Thursday, June 24, 2010

Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist

Best-selling science writer Matt Ridley's latest book is The Rational Optimist, which explains why the author is upbeat on the prospects of a planet and a civilization that seems to lurch from one pending political, economic, or environmental catastrophe to another.

Doomsayers have it all wrong, writes Ridley, who argues that prosperity and innovation have outraced even the visions of Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill. He argues:

"The phrase diminishing returns is such a cliché that few people give it much thought. Picking out the pecans from a bowl of salted nuts gives diminishing returns: The pieces of pecan in the bowl get rarer and smaller. The fingers keep finding almonds, hazelnuts, cashews, or even—God forbid—Brazil nuts. Gradually the bowl, like a moribund gold mine, ceases to yield decent returns of pecan.

Now imagine a bowl of nuts that has the opposite character. The more pecans you take, the larger and more numerous they grow. That is the human experience for the last 100,000 years. The global nut bowl has yielded ever more pecans."

Reason's own science correspondent Ronald Bailey talked with Ridley recently in Washington, D.C. They discuss Ridley's book, his hopes for the future, and the policies that can improve - or undermine - the prospects for our future.


  1. Interesting. I was surprised that he didn't bring up economic systems. His answer to why things took off in the 1800s was a bit vague. I wonder where we would be if Columbus didn't discover a remarkable continent on his journey to find the Far East and if much of that continent wasn't eventually populated by independent minded people free to reap the rewards of their efforts.
    He is more optimistic than I am. It is hard for me to see how China's demand and India's demand on world resources (along with other emerging economies) will be met without destroying the planet. I see a downward shift in the standard of living going forward.

  2. I'm usually a pretty optimistic person, but have to agree with you: near term and intermediate term thing looks bleak for economic growth.