The case for optimism

It’s a beautiful day in Brooklyn today! The sun is shining, it’s a cool friendly 60°, the trees are Shire-green, the birds are exchanging gossip (the original Twitter), and I’m feeling optimistic about the world.

Naïve? Perhaps not; I’m certainly not alone. Here, watch a couple of clips from Hans Rosling and see if they don’t cheer you up:

Still blue? Matt Ridley makes the case for optimism in his excellent book The Rational Optimist, which is worth reading in full. (Check it out of your local library!) Ridley points out that pessimists have been complaining about the worsening of the world since, well, forever:

Even back in the golden age itself, in the eighth century BC, the poet Hesiod was nostalgic for a lost golden age when people ‘dwelt in ease and peace upon their lands with many good things’. There has probably never been a generation since the Palaeolithic that did not deplore the fecklessness of the next and worship a golden memory of the past. The endless modern laments about how texting and emails are shortening the attention span go back to Plato, who deplored writing as a destroyer of memorising.

And so on, age after age, “turning point” after dreaded “turning point.” From the late nineteenth century through the early twentieth, “while European living standards shot up to unimaginable levels, while electricity and cars, typewriters and movies, friendly societies and universities, indoor toilets and vaccines pressed their ameliorating influence out into the lives of so many, intellectuals were obsessed with imminent decline, degeneration and disaster.” Today, Ridley says, “the drumbeat has become a cacophony. The generation that has experienced more peace, freedom, leisure time, education, medicine, travel, movies, mobile phones and massages than any generation in history is lapping up gloom at every opportunity.”

Or as the comedian Louis CK says, “everything is amazing and nobody’s happy”:

Not that we should ignore pessimists completely; they often point out valid problems that, if left unaddressed, certainly would lead to worse conditions in the world. But Ridley takes aim at the despairing, fatalistic mindset that usually comes with the pessimist’s view:

[P]essimism is not without its cost. If you teach children that things can only get worse, they will do less to make it untrue. I was a teenager in Britain in the 1970s, when every newspaper I read told me not just that oil was running out, a chemical cancer epidemic was on the way, food was growing scarce and an ice age was coming, but that my own country’s relative economic decline was inevitable and its absolute decline probable. The sudden burst of prosperity and accelerating growth that Britain experienced in the 1980s and 1990s, not to mention the improvements in health, lifespan and the environment, came as quite a shock to me. I realised at the age of twenty-one that nobody had ever said anything optimistic to me about the future of the human race — not in a book, a film or even a pub. Yet in the decade that followed, employment increased, especially for women, health improved, otters and salmon returned to the local river, air quality improved, cheap flights to Italy began from the local airport, telephones became portable, supermarkets stocked more and more kinds of cheaper and better food. I feel angry that I was not taught and told that the world could get much better; I was somehow given a counsel of despair. As are my children today.

What, then, is the basis for optimism? Ridley makes a compelling argument for the power of human exchange, specialization, and innovation — in his words, “ideas having sex,” the vital phenomenon that allows humans to adapt to and flourish in every situation. Where pessimists go wrong, he thinks, is in failing to account for human innovation in their dire projections:

Let me make a square concession at the start: the pessimists are right when they say that, if the world continues as it is, it will end in disaster for all 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 — the whole thrust of this book. The real danger comes from slowing down change. It is my proposition that the human race has become a collective problem-solving machine and it solves problems by changing its ways. It does so through invention driven often by the market: scarcity drives up price; that encourages the development of alternatives and of efficiencies. It has happened often in history. […] The pessimists’ mistake is extrapolationism: assuming that the future is just a bigger version of the past. As Herb Stein once said, ‘If something cannot go on forever, then it will not.’

Ridley ends his book with the notion of “catallaxy” — the economist Friedrich Hayek’s term for “spontaneous order created by exchange and specialisation.” No matter how many setbacks human civilization suffers in the future, Ridley is confident that the fundamental phenomenon of catallaxy will be kept alive:

It will be hard to snuff out the flame of innovation, because it is such an evolutionary, bottom-up phenomenon in such a networked world. However reactionary and cautious Europe and the Islamic world and perhaps America become, China will surely now keep the torch of catallaxy alight, and India, and maybe Brazil, not to mention a host of smaller free cities and states. By 2050, China’s economy may well be double the size of America’s. The experiment will go on. So long as human exchange and specialisation are allowed to thrive somewhere, then culture evolves whether leaders help it or hinder it, and the result is that prosperity spreads, technology progresses, poverty declines, disease retreats, fecundity falls, happiness increases, violence atrophies, freedom grows, knowledge flourishes, the environment improves and wilderness expands. Said Lord Macaulay, ‘We see in almost every part of the annals of mankind how the industry of individuals, struggling up against wars, taxes, famines, conflagrations, mischievous prohibitions, and more mischievous protections, creates faster than governments can squander, and repairs whatever invaders can destroy.’

It’s worth noting that Ridley’s optimism isn’t tied to the fate of any single nation, whose fortunes may rise or fall, but to the enduring ability of the human species as a whole to meet its challenges. Neither is it tied to the hope that human nature will somehow change for the better; he admits that it will not, and that “[t]he same old dramas of aggression and addiction, of infatuation and indoctrination, of charm and harm, will play out, but in an ever more prosperous world.” Borrowing from Thornton Wilder, he suggests that “History repeats itself as a spiral not a circle […] with an ever-growing capacity for both good and bad, played out through unchanging individual character”:

So the human race will continue to expand and enrich its culture, despite setbacks and despite individual people having much the same evolved, unchanging nature. The twenty-first century will be a magnificent time to be alive.

May it be so.

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