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Rational Optimism in a tabloid

To mark today’s UK publication of The Rational Optimist in paperback, I have written an article for The Sun newspaper:

FOR the past month, the news has been all bad – war, recession, riot, tsunami, earthquake, nuclear disaster, inflation, cuts… and the cricket.

But while the news is always bad, there has never been a better time to be alive.

The average citizen of earth is wealthier, healthier, wiser, cleaner, cleverer, kinder, more peaceful, more equal, freer and happier than ever before.

Average lifespan is increasing across the globe at the rate of five hours per day. Child mortality has fallen by two thirds in 50 years.

IQ scores are rising all around the world.

London’s air and Britain’s rivers have never been so free of pollution.

Charitable donations are at unprecedented levels.

The last decade saw the lowest number of deaths in war since 1945 worldwide.

Inequality is falling as poor countries such as India, Brazil and Botswana get rich faster than rich countries such as Britain, America and Japan.

Freedom is on the march – the Russian empire fell, the Chinese liberalised, South American juntas collapsed, Arab despots are toppling.

Soon only a few tyrants will be left – Kim Jong-il, Castro, Chavez, Ahmadinejad, whoever runs Burma and a clutch of increasingly worried African despots in silly uniforms.

And, yes, even happiness goes up as people get richer.

It is easier to be happy when you don’t face death, dirt, disease and a long-drop toilet. The average British working man in 1957 – the year Harold Macmillan told us we had “never had it so good” – earned less than a modern father of three gets in state benefits (after correcting for inflation).

In the Fifties it took 30 minutes to earn the price of a hamburger on the average wage.

Today it takes three minutes.

A modern car emits 95 per cent less carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons than it did in the Seventies.

The fatal accident rate of air travel was 13 times higher in 1969 than it was in 2009. The death rate from heart attacks and strokes at any given age has halved since 1970.

I lay out these statistics in my book The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves.

When I was young, nobody told me any of this.

They said Britain was in decline, the world was running out of oil, the population explosion was unstoppable, global famine was inevitable, an epidemic of cancer caused by pesticides was going to shorten all our lives, nuclear war was coming, the desert was advancing at a mile a year, acid rain was destroying the forests, the ozone layer was shrinking and my sperm count was going to fall.

Yet all the time, inexorably – and unheralded in the news – things were inching better.

New ideas and new technologies were being invented to reduce the time each of us takes to fulfil a need or a wish.

All it takes to improve living standards is to make sure energy is cheap and let people work for each other through trade, to let ideas meet and mate – and innovation follows.

Good as life is compared with the past, the future is going to be much better.

For 200 years living standards have been accelerating upwards because trade and communication have been getting easier.

On present trends the average citizen of earth will be at least twice as rich as the average American is today by 2100 – corrected for inflation.

Yet thanks to the internet, innovation has accelerated.

There will still be wars and natural disasters.

But consider this – your probability of death from a storm, flood or drought was 98 per cent lower in the last decade than it was in the Twenties.



By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist