Friday, November 04, 2011

The Rational Optimist

"It is the long ascent of the past that gives lie to our despair" - H.G. Wells

I just finished reading Matt Ridley's recent book The Rational Optimist.

I was prompted to read it by his Long Now talk. I find it hard to be optimistic these days, but I try to read a variety of viewpoints. One of the problems with today's abundance of information is that it is all too easy to only read material that you agree with. Not a good plan if you want an open mind.

It's an interesting book, that makes a lot of good points. There have always been people forecasting disaster and it makes good press so it tends to get amplified. And often they turn out to be wrong. By many measures the overall trend of the human race has been upward.

I would like to point out that when people raise the possibility of a disaster and then it doesn't happen, that doesn't mean there was never a danger. Take Y2K for example. Look at all the fuss there was, and look at what a non-event it turned out to be. But if no one had made a fuss, if all the preventative work had not been done, maybe there really would have been a disaster. Sometimes when you cry wolf, there really is a wolf.

My biggest complaint about the book is that it is overwhelmingly people oriented. Although the non-human environment is mentioned, it is definitely secondary. It's natural for people to be people-centric. But the history of mankind is one of expanding horizons, from family to tribe to race to all of humankind. I'd like to think that the natural continuation of that is to expand our empathy and concern and attention to our whole environment, not just the human part.

The book seems to assume that the measure of "success" is economic growth. Even within the human sphere, I have my doubts about the value, wisdom, and feasibility of unending growth. Contrary to popular belief, more is not always better. Obviously, poor people can benefit from a higher standard of living. But those of us in rich countries may already have gone too far. Depending on which study you pay attention to, more money doesn't even make us happier. Having more income to spend on more stuff to fill up our ever larger homes has little redeeming value and likely does more harm than good in the big picture. And to further complicate the story, our "growth" in the last few decades has almost entirely gone to the already rich top few percent. Do the billionaires really need more billions? I guess it gives the other 99% something to dream about. But is that much more productive than dreaming about winning the lottery?

Still, it was an interesting read, and a nice change from doom and gloom even if you don't agree with all of it.

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