The Rational Optimist is a self-described contrarian view of the economy and economic development, from prehistory until now. Author Matt Ridley is unabashedly optimistic about the future of humanity and makes a credible case for his view that humans will continue to progress throughout the 21st century, sustainability challenges notwithstanding. He refutes pessimists who believe that that the planet cannot support more humans than it already has by asserting that economic progress will continue through trade and technological advances.
The way Ridley tells it, the story of human development is a story of increasing specialization. In times when one person was more or less self-sufficient -- growing his own food, making his own farm implements, baking his own bread, etc. etc. -- people were able to maintain only a subsistence level of life. There was no time to think, invent, write, read, make art or do any of the other activities that make up culture and civilization. As people began to settle in groups, they learned to trade and buy things from one another. This meant that one person needed to do only one or two things well; he could trade with other individuals for the things that he didn't produce himself. The more that individuals traded, the more they could specialize, and the more free time they had to develop culture and, most important, to invent new technologies. Eventually, we ended up here in 2010. Thus, says Ridley, specialization and trade are the keys to civilization. Always have been, always will be.
His argument echoes some of the ideas put forth by Jane Jacobs in her wonderful little book, Cities and the Wealth of Nations, although Ridley's scope is far broader. The essential argument remains pretty much the same, though. People need to be in proximity to one another in order to create critical mass sufficient to begin a cycle of trading between many producers and many consumers. There do seem to be parallels to this idea operating in today's economy. It's a version of the argument put forth by the Bush Administration after 9/11: If Americans stop shopping, the terrorists win.
One other feature of his argument that I also enjoyed is that Ridley describes the role that the media play in instilling public pessimism. The media,especially television, seek drama and controversy, which means that worriers and social critics usually get more play than a reasoned, rational spokesperson. Thus viewers are far more apt to see negative, even frightening, feature stories than they are to see more nuanced content. Ridley cites a number of examples of doomsayers (Paul Ehrlich of The Population Bomb, for instance) whose prophesies Ridley claims never came to fruition.
While critics will doubtless find much to criticize in this book, as did I, the fact remains that Ridley presents a well-argued case for believing in human progress, and for being optimistic about our shared future. And his challenges to more conventional thinkers who forecast doom and gloom make for intriguing reading. This is a refreshing read and one or the rare books that I will keep in my library, and not pass along to the thrift shop.
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