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The International Writers Magazine: Review


The Rational Optimist
Nick Lewandowski
The sky is not falling. Climate change will not destroy human civilization. Our fossil fuels will last long enough for us to develop alternatives and contrary to popular opinion the world will be a better, cleaner and safer place a hundred years from now. So argues Matt Ridley in The Rational Optimist, an uncommonly rose-colored view of this age of sovereign debt crises, ethnic cleansings and ever-widening income gaps.

Rational

His thesis is simple enough.
On the whole people are wealthier, safer and healthier than they have ever been before – a condition made possible by ever-increasing specialization in the provision of goods and services.  Those who argue for slamming the brakes on economic and technological development, who long for human civilization to regress into an “idyllic,” pastoral lifestyle are in fact striving for a world of greater poverty, less leisure time and shorter lives.

Ridley goes to great lengths to explode the romanticized view of “simpler times.” Early on he describes the daily life of a fictional 1800s family, writing in part “…[t]he stew is grey and grisly yet meat is a rare change from gruel; there is no fruit or salad at this season. It is eaten with a wooden spoon from a wooden bowl. Candles cost too much, so firelight is all there is to see by. Nobody in the family has ever seen a play, painted a picture or heard a piano […]
If my fictional family is not to your taste, perhaps you prefer statistics. Since 1800, the population of the world has multiplied six times, yet average life expectancy has more than doubled and real income has risen more than nine times.”

Innovation made it possible, and, Ridley argues, all innovation is ultimately the product of the exchange of goods and services. In this way, social and economic development mirror evolutionary development.  Where mutation and natural selection provide the impetus for biological innovation, markets and trade drive technological and economic dynamism.
And while pessimism may pay journalists’ and academics’ bills, it has not translated to much in the way of accurate analysis.
“Consider the humiliating failure of the predictions made by a computer model called World3 in the early 1970s,” Ridley writes, “that exponential use could exhaust known world supplies of zinc, gold, tin, copper, oil and natural gas by 1992.” He goes on to note that many of World3’s flawed predictions made their way into an entire generation of school textbooks.
Ridley offers a laundry-list of such examples throughout The Rational Optimist, all of which point to the following, remarkably simple conclusion:
“The amount of oil left, the food-growing capacity of the world’s farmland, even the regenerative capacity of the biosphere - these are not fixed numbers. They are dynamic variables produced by a constant negotiation between human ingenuity and natural constraints.  Embracing dynamism means opening your mind to the possibility of posterity making a better world rather than preventing a worse one.”

The area in which The Rational Optimist falls down is one probably lying beyond the scope of its arguments: how one rectifies a macro trend toward increasing health and prosperity with the many millions of lifetimes worth of abject suffering currently lived all over the planet.
In his conclusion, Riley insists that the ongoing processes of innovation, exchange and development will eventually elevate these peoples’ standards of living.

It is dismissive (and, I would argue, somewhat naïve) to argue the Great Wheel of Progress will eventually destroy poverty without striving to ease the burden on the hundreds of millions doomed to suffer their entire lifetimes without hope of improvement in their or perhaps even their children’s circumstances. Indeed, when you look at the intersection between economic development and politics, it is probably extreme income inequality that leaves the widest opening for political and religious extremism - look no further than the Middle East and Afghanistan.

You can certainly extrapolate Ridley’s strategy for tackling income inequality within our lifetime from his macro-level arguments: microfinance lending, the elimination of corruption and nepotism, removal of top-down economic controls and development of free trade, et cetera and so on. Nonetheless, it’s a topic requiring more extensive treatment - at least from this convert’s point of view.

© By Nick Lewandowski
http://cursorblink.blogspot.com May 2011

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