During an age in which Americans are bombarded from all sides over stories of natural disasters, overpopulation, pandemics, terrorism, and global warming, it is easy to adopt a grim view of the current state of the world. In 2010 we witnessed a deadly earthquake in Haiti, a massive oil spill off the Gulf Coast, and economically fueled riots across Greece. And already in 2011 there has been a deadly flood in Brazil, violent anti-government protests in Tunisia, and bombings of Christian churches in Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, and the Philippines. Given a relatively informed view of the world, how could anyone possibly be optimistic about the future of the human race? Well it so happens that in reaction to this wave of pessimism, Oxford educated zoologist turned journalist Matt Ridley has decided to challenge the current wave of hysteria by advocating what he terms “Rational Optimism”.
Currently participating in a lecture tour to promote his book The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, Ridley presents several key facts on his side which are not often considered by the modern day Chicken Little.
In his lectures, Ridley starts off by listing five indicators of prosperity over the past 55 years that are likely to ease some of the concerns of even the most pessimistic among us. Life expectancy globally has increased by a third, per capita income has tripled, food per capita is up by a third, child mortality has decreased by two thirds, and population growth has been cut in half. Yes, for those paranoid over the non-existent overpopulation problem you have nothing to worry about. Considering 55 years is a relatively short period of time in the grand scheme of things and these are all global averages, these realities are no small achievement.
One of the illustrations Ridley often uses in his lectures is the availability of reading light to show an increase in prosperity over time, which he borrowed from a study by William Nordhaus, Sterling Professor of Economics at Yale. He explains that if someone wanted to read a book for an hour by the light of a compact florescent bulb, it costs roughly half a second of work on the average wage today. In 1950 it would have cost eight seconds of work. With a kerosene lamp in 1880, it required 15 minutes of work. And for an hour of light by a candle in 1800 one had to work six hours on the average wage, which means that the average person could not even afford an hour of light in 1800.
In his book he illustrates a perfect point for his argument by examining America in particular. “Today of Americans officially designated as poor, 99 percent have electricity, running water, flushing toilets, and a refrigerator. 95 percent have a television, 88 percent a telephone, 71 percent a car, and 70 percent air-conditioning.” In the 1950s, he describes that a car owner being labeled as poor would have been “ridiculous” but that it is now considered acceptable. He doesn’t view this as a negative but rather as a sign that we are becoming kinder as a people, but must recognize progress when it is made in order to consider that further improvements are possible.
After establishing the position that conditions are improving as a whole and that we are perfectly rational to be optimistic about the future, the question of why this is the case must be answered. Ridley believes he has a good idea of why prosperity has been increasing at such an exponential rate. This answer can be simplified down to trade, not only the exchange of goods and services but the exchange of ideas between groups. “What’s relative to society is how well people are communicating their ideas and how well they’re cooperating, not how clever the individuals are.” Trade he explains is much older than farming and for the most part unique to humans. It is an incredible tool for increasing prosperity because it allows for the specialization of labor, where each individual does their own part to create what none could do well alone; a sort of “collective brain” as Ridley describes it.
The next time someone frets over poverty, hunger, or the end of civilization as we know it, it is important to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. There are problems in this world but conditions have dramatically improved over the past few centuries. As long as we continue to promote healthy policies such as free trade and minimally regulated markets, as well as utilize valuable tools such as the internet to spread ideas, there is plenty to be optimistic about.