Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Rational Optimism

How about this for a view of the future?

Prosperity spreads, technology progresses, poverty declines, disease retreats, fecundity falls, happiness increases, violence atrophies, freedom grows, knowledge flourishes, the environment improves and wilderness expands.

According to scientist and author, Matt Ridley, this is what we can expect from the future based on a reasonable reading of human progress starting with the Stone Age.

Radical optimism? Yep and rational too. This is the world-view laid out in Dr Ridley's powerful new book, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves.

This is refreshing stuff, especially in the midst of the economic and ecological turmoil all around us.

Dr Ridley's case is grounded in an astute assessment of the past, and he believes pessimists take the wrong lessons from history. By excavating the past for solutions to the catalog of catastrophic threats that confront us – oil spills, financial meltdowns, climate change – the pessimist despairs when they can't find any. But to Ridley and optimists like me, this misses the glaringly obvious: that, in his words, "the human race has become a collective problem-solving machine which solves problems by changing its ways". As Mark Twain says, "history doesn't repeat but it does rhyme" – and the tune is innovation.

In this grand narrative arc, trade between the first humans began the process of creativity and advancement that hasn't stopped since and, despite the naysayers, Dr Ridley projects further acceleration.

"The modern world is a history of ideas meeting, mixing, mating and mutating...And the reason that economic growth has accelerated so in the past two centuries is down to the fact that ideas have been mixing more than ever before."

It's an awe-inspiring thesis. The more connections between people, the better; the more free and freewheeling the trade in ideas and insights, the more powerful the solutions will become. And ideas rule! We are not just equipped as a species to survive, but to prosper.

When it comes to optimism, the rational and the radical are one and the same.