What can the publishers of this book have been thinking? Surely everyone knows that the surest path into the bestseller charts for popular-science writers has always been to prophesy imminent doom for humanity.
Fifty years ago bookshops couldn’t sell enough hysterical potboilers about how we would all starve as a result of overpopulation; then, in the 1970s, the fad was for tomes on how we would run out of energy resources; in the 1980s “acid rain” was the overhyped danger, complete with artists’ impressions of annihilated forests. In the last decade of the 20th century, the “millennium bug” was the publishers’ bogey du jour. Now global warming is the latest apparently existential threat to every man, woman and child on earth, born or unborn.
Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist, in glorious contrast, tells us what we really should want to hear: that the human species, through our unique ability to exchange ideas and thus innovate at the speed of thought, has overcome all the challenges that have ever confronted us, and will do so in future. Ridley’s particular contribution is to combine the insights of Adam Smith (how all benefit through trade and the specialisation of functions) with those of Darwin (how species evolve through breeding). Ridley calls this “ideas having sex” and the characteristic of the modern interconnected world is that ideas are having it away with each other with ever-increasing frequency: “The telephone had sex with the computer and spawned the internet.”
There are many important people who don’t want to hear the good news, who see globalisation and uncontrolled trade as a threat to everything they hold dear. They include our national Eeyore, Prince Charles, and his landowner chums of the Soil Association, who say that what they call “sustainability” can only be achieved through self-sufficiency and a rejection of agricultural science. As Ridley observes, based on a whirlwind tour of every sort of society at every point in history, self-sufficiency is just a posh word for poverty: the two are inseparable. It is, of course, those furthest from starvation who find this fact hardest to appreciate.