Bryan Caplan  

Highlights from The Rational Optimist

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Klein, Laughter, and the Acade... Northern Evangelicalism...
I finally got around to reading Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist.  Highlights:

1. Ehrlich's errors were worse than I realized:
In March of that year India issued a postage stamp celebrating the wheat revolution.  That was the very same year the environmentalist Paul Ehrlich's book The Population Bomb was published declaring it a fantasy that India would ever feed itself.  His prediction was wrong before the ink was dry.  By 1974, India was a net exporter of wheat.
2. How non-renewable energy is more abundant than renewable energy:
The Atlantic Ocean is not infinite, but that does not mean you have to worry about bumping into Newfoundland if you row a dingy out of a harbour in Ireland.  Some things are finite but vast; some things are infinitely renewable, but very limited.  Non-renewable resources such as coal are sufficiently abundant to allow an expansion of both economic activity and population to the point where they can generate sustainable wealth for all the people of the planet without hitting a Malthusian ceiling, and can then hand the baton to some other form of energy.
3. The fallacy of pessimistic extrapolation:
[T]he pessimists are right when they say that, if the world continues as it is, it will end in disaster for humanity.  If all transport depends on oil, and oil runs out, then transport will cease.  If agriculture continues to depend on irrigation and aquifers are depleted, then starvation will ensue.  But notice the conditional: if.  The world will not continue as it is.  That is the whole point of human progress, the whole message of cultural evolution, the whole import of dynamic change - and the whole thrust of this book.
4. Collective irrational pessimism vs. individual irrational optimism:
People... tend to assume that they will live longer, stay married longer and travel more than they do.  Some 19 per cent of Americans believe themselves to be in the top 1 per cent of income earnings.  [At the same time, though, I've noticed that most people who are in the top 1% don't realize it. -B.C.]
5. Declining flu mortality is not dumb luck.
The modern way of lie, with lots of travel but also rather more personal space, tends to encourage mild, casual-contact viruses that need their victims to be healthy enough to meet fresh targets fleetingly...

[W]hy then did H1N1 flu kill perhaps fifty million people in 1918?  Ewald and others think the explanation lies in the trenches of the First World War.  So many wounded soldiers, in such crowded conditions, provided a habitat ideally suited to more virulent behaviour by the virus: people could pass on the virus while dying.
6. The wisdom of Bill Clinton:
"I want to stress the urgency of the challenge," said Bill Clinton once: "This is not one of the summer movies where you can close your eyes during the scary parts."  He was talking not about climate change but about Y2K: the possibility that all computers would crash at midnight on 31 December 1999.
The main argument I wish Ridley pursued more: How the very existence of civilization creates a mighty presumption against pessimism in all its forms.  But I view his omission optimistically: The arguments for optimism are so numerous that no one book can contain them all.



COMMENTS (13 to date)
rapscallion writes:

I'm basically on board with much of this, but from what I've read about the book elsewhere I think he is far too dismissive of fears regarding the proliferation of wmd's.

It will be absolutely astonishing if wmd's like nuke's and biological weapons are never used. What weapon was ever invented that was never used? If just one wmd attack somewhere, sometime takes out a major city (either sponsored by a state or a terrorist organization), I think it's likely to cause a disruption in international trade and commerce on par with The Great Depression or worse.

Chris T writes:

Y2K will be forever an example of a threat that tremendous effort was put towards averting, but it will never be known if it was a real threat to begin with.

"When you do things right, people won't be sure you've done anything at all." - Futurama

There are very good reasons to be optimistic, but it behooves us to look out for potential pitfalls as well.

Joseph Sunde writes:

Thanks. My favorite is the abundance of non-renewable vs. renewable energy.

Kurbla writes:

"How the very existence of civilization creates a mighty presumption against pessimism in all its forms. "

Some, but not really mighty. Ten years old boy is stronger, smarter, prettier every day. What, he'll never die? Individuals, cultures and even species follow that dynamics - progress is faster, but destruction is stronger.

Steve Z writes:

rapscallion: Even if all the wmd's in the world were used simultaneously, humanity would survive, and, given enough time, thrive once more.

geckonomist writes:

I very much like his explanation of the relation between development & energy & environment.


It is a book everybody should read.

Ray Tseng writes:
Y2K will be forever an example of a threat that tremendous effort was put towards averting, but it will never be known if it was a real threat to begin with.

There is lot of counterfactual evidence that it was a nonexistent threat. Many countries had exact same systems/computers as the United States and performed zero to minimal upgrades with zero repeat zero consequences.

Jason writes:

I enjoyed Ridley's book, but recommend his earlier works - particularly The Red Queen. It is also a pity that he does not allow questions on Northern Rock as a condition of interviews. It would be interesting to hear his views.

My minor criticism of the book is probably best put in a quote by Julian Simon (from Scarcity or Abundance: A Debate of the Environment).

Let me correct a misapprehension. I have never said that we don't need to worry about anything. We need to worry about everything, in the same sense that you had to worry whether you'd get here on time, whether there'll be enough food in your kitchen for next week, and so on. The world needs the best effort of all of us.

I'm saying that the result of all this worry - and of your constructive work, of your throwing your life into trying to do good things for the world and for other people - is that on balance you will create more than you will use in your lifetime, and you will leave the world a little better than before, on average. So, while we all need to worry, we can forecast that the result of all the worries will be that we will wind up better off than we are now.

I don't preach complacency. And certainly in my own life I don't think you'll find complacency. We have to struggle like the dickens. But we'll win, we'll overcome.

Tariq Scherer writes:

Every decade or so seems to be locked into a Malthusian riddle, with the only constant being that its undoing is often its own humorous lack of substance.

It is nice to see that writers still see some sunshine on the publication horizon to provide a little uplift out there but it would be even better still if we could keep pessimistic fears within their topical zone of emotional tirades.

What concerns me more, however, is that such Malthusian impetus then gets so expounded as to become its own evidentiary momentum: oh, but if we are all afraid or worried, then logically there must be substance to the debate, right? No, and it would be preferable to keep this in mind before actions, not just words, start taking place.

I am not touting irrational optimism as the answer of all ills either, but pragmatism, especially in the face of bad news, is certainly a more reasonable outlook for us all to take.

Thank you again for the quick book excerpt review.

rapscallion writes:

Steve Z,
I agree. I never said humanity was going to end, just that the near-to-medium future might not be the magic mountain candy land that extreme optimists seem to think it must be.

ScottN writes:

Ray Tseng, I would be very interested in seeing some examples. As a computer professional that was involved in Y2K fixes I find that quite difficult to believe.

I have been following the reviews and blog commentaries on Ridley’s book. Most have been quite positive. The nastiest was by George Monbiot in Britain’s left-wing Guardian newspaper. One can of course quibble with details of Ridley’s analysis. But to dismiss his basic story, to actually condemn it as villainy, takes a really diseased cynicism, and blinding oneself to what is, well, blindingly obvious. It’s painful to observe. And it’s harmful, standing in the way of a better world (especially for the downtrodden, about whose plight such pundits constantly whine).


 Monbiot et al are intolerant guardians of a narrow orthodoxy. They portray Ridley’s book as fanatically pro-capitalist and anti-government. It is not, and only a fanatic would see it so. Their critiques reveal more about the critics than about the book.


Bravo to Ridley for his breath of fresh air and clear thinking. That his message is widely labeled “radical” is ironic — the reaction really should be, “Duh! Tell us something we don’t know.” Yet Ridley is indeed telling us something that, sadly, most people don’t know.


My own book, The Case for Rational Optimism (Transaction, Rutgers University, 2009), does make many points and arguments similar to Ridley’s, but is far broader in scope, covering not only such topics as the economy, war and peace, technology, democracy, etc., but also the evolutionary background and the philosophical and psychological issues involved with optimism versus pessimism. See http://www.fsrcoin.com/k.htm

Ray Tseng writes:
Ray Tseng, I would be very interested in seeing some examples. As a computer professional that was involved in Y2K fixes I find that quite difficult to believe.

I haven't read anything on it recently. It seems to be a problem that was immediately forgotten as soon as it was over. I remember reading articles on it in 2001 of almost no problems especially in southeast asia where very little problems occurred. There's a Wall Street Journal article that is linked to on sites but I can't find the actual article online.

You can take this for what it's worth from wikipedia entry on Y2K

The lack of Y2K-related problems in countries such as Italy, which undertook a far more limited remediation effort than the United States. In an October 22, 1999, report, a US Senate Committee expressed concern about safe travel outside of the United States. The report stated that overseas public transit systems were considered vulnerable because many did not have an aggressive response plan in place for any problems. Internationally, the report singled out Italy, China and Russia as poorly prepared. The Australian government evacuated all but three embassy staff from Russia.[39] None of these countries experienced any Y2K problems regarded as worth reporting.

The lack of Y2K-related problems in schools, many of which undertook little or no remediation effort. By September 1, 1999 only 28 percent of US schools had achieved compliance for mission critical systems, and a government report predicted that "Y2K failures could very well plague the computers used by schools to manage payrolls, student records, online curricula, and building safety systems".

The absence of Y2K-related problems occurring before January 1, 2000, even though the 2000 financial year commenced in 1999 in many jurisdictions, and a wide range of forward-looking calculations involved dates in 2000 and later years. Estimates undertaken in the leadup to 2000 suggested that around 25% of all problems should have occurred before 2000.[41] Critics of large-scale remediation argued, during 1999, that the absence of significant problems, even in systems that had not been rendered compliant, suggested that the scale of the problem had been severely overestimated.

If this matters, I worked IT at Earthlink in 1999 and we didn't view y2k as a serious problem.

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