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The Rational Optimist Part 2

October 2, 2010

THIS is the kind of thing thing Matt Ridley is talking about. I finished the book.

It is one of my top 10 favorite books of all time, and is changing the way I view technology, progress, prosperity, the past, present, and future. Not only does it provide me with legitimate reasons to be more optimistic about the future, it also makes me profoundly grateful for all that I have now. I don’t agree with all that he says, but he provides some fantastic information for readers to process on their own, from which they can draw their own conclusions. His is a pay it forward kind of philosophy. I’ve no doubt the world would be a different place if even just some of us, and most importantly, the media, thought like him.

In answer to Kenai’s question about Kings and peasants, in the context of human history, the United States has, for all practical purposes, no statisically significant population of peasants, in my opinion. Even the poor in the United States furnish their houses with air conditioners and have some choice at meal time. That is more than King Louis had, and certainly more than most Americans had even as little as 50 years ago. Those who are living without homes, almost all of them, are doing so by choice.

In the rest of the world, the ratios are different and Africa seems to be the most difficult nut to crack, still not having experienced even the limited prosperity that most of Asia now enjoys. The chapter analyzing and addressing Africa’s current heart-wrenching situation is enlightening and exciting for the possibilities that are there.


Update:  For my own reference.

  1. October 4, 2010 11:28 am

    I have it in my Amazon “cart”. It looks to be an interesting read/topic. In what way does it make you more optimistic about the future?

    My thought is that the “have nots” will eventually have enough critical mass to take down the “Haves”.

    My reason for thinking this is based on many things I observe, but also largely root on (since childhood) Armageddon / Revelation prophecy. “Fallen, Babylon is Fallen.” …. “No longer able to buy or sell”.

    I am willing to hear someone’s opinion on how things will improve, get better, evolve, but I can’t help but admit that my Biblical perspective is going to get in the way every time. Too deeply rooted.

    • xk3zofrenik permalink
      October 4, 2010 1:39 pm

      I don’t think there’s a better example of what he is saying that what I just did right now.

      I read this, went to amazon, ordered on Kindle and I am now reading the book 3 minutes after I read this post on my phone and can take it with me wherever I go.

      Knowledge spreads so fast these days that I wouldn’t doubt you could rebuild any country a lot faster than in any time in history.

      Which is right on queue with his mouse and hand axe comparison.

    • 3Suns permalink
      October 4, 2010 5:16 pm

      Kenai, this book isn’t going to change your beliefs, but it will definitely give you a fresh and hopeful outlook on the current trends of exchange, technology, and their role in prosperity. (Just briefly, my view of Armageddon is that it is brought about by a problem of man’s heart, that is, sin – pride, selfishness, untruthfulness, murder – not exchange and technology which by definition are about sharing and helping.)

      I think the most liberating argument in his book is that the “The End Is Nigh” fearmongers (scarig with the industrial revolution, nuclear holocaust, acid rain, Y2K, global warming – which he doesn’t deny, btw), have been with us throughout all history, and they have been wrong. Over and over again, decade after decade, century after century, “experts” have been stirring up fear about the future. Everyone panics about this or that, and then a couple decades, after predictions have been proven wrong, or not nearly as bad as was thought, the “experts” take on something new to scare everyone with. Yes, there are things that need to be done, and fortunately, there are passionate people to bring important issues to light. However, things never turn out as bad as we were led to believe (he provides numerous fear quotes and then solid evidence to the contrary) and almost invariably, exchange and technology outpace the bad.

      “My thought is that the “have nots” will eventually have enough critical mass to take down the “Haves”.”

      This has been the fear in all human history, and yet never in human history have we had such a huge population and such a large percentage of that living so prosperously. Nor have we ever had it in our power to actually meet the needs of everyone alive. That we aren’t isn’t because of our planet endangering technologies, for example, but because …of reasons he eloquently, rationally, and with evidence, develops in his book. I don’t want to misrepresent him. Just read it.

      He writes humorously as well, so it is not only informative, though-provoking, and perspective-changing, but entertaining.

      @’Frenik, exactly. There you are, reading his book on a Kindle. Saving the trees, one book at a time. He rests his case.

  2. October 5, 2010 1:16 pm

    This could be a very interesting discussion. I am deciding whether to

    1) Wait till I buy the book and then begin our discussion.

    2) Start discussing now. By doing this, I run the risk of missing the point of what the Author is saying and just coming up with my own discussion. So, I’ll do that because at least I think it is an interesting topic. The basic premise that I think the book is saying – “I’m a rational optimist regarding the future and here is why” “Technology and advancement in life is reaching a larger audience”. I agree with that, but I also have a problem with THE END RESULT.

    First of all, the Have Not’s do not develop critical mass (I agree), however, they are pawns in the game of ALL Wars. And we have had Many Wars in this world. Each War is more devastating in affecting the entire world (Thus the 2 most recent major wars have been dubbed WWI, WWII). WWIII is coming. It is an eventuality in my opinion.

    What is the cause? Who are the players and why?

    My key points for why I am Not optimistic about the future are related to the Dangers of Nationalism and how it relates to our current wealth structure.

    Culture differs from Nationalism in this way: Culture is about “We have learned to do life this way…” but Nationalism takes that further and becomes “We are better than you” and this morphs into Wars which begin because “You should let us rule you” and ultimately result in “We should have your Stuff”.

    Economics. This has been constant throughout history. It has been a fluctuation (and mix) between peaceful trading partners and all out war.

    Times have changed right? Hmmm… Yes, we have More Now. Some would say: “Wealth for All”. But that is not entirely true in my opinion because wealth is also based on perspective. We are Wealthy in America compared to where people were 100 years ago. But if I lose my job and have to move from a 4 bedroom house to a 2 bedroom, I am Not Happy. And want to Do something about it (Rob, borrow or steal if I get desperate enough or think I deserve it). Many cry out happily “Wealth for All!” – and “Let’s all get along!” But this only works as long as there is no possibility of ME reducing MY Wealth…

    We as a people are Churning it out in Droves. But… We are always looking for more and also making sure we are doing better than the other guy. Now we can’t really keep track of everything, so we start running at a Trade Imbalance. Theoretically it should self correct. Should be Temporary. But it is not so… Why? Because the War that is being waged in the 21st Century IS Trade Imbalance. This War will eventually bring an Economic meltdown (Bankruptcy of countries).
    Globalization in its pure form is a great thing. Ideas, Effort and Technology shared. Trade.

    But greed always gets in the way AND we become dependent upon others. No longer self reliant. And we can Not trust each other.

    Once trust is broken and the Imbalance reaches a “Tipping Point”, Eventual fallout can start with “tame things” such as Recession / Depression, but because we are Narcissistic, over the long term we will fall to Social Unrest & Chaos. Ultimately, retaliation will follow and erupt with such things (including War): possible Cyber or EMT attack. The possibilities are endless, but for all the good that Technology brings, It also brings: We ARE more susceptible to instantaneous dangers – Plagues, Electrical disruption, Reliance on the economy for basic needs such as food, energy, water. Our world is more dangerous now and we are less prepared and have little Self Reliance.

    There has been a Golden Age for the past 60 years. There was a pretty well established balance.

    But recently there has been a shift with some countries like China are entering in as a mainstream trading partner. China entered first with poor quality. Implemented what experts calling a “Beggaring Economic Policy“. Stealing technology. Our country (and world) instead of banning their “stolen goods”, embraced the low prices. Now 20 years later, China is poised to take over and we can no longer honestly say “You cheated”.

    With the new players these past 10-20 years, imbalance is already reaching critical mass. Examples: US National Debt 13 Trillion. European Union on verge of bankruptcy because they have Socialized so much of their country (Unions, Healthcare, Pension). Japan’s only reason for its halted expansion is because of China’s and Korea’s emergence.

    The question is: Are Nations like the US, Germany, Japan willing to watch their economies retract while India, Korea, Russia (energy / raw materials) and China pick up the slack? Can they be content to deflate? Consume less? Let others gain?

    From a human perspective, we do not stop consuming until we are Forced to stop (Credit Card gets declined).

    With Nations, it is the same. We (the USA) will not stop until we are forced to. It is a vicious cycle because China needs our consumption at this point in time to Tool Up their economy. They won’t always need US. In fact, they (China) have already started lowering our National Credit rating (and the EU’s)

    Eventually, they will injure our National Pride. It will not go smoothly. Chain of events will happen…. Additional friction with Russia, Middle East, even Europe. Even a stagnant Japan is going to want to cash in to vitalize their economy. “Hey USA, you owe us a Lot of money. Time to pay up”.

    Will it topple? I think so. If so, how, when? How hard will it fall?

    Or will sane minds prevail and the Golden Age will continue for centuries?

    My gut, The Bible and human history tell me:

    “The Love of Money is the Root of all Evil” – Greed and Pride are the twin brothers since the beginning.

    I could be a Rational Optimist if it weren’t for this. We don’t live on an island and we aren’t surrounded by our closest friends.

    My opinion. Looking forward to your response (as I quite possibly have jumped the gun – commenting on a book I haven’t even read…)

    One last word: Did you watch the Summer Olympics in 2008 (Beijing)? Key things that I noticed
    1) China went ALL OUT to A) Impress the World B) Inform everyone of their long heritage and economic power for centuries “We are Not the New Kid on the Block” We are China!
    2) Cheated with their women’s gymnastics program by putting in underaged (more flexible) girls. 16 yrs is the min. Some girls were 12.
    Win at All Costs
    Don’t tell me National Pride won’t be a problem once Countries start bickering more than they are now about “Who’s gonna pay for this mess” and “Who’s in Charge”.

  3. October 5, 2010 4:26 pm

    I re-watched the videos that you attached in the previous post.

    I find his ideas realistic on one hand, but limited in his world view on the other hand…

    But then… I found this new one.

    Michael, are you sure this guy is “All there?” Sorry, but he seems tooo Optimistic….

    Switch off Aging in Humans? Really? How about once you do that, you then get around to switching off Aging in Every living thing, because it seems that one universal principle in life IS aging. Every living thing dies. Period.

    p.s. Can you imagine the Chaos created IF there was a method for switching off Aging. Everyone would be scrambling to get it. “No, please be patient… We’ll get to you shortly…” “How long do I have to wait?” “Oh, you are in line behind 2,433,216,234 people in the process. So…. We’ll get around to you, umm… In 37 years….”

    Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate what he is trying to do. This one below is a good interview:

  4. 3Suns permalink
    October 5, 2010 9:24 pm


    To clarify, and I don’t have his book or my notes in front of me, I believe his thesis is that it isn’t language, or tools, or the opposing thumb, that brought about human prosperity/progress/culture. It is exchange/trade. Exchange leads to specialization and technological advance – which leads to free time, which leads to culture. Furthermore, technological advance is geometric so that it is outpacing the problems (e.g., pollution) inherent with each emerging tech.

    Now, the following is my own opinion, not the author’s.

    Almost all of the worries you mentioned would have been argued with at least as much passion before the start of what you yourself just labeled the “Golden Age for the past 60 years”. THAT alone should be enough to make you stop and ask yourself, am I going to choose to be optimistic or pessimistic about the future – because all those doomsayers with their plethora of doom scenarios were wrong. (Personal note: the most tragic is that for the one scenario at least, they brought it into the schools “You are all going to die in a nuclear winter” and made the children cry. In my opinion, that was unconscionable.)

    I also want to point out that your arguments against optimism are almost all centered on issues of ethics/honor/morality (i.e., the state of mans’ heart), not on the actual possibility of supporting everyone on the planet with the current resources at our disposal. The murderous and greedy heart we have had with us always, and indeed, the actual chances of getting murdered now, are considerably lower than they were 500 years ago.

    I am hesitant to write more because I don’t have the depth of knowledge of the author (his footnote reference section is almost a full third of the book). I don’t want to make silly arguments for issues he articulates clearly and with substantial support. Like I said, I don’t agree with everything he writes, but I think anyone who even wants to hope that there might be a future to look forward to, would find his book very interesting and thought-provoking (and maybe even a little liberating).

    Finally, one of the exciting points he makes at the end of his book, is that, given the past 100 years, we can’t really even imagine what tech might be discovered in the next 100. Given that we don’t do ourselves in (and/or Christ doesn’t come), we can expect some amazing and liberating technology in the near future.

    BTW, and this has nothing to do with the author’s speculation on switching off aging, just yesterday I came across a review for another movie on cloning, “Never Let Me Go”, and I found myself almost laughing at the proposition of raising copies of ourselves for future transplant needs. I believe that the tech for using our own stem cells to “regrow” our own organs would come before we would ever want to clone a whole human being and use old surgical methods for transplanting. Funny, because even science fiction that was written within the past 5 years is looking dated. UPDATE: Today, I came across growing our own lungs.

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