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The rational optimist - How prosperity evolves

The rational optimist

By Matt Ridley
Published by Fourth Estate
Website: www.4thestate.co.uk
2010, 438pp, ISBN 978-0-00-726711-8 (Hb), £20

Life for mankind can only get better! That is the thrust of The Rational Optimist. "I am writing in times of unprecedented pessimism," writes Matt Ridley. "The immediate future looks bleak indeed… Rational optimism holds that the world will pull out of the current crisis." The current crisis, of course, as described by a succession of eminent scientists and economists, is one of population exceeding resources while temperature is raised by emission of greenhouse gases resulting in climate changes.

Ridley has a PhD in zoology and is an accomplished writer on science and economics. He has marshalled an impressive range of facts and statistics on human history and endeavour to support his passionately held belief that history proves mankind's capacity for energy, innovation, and the resilience to survive plagues, wars and climatic changes. He observes that in 32,000 years "my species has multiplied by 100,000 per cent from perhaps three million to nearly seven billion people. It has given itself comforts and luxuries that no other species can even imagine. It has altered the appearance, the genetics and the chemistry of the world and pinched perhaps 23 per cent of the productivity of all land plants for its own purpose."

For those who question the costs of such development, we read that overall the world has been becoming a better place. "In 2005, compared with 1955, the average human being on Planet Earth earned nearly three times as much money (corrected for inflation), ate one-third more calories of food, buried one-third as many of her children and could expect to live one-third longer." Lists of diseases conquered and graphs of falling birth rates buttress his argument. As for environmental deterioration, he contends, "In somewhere like Beijing, maybe. But in many other places, no. In Europe and America rivers, lakes seas and air are getting cleaner all the time."

Ridley's admiration of mankind's bravura performance over the millennia spans the development of humans from simple stone toolmaker to modern man's capacity to solve every challenge. The flaw in The Rational Optimist is that several fundamental strictures on life getting better ad infinitum are too easily dismissed, food and water supply among them. Water shortage is a major problem, recognised from Australia to China, Canada to India, US to much of Africa. And food availability remains critical, while GM technology has yet to fulfil the promise of 'silver bullet' for agriculture's needs.

So, a stirring and very readable account of mankind's ingenuity. But can the optimism, like the upward curve of progress, be maintained indefinitely? Or are we near the top of a sine curve, poised for an uncomfortable descent? Does mankind's past performance guarantee its future success? It certainly has not done so in the financial world, where bankers and investors have been guilty of optimism bordering on hubris. Nor was such optimism rational for past civilisations which peaked and plunged. Are we so exceptional?

Date published: July 2010


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