The Samuel Johnson Prize Shortlist Nominees 2011
Over 10,000 years ago, there were fewer than 10 million people on the planet. Today there are more than six billion, and 99 per cent of whom are better fed, better sheltered, better entertained, and better protected against disease than their Stone Age ancestors.
The availability of almost everything a person could want or need has been going erratically upwards for 10,000 years and has rapidly accelerated over the last 200 years: calories; vitamins; clean water; machines; privacy; the means to travel faster than we can run, and the ability to communicate over longer distances than we can shout. Yet, bizarrely, however much things improve from the way they were before, people still cling to the belief that the future will be nothing but disastrous.
In this original, optimistic book, Matt Ridley puts forward his surprisingly simple answer to how humans progress, arguing that we progress when we trade and we only really trade productively when we trust each other.
The Rational Optimist will do for economics what Genome did for genomics and will show that the answer to our problems, imagined or real, is to keep on doing what we've been doing for 10,000 years – to keep on changing.
©2010 HarperCollins Publishers (P)2010 HarperCollins Publishers
This book was highly recommended by a friend. Despite a persuasive argument, Ridley's book cannot be considered in the absence of context, for Ridley chaired the English bank Northern Rock, a bank which, due to its high-risk lending practices, went to the wall during the GFC with red ink to the tune of twenty-some billion UK pounds, and was subsequently nationalised to prevent a 'run' on the banks and the collapse of the British financial system. Thus, while I'm a conservative who is naturally sceptical of the size and role of government in virtually every economy, I find it extremely ironical that Ridley, at the outset, states that he cannot refer to the collapse of Northern Rock 'for legal reasons' yet it is, in the style of other libertarians such as Ayn Rand, the free market which serves as the bedrock for virtually every subsequent argument. Ridley should have withdrawn the book and rewritten it in the very context of his own aristocratic background (he is now a Viscount!) and on the basis of the events which occurred at the bank of which he was Chair. In addition, I would have thought a UK narrator more preferable to a US narrator given Ridley's own background. With reality incorporated into the narrative rather than rationality, Ridley may have been onto something.
"Could have been even better"
This is a great subject - why we should be optimistic about the future, after all, the human race has not done too badly so far, from hot baths to antibiotics - and there is much to enjoy in this book. I was particularly amused by the section that reviewed calamities that never happened (e.g. acid rain, Y2 bug, Malthusian starvation). There is also a serious and thoughtful message about eco-friendliness and 'green' politics: technology and going forward may be a better solution than trying to put the clock back to an idyllic rural past that never really did or can exist. Green policies, driven by emotions, can lead to mistakes and errors (e.g. the disaster of bio-fuels and the folly of wind farms). However, I also found the book rambled a bit and would be improved by a good edit. Also, some of the material seemed a bit derivative – but it was possibly just out of date, since the book was written in 2008. I have read several books in recent years - Pinker's 'Better Angels' and 'Why Nations Fail' that cover many of Ridley's points, but a do a better job.
Narration: Awful! Matt Ridley mentions in the book that he 'grew up in London in the 1970s' He does not, therefore, have a grating American accent. I could not get over this contradiction. I like it when the author reads - Tony Blair, George Bush, Sarah Palin, Christopher Hitchens - but if you don't have the skills to do that then get somebody who sounds like the author would. Am I bigoted to want that?
"Well argued dissent"
Having liked all Ridley’s science books, I was worried to hear about this one. I suspected that he, a Tory peer, was lurching into political writing in defence of climate-change denial. So I put off reading it for three years; but I wish now that I hadn’t. Though presenting an optimistic view at odds with most scientists, it produces a shipload of facts, data and evidence in support – enough to have me questioning my own assumptions. If you’re convinced that the world’s going to hell in a handcart and you won’t hear otherwise, stay well away. But if you can entertain conflicting ideas simultaneously, this one’s for you.
As for Ridley’s thesis: hearing the historical evidence, I found it hard to dispute his case that the world's never had it so good. His argument that pessimism is over-cooked is also convincing - in principle. For me, the big flies in the ointment are his PC beliefs that all people are the same, and that you can’t get enough of them. And some of his suppositions already look doubtful. Since the book was written, the UN has admitted that its estimated 9bn population peak was wildly optimistic. It’s also clear that the regions where populations are exploding are the very least equipped to engage in the trade- and innovation-led salvation Ridley proposes. Despite all that, it makes a change to hear a dissenter rattling Al Gore’s cage.
I disliked the choice of reader, L J Ganser. Ridley, an Eton- and Oxford-educated aristocrat, talks in an appropriately understated manner. To hear him narrated like a New York car-salesman feels all wrong, especially as the text gives many clues to its English provenance. Some homework wouldn’t have hurt: not knowing that Samuel Pepys rhymes with ‘keeps’ is one of many crass blunders; but, for a real laugh, you’ll need to hear the economist Jeavons’s moniker mangled yourself.
In short: get it. You’ll be either entertained or exercised, and certainly informed. And you’ll never take the doomsayers’ word at face value again.
"Optimism makes sense"
A book that will challenge and change your attitudes and opinions. Refreshing, forthright, and above all encouraging. All politicians should read it, but they won't dare to espouse it. Most people are 'part smart' and this book goes to the heart of so many issues. It takes a positive view of the world and the future, and is an antidote to the relentless pessimism we are being fed most of the time.
"A truly inspiring and uplifting story."
The rational optimist gives a thorough and fascinating account of the history of human progress. Moreover, it makes a extremely robust case for hoping that the best it is still yet to come thanks to the human promiscuity for exchange of ideas, goods, knowledge...
Full of arguments to use in fighting the pessimist waves that seems to inundate everyday conversations about progress and the future. Unmissable
"Interesting facts but lacklustre philosophy"
"The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves" is about the fact that the world is becoming a better place and why that is happening.
The author gives us lots of interesting facts about how the world is improving. He also explains something about why supposedly apocalyptic problems like global warming are somewhat exaggerated. He often criticises bad environmentalist ideas accurately.
What lets the author down a bit is philosophy. He sometimes praises free markets but doesn't seem to have much good to say about individualism and often refers to "collective brains". His theory about ideas having sex isn't fleshed out at all. It just means people put seemingly different ideas together and that's all there is to it. He doesn't answer any of the following questions. Why do they do this? How do they do this? How does it work? Are there any inherent limitations to it? "The Beginning of Infinity" by David Deutsch is a lot better on philosophical issues, as are the books of Ayn Rand.
LJ Ganser reads the book clearly.
This is worth listening to if you are unfamiliar with facts about human improvement.
"Unscientific, one-eyed drivel"
I can't imagine who would benefit from reading/listening to this book. If you read the publisher's summary and agreed that your life is better and happier than everyone who has gone before you because of a ready availability of cheap consumer tat made in China then you will probably will get on with this book. But if that is what you thought anyway then you don't really need to buy it. If you have any scepticism about the claims in the summary then I'd advise you to look elsewhere because this book could drive you mad. Its SOP is to make a statement that is demonstrably either largely true or at least true in certain situations and then say "untrue" or "not so". This is followed by cherry-picking a quote from a single obscure or irrelevant source, or an out of context statistic in an attempt to convince you that everything you believe based on a lifetime of learning and experience is wrong. I found its pomposity and lack of balance utterly unbearable.
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