Highlights from The Rational Optimist
By Bryan Caplan
I finally got around to reading Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist. Highlights:
1. Ehrlich’s errors were worse than I realized:
In March of that year India issued a postage stamp celebrating the wheat revolution. That was the very same year the environmentalist Paul Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb was published declaring it a fantasy that India would ever feed itself. His prediction was wrong before the ink was dry. By 1974, India was a net exporter of wheat.
2. How non-renewable energy is more abundant than renewable energy:
The Atlantic Ocean is not infinite, but that does not mean you have to worry about bumping into Newfoundland if you row a dingy out of a harbour in Ireland. Some things are finite but vast; some things are infinitely renewable, but very limited. Non-renewable resources such as coal are sufficiently abundant to allow an expansion of both economic activity and population to the point where they can generate sustainable wealth for all the people of the planet without hitting a Malthusian ceiling, and can then hand the baton to some other form of energy.
3. The fallacy of pessimistic extrapolation:
[T]he pessimists are right when they say that, if the world continues as it is, it will end in disaster for 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 – and the whole thrust of this book.
4. Collective irrational pessimism vs. individual irrational optimism:
People… tend to assume that they will live longer, stay married longer and travel more than they do. Some 19 per cent of Americans believe themselves to be in the top 1 per cent of income earnings. [At the same time, though, I’ve noticed that most people who are in the top 1% don’t realize it. -B.C.]
5. Declining flu mortality is not dumb luck.
The modern way of lie, with lots of travel but also rather more personal space, tends to encourage mild, casual-contact viruses that need their victims to be healthy enough to meet fresh targets fleetingly…
[W]hy then did H1N1 flu kill perhaps fifty million people in 1918? Ewald and others think the explanation lies in the trenches of the First World War. So many wounded soldiers, in such crowded conditions, provided a habitat ideally suited to more virulent behaviour by the virus: people could pass on the virus while dying.
6. The wisdom of Bill Clinton:
“I want to stress the urgency of the challenge,” said Bill Clinton once: “This is not one of the summer movies where you can close your eyes during the scary parts.” He was talking not about climate change but about Y2K: the possibility that all computers would crash at midnight on 31 December 1999.
The main argument I wish Ridley pursued more: How the very existence of civilization creates a mighty presumption against pessimism in all its forms. But I view his omission optimistically: The arguments for optimism are so numerous that no one book can contain them all.