Life is getting betterand at an accelerating rate. Food availability, income, and life span are up; disease, child mortality, and violence are down all across the globe. Though the world is far from perfect, necessities and luxuries alike are getting cheaper; population growth is slowing; Africa is following Asia out of poverty; the Internet, the mobile phone, and container shipping are enriching peoples lives as never before. The pessimists who dominate public discourse insist that we will soon reach a turning point and things will start to get worse. But they have been saying this for two hundred years.
Yet Matt Ridley does more than describe how things are getting better. He explains why. Prosperity comes from everybody working for everybody else. The habit of exchange and specializationwhich started more than 100,000 years agohas created a collective brain that sets human living standards on a rising trend. The mutual dependence, trust, and sharing that result are causes for hope, not despair.
This bold book covers the entire sweep of human history, from the Stone Age to the Internet, from the stagnation of the Ming empire to the invention of the steam engine, from the population explosion to the likely consequences of climate change. It ends with a confident assertion that thanks to the ceaseless capacity of the human race for innovative change, and despite inevitable disasters along the way, the twenty-first century will see both human prosperity and natural biodiversity enhanced. Acute, refreshing, and revelatory, The Rational Optimist will change your way of thinking about the world for the better.
Ridley's book is a useful corrective to prevailing pessimism, and should certainly be read by anybody of an apocalyptic bent, or anybody who is convinced that renewable fuels and organic food are obviously better for the environment and for humanity than the alternative. Still, Ridley is himself an interesting example of what can happen when someone is too optimistic: he was chairman of UK bank Northern Rock, which, when it failed in 2007, became the first bank in the country to suffer a bank run since the 19th century, and had to be taken over by the government. Sometimes, a bit of precautionary pessimism can be decidedly useful.