Keywords: Politics, economics, history

Title: The Rational Optimist

Author: Matt Ridley

Publisher: Fourth Estate/Harper Perennial

ISBN: 0007267126/0061452068


Despite a few notable exceptions, such as Indur Goklany, most 'public intellectuals' sport a profoundly misanthropic and pessimistic view of the world. The mainstream media is filled with predictions of doom, gloom and destruction - on any given day one could be forgiven for believing that the apocalypse was imminent. It is not just that the projected future is grim, one would also assume from the media that the present era is one of unrelieved catastrophe. With the climate screwed, food running out, massively expanding health problems, global poverty rising and a host of threats just over the horizon, one would assume that there can be no reasons for hope. And yet… The statistics beg to differ, as Goklany showed in The Improving State of the World, and as Matt Ridley shows in his decidedly contrarian The Rational Optimist.

While Goklany provided solid statistical evidence to counter the pervasive pessimism displayed in much public discourse, Ridley takes a more historical approach. His aim is not just to prove that things are not as bad as they seem, but as seeks an explanation as to why a guarded optimism is a rational stance to adopt. That this approach is not a popular one to adopt should not be doubted, and Ridley's book has been widely criticised, particularly from environmentalists and neo-Malthusians, for whom humanity is the root of all evil. The suggestion that industrial society is not leading to catastrophe and should not be dismantled is not one that is likely to be accepted with open arms. It is therefore, something of a relief that Ridley's book is not just well argued, it is also well-researched and referenced.

The basic thesis is a simple one. Ridley posits that there are three main drivers of the historically unprecedented improvements in wealth, health, education and opportunity that we currently enjoy: trade, the division of labour, and the cross-fertilisation of ideas that these encourage. The book outlines the evolution of these factors from the days before humans were even human right through to the present day and beyond. It makes for a hugely enjoyable romp through human history, from Homo Erectus who made tools but made few other advances to the last 10 000 years when Homo Sapiens discovered the benefits of agriculture, trade and created societies where innovation was possible. Our invention of trade took a long time coming, as he shows that it depends on the establishment of trust and that amongst our many achievements have been the institutionalising of trust in the form of money, banking and finance.

As Ridley points out, it has not been an easy ride. Civilisations have risen and fallen, with waves of innovation leading to stultification and decay. To a large extent Ridley puts this down to bureaucracy and government - from feudalism to mercantilism to capitalism and state socialism. His is very much a libertarian and free-market perspective and there are some who would dispute his central thesis purely on those grounds alone. But he rightly points out the massive advances we have seen in the last century and a half, even as the population of the world has continued to climb as have our demands in terms of natural resources. Where Malthusians (and now neo-Malthusians like Jonathan Porrit, David Attenborough, Prince Charles and the like) saw only disaster in a growing population, Ridley points out that humanity has not only averted disaster but has prospered to a degree that our ancestors would have found unimaginable.

While the book is a good read and Ridley's argument is fairly convincing, there are places where it comes unstuck. For one he repeatedly talks of 'ideas having sex', while it might have some explanatory power it's just not a useful image and he repeats it throughout. Secondly there's a certain amount of reprising previous Ridley themes, so that readers of his excellent 'The Origins of Virtue' for example, may find some of the themes and examples in this latest book quite familiar. Overall though, these are relatively minor quibbles and this is a great, popular book that swims against the tide of doom and gloom that washes through our mass media.

Review © Pan Pantziarka, 2011. Site © London Book Review 2011. Published June 4 2011