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Reader’s Digest on rational optimism
April’s Reader’s Digest carries an article on rational optimism, based on an
interview with me and extracts from my book:

“The world has never been a better
place to live in,”
says science writer Matt Ridley,
“and it will keep on getting better.” Today, in a world gripped by
global economic crisis and afflicted with poverty, disease, and
war, them’s fightin’ words in some quarters. Ridley’s critics have
called him a “denialist” and “shameful” and have accused him of
“playing fast and loose with the truth” for his views on climate
change and the free market.

Yet Ridley, 54, author most recently of The Rational Optimist,
sticks to his guns. “It is not insane to believe in a happy future
for people and the planet,” he says. Ridley, who’s been a foreign
correspondent, a zoologist, an economist, and a financier, brings a
broad perspective to his sunny outlook. “People say I’m bonkers to
claim the world will go on getting better, yet I can’t stop
myself,” he says. Read on to see how Ridley makes his case.
Brilliant or bonkers? You decide.

1. We’re better off now

Compared with 50 years ago, when I was just four years old, the
average human now earns nearly three times as much money (corrected
for inflation), eats one third more calories, buries two thirds
fewer children, and can expect to live one third longer. In fact,
it’s hard to find any region of the world that’s worse off now than
it was then, even though the global population has more than
doubled over that period.

2. Urban living is a good thing

City dwellers take up less space, use less energy, and have less
impact on natural ecosystems than country dwellers. The world’s
cities now contain over half its people, but they occupy less than
3 percent of its land area. Urban growth may disgust
environmentalists, but living in the country is not the best way to
care for the earth. The best thing we can do for the planet is
build more skyscrapers.

3. Poverty is nose-diving

The rich get richer, but the poor do even better. Between 1980
and 2000, the poor doubled their consumption. The Chinese are ten
times richer and live about 25 years longer than they did 50 years
ago. Nigerians are twice as rich and live nine more years. The
percentage of the world’s people living in absolute poverty has
dropped by over half. The United Nations estimates that poverty was
reduced more in the past 50 years than in the previous 500.

4. The important stuff costs less

One reason we are richer, healthier, taller, cleverer,
longer-lived, and freer than ever before is that the four most
basic human needs-food, clothing, fuel, and shelter-have grown
markedly cheaper. Take one example: In 1800, a candle providing one
hour’s light cost six hours’ work. In the 1880s, the same light
from a kerosene lamp took 15 minutes’ work to pay for. In 1950, it
was eight seconds. Today, it’s half a second. In these terms, we
are 43,200 times better off than in 1800.

5. The environment is better than you think

In the United States, rivers, lakes, seas, and air are getting
cleaner all the time. A car today emits less pollution traveling at
full speed than a parked car did from leaks in 1970.

6. Shopping fuels innovation
Even allowing for the many people who still live
in abject poverty, our own generation has access to more calories,
watts, horsepower, gigabytes, megahertz, square feet, air miles,
food per acre, miles per gallon, and, of course, money than any who
lived before us. This will continue as long as we use these things
to make other things. The more we specialize and exchange, the
better off we’ll be.

7. Global trade enriches our lives

By 9 a.m., I have shaved with an American razor, eaten bread
made with French wheat and spread with New Zealand butter and
Spanish marmalade, brewed tea from Sri Lanka, dressed in clothes
made from Indian cotton and Australian wool, put on shoes of
Chinese leather and Malaysian rubber, and read a newspaper printed
on Finnish paper with Chinese ink. I have consumed minuscule
fractions of the productive labor of hundreds of people. This is
the magic of trade and specialization. Self-sufficiency is

8. More farm production = more wilderness

While world population has increased more than fourfold since
1900, other things have increased, too-the area of crops by 30
percent, harvests by 600 percent. At the same time, more than two
billion acres of “secondary” tropical forest are now regrowing
since farmers left them to head for cities, and it is already rich
in biodiversity. In fact, I will make an outrageous prediction: The
world will feed itself to a higher and higher standard throughout
this century without plowing any new land.

9. The good old days weren’t

Some people argue that in the past there was a simplicity,
tranquillity, sociability, and spirituality that’s now been lost.
This rose-tinted nostalgia is generally confined to the wealthy.
It’s easier to wax elegiac for the life of a pioneer when you don’t
have to use an outhouse. The biggest-ever experiment in
back-to-the-land hippie lifestyle is now known as the Dark

10. Population growth is not a threat

Although the world population is growing, the rate of increase
has been falling for 50 years. Across the globe, national birth
rates are lower now than in 1960, and in the less developed world,
the birth rate has approximately halved. This is happening despite
people living longer and infant-mortality rates dropping. According
to an estimate from the United Nations, population will start
falling once it peaks at 9.2 billion in 2075-so there is every
prospect of feeding the world forever. After all, there are already
seven billion people on earth, and they are eating better and
better every decade.

11. Oil is not running out

In 1970, there were 550 billion barrels of oil reserves in the
world, and in the 20 years that followed, the world used 600

So by 1990, reserves should have been overdrawn by 50 billion
barrels. Instead, they amounted to 900 billion-not counting tar
sands and oil shale that between them contain about 20 times the
proven reserves of Saudi Arabia. Oil, coal, and gas are finite, but
they will last for decades, perhaps centuries, and people will find
alternatives long before they run out.

12. We are the luckiest generation

This generation has experienced more peace, freedom, leisure
time, education, medicine, and travel than any in history. Yet it
laps up gloom at every opportunity. Consumers do not celebrate
their wonderful field of choice and, according to psychologists,
say they are “overwhelmed.” When I go to my local superstore, I do
not see people driven to misery by the impossibility of choice. I
see people choosing.

13. Storms are not getting worse

Not at all. While the climate warmed slightly last century, the
incidence of hurricanes and cyclones fell. Since the 1920s, the
global annual death rate from weather-related natural disasters
(that is, the proportion of the world’s population killed rather
than simply the overall number) has declined by a staggering 99

The killing power of hurricanes depends more on wealth than on
wind speed. A big hurricane struck the well-prepared Yucatán in
Mexico in 2007 and killed nobody. A similar storm struck
impoverished Burma the next year and killed 200,000. The best
defenses against disaster are prosperity and freedom.

14. Great ideas keep coming

The more we prosper, the more we can prosper. The more we
invent, the more inventions become possible. The world of things is
often subject to diminishing returns. The world of ideas is not:
The ever-increasing exchange of ideas causes the ever-increasing
rate of innovation in the modern world. There isn’t even a
theoretical possibility of exhausting our supply of ideas,
discoveries, and inventions.

15. We can solve all our problems

If you say the world will go on getting better, you are
considered mad. If you say catastrophe is imminent, you may expect
the Nobel Peace Prize. Bookshops groan with pessimism; airwaves are
crammed with doom. I cannot recall a time when I was not being told
by somebody that the world could survive only if it abandoned
economic growth. But the world will not continue as it is. The
human race has become a problem-solving machine: It solves those
problems by changing its ways. The real danger comes from slowing

16. This depression is not depressing

The Great Depression of the 1930s was just a dip in the upward
slope of human living standards. By 1939, even the worst-affected
countries, America and Germany, were richer than they’d been in
1930. All sorts of new products and industries were born during the
Depression. So growth will resume unless prevented by wrong
policies. Someone, somewhere, is tweaking a piece of software,
testing a new material, or transferring the gene that will make
life easier or more fun.

17. Optimists are right

For 200 years, pessimists have had all the headlines-even though
optimists have far more often been right. There is immense vested
interest in pessimism. No charity ever raised money by saying
things are getting better. No journalist ever got the front page
writing a story about how disaster was now less likely. Pressure
groups and their customers in the media search even the most
cheerful statistics for glimmers of doom. Don’t be browbeaten-dare
to be an optimist!


By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist