Talk of impending doom threatens to overwhelm us these days. If that’s not bad enough, a lot of people seem to be cheering it on.
The economy? We’re heading for another Great Depression, and it’s payback for our greed. The environment? We’re drowning in our own poisons, and probably deserve to. The government? We’re on the road to serfdom, theocracy, fascism, communism, anarchy (choose one, depending on the day of the week). The world’s population? It’s either too big to sustain, which means Soylent Green is on the menu, or it’s going to slowly die off in a couple of generations, which means entire societies could become extinct.
So in a world that’s falling apart, it’s nice to know that people like Matt Ridley still exist. Ridley is the author of The Rational Optimist, and here’s the thesis of this intriguing book:
Over 10,000 years ago there were fewer than 10 million people on the planet. Today there are more than 6 billion, 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.
I really want to read this book (this one, too), if only to arm myself with rejoinders to fans of gloom-and-doomers like James Howard Kunstler. (Though at least in the area of urban planning, Joel Kotkin is doing a fine job with that.) The progress-haters have been proven wrong in the past. Let’s hope they’re proven wrong again.
Otherwise, you might as well just dig a hole, sit down in it and wait to die.
Of course, Kunstler and his ilk would probably prefer it that way. After all, self-dug one-person holes are local, sustainable and have a small carbon footprint.