Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.
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Matt Ridley's latest book Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19, co-authored with scientist Alina Chan from Harvard and MIT's Broad Institute, is now available in the United States, in the United Kingdom, and elsewhere.
My article for The Telegraph:Sri Lanka’s collapse, from one of the fastest growing Asian economies to a political, economic and humanitarian horror show, seems to have taken everybody by surprise.
Five years ago, the World Bank was extolling “how Sri Lanka intends to transition to a more competitive and inclusive upper-middle income country”. Right up to the middle of last year, despite the impact of the pandemic, the country’s misery index (inflation plus unemployment) was low and falling. Then the misery index took off like a rocket, quintupling in a year.
What happened? There is a simple explanation, one that the BBC seems determined to downplay. In April 2021, president Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced that Sri Lanka was banning most pesticides and all synthetic fertiliser to go fully organic. Within months, the volume of tea exports had halved, cutting foreign exchange earnings. Rice yields plummeted leading to an unprecedented requirement to import rice. With the government unable to service its debt, the currency collapsed.
My article for The Daily Mail:
Take a wild guess at how much of the UK’s total primary demand for energy was supplied by wind power in 2020.
Half? 30 per cent? No, in fact, it was less than 4 per cent.
My article for The Sun:
When Lorraine Allanson spoke up in favour of drilling for shale gas in her part of North Yorkshire, activists cut off her internet, called her a “whore” and linked her to a fake crime number. “Shouting, abuse, public defecation, intimidation, hijacking lorries to stop deliveries, blocking the village street, this was the locals’ daily experience,” she wrote in her book My Story.
The wave of noisy protests against shale gas in Lancashire and Yorkshire in recent years looked like a grassroots movement. It was anything but.
My article for The Critic:
When I was ten years old, in 1968, my parents took me and two of my sisters on a safari through Kenya and Tanzania. Having lived there when they first married in the 1950s, they wanted us to see the wildlife before it was all gone. Newly independent Kenya, its population booming, would soon have few lions or elephants left. This was not intended as a political criticism, it was just that there was unlikely to be room for such luxuries in a poor nation striving to feed its expanding population.
The first of the game reserves we visited, the Masai Mara, with its abundant big game and beautiful birds, left an indelible impression on my young mind. It helped turn me into a bird watcher and then a biologist. This winter, 53 years later, I returned to the Mara for the first time. To say that my parents’ pessimism was unjustified is to understate the matter — vastly. The grassy plains either side of the Mara river are as rich as ever in zebra, topi, eland, wildebeest, waterbuck, gazelles, impala, giraffe and buffalo.
The price of gas is through the roof thanks to Vladimir Putin, who has Europe’s energy market by the throat. Britain is on track to spend a staggering £2BILLION on imported liquefied natural gas from Russia this year as war rages in Ukraine.
Household bills will skyrocket even more than they already were — and could hit £3,000 a year. This is what happens when you rely on imported foreign energy. And what makes it more maddening is that we don’t need to do this. We have supplies here.
My article for Spiked:
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My article for The Telegraph:
Fusion energy is coming. Last week’s announcement of a significant energy yield from the Joint European Torus in Oxfordshire is just a milestone on the path but all the signs are that there’s probably going to be reliable fusion power on tap some time in the next decade thanks to breakthroughs in superconductivity.Also, private money is pouring into fusion, which has forced the public projects to speed up, as it did with genomics. It would be a foolish person who repeated Ernest Rutherford’s clanger of 1933 about nuclear fission: “Anyone who expects a source of power from the transformation of the atom is talking moonshine.”True, there is every chance we will make a mess of the opportunity by adopting an extreme precautionary approach to regulation. In the case of nuclear (fission) power, we bound it into such a straitjacket of cumbersome rules that we ended up making it a lot more expensive, slightly less safe and incapable of even trying new designs that might bring down the price and drive the safety even higher. Innovation should have rendered both Chernobyl and Fukushima redundant long before they blew up, and Hinkley is going to be grotesquely, needlessly costly. If we make a similar unforced error with fusion, forget it.
But fusion is very different from fission, producing vastly less radioactive material and almost no long-term waste. It cannot melt down or blow up. So regulating it is simpler: treat it like any other industrial facility and set up the regulation to give quick decisions, be flexible and focus on the safe outcome not the process of getting there. If we do that, we might have a great opportunity, because Britain is already a leader in fusion.So it’s worth casting our minds forward to how the world might look if small power stations start making huge quantities of energy from tiny quantities of water (the source of deuterium) and lithium (the source of tritium). We could heat our homes and power our cars with cheap electricity. We could synthesise fuel for planes and rockets. We could speed up productivity through automation. We could desalinate seawater. We could suck carbon dioxide out of the air, achieving net zero painlessly. We could rewild all wind and solar farms. Above all, we could tell the eco-killjoys who preach that our use of energy is not just a problem but a sin to get lost.And therein lies the problem, because they will fight us every step of the way, inventing ludicrous objections to fusion. Remember, for the eco-elite, hair-shirt asceticism is a feature not a bug. Giving ordinary people unlimited energy would horrify these high priests. What they love about climate change is the excuse it gives them to disapprove of people having fun. Imagine the scowl on Greta’s face when we tell her electricity is going to be abundant, cheap, reliable and low-carbon. It’s shooting their fox.Notice too how it would make a mockery of the urgent rush to net zero today. The BBC’s Jon Amos delivered a predictable sermon on this theme this week following the fusion announcement: “Fusion is not a solution to get us to 2050 net zero. This is a solution to power society in the second half of this century.”He’s got it backwards: if fusion does come after 2050, why spend trillions and force people into austerity in the rush to net zero by 2050 instead of say 2070? We are hurrying to shut down coal, gas and nuclear prematurely with no reliable replacement. Looking back that might prove to have been very foolish.
My article for Spectator:
My wife and I were lucky to escape for a long-delayed birdwatching holiday in Kenya over Christmas. To have been warm, sunlit and free while so many in Britain were not won’t endear me to most readers, I realise. Nairobi was rife with Covid and Christmas cancellations devastated the tourism industry. So we had the extraordinary Elephant Watch Camp run by Saba Douglas-Hamilton in the Samburu National Reserve almost to ourselves. Baboons and vervet monkeys wandered freely through the camp, and in the night the river flash-flooded after a storm in the hills to the west, but the tents were safe. Elephants were everywhere, feasting on fresh vegetation after a long drought. My old friend Chris Thouless, director of research for Save the Elephants, explained that throughout Kenya elephant numbers are up, poaching is down and the biggest problem is increasing conflict with farmers and herders. Ingeniously, they have found you can deter elephants from raiding a maize farm by hanging beehives from wires around the fields. Elephants are scared of the aggressive African honey bee.Francis Lenyakopiro, a Samburu warrior who acted as our guide, proved as knowledgeable about ecology as anybody I have met, but also very talented at singing traditional songs (wearing traditional Samburu dress with a touch of Douglas tartan) round a fire as the sun sank behind the hills. I will not forget his quiet voice, almost a whisper, at a picnic: ‘I don’t want to interrupt your lunch, but we are being watched by a lioness.’At Borana Lodge in the Laikipia highlands, where we watched elephants, rhinos, waterbuck and kudu, as well as a bounty of birds, from the veranda of our bedroom, our guide Lawrence Ngugi shared insights into the lives of animals from the cooperative breeding of wattled starlings to the tendency of black rhinos to get aggressive after eating the steroid-rich bark of the candelabra tree. In a relationship that may be millions of years old, the honeyguide bird leads people — and honey badgers — to wild bees’ nests with a special call. It expects to be rewarded with wax when the nest is smoked out. If you fail to reward the bird, it will lead you to a buffalo next time, which Lawrence thinks is a myth, but is not sure it is worth the risk of finding out.The names of African birds may soon be decolonised. Verreaux’s eagle, a huge black predator that swept past as we picnicked one day in a gorge, was named by and for an enthusiastic 19th-century French taxidermist who, together with his brother, attended the funeral of a tribal warrior in what is now Botswana in 1831, then secretly disinterred the body and stuffed him as a museum exhibit in Paris. The poor bloke’s body was repatriated from Barcelona in 2000 and cremated in Gaborone.Borana Conservancy is a private venture, started by the Dyer family and backed by philanthropists, that turned a huge cattle ranch into a wildlife reserve, teeming with elephant, rhino and antelopes galore, and supporting local communities. On Christmas morning, about 60 of us gathered on Pride Rock, the gravity-defying ledge copied by Disney for The Lion King, to sing Christmas carols, watched by a giraffe and three bemused buffalo. A white-backed vulture showed up during ‘Silent Night’, presumably hoping the rock would topple under our combined weight.
People recreate the African savanna at every opportunity. In Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, a character points out that there’s nothing natural about English parkland: it’s ‘Capability Brown doing Claude who was doing Virgil’. But as the ecologist Gordon Orians argues they were all doing the Africa savanna, a preference for which lies deep inside our psyches. Looking out over Borana’s gentle, grassy hills with spreading trees, distant water and herds of impala, I might be in a London park. Except for the lion roars at night on Christmas Eve.What is natural? When white people first came here in the late 19th century they found a land almost empty of people but full of game (except elephants, which had been wiped out by Arab ivory traders). We now know this was because smallpox had devastated the people, and rinderpest the cattle.Chris Thouless told me that it was nearby that the talented artist-scientist Jonathan Kingdon discovered a bizarre fact. A stripy animal called the crested rat was known to be poisonous to dogs if caught. Kingdon worked out that the rat chewed on the bark of the same tree the Waliangulu used to make poison arrows, then spat into a fold in its fur.One of Kenya’s biggest exports is cut flowers, its biggest market is Russia and the busiest week is leading up to Valentine’s Day. The pandemic needs to end by then.
My article for the Telegraph:
The one thing that cheered us Northumbrians up as we waited for power to come back on after Storm Arwen (some wit points out that naming these daughters of Boreas only seems to encourage them) was to grumble: “if this was in the Home Counties we would never hear the end of it”. But it is not funny that thousands of homes are still waiting for reconnection, some with elderly occupants.
I can vouch that five days of living in the cold and dark when the nights are more than twice as long as the days does not half remind you of the value of reliable electricity, diesel cars (how else do you charge a phone?) and gas stoves to cook on – all three of which are about to be banned by the eco-commissars.
With a laboratory leak in Wuhan looking more and more likely as the source of the pandemic, the Chinese authorities are not the only ones dismayed. Western environmentalists had been hoping to turn the pandemic into a fable about humankind’s brutal rape of Gaia. Even if ‘wet’ wildlife markets and smuggled pangolins were exonerated in this case, they argued, and the outbreak came from some direct contact with bats, the moral lesson was ecological. Deforestation and climate change had left infected bats stressed and with nowhere to go but towns. Or it had driven desperate people into bat-infested caves in search of food or profit.
Green grandees were in no doubt of this moral lesson. ‘Nature is sending us a message. We have pushed nature into a corner, encroached on ecosystems,’ said Inger Andersen, head of the United Nations Environment Programme. The pandemic was ‘a reminder of the intimate and delicate relationship between people and planet,’ said the director-general of the World Health Organisation, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. ‘God always forgives, we forgive sometimes, but nature never forgives,’ added Pope Francis, enigmatically. ‘Climate change is a threat multiplier for pandemic diseases, and zoonotic diseases,’ said John Kerry. Covid-19 was ‘the product of an imbalance in man’s relationship with the natural world,’ said Boris Johnson. ‘Mother Nature… gave us fire and floods, she tried to warn us but in the end she took back control,’ tweeted Sarah, Duchess of York.
My article for Telegraph:
In a key milestone on the road to harnessing fusion power, Lawrence Livermore laboratory announced this week that it had extracted energy from an object the size of a lemon pip at the rate of 10 quadrillion watts (joules per second), albeit for only 100 trillionths of a second. That’s roughly 500 times faster than the entire human population consumes energy.
The experiment is a reminder that the energy density achieved when atoms merge is vastly greater than anything in a lump of coal, let alone a puff of wind. It is also far bigger than can be achieved by nuclear fission and much safer too: no risk of meltdown and with much less high-level radioactive waste.
My article for PERC:
In 1980, the year that PERC was founded, I spent three months in the Himalayas working on a wildlife conservation project. The purpose was to do wildlife surveys on behalf of the Indian government in the stunningly beautiful valleys of the Kulu region in northern India, among forests of deodar cedar and evergreen oak. One species of particular interest was a bird called the western tragopan, a large, spotted gray forest pheasant with red plumage around the neck and bright blue skin on the male’s throat. The bird was found only in a few places and thought to be teetering on the brink of extinction.
Though we saw other pheasant species, we never saw a tragopan that year, but some of the people we met knew of the bird, and one even handed me the remains of a tragopan that had been shot for food. I feared it might be the last one. I wanted to come back in the spring when the birds’ mating calls might give them away in the deep bamboo thickets they preferred, but work prevented me.
My article from The Spectator:
Let nobody tell you that the second decade of the 21st century has been a bad time. We are living through the greatest improvement in human living standards in history. Extreme poverty has fallen below 10 per cent of the world’s population for the first time. It was 60 per cent when I was born. Global inequality has been plunging as Africa and Asia experience faster economic growth than Europe and North America; child mortality has fallen to record low levels; famine virtually went extinct; malaria, polio and heart disease are all in decline.
Little of this made the news, because good news is no news. But I’ve been watching it all closely. Ever since I wrote The Rational Optimist in 2010, I’ve been faced with ‘what about…’ questions: what about the great recession, the euro crisis, Syria, Ukraine, Donald Trump? How can I possibly say that things are getting better, given all that? The answer is: because bad things happen while the world still gets better. Yet get better it does, and it has done so over the course of this decade at a rate that has astonished even starry-eyed me.
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