The Rational Optimist

The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (2010) by Matt Ridley is an excellent book that chronicles the remarkable progress of humanity over the most recently past millennia. He presents a well researched and well written account of why we should be profoundly optimistic about humanity’s future.

The book starts off by pointing out that human welfare is dramatically better than it has ever been. People are so much richer and healthier than they have ever been it is hard to contemplate. Given this it is surprising that so many people think things are getting worse.

Ridley goes on to wonder why humanity became so successful 100 000 years ago and even more successful 50 000 years ago and then has improved so dramatically since then. Ridley thinks that exchange and specialisation was what made humans wealthy. He makes the fascinating point that exchange predates agriculture.

Ridley looks at how food production took off with agriculture and then how humanity’s wealth really exploded following the industrial revolution that enabled humans to harness vastly greater amounts of energy than had previously been the case.

He gives time to the predictions of the best know doomsayers, in particular Malthus and Paul Ehrlich and shows how consistently wrong they have been.

There is also a chapter in the book that looks at the two great pessimisms of today, Anthropogenic Global Warming and poverty in Africa.

The discussion of the reduction of poverty in Africa is not particularly controversial, Ridley states that there is tremendous hope for Africa because the market is being embraced, AIDS is being handled and new communications technology should allow Africa’s economy to grow. He refers to Dambiso Moyo and Hernando De Soto as people whose ideas will help Africa escape povery.

The discussion of Global Warming is very good, very calm and has provoked the anger of many environmentalists because of this. Ridley points out just how much richer the IPCC assumes people will get in the coming 100 years even with global warming. He points out how the Stern report used cherry picked high estimates of harm and a discount rate that is too small to come to the conclusion that Global Warming was a great threat. Ridley looks at how greater wealth has massively diminished the damage that extreme weather events cause. He looks at how the current low C02 emitting energy producing technologies are not yet capable of taking over energy production without massive cost. He does point out that should such technologies reach near the price of coal they will naturally be used.

Ridley’s book is great, it is a fantastic antidote to environmental hysteria and the general pessimism that pervades society. It’s an easy, intelligent read that is hard to recommend highly enough.

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