Why you should be optimistic
Matt Ridley takes on the doom-mongers.
There are many reasons to be optimistic in 2017, from the liberating, onward march of technology to the death-defying advances made in healthcare. And yet, despite the palpable demonstration of humanity’s progress, we live in the age of the pessimist. He sees pollution not industry, obesity not abundant food, overpopulation not longer lives. The prevailing wisdom is that human beings are a problem, rather than a solution.
But not everyone has such a doom-laden view of humanity. Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist (2010) and The Evolution of Everything (2015), is rather more cheery. He unashamedly celebrates human beings, and is, as The Rational Optimist suggests, extremely positive about the future. So, what does he make of the modern attacks on progress or the calls to limit humanity’s mark on the world?
Ella Whelan: The Rational Optimist can be seen as an antidote to the doom-mongering that grips much of contemporary politics. Do you think we need a change in attitude towards progress?
Matt Ridley: Yes, I do think we need a change in attitude towards progress. I think we’ve made a little progress, inasmuch as the work of people like Hans Rosling, Max Roser, Marian Tupy and Steven Pinker shows there’s a bit of a movement towards reminding people that the world is getting better.
People have actually always been pessimistic about the future. The idea that there was some period – whether it was the 1950s or the Victorian age – when everyone embraced progress with optimism, isn’t really true. If you go back and look at what the bestsellers of the time are saying, nihilism and doom-mongering are still dominant. It’s just that the mechanisms for stopping progress weren’t as good, so the little platoons of society were getting on and making the world better without being stopped.
So I don’t think that this age is particularly pessimistic when compared with others, but I do think it’s somehow gotten better at getting in the way of progress. And so the pessimism matters more today. I wrote The Rational Optimist in the aftermath of the great recession in 2009, which, on the first estimates, was the first year since the Second World War where the world economy failed to grow. I think the later revision showed that it did grow slightly that year, but still, I couldn’t have chosen a more inauspicious time to write a book called The Rational Optimist. And at the time I was writing, people were talking about trade not recovering and the world spiralling into depression, so I was taking a bit of a gamble in saying, look, all the ingredients for progress are still there and there’s every reason to think that things might pick up. It’s actually not a book about the future, it’s a book about what has happened in the past few hundred years, and indeed, over the last 200,000 years. So, I took a bit of a gamble writing an optimistic book then. On the whole it’s been borne out so far. And yet, people have not really changed their view that we’re about to go to hell in a handcart for one reason or another.
Whelan: One of the reasons people still cling to the hell-in-a-handcart thesis is the panic around the environment. Environmentalists today argue that people desire and consume too much, and that we therefore need to change our behaviour. How would you respond to this argument?
Ridley: Well, I would say that two things are very clear. Firstly, that the environmental movement has been wrong about impending doom from lots of different directions for many years now. Starting with Rachel Carson’s 1961 classic The Silent Spring, which warned us that we were all going to die from cancer as a result of pesticides. She was right that there was too much pesticide being used and that it was hurting wildlife in various ways, but she was wrong in that particular prediction.
And then the population explosion scares – which were wrong because population had already started to slow down when books about that panic came out. Then there was the fear that we were going to run out of resources. Then there was the panics over desertification, the new Ice Age, acid rain, the ozone layer. For some of these, we can use the excuse that we took action to prevent the problem getting worse – like the ozone layer. Nonetheless, there was grotesque exaggeration at every stage.
The environmental movement finally settled on climate change as its big issue, which has the great advantage that it can never be disproved, because it is always in the distant future. And the fact that climate change has underperformed in doom-mongering terms over the past 30 years is not a reason for environmentalists to give up on it yet, as it were. It does have to be taken into account, that predictions of environmental doom are nearly always exaggerated. And, in many ways, we have actually seen environmental improvements.
The second point is that the diagnosis of the environmental movement was that prosperity was the problem. Campaigners argued that it was because we were consuming that the planet was in trouble. This was summarised in the formula IPAT – the impact on the environment is equivalent to the population, times its affluence, times technology. Well, actually, we now know that it’s the opposite. The more technology we have, the less impact we have.
For example, improved agricultural technologies lead to us needing 68 per cent less land to produce the same amount of food than we would have needed in 1960. That spares land on a massive scale for nature and is therefore helping to preserve the environment. Take this example: wolves are increasing at the moment, lions are decreasing and tigers are just about holding their own – for the first time last year it was announced that tigers were slightly increased in the world. Why is that? It’s because wolves live in rich countries, lions live in poor countries, and tigers live in middle-income countries, mostly in Asia. It’s very clear if you look at, for example, biodiversity and extinction rates, that the problem is poverty. You go on the ground and you see the reason for this – in poor countries people have to live off the land. They don’t give up destroying the forest for fuel and food, whereas in rich countries we can leave a smaller imprint. The problem is too much pessimism in the environmental movement, and secondly a misdiagnosis that prosperity is going to make it worse when, in many ways, prosperity is going to make it better.
Whelan: Why do you think there is such widespread cultural pessimism around today? Why, in spite of the palpable progress of humanity, do some people still doubt human ability?
Ridley: Yes, well, it’s a very good point. People are not pessimistic about their own abilities as individuals to solve the problems that face them. As individuals, people are perfectly capable of being sufficiently optimistic and ambitious, sometimes unrealistically optimistic and ambitious about what they can achieve.
But for humanity as a whole, it’s quite different. The bigger the canvas, the more pessimistic people are. I don’t fully understand why that is. It sounds wiser to be gloomy about the future and sceptical about our ability to solve problems. Whereas, actually to say, you know what, I think we’ll be able to crack this problem – that just sounds a bit foolish and naive. John Stuart Mill put it particularly well when he said: ‘It’s not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope who is regarded by most people as a sage.’
When you look at a problem and say, yes, but we’ll get to the bottom of this and figure out a way to make it better, you are generally not believed. And yet, on the whole, we do solve these problems. It took us a long time to get on top of the AIDS virus, but we are now handling it. we are on the brink of genuinely defeating malaria (the malaria mortality rate has halved in this century alone), which is an incredible achievement. And we’re about to extinguish polio altogether. This shows what modern society, with modern science and technology behind it, is capable of. And the idea that suddenly it’s going to get harder, rather than easier, to solve problems with modern science and technology does seem to me to be perverse.
Whelan: Your argument about the importance of trade, of working together, is very social – but do you think there is a risk of denigrating the individual in the assertion that self-sufficiency is a myth? Wasn’t much of human progress down to the actions of individuals?
Ridley: That’s what The Evolution of Everything is about. I come down on the side of those who say that the great man of history theory is overrated. I think that when you look at what happens in the invention of technologies, in discovery in science and in politics, the role of the individual and leadership is overrated. But on the whole, we have a tendency to tell the story about one heroic genius achieving something — or one heroic bad guy achieving something horrible. (In that respect we’re more right than the other.) And on the whole, that’s not what happens. For example, 23 people are rightly credited with inventing the incandescent light bulb in the 1870s independently. Thomas Edison is one of the 23 – but if he had died, we would have still have had light bulbs. The same is true of almost all technology you look at. Even relativity, which Einstein discovered uniquely, would still have been discovered if Einstein had been run over by a tram, because Hendrick Lorentz was well down the track towards it.
We also overrate the importance of individuals in business. We put Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos on pedestals that they frankly don’t deserve to be on. Their industries would still have been transformed by these technologies without them. It would have looked different, and there might have been more companies or smaller ones, but there is no doubt that the rise of the internet, the digital economy, would have happened without these generals leading it. If Hitler hadn’t been quite as bad a man as he was, we might not have had a Holocaust. That probably is true, I’m not trying to say that individuals can’t matter to history. But as Lord Acton said, great men are usually bad men, and actually when individuals do change history, they often do it for the worse.
So we have a tendency to tell stories about individuals, and that leads us to misinterpret the market process that produces innovation and progress, meaning we see it as a much more idealistic process than it is. The pope recently put out an encyclical saying that what he doesn’t like about the market is that it worships selfishness and individualism. No, it doesn’t; it does the absolute opposite. If you are enmeshed in a market where you buy and sell, you collaborate. You collaborate with your workforce, with your bosses and with your suppliers. You might have a little competition with your rivals, but that’s actually a tiny part of it. If you look at the manufacturing of the simplest object, as Leonard Reed famously said about the pencil in the 1950s, millions of people collaborate to make that object, not one of whom knows how to make it. And that’s the biggest ‘communism’ that’s ever happened. And it’s entirely voluntary, unlike the other kind of Communism.
Whelan: What do you think progress means? Because it is a contested word — some think it means going back and reversing negative stages in history (stop using cars, etc); some think it means getting to a safe status quo (balancing the books, etc). Do you think there is a static definition of progress, or, by its nature, does it have to keep on changing?
Ridley: It’s a very good question. Sometimes the way that I put it is: what is prosperity and why does it happen to us and not rabbits or rocks? Economic growth is a phenomenon only known in human society, for example. If you look at what’s happened in the past 50 years to human society, there are more people, they are more affluent, they have better lifestyles, they’re living longer, they’ve got fewer diseases and they are capturing more energy through society. We’re using more and more energy and what we’re doing with it is we’re reversing entropy. That is to say, we’re creating order and improbable structures like buildings and machines and thoughts and websites. All of which are highly improbable structures, in that they are non-random. And that takes energy.
So I see society as a process of using energy to reverse energy locally and create improbability. And I also see life as the same thing. The history of life over the last three or four billion years is exactly the same phenomenon – more of the sunlight that falls on the Earth is captured by living things than non-living things and that is used to create structures, whether they’re trees or coral reefs or whatever. If you go back 700million years, all of the sunlight on land was wasted because life was all in the sea. Now, most of it (except in the deserts) is captured by green leaves and turned into structures. And the sunlight that fell 300million years ago and turned into coal and gas is now being reused by us to create structures. So, in a sense, I see progress in very physical terms, as the creation of complexity, design and order from nothing.
Whelan: You place a lot of emphasis on the importance of trust – trust in the idea that human beings can do anything. Do we need to reinvigorate that trust in humanity in order to progress?
Ridley: Yes, I think we do; we need to trust ourselves to solve problems and trust each other a bit more. And when people say, yes, but that’s just naive, you say, well actually, the best formula in life is to trust others unless you have a reason not to. There’s no point in going into every situation suspicious of the person you might be dealing with. You start small, you trust them in small ways, and you build up to something big. The ways of trusting among people are terribly important for making society work and all the evidence suggests that failed states, countries that are in deep trouble at the moment, are often ones with very low trust.
Whelan: The Rational Optimist is a few years old now. What do you make of the prevalent sense of declinism in the West at the moment? Are you still as optimistic now as you were when you wrote The Rational Optimist?
Ridley: Yes, in fact I’m more optimistic now than when I wrote that book because I wrote that book when the world economy really was teetering on the brink of going into a downward spiral. The technologies and innovations that have happened since then are truly remarkable.
I am worried about things happening in the world. I’m worried about the effects of Islam on Western Enlightenment values both through terrorism and through cultural change. That’s got worse than I expected. And, likewise, the ability of bureaucracies to grow at the expense of more productive parts of the economy has not been sufficiently challenged.
So, when asked what I’m worried about, I say superstition and bureaucracy. Both of those could yet win. A lot of other civilisations came a cropper on those two rocks in the past, so it could happen again. But the chances that the things we’re discovering – inventing and doing through the networks of open change and exchange, through the internet and through everything like that – the chances of those keeping us on track towards better living standards in the future are surely still very high. I just wish we could get politicians and other leaders talking in more cheerful terms about the possibilities rather than the problems of today.
Matt Ridley is a journalist and author. The Rational Optimist (2010) and The Evolution of Everything are published by Fourth Estate.
Picture by: Peter Walton.
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