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Publisher's Summary

Life is getting better at an accelerating rate. Food availability, income, and life span are up; disease, child mortality, and violence are down all across the globe. Though the world is far from perfect, necessities and luxuries alike are getting cheaper; population growth is slowing; Africa is following Asia out of poverty; the Internet, the mobile phone, and container shipping are enriching people's lives as never before.

The pessimists who dominate public discourse insist that we will soon reach a turning point and things will start to get worse. But they have been saying this for 200 years.

Yet Matt Ridley does more than describe how things are getting better. He explains why. Prosperity comes from everybody working for everybody else. The habit of exchange and specialization, which started more than 100,000 years ago, has created a collective brain that sets human living standards on a rising trend. The mutual dependence, trust, and sharing that result are causes for hope, not despair.

This bold book covers the entire sweep of human history, from the Stone Age to the Internet, from the stagnation of the Ming empire to the invention of the steam engine, from the population explosion to the likely consequences of climate change. It ends with a confident assertion that thanks to the ceaseless capacity of the human race for innovative change, and despite inevitable disasters along the way, the 21st century will see both human prosperity and natural biodiversity enhanced. Acute, refreshing, and revelatory, The Rational Optimist will change your way of thinking about the world for the better.

©2010 Matt Ridley (P)2010 HarperCollins Publishers

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  • Overall

Delightful Case for Things Looking Up

An extended argument that human intelligence and the well-being it allows is created, collected, maintained, distributed and extended by trade. Trade is "ideas having sex." Ridley builds his case with point after point then examines all the usual counterexamples and objections, taking them out one by one. It's a wonderful book. Of course it helped that he was preaching to the choir with me. What's most delightful is Ridley's goodhearted skewering of pessimists -- the technological and environmentalist Jeremiahs in particular -- with the most obvious of weaknesses is their flimsy cases. He's almost embarrassed for them. Ridley is a bit repetitive at times, but maintains a wry humor and lighthearted tone throughout, which makes his writing all the more effective. He's a good writer and he's right about everything.

11 of 11 people found this review helpful

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  • Gary
  • Las Cruces, NM, United States
  • 05-27-12

We've got it good

We really are living in special times. This book with Pinker's "Better Angels of our Nature" show how we are living at a very special time and things will most likely only get better. The book demonstrates how humans became special through our ability to trade with one another. You'll learn about prehistory and how the average person has it better than the Sun King, Louis XIV. After all, we have Novocaine and a seamlessly but complex system of trade which brings food from all over the world to my local table for an incredibly affordable price.

If you can give a person only one gift, let it be the gift of optimism. They will live longer on average and have happier lives. This book will help even the most pessimistic among us become an optimist.

6 of 6 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

A rational response to chicken little

Wow. After listening to this book for a third time in the last year, I decided I needed to write a review.

This book provides a well constructed, reasonable walk through time to give the reader some true perspective about our current condition relative to all those that have come before us.

At a time when media coverage is based around telling us what's wrong with us, our planet and our country, this book provides a practical antidote. Part historical narrative, part social anthropological study and part defense for science, technology and capitalism, this should be required reading for every high school student so they have something to balance their exposure to an almost completely reactionary media without any historical perspective.

It's true, there is a reason to believe mankind has a bright future! Who knew?

6 of 6 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

Changed my outlook

After reading this book my outlook towards the future has changed. I now have a very positive outlook. No more am I going to let doomsday-sayers inflict me with stress and negative thoughts about the future.
Awesome book!!!

6 of 6 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

Contrarianism, convincingly argued

This book will make you feel more optimistic about the prospects for humankind than you might have thought possible. The author does this, not by ignoring the many very real problems that we face, but by taking a broad historical perspective. His conclusion, which is very convincingly argued: the human condition has improved dramatically by almost any measure and there is every reason to expect it will continue to do so. The reasons why are intriguing and the analysis draws from a broad range of economics, history, science and technology.

I wish my activist friends would read this book and re-assess the focus of their concerns. We all want to make the world a better place and surely the most effective way to do so is to assess, rationally and without ideology or dogma, what has worked in the past as a guide to what might work in the future. It won't be an easy exercise for many because it leads the author takes a contrarian view on many currently fashionable topics including world trade, alternative energy, genetically modified food, global warming, etc.

The author makes a strong case for rationalism and it is a nice, but not inevitable, outcome that rationalism leads to optimism. If that sounds promising to you, you will find plenty of material here to bolster your hopes and inform your views of where we should be going from here.

10 of 11 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Tom
  • Hillsboro, OR, USA
  • 06-25-10

Brilliant capture of the human experience.

I am listening to this title for the second time back-to-back. First time I've done that in nearly 300 titles purchased.

Matt Ridley has beautifully woven together up-to-date dicoveries and insights in biology, genetics, archeology, and anthropology with economic principles and historical narrative, to form a clear picture of how humanity got to where it is today, and what the future might hold for our species. He does so in an easy to understand flow that offers enough specific detail to make it facinating, without bogging down in technical arcana.

Whether you are trained in any of those foundational dicsiplines or just a curious layman I promise you will find it engrossing, entertaining, and enlightening.

The narrator, L.J. Ganzer, adds to the experience with a very smooth, well inflected delivery.

10 of 11 people found this review helpful

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  • Mark
  • Raglan, New Zealand
  • 02-25-16

Exchange is the essence of humanity

This book is arrestingly, surprisingly, refreshingly different to the current tide of thinking about the World and the future, almost to the point of making you feel that it might be heretical to be persuaded by its ideas. I listened to it and felt completely convinced - but I also felt like I ought to consult some other clever person (other than the author, not other than me!) to ask whether it’s OK to believe this book.

Another surprising thing about this work is that it appears to take a totally different direction to other works by the same author (I had to Wiki the name to make sure the author was the same person). I’ve previously read ‘Genome’ and ‘Nature via Nurture’ by Matt Ridley and thoroughly enjoyed the output of this popular science author, but ‘the Rational Optimist’ is utterly different (reminding me of the difference between Dawkins’ ‘Selfish Gene’ and his ‘God Delusion’ in terms of an author of nonfiction radically changing their subject matter). The ‘Rational Optimist’ posits the theory that THE key feature of humanity that has given rise to progress and prosperity is trade and exchange – more than any other thing. Not education, not culture, not government, not science, but the free market – and this going right back to our earliest hunter-gatherer origins.

He presents this argument in a very convincing (and enjoyable) way - so much so, that someone with slight socialist tendencies (like me) fears that he is being suckered into buying into capitalist propaganda! Like someone who reads ‘The Art of the Deal’ by Donald Trump and is seduced by its tub-thumping inanity.

Ridley argues that the ability of man to continue to invent and reinvent and create new ways of growing prosperity continues at such a fantastic – even exponential – rate, that we will easily manage to overcome the challenges of the future, such as climate change and increasing population. In this respect the book is very similar to ‘Abundance’ by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, also a great optimistic - highly recommended - audiobook available from Audible.

On the downside, the narration was a bit disappointing. With most audiobooks you get a bit of inappropriate word emphasis and occasional word mispronunciation (exceptions are audiobooks narrated by their authors), but in this case the incidence of these avoidable, unforced errors was unacceptably high. However, in mitigation, the narrator does have a proper ‘actor’s’ voice with the requisite gravitas to be pleasing on the ear.

Finally, I would say that this is an extremely thought-provoking and interesting book - so good that I’m just about to listen to it for a second time.

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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Should Be on Your List

This book is almost too perfectly aligned with my core beliefs that the story of the world is one of progress. The mental architecture that I place new learning is built around a narrative of progress. The story is one technology driven change towards lower mortality, lower fertility, better nutrition, and better health. My training in both demography and history has taught me to be weary of any talk of "better days or golden ages" - as I appreciate lower child mortality, the spread of democracy, and expanded access to education.

So Ridley has written the book that conforms to almost all my prior beliefs - although he arrives at his conclusions by routes I probably wouldn't go. First, Ridley is clearly leans libertarian. He is suspicious of the role of government in promoting progress. I'd be interested in how he explains away government led policies that are responsible for so much of the progress we have enjoyed, everything from sewer projects to social security, civil rights legislation to medicare, medicaid, and the recent health care bill. I think Ridley does not give enough credit to the role of organized labor for contributing to spreading the benefits of capitalism to more people, nor does he seem to grasp the importance of government in supporting education at every level.

His dismissal of global warming as a major concern will get lots of attention for being basically wrong-headed, and I'd agree that he oversells his case and therefore gets the actions that we should be taking basically wrong. (My take…worry less, invest prudently).

I like that Ridley comes out as a fan of hydrocarbons and big oil (timely given the BP disaster), and his critique of ethanol is accurate and devastating. But he misses the importance of investing in alternative energy as an engine to insure innovation, seemingly blinded by the idea of a zero sum game of social investments (which is strange as he rails against zero sum thinking). I like a book where I agree with the conclusions but disagree with how the argument is derived. This tells me that the fundamental truth of the progress story is intact - and where we need to argue and debate is around the means rather than the ends.

8 of 9 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Liron
  • San Jose, CA United States
  • 11-16-10

Really Good

I was worried that the book would be too simplistic and repetitive, but it's smart and original and full of insight. It convinced me that people's lives in the past were worse than I thought, and the future looks bright, and humanity is on a steady upward trend.

This was one of my favorite listens, and I recommend it to anyone who likes good nonfiction.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Chris
  • Healdsburg, CA, United States
  • 10-15-10

Good message, too much detail

The premise of this book is intriguing and the author backs up his theories with a myriad of well-researched data - probably too much so. I found my mind wandering too many times as the narrator droned on about the fluctations in coal prices in Britain in the 1840s or the silk trade transactions between the Eriteans and the Kyristanians in the thirteenth century. The over-arching message of the book of optimistic evolutionary behavior that will make life better for future generations was a nice respite from the Al Gores of the world but I think I may have enjoyed the hard copy book better to just skip over all the data provided.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful