Your humble writer gets a book to review once in a while.  Most don’t get finished, some are never read, but one simply stands out from all the others.

“The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves” from Matt Ridley is one that deserves notice.  It isn’t news, but sums up, organizes and presents a view that is stunning.  Ridley’s impressive background in business, journalism and science includes a BA and doctorate degrees from Oxford University, worked for nine years as a science editor, Washington correspondent and American editor for the Economist, and now is a writer and businessman.

The book puts reality into perspective, stuffs a muzzle over those decrying the future of mankind and the earth, and answers back to the major media thumping on recessions, currency problems, wars, famines, poverty, disease, peak oil, extreme storms and natural disasters.

Ridley makes the case that “human beings are not only wealthier, but healthier, happier, cleaner, cleverer, kinder, freer, more peaceful and more equal than they have ever been. This is because the source of human innovation is, and has been for 100,000 years, not individual inspiration through reason but collective intelligence evolving by trial and error resulting from the sharing of ideas through exchange and specialization. The secret of human prosperity is that everybody is working for everybody else.”

Now that might imply a kind of communism – but as a practice we’re all working in our own personal self interest.  Most everything we’re doing is in exchange for money or barter or trade.  Specialization has allowed societies to concentrate skills, capitalize labor saving methods and equipment – freeing more people from a life packed full of chores for survival to creating wealth.  The information age may be the beginning of a new era pushing the sharing of ideas out further and faster.

“The secret of human prosperity is that everybody is working for everybody else,” is a concept the bears repeating.  Ridley says, “The world has never been a better place to live in and it will keep on getting better.”

Quotes worth noting:

“The important stuff costs less. One reason we are richer, healthier, taller, more clever, longer-lived and freer than ever before is that the four most basic human needs – food, clothing, fuel and shelter – have grown markedly cheaper. Take one example: In 1800, a candle providing one hour’s light cost six hours’ work. In the 1880s, the same light from a kerosene lamp took 15 minutes of work to pay for. In 1950, it was eight seconds. Today, it’s half a second. In these terms, we are 43,200 times better off than in 1800.”

That’s a list of four things – food, clothing, fuel and shelter – government policy should be focused on to drive ever cheaper.

“Oil is not running out. In 1970, there were 550 billion barrels of oil reserves in the world, and in the 20 years that followed, the world used 600 billion. So by 1990, reserves should have been overdrawn by 50 billion barrels. Instead, they amounted to 900 billion – not counting tar sands and oil shale that between them contain about 20 times the proven reserves of Saudi Arabia. Oil, coal and gas are finite, but they will last for decades, perhaps centuries, and people will find alternatives long before they run out.”

Fuel and energy cost issues in government policy must be to drive to more, better and cheaper. If its not, it’s a betrayal.

On population and food:

“Population growth is not a threat. Although the world population is growing, the rate of increase has been falling for 50 years. Across the globe, national birth rates are lower now than in 1960, and in the less developed world, the birth rate has approximately halved. This is happening despite people living longer and infant-mortality rates dropping. According to an estimate from the United Nations, population will start falling once it peaks at 9.2 billion in 2075 – so there is every prospect of feeding the world forever. After all, there are already seven billion people on earth, and they are eating better and better every decade.”

Food and fuel are both essentials and will always balance in an economic nature.  Land and sea cultivation of crops isn’t something to limit, but to encourage.  While Ridley doesn’t specifically say, technology is what will preserve wilderness.

On poverty:

“Poverty is nose-diving. The rich get richer, but the poor do even better. Between 1980 and 2000, the poor doubled their consumption. The Chinese are 10 times richer and live about 25 years longer than they did 50 years ago. Nigerians are twice as rich and live nine more years. The percentage of the world’s people living in absolute poverty has dropped by more than half. The United Nations estimates that poverty was reduced more during the past 50 years than in the previous 500.”

That observation comes as a shock to those relying on major media.  News, as such is past its heyday, headlines, controversy and conflicts are not the facts, just recordings of the events of life.  Almost all news isn’t useful anymore.

Our situation:

“We’re better off now. Compared with 50 years ago, the average human now earns nearly three times as much money (corrected for inflation), eats one-third more calories, buries two-thirds fewer children and can expect to live one-third longer. In fact, its hard to find any region of the world that’s worse off now than it was then, even though the global population has more than doubled over that period.”

The review:

Ridley does a fine job of making his case, which your humble writer agrees with.  There are a couple weaknesses that may plague some people.  Much of the references are other writer’s works instead of peer reviewed history citations.  That is cause to pause, but remember, the book is written for us out here, not academia. The other weakness is language isn’t addressed.  The past 50 years has seen English become the language of business and trade. It might be a threat to some, but a common second language across the planet is a huge advantage both in economics, and in keeping the peace.

Lastly and perhaps quite important if your thoughts are so inclined, is Ridley is pointing out that specialization in economics is key and information exchange a foundation.  Your humble writer agrees, but cautions on taking that position too far.  Self-reliance is still critical, we must be able to change, learn new things, do things in better ways and be able to care for ourselves and deal with others effectively and fairly.

Its quite a read, well written and on sale now.


2 Comments so far

  1. Matt Musson on April 17, 2012 7:16 AM

    I just finished the book Abundance by Peter Diamandis, the chairman of the X Prize Foundation.

    Peter points out that cell phone usage in the 3rd world has made it possible for the very poor to use online banking in areas that have no banks. A tailor can use his cell phone to order needles and thread. The fisherman can check prices before he docks.

    Cell phone usage has raised 48,000,000 people out of abject poverty. They are still poor. But, they are upwardly mobile.

  2. Kenya on April 29, 2012 11:20 AM

    In general I agree however the comment regarding OIL reserves being plentiful and ” food, clothing, fuel and shelter – have grown markedly cheaper.” I find inaccurate. There is a lot of nonsense going on in determining oil reserves. For instance the Saudi Oil reserves have remained unchanged for 30 years. In addition The cost of shelter and health has not gotten cheaper, even though food and clothing has. The cost of Energy has gotten cheaper in the early twentieth century then started increasing after the 80’s. So his argument rests a bit on wishful thinking.

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