Jul 8 2010

The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley

Christine Kenneally

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It seems foolish, if not downright irresponsible to feel good about the future in 2010. The disasters of the last decade piled up fast, and apocalyptic fear is now a standard ingredient in the morning commute. But what should one prepare for first? September 11-style attacks, oil spills, climate change, the death of languages, the last days of the polar bears, or the dark, multifarious effects of globalization?

In The Rational Optimist bestselling science writer Matt Ridley has an answer to all this: chill out. It may be six minutes to midnight on the doomsday clock, but it is time to dare hope for the human race. Presenting brainy, counterintuitive observations and compelling creation stories, Ridley lays out a series of complicated economic and evolutionary reasons why the disasters aren't as bad as we think they are, why our current solutions may make things worse, and why it's our duty to be optimistic. It's true that things can't go on like this, Ridley argues. But things have always gotten better, and they always will.

This sounds great, but isn't it a little grandiose? No, says Ridley, on average pretty much everything has improved in every way imaginable. Since the beginning of human history—or even just the 1950s—we've had more personal liberty, more entertainment, and more travel. We are less likely to die from a huge array of causes, and we have "access to more calories, watts, lumen-hours, square feet, gigabytes, megahertz, light years, nanometers, bushels per acre, miles per gallon, food miles, [and] air miles." Yes, writes Ridley, the rich are richer, but "the poor have done even better." Equality has increased across the globe. Legal justice is more reliable. People are kinder to strangers. Even worldwide IQ is rising.

The fact that we got civilization off the ground in the first place, that the quality of life curves ever upwards today, and that we can expect continuing improvement in the lives of our descendents tomorrow can all be explained by the division of labor and the invention of trade. If we were all still trying to individually grow and process our own food, defend the ramparts of our village, and raise babies, today's society would not be possible, Ridley argues. "If you wish to have even the most minimal improvement in your life—say metal tools, toothpaste or lighting—you are going to have to get your chores done by somebody else." Humanity stumbled on this basic principle more than a hundred thousand years ago when the hunter-gatherer from over the hill swapped a fishhook for a decorative shell with a total stranger.

Ridley assembles an enormous bunch of ideas, observations, and experiments to provide strong scaffolding for the many dimensions of his story. He writes, for example, that human knowledge is fundamentally shared. This is as true of the hunter-gatherer's tool kit as it is of the computer. Each represents the combined expertise of thousands of people, brought together by trade. Though the vast "collective brain" of the human race today is often attributed to the invention of technology, Ridley points out that technology doesn't just ratchet up by itself, but happens because of commerce.

He isn't saying that consumerism can't be awful (take Hummers), but he thinks that it has brought us far more good than bad. Even though we are still making big mistakes today, we are making them in the context of a larger, emergent intelligence that is fueled by global trade. In that context, many problems, even the problem of finite resources, are not the human endgame we fear. "The resources and technologies of 1960 could not have supported 6 billion," Ridley writes, "but the technologies changed and so the resources changed." Violence and corruption will continue to surge up in pockets over the globe, but as long as there are enough of us motivated to create, invent, specialize and trade, "the betterment of human lives will eventually resume."

In the meantime, we shouldn't believe the feckless pessimists, like Lester Brown and Paul Erlich who predicted multiple, humanity ending cataclysms in the late twentieth century—none of which happened. We must promote the impulse to trade goods and trade up knowledge, and fight repressive regimes that would squash it. Or suggestions like that made by John Holdren, Obama's science advisor, who said, "Isn't the only hope for the planet that the industrialized civilizations collapse? Isn't it our responsibility to bring that about?"

Ridley dismisses some ideas too quickly, for example, the notion that consumer choice—an outcome of a bubbling global trade—can be onerous. Yet this doesn't mean Ridley isn't onto something. Indeed, I believe Ridley when he says there is deep resistance to imagining an unpolluted future, and I felt it as I read his book—it's so novel to think that a blackened, post-human landscape is not inevitable. Part of the trick, I think, is that that you have to unwind your own fate from humanity's. Unpleasant, earth-shaking events may befall any of us at any time, even if our chances of survival have never been so good. But Ridley's right: There is genuine comfort in the idea that long after we are forgotten, someone, somewhere, will be warm, fed, and among friends.

Christine Kenneally's writing has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, Slate, and other publications. Her most recent book is The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language (Viking, 2007).

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