Friday, February 11, 2011

The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves - Matt Ridley

I've always enjoyed Matt Ridley's books on biology, so I was looking forward to this one.

I absolutely loved the first half of this book. I went through a phase several years ago of feeling like the world was becoming more crowded, and more polluted, and worse, and worse, and that if I were to ever have a child their quality of life couldn't possibly be even remotely equivalent to my own, so it would be a total disaster and irresponsible to have children since the future was so incredibly hopeless. Sky did manage to talk me out of this by pointing out that people tend towards a certain level of happiness no matter what their physical surroundings, and that you don't need to guarantee perfection prior to having kids. Ironically this was right about the time he decided he didn't necessarily want to have children himself, and now I did want to have one, and many discussions were had, eventually resulting in Elli - who appears to be quite happy. Matt Ridley covers the other side of the argument - the one Sky totally ignored - that it is quite common to feel that the current situation is as good as things can possibly get, since the future can't improve it must be about to start heading downhill, and that this point of view is totally inaccurate if you're looking at the world as a whole. It is possible that in some small corners the world is getting worse. Wars break out, some places are unreasonably prosperous for a while and then suffer a reverse, there are housing bubbles and depressions. But overall the average living conditions for everyone in the world are improving. The number of people living in poverty may be increasing, but the percentage is decreasing - maybe not today in particular, but on average. Decreasing child mortality actually causes populations to decrease rather than increase, so overpopulation doesn't look like the enormous problem it once did. Change happens slowly and can take generations, but attitudes can change, and they do change. There are problems, but humans have a track record of innovating their way around these problems, so that something which seems insurmountable today may prove to not even be an issue at all tomorrow.

So, the first half of the book was totally wonderful, and I felt so much better about the world and people in general having read it. The second half was fascinating, but I'm not quite as sure how I feel about it. The basic premise was that we need to keep consuming energy at pretty close to the current rate, and that our energy consumption is probably going to have to go up. And that renewable sources of energy really aren't the way to go. And that burning fossil fuels isn't nearly as bad as everyone has been making it out to be.

All of his arguments made sense to me while I was reading the book. Hydro-electricity is a great source of power, but you have to flood a huge area when you're creating the dam, and the people living there aren't necessarily going to be happy about it, and it isn't necessarily a clean or green process. Plus the dam can be an eyesore. Windmills take up huge amounts of space, they're ugly and noisy, and can cause all sorts of problems of their own. Solar power also takes up lots of space and isn't going to be very reliable if you happen to want power at night or on a cloudy day. Biodiesel is an environmental disaster (it is awesome if you happen to own the only converted van in the province, and are using left-over french fry oil that was just going to get thrown out. Growing corn simply to process it into oil in order to fuel cars is a net loss even if you don't count the environmental just happens to be very pretty politically.) So he's arguing that burning fossil fuels is totally necessary, and actually has a smaller environmental impact per unit of energy than the so called renewables. And I think he's right...but it is the sort of argument that you're always wondering what sort of hidden agenda the person writing has that honestly I'm scared of just taking this information at face value, and yet I don't know where to go for an unbiased opinion. I'm not even sure that an unbiased opinion exists. But I do think that I agree with his argument that turning farmland into a windfarm instead of returning it to a "natural" state isn't necessarily an improvement, and that if you need to cut down a forest in order to create new farmland to replace the land that is now sprouting windmills...that is taking a step backwards. But I think there's a degree of integration that he's missing out on. A single windmill in the middle of a farmer's field probably isn't reducing the amount of food grown significantly. And putting solar panels on your roof doesn't take space away from a forest, and it will help reduce temperatures in a city. I think he's also underestimating the impact of things like strip-mining. On the other hand, his point that the entire world needs access to cheap energy - it isn't fair for those of us living in first world countries to tell people in third world countries that they aren't allowed to burn fossil fuels because it is bad for the environment. People need to have a certain amount of wealth before they are really able to care about the environment, so the best solution is to help everyone all over the world be rich enough that we can all afford to care about the environment. After all, if your child is starving you don't particularly care whether or not their chance of getting cancer over the next 60 years has gone up by just isn't immediate enough. But when you expect them to live until at least 80...all of a sudden it becomes quite relevant and worth fighting for.

Overall I think this was a fabulous book and extremely well written. I find all of Ridley's work very easy to read, so even though it is long it wasn't hard to finish. I found the degree of optimism extremely refreshing, and I certainly slept better at night while reading this. I didn't love the "down with green energy, fossil fuels are wonderful" attitude towards the end of the book, but it did make an interesting change in perspective. I just worry that everything has gotten so black and white that no opinion can possibly be balanced anymore.


  1. I think the main problem with the book is that it does not recognize that reality is grey. It is very good at showing the flaws in the arguments put forward by the "black" side but is completely blind for the faults in the "wide" arguments. I discuss this in much more detail at

  2. I totally agree Laurent, and that's a great review you've written. I think we're at the stage of this particular game where all of the opinions available are extremely biased, and that in order to compete with the folks who are arguing that the world is going downhill at an alarming rate you need to be overly optimistic. The truth is definitely somewhere in the middle, but the arguments in this book were ones that I hadn't heard before. Prior to reading this I had been thinking of windmills as the greatest things since sliced bread, and I still think they're pretty wonderful, but I'm now thinking a bit harder about the environmental impact of farmland.