So there’s a way of using fertilizers in a better way, a more efficient way where you’re saving land, but you also have less of the negative impacts as well.
So, seed varieties, fertilizers, irrigation, being able to put water on the soil when you need it, all of these can contribute to increased crop yields.
Branden: Interesting. I don’t have this question written down, but I’m very curious about your thoughts on so many pieces of data, so many things happening in the world are interconnected.
How do you think about pragmatism in the fight for progress?
I think it would be fair for a lot of people to be like, I think fertilizers are bad always, we should never use them. But also it’s like, well, if your goal is X, Y, and Z, this solves X, Y, and Z. It just has a problem for A.
How do you think about pragmatism?
Hannah: I think one of the problems and one of the barriers to us actually deploying a lot of really good solutions is that people are looking for the absolute perfect solution that has zero impacts.
And the reality is there’s basically none of those solutions.
All of our solutions are going to come with a little bit of impact.
But the point is, many of the impacts of these technologies are much, much, much less than burning fossil fuels.
So for example, one of the pushbacks on solar energy or batteries or wind energy is that you’re going to need some minerals. And that’s true, you need minerals. But the point is the amount of minerals you have to mine to produce solar or wind or batteries is way less than what we’re mining for fossil fuels. And that’s not including the air pollution that comes from fossil fuels and the climate impacts that come from fossil fuels.
So actually, a lot of the problems in deploying these solutions are that people are looking for the perfect one and there’s not a perfect one.
Branden: Yeah, it’s always interesting to think about — on the advocacy side — how are people able to say, “This is good, but it’s not “best” — but it’s worth pursuing,”
It’s a hard marketing thing because it’s smart people talking to smart people.
So you have to acknowledge those problems, but sometimes when you acknowledge the problems, you lose that momentum. Even just in the conversation, you may lose a little bit of momentum.
Hannah: I think one thing that is similar for us for our work at Our World in Data. One of the problems that we have is — within environmental metrics and also in human progress metrics — we will see declines in child mortality or declines in poverty rates or improvements in health.
People assume that by acknowledging that there’s been progress, we’re saying that it’s fine — or that you don’t care that millions of children die.
Of course, the point is that you need to study these signs of progress to understand how that happens.
Why was there a dramatic decline in child mortality? Once you understand that, then you can stop the five million children that are dying today from dying because you can replicate those processes that went correctly to where you got to do.
The common phrase we use around data is that three statements can be true at the same time: The world is still awful. The world is much, much better. And the world can be much better. The point is that on most issues, all three of those statements are true at the same time. I need to be able to hold all of those statements at the same time.
Branden: You talked about this a little bit, and I know this is one of the questions after your TED Talk: You said that the conversation has shifted from climate denialism to climate doom.
If you had effectively a megaphone that could reach every single person who’s experiencing climate doom, what’s the one thing that you would say to help those people not feel so cynical and overwhelmed by climate change?
Hannah: I think it’s that there are lots of really good people working on this problem and you’re not alone in feeling this way.
I used to experience climate doom and I felt like at the end of my environmental degrees, I spent all this time studying, investing loads into getting these degrees.
At the end, I was actually ready to just quit doing environmental stuff anymore because I thought that it was basically pointless because I would never make any progress.
I think at the time I felt like I was in a really small niche where people actually cared and most of the world didn’t care.
I don’t think that’s true.
Even if you don’t see them, there are so many people working on these problems in different areas, whether that’s engineering or activism or politics or economics.
There are so many people working on these problems and we are making progress on them so that you’re not alone in feeling that way.
Branden: I love the idea of affirming that and then reminding people that there are so many people working on it.
And it’s so true, especially this week at TED.
I’m curious, does the data say anything about whether individual action leads to larger change or if it’s more effective to focus on the larger systemic change and allow that to have an impact on individual actions? This is a big debate and conversation that I continue to see.
Hannah: I think the truth is it’s not one or the other.
I think when it comes to individual action, I think we fall into the trap, or at least I definitely fell into the trap and I see a lot of people fall into the trap of really trying to completely optimize their lives with every single decision to have a low environmental impact.
I think to that extent, it’s overwhelming and many of the decisions you make just don’t make a difference.
When you look at your individual lifestyle, you’re probably talking about five choices, five big buckets that make up most of your environmental or carbon impact, and those should be the focus.
And then there are probably 99 others that you’re really stressed and stuff you are trying to optimize, but actually don’t make a difference.
So it’s about focusing on the few things that make a big difference. But where I think there’s no trade-off is that I think a lot of individual action then leads into systemic action.
I think there there’s two big buckets.
One is obviously political, so it’s how you vote, not just who you vote for, but politicians need to cater to the overall sentiment of the population.
And if the overall sentiment of the population is that climate change is a big deal, then whether they care about climate change or not, they have to pretend to care about climate change and put those actions in practice.
So there is where it’s shifting government focus onto action.
I think the other big thing is the technological change and markets and the products we buy and innovations are there to fill markets that they think exist.
By buying a low-carbon product or buying an electric vehicle rather than a petrol vehicle or a meat substitute rather than a burger, you’re basically signaling to the market that there are loads of people who really want this product.
And then innovators come and innovate in this space because there’s such a big market for you to gather. So by doing that one, you bring new products into the market, but you also make those products much, much cheaper, which then brings more people into the market in low-income countries.
So it’s about one political action, but also signaling to these technological changes that there’s a big market for this.
Branden: That’s how I think about individual action. The idea that I get to “punish” the bad company by not buying their product, and I get to reward a good company — which is probably smaller, scrappier, working their way up.
And eventually, the smaller good company can either compete on a bigger scale or the big company will shift and make that pivot.
Hannah: You see that with petrol and digital car companies, most of them are shifting a lot of their models to electric because of the markets there and they’ve realized that’s where people are heading.
They are the early adopters of electric cars, even though they were expensive.
They’re getting cheaper, but they were expensive five years, a decade ago.
Early adopters were really pushing that cost curve down for everyone else.
Branden: You mentioned five buckets for personal decisions. Do you have five buckets that you already know of, or are you just saying more generally? Or just that it’s probably more like five decisions instead of 5,000 decisions?
Hannah: Yeah, I think just some of the big ones are:
1. What you choose to eat. The biggest way to cut your carbon footprint is to eat less meat and dairy, especially beef, which has the largest impact.
2. The next is about driving. If you own a car, that’s going to be by far your biggest carbon impact. So they are either driving less or shifting to an electric vehicle makes a big difference.
3. For most people, flying is going to be a big one.
4. The next big one is going to be heating your home. There is stuff like insulation, heat pumps, et cetera.
5. And then the other big one, which is for many people is not practical, but for people that own a house or can renovate is their electricity source. So installing solar panels, for example. I rent a flat, so it’s just not feasible for most people. But for those that can, then that’s also the big one.
Branden: So, we’ve been hearing a lot about “negative tipping points” that could cause rapid, catastrophic damage to the planet. But I’ve also been hearing more talk about “positive tipping points” that could signal exponential improvements.
We’re at this conference where people are sharing a lot of really exciting ideas.
I’m curious what positive data points you are looking at, paying attention to, and hoping pop up in the future that you’re most excited about and also feel maybe most possible.
Hannah: I think a lot of them are already happening. The big ones in energy or just the plunging costs of solar and wind.
I think, again, you need to look at the data to understand just the magnitude of how much the stuff is scaling. I did an article recently looking at the numbers — and China gets a bad rep for the amount of coal that it burns, and no doubt it burns a lot of coal — but the rate that China is deploying solar and wind is just mind-blowing.
China now has enough solar and wind to power meet all of the electricity needs of India. In the last year or this coming year, China could deploy enough solar and wind to cover the whole of the UK’s electricity use in one year.
That’s actually done in one year.
People just don’t have a sense of how quickly this stuff is moving.
Branden: Wow. I’m also curious... when you start to see data like that — when it starts to pick up — there almost becomes this global competition. Do you feel like Western countries and especially the United States are going to also experience that level of ramping and speeding up, or is that a harder fight?
Hannah: I think China — just based on its political system — is just very good at moving very quickly where other countries would fall behind.
But I think the key point there is that we should be looking at countries like China that are deploying this stuff really quickly and saying, “What are the barriers to other countries scaling this stuff quickly?”
There’s just loads of scope for countries to really set the lead on the pace of this change, but also break barriers of what people thought were possible.
I think one of the arguments I often hear on climate change from smaller countries...
The UK, for example, emits just 1 % of the global emissions. So it’s common for countries like that to say, “Oh, we’re so small. Nothing we do makes a difference. China emits X number, or X more than us. Why should we even make that difference?”
But I think they are a key point is that even smaller countries, especially rich countries, can completely break barriers down of what we thought was possible.
A good example there is Norway. No one has really scaled electric cars yet, so we don’t really know. Can a country run mostly on electric vehicles? Like, what happens if you do? In Norway, something like 90% of new sales of cars in Norway are now electric.
It’s just, like, everyone that’s buying a new car in Norway is basically an electric car. It is setting a model of how you can scale electric vehicles to a country.
So other countries can no longer use the excuse of like, “It’s not possible,” because Norway has shown that it’s possible.
Branden: It’s honestly so energizing to think about being that catalyst. It reminds me a little bit of the early adopters for electric cars... and to be a Norwegian citizen and be like, “Oh, we are the catalyst that’s going to create the ripple effect for all these way bigger countries.”
I think that’s very exciting. And I would love for more people to get to see themselves play that role — because nobody, no individual person, and no individual group is doing everything.
China may have an outsized impact. The United States has an outsized impact. But me as a person, I’ve got a small impact. So reframing is huge.
Hannah: The example I like to use there is the Roger Bannister four-minute mile. No one had done a four-minute mile. Even experts believed this was not possible.
He ran it. And as soon as he ran it, loads of people started running a four-minute mile because they now understood that it was possible.
Branden: The embarrassing thing is in my mind, I immediately went to, “Oh, yeah, that’s also just like that guy who did the hot dog eating competition.” [Laughs] I don’t remember the stat — the average number of hot dogs eaten was something like 20, and then he came in and doubled that. And people were like, “Are you kidding me?” And now everybody is competing on that level... (And maybe they shouldn’t be.) [Laughs]
Branden: That’s so American of me that I’m like, “Let me pivot to the hot dog-eating competition.” I’ll pivot back now.
What do you feel most hopeful about based off of your work — especially imagining 20 years in the future — if trends continue how you hope that they do and how you imagine that they will, what does a better, more hopeful future look like?
Hannah: I think for me, what I’m optimistic about is that a lot of the positive trends in these technologies or these changes — they have so many positive byproducts.
They look at renewable energy, for example, as just about tackling climate change.
But the point is it reduces air pollution, it reduces the amount of materials made to mine. Cheap renewable energy, which we’re working towards, will allow many poor people to gain access to electricity, and rural communities can access electricity.
I think the point is that so many of these positive developments have so many branches of improvement that, as I said in my TED Talk, historically, it was about the environment versus human progress.
But the point is, we’re very much at the hub of bringing these together.
And I think that’s what I’m optimistic about.
Branden: My final question is — for folks who are reading about this, for folks who watch your TED Talk — if people feel inspired and want to go out and take one action to either shift the way that they see the world or shift the way that they participate in changing data in the ability that they can, what’s one action step that you would encourage somebody to take?
Hannah: This might be controversial because I’m speaking to a news reporter, but: Read less news, look at more data, especially recent data.
Focus less on the absolute number and look more about the rapid change over time.
So, like, electric vehicles: You might see it’s only 14% of sales, but, like, every year that’s doubling. All of that growth has basically come in the space of three years.
And so, look at the rate of change. I think my key one would be to pass on the news that we’re not doomed and we shouldn’t give up.
We will be doomed if we give up. That’s my point.
So you can’t afford to give up and there are amazing reasons to keep going.