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This is not the best of all possible worlds

Here is my latest Wall Street Journal column. It led me into the etymology of the word `optimism’ and the realisation that at first it meant almost the opposite of what we now mean by it, namely that the world was at its `optimum’ and could not improve.

A Haitian who survived the January earthquake and has so far escaped cholera recently told a reporter that this month’s Hurricane Tomas wasn’t as bad as he thought it would be, “thank God.” I know it’s often just a verbal tic, but it has always struck me as odd that people who survive natural disasters thank God for saving them but rarely blame Him for the disaster.

It has been quite a decade for natural disasters: the Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, Burma’s cyclone, Pakistan’s floods, China’s quake. Only once to my knowledge has there been much media debate about whether these disasters were “acts of God”-after the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, perhaps because it happened on the day after Christmas. In any case, I always felt the phrase applied better to 9/11, considering the motivation of the terrorists.

The belief in a benevolent deity who nonetheless allows disasters struck Voltaire as odd, too. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755-in which up to 60,000 people died in quake, fire and tsunami-provoked him to write a poem railing against the theological view that the disaster proved the deity benevolent after all, because Lisbon had earned its punishment through sin. What did God have against the Portuguese, wondered Voltaire: “Was then more vice in fallen Lisbon found,/Than Paris, where voluptuous joys abound?”

Lisbon also led Voltaire to ridicule the philosophy of optimism, a word coined in 1737 to describe Gottfried Leibniz’s view that God had made this the best of all possible worlds (and, therefore, the future could be no better). In Voltaire’s novel “Candide, or the Optimist,” Dr. Pangloss remains blissfully confident-despite experiencing syphilis, shipwreck, earthquake, fire, hanging and slavery.

Yet the natural disasters of recent years have strongly vindicated optimism-not of Leibniz’s variety but of the modern, hopeful kind. The difference between Haiti’s death toll of up to 300,000 in January and Chile’s of about 500 a month later can be attributed in large part to the difference in their wealth. Likewise, Category 5 Hurricane Dean struck the well-prepared Yucatán in 2007 and killed no one, but when a similar storm struck impoverished and ill-prepared Burma the next year, it killed 200,000. Pakistan’s floods this year killed 1,800; Poland’s, less than 50. Java’s Mount Merapi has killed more than 200; Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull killed no one.

In short, prosperity buys survival. (The shocking thing about Hurricane Katrina was not that it killed so many people but that it did so in such a prosperous country.) The scholar Indur Goklany has calculated that, as the world has grown richer in the past 90 years, the number of annual extreme-weather deaths has fallen 93%, despite a quadrupling of the population and an increase in the (recorded) number of such events.

Suppose world per-capita income were to octuple in the next 90 years, as it did, roughly, in the last 90. So long as countries like Haiti get their share of this prosperity, we can expect most of the world to become as nearly disaster-proof as the rich West is today: through building standards, warning systems, health and emergency services, and technology. A mega-volcano or a big asteroid would still test any country, but much less pain would come from providence speaking (as the old hymn has it) “through the earthquake, wind, and fire.” A thought for Thanksgiving.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  wall-street-journal