Posted tagged ‘Matt Ridley’

Optimism vs pessimism: er, no thanks (part 1)

February 3, 2011

While on the subject of reviews (see last post), a few thoughts which developed slowly from one I wrote about that other book with optimism in the title, Mark Stevenson’s Optimist’s Tour of the Future. I was fairly positive about the book, and even about the idea of cultivating an optimistic attitude – not always my temperamental inclination.

I’m still pondering some of the recent discussion of optimism though. It goes slowly as I mainly want to resist the implication that optimism vs. pessimism is a particularly useful way to discuss ideas about the future. I’m definitely with Bruce Sterling there – in terms of what will actually happen, optimism versus pessimism is beside the point. The future will be more history –  a mixture of good and bad, like the past. Lets turn up the gain a little. The future will most likely be a mixture of the amazing and inspiring and unspeakably dreadful, like the past.

Other reasons for not wanting to sign up to the idea that everyone is too damn pessimistic now, and we ought to do something about it:

1) I’m not sure what difference it makes. Is there any definite connection between being optimistic and trying to do stuff to make the future better than it might otherwise be?  One can imagine (and occasionally meet) optimists,  call them witless, who just think things will probably be OK and they can ignore any potential problems. On the other hand, taking those problems terribly seriously can lead to action of a kind. I suppose the author of the Transition Towns Handbook, whose take on the future could not be more different from Matt Ridley’s, is a kind of optimist, though I don’t personally find his vision of the future either optimistic – or, for that matter, remotely plausible.

2) As indicated above, the optimism/pessimism frame is a poor way of illuminating real issues. Look at the analysis in Mike Hulme’s Why We Disagree About Climate Change, for example. That is a more thoughtful, more wide-ranging  and, I think, a wiser book than The Rational Optimist.

3) Obsessing about pessimism is culture bound – while there may be a fixation on gloom and doom in some quarters just now in the developed world, I have a strong impression that it is a minority view globally. Reports from China and India, for starters, suggest that in countries where life has got demonstrably better recently for many millions of people there is plenty of support for the idea that it can go on improving.

4) Obsessing about pessimism also tends to generate bad history, ignoring the fact that the opposites always co-exist. Indeed the optimistic tradition – from, say Francis Bacon, through Condorcet up to Herman Kahn – is well known. And it is, on the face of it, shared by most public leaders, at least in their public utterances. All politicians, all the time, more or less, assume that economic growth is the way of the future (assuming that that itself is optimistic…). For confirmation, see any newspaper reporting on the current state of the economy.

All that said, you have to admit that there is a fair bit of pessimistic sentiment around in the countries whose mediasphere I sample (as a monoglot Englishman). And some people seem very attached to their pessimism, to the extent that they treat any suggestion it might not be warranted with scorn or sarcasm. Not sure why that is. As I’ve said before, we’re not looking nuclear megadeath in the face week after week any more (are we?). Things may well get a bit worse for a lot of people, and – as ever – turn out terribly for some. And the slope of the curve does seem crucial, so that even a slowing of growth throws some people into a panic. Then again, I don’t get why the idea that material standards might decline is always seen as such bad news, either. Is it a by-product of capitalism’s own incessant self-advertisement, generating a conviction that a faltering growth machine means the end of all good things?  But  lots of the pessimists are also social critics of the sort who believe we’re all more unhappy than ever or even, like the reliably ridiculous Oliver James, that we’re all sub-clinically depressed by “affluenza”.

More to say on all this, but long enough for a single post, so I’ll save for part 2.

Pessimism, pessimism everywhere, I tell you! (


Pessimism, pessimism everywhere, I tell you!

January 6, 2011

Sometimes, you just have to rise to an author’s bait. I’m just pondering a couple of books espousing optimism: Mark Stevenson’s Optimist’s Tour of the Future (of which more anon), just out, and Matt Ridley’s polemical Rational Optimist, published last year.

The latter is fascinating, and its main thesis pretty persuasive – life has generally got better and better over the last 50,000 years, even as humanity has proliferated, and this is due largely to trade, especially trade in ideas. The more exchange of ideas there is, the more innovation happens, and the more exchange of ideas follows, in a virtuous circle accelerated by ever more refined division of labour. It is a bit one-dimensional as a thesis to explain the dynamic of all human history, but a trade book like this needs a Big Idea, and this one follows through well, and is smart and well-written as all Ridley’s books are.

The reason he advances this thesis is that it justifies a belief that things will go on getting better (there is more exchange, and more innovation capacity now than ever before). This idea also has a lot going for it. But in order to identify himself as the uber-optimist – the natural successor to Julian Simon – Ridley adopts a pretty wide definition of pessimists, which is pretty much all the rest of us. Thus:

“The bookshops are groaning under ziggurats of pessimism. The airwaves are crammed with doom. In my own adult lifetime, I have listened to implacable predictions of growing poverty, coming famines, expanding deserts, imminent plagues, impending water wars, inevitable oil exhaustion, mineral shortages, falling sperm counts, thinning ozone, acidifying rain, nuclear winters, mad-cow epidemics, Y2K computer bugs, killer bees, sex-change fish, global warming, ocean acidification, and even asteroid impacts that would presently bring this happy interlude to a terrible end. I cannot recall a time when one or other of these scares was not solemnly espoused by sober, distinguished and serious elites and hysterically echoed by the media…”

I think this is weak rhetorically (ooh, get those untrustworthy “elites”, and tut at the hysterical media) and the attempt to lump all these items into one categoery is unconvincing. As my lifetime overlaps with MR’s pretty well, lets see how my recollections run down here, off the top of my head:

Predictions of growing poverty – not sure who this refers to: Limits to Growth and Ehrlich’s Population Bomb would qualify I suppose, but they come up later so that might be double counting.

Coming famines – an unequivocal direct hit. There were truly dire predictions, and they were dead wrong. We also now understand the causes of famine much better.

Expanding deserts – well, I think they have expanded in some parts of the world, if not as drastically as some foresaw. Soil degradation is certainly a problem in many farming regions (but see famine).

Imminent plagues – there has been a fascination with the possibility of a new pandemic, which given the mark of past diseases on world history does not seem that surprising. Then again, there were plenty of, with hindsight, over-optimistic predictions in the decades after World War 2 of the end of infectious disease. Antibiotic resistance is real, and there are some newly-emerging and re-emerging diseases. Laurie Garrett and Richard Preston did hype up the prospect for mega-outbreaks, but there are real public health concerns about epidemic spread in a globalised world which it would be unwise to ignore.

Impending water wars – my perception of both books and media reporting on this topic is that it may lean toward alarm but is fairly balanced. When I have researched it myself, a little, I soon found as many people who argue that water shortages tend to induce co-operation as often as conflicts as those maintaining that water will be the new oil.

Inevitable oil exhaustion – well, it is inevitable (unless there really is oil in the deep hot biosphere which I am inclined to discount). When, of course, is open to discussion. And there is plenty of dispute with those who are convinced that peak oil is imminent, and plenty of reporting of the sceptics, I think.

Mineral shortages – OK, another famous case where past predictions have been proven wrong, and a fairly basic case of not understanding the economics of extraction and substitution. Shortages make it worth recovering the hard to get stuff, and looking harder for alternatives (see also peak oil). But this is hardly news. The story has been told innumerable times with exactly the moral I just summarised.

Falling sperm counts – this was not exactly a prediction of doom, in my view, more a concern founded on some quite good results which indicated that sperm counts were actually falling. Not far enough to produce infertility, but an odd finding, to be sure. It ties in with the sex-change fish, and the notion that some chemicals in wide use are endocrine disruptors. That wasn’t a crazy, or doom-mongering tale, in my reading, more an issue worth highlighting so we could do something about it if we needed to.

Thinning ozone – this was an actual problem, which is now most often (I’d say) used as an example which gives cause for optimism. When it was identified, and the evidence established to most people’s satisfaction, there was international agreement on measures to nip it in the bud. Were the people who argued that if no action was taken things would get worse silly pessimists? Not sure why that categorisation fits.

Acid rain – this is a complicated one, but the little I know makes me incline to accept Ridley’s view that the problem, and its consequences (forest destruction) were overblown.

Nuclear winters – this strikes me as a particularly daft inclusion on a list of unwarranted doom scenarios. Obviously it was not simply the product of a pessimistic temperament to fear a major nuclear war in the years from, say, 1950-1990. The wonder, if anything, is that the fear has abated to such an extent. Nuclear winter was an added ingredient, which was based on evidence and modelling which left scope for argument. But discussing the hitherto neglected short and medium-term atmospheric effects of nuclear war still seems prudent, does it not?

Mad-cow epidemics – not sure why these are plural. But there surely was a new, completely unexpected disease, whose biology was apparently unprecedented and is still imperfectly understood. Once its transfer to humans was established, there was enormous uncertainty about the incubation time before symptoms appeared. So while there were widely varying scenarios, a mass outbreak of new variant CJD was not an impossibility by any means. The fact that it did not happen may well just be dumb luck.

Y2K computer bugs – a particularly interesting case, to my mind. Probably a special case, too, as it chimed with Millennial fears. And remarkable, too, I think because it has been so little discussed since. Did we avoid IT meltdown because the problem was always exaggerated by money-grubbing software consultants, or because of all the fixes which were put in place before the date of doom?  I dunno, but the whole thing says something about our collective unease about dependence on complex systems, which is a bit more interesting than the simple “pessimism” on the Rational Optimist’s charge sheet.

killer bees – don’t recall them (assuming this doen’t mean bees dying off…)

sex-change fish – see falling sperm counts

global warming – well, the big one, and too big to start in on here, except to say that it is not just a prediction: global warming is clearly happening. And while it is not a harbinger of imminent doom, it will go on for quite a while whatever we do and could still turn out to be the one thing which makes the prediction made in the several editions of The Limits to Growth – of a major downturn in economy and ecology around the middle of this century – somewhere near correct. I don’t personally think that is likely, but the consequences in the second half of the century remain radically uncertain and fearing they will be severe does not make one a chronic pessimist, I my view.

Asteroid impacts – these got lots of attention because of our fascination with the death of the dinosaurs, which it emerged was (probably, at least partly) due to a big hit. It did then seem worth looking into how many near earth objects big enough to do real damage there are. Suggesting that they could do real damage was part of the case for getting the relevant surveys funded, and that also seems to me a good thing. Turns out there probably aren’t any posing a large risk any time soon, but that is good to know and again seems to produce an optimistic twist to the story in most current tellings.

I haven’t looked anything up to verify these recollections, and there may well be things in the detail which need correction. But this expansion of Ridley’s list does at least convince me that he has pulled together very different things under one much too simple heading – one classic technique, in other words, for building a straw man argument.