Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist

The Rational OptimistMatt Ridley wears many hats. He is a former bank chairman, a member of both Britain’s House of Lords and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a journalist and the bestselling author of several science books dealing specifically with human biology. None of these, however, synthesize his many interests quite like 2010’s The Rational Optimist, a broadside against the creeping tendency towards cynicism in public discourse. The world, as the pessimists would have it, is gradually lurching towards doom: overpopulation, famine, disease, climate change and poverty all threaten our existence in one way or another, and to hear some of these prophecies, impending catastrophe is not a matter of if but when. Ridley offers us a glimmer of hope, predicated on a thesis summarized in his TED talk and outlined in this book’s prologue, cheekily entitled “When ideas have sex.” Our greatest evolutionary adaptation, argues Ridley, is not our individual intelligence, prodigious as that might be, but our collective intelligence, which is utterly without precedent in the animal kingdom and allows us to draw on a common body of knowledge, amassed over centuries and now, thanks to inventions like the printing press and the internet, more easily accessible than ever.

Ridley begins by asking us to envision what life was like for our ancestors of ten or twenty or a hundred thousand years ago. The most striking feature of their lives, he argues, is that they were almost entirely self-sufficient. While we call upon the services of farmers, truck drivers, and store clerks in a single visit to a grocery store, where we have an incredible variety of foods in front of us, primitive man had to supply himself, either by hunting, farming or foraging. I did not build the apartment I live in, nor do I give more than a moment’s thought to the electricity I call upon to heat my water or light my room; primitive man occupied most of his waking hours with these concerns. Ridley invokes the economist Friedrich Hayek’s term “catallaxy” to describe the remarkable possibilities generated by human specialization. There is likely no one alive in the First World who does not, in their life, embody this kind of prosperity: our very existence is made possible by specialized labor, performed in response to our particular demands, articulated by an evolved market economy. How envious would modern man be if he knew that to supply myself with the food, shelter and heat that cost him hours of backbreaking work each day, I need only switch on a computer?

Having thus established his thesis – that our collective intelligence enables us to progress through history, both materially and morally – Ridley goes on to demonstrate, via a whirlwind tour of history, how his thesis played out to the benefit of those societies that implemented it. In Ridley’s view, it is not only the extreme wealth of countries like the United States and Britain that demands an explanation, but the extreme poverty of places like China and India. Citing figures from the late economist Angus Maddison, for example, Ridley argues that China was “the only region in the world with a lower GDP per capita in 1950 than in 1000.” He quotes the sinologist Etienne Balazs’ description of Ming China as “an object lesson in how to stifle an economy,” and one that bears a frightening resemblance to Maoist China:

The reach of the Moloch-state, the omnipotence of the bureaucracy, goes much further. There are clothing regulations, a regulation of public and private construction (dimensions of houses); the colours one wears, the music one hears, the festivals – all are regulated. There are rules for birth and rules for death; the providential State watches minutely over every step of its subjects, from cradle to grave. It is a regime of paperwork and harassment, endless paperwork and endless harassment.

For Ridley, the path to prosperity is a vibrant market economy, where goods, services and ideas are exchanged to everyone’s benefit. Any interference in this “bottom-up” system is destined to gum up the works.

The later chapters deal with the modern threats to stability: overpopulation, famine and climate change, and these are marvellously contrarian. I will dwell for a moment on a subsection of the chapters on climate change, only to share some of his insights. On so-called “renewable energy,” Ridley is scathing, arguing that their proponents focus exclusively on the “renewable” aspect without concern for their poor efficiency, and, in particular, for the incredible amount of land needed to harvest their power. “To get an idea of just how landscape-eating the renewable alternatives are, consider that to supply just the current 300 million inhabitants of the United States with their current power demand of roughly 10,000 watts each would require:

  • solar panels the size of Spain
  • or wind farms the size of Kazakhstan
  • or woodland the size of India and Pakistan
  • or hayfield for horses the size of Russia and Canada combined
  • or hydroelectric dams with catchments one-third larger than all the continents put together”

Contrast this with the supposedly unrenewable sources of energy:

As it is, a clutch of coal and nuclear power stations and a handful of oil refineries and gas pipelines supply the 300 million Americans with nearly all their energy from an almost laughably small footprint – even taking into account the land despoiled by strip mines. For example, in the Appalachian coal region where strip mining happens, roughly 7 percent of twelve million acres is being affected over twenty years, or an area two-thirds the size of Delaware. That’s a big area, but nothing like the numbers above.

He is particularly caustic on the subject of biofuels – “ludicrous is too weak a word for this heinous crime” – which he argues are not environmentally friendly and contribute to world hunger by repurposing farm land that might otherwise have been used to grow food.

In 2005, the world made roughly ten billion tonnes of ethanol, 45 percent of it from Brazilian sugar cane and 45 percent form American maize. Add in a billion tonnes of biodiesel made from European rape seed and the result is that roughly 5 percent of the world’s crop land has been taken out of growing food and put into growing fuel (20 percent in the United States). Together with the drought in Australia and more meat eating in China, this was the key factor that helped push world food supply below world food demand in 2008 and cause food riots all over the world. Between 2004 and 2007 the world maize harvest increased by fifty-one million tonnes, but fifty million tonnes went into ethanol, leaving nothing to meet the increase of demand…

The net result was that “American car drivers were taking carbohydrates out of the mouths of the poor to fill their tanks.” This is not only an expensive proposition (American taxes subsidize the growing of maize and ethanol manufacturing), Ridley argues, it also provides negligible – in fact, negative – environmental benefits.

One small anecdote provided by Ridley illustrates the power of his argument: as aid poured into Africa in the late 1990s and early 2000s, cell phones – considered a luxury good by economists – became extremely popular. This was an unhappy surprise to many of the aid agencies overseeing development, until they realized how the phones were being used: merchants, typically forced to walk to their markets, developed an elaborate communication network, notifying one another of their wares and where they were in demand. The result was increased efficiency: buyers found sellers more easily, and in less time, resulting not only in lower costs but less waste, as perishable goods were less likely to go unsold.

The Rational Optimist is a provocative read, as guaranteed to upset those fanatically committed to pessimism as it is to enlighten the rest of us with its unique insights. If nothing else, it makes an eloquent and forceful argument for hope – not in any naive, abstract sense, but in the power of ideas and our legacy of defeating doomsday predictions.