The Rational Optimist

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Blackbird's picture
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The Rational Optimist

Hi there,


Does anyone who has read this book (The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evovles - by Matt Ridley) have an opinion about its message?






cedar's picture
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Here is a review I wrote a

Here is a review I wrote a few months ago...

I was very impressed with the intelligence of the author and the amount of research he did.  I have been reading a lot of history lately and love books like this that look at the underlying causes for the rise and fall of civilizations. The majority of history books tend to focus on politics, leadership, and social change thus ignoring the really important issues of natural resource exploitation, climate, technology, and surplus wealth creation that drive everything. The Rational Optimist is one of the best analyses of human history that I have seen.

I found his theory that trade is the key driver of human species success to be refreshingly novel and quite compelling. I think he is on to something since the usual suspects of intelligence and language are insufficient to explain our success.

I agree with 95% of what he stated in the book. Specifically his big messages that I agree with include:

- things have never been better for the human race

- life was not better in the past

- many big problems are trending in a positive direction such as population growth, health, lifespan, and poverty

- fossil energy is central to our economic success

- alternate energies are often less green than fossil energy

- nuclear energy is much better in all regards than most alternate energies

- industrial agriculture has been amazingly successful at increasing food yields

- genetic engineering is a valuable and important technology

- most pessimists in the past have been proven wrong

There are 3 big messages in the book that I disagree with:

- climate change is not that serious and we will adapt

- economic growth can and will continue

- fossil energy substitutes in sufficient scale will be found and exploited in time to avoid a collapse

Climate change is a really complicated topic. I have read a lot of books on climate change and find the depth of the science to be somewhat overwhelming and very difficult to independently verify. There are a few voices that I trust such as James Hansen who is the leading climate scientist in the U.S.. His recent book "Storms of My Grandchildren" strongly contradicts the message in the Rational Optimist. Given that James Hansen is not a biased environmentalist and is an experienced climate scientist I tend to give his opinion more weight than Matt Ridley's. I would suggest that you read Storms of My Grandchildren and see if you come to the same conclusion as I have that climate change is going to be a really big problem for our children.

Matt Ridley believes that economic growth can and will continue. I am certain that he is wrong on this point. He is correct that 19th century predictions of contraction by Malthus et. al. were proven wrong. That was a different time when a new fossil energy (oil) and a new continent awaited to be exploited. Ridley also attempted to discredit the Club of Rome's Limits to Growth report in the 70's. Here he made a blunder. I have read the original report and a recent study comparing their predictions to reality and they were quite accurate. Specifically they predicted we would begin to see limits to growth problems in the early 2000's and the first manifestation would be in the economy. Anyone with a modest education in mathematics can understand why economic growth must eventually slow and stop. We live on a finite planet. Economic activity requires the extraction of natural resources and the disposal of wastes. A small compounded growth rate of 1% (which is much less than most countries target) results in a doubling of economic activity every 70 years (4% takes 20 years). I think it is clear that we are nearing a point (and perhaps have already reached it) that economic growth will no longer be possible. The keystone resource limiting growth will be oil but many other resources have flashing red lights on the dashboard. The implications of no growth are profound, some of which include defaulting debt (and thus evaporating paper wealth), the need for a new monetary system, social unrest, and resource wars.

The final point I disagree with is that suitable alternate energy will be found in sufficient scale to offset declining supplies of non-renewable fossil energy. On this topic I consider myself an amateur expert and know much more than Matt Ridley. It is clear that oil production has already peaked (conventional oil in 2005, total liquids including non-conventional in 2008). We can expect oil supplies to begin to fall soon. The start date and rate of decline have considerable uncertainty due to their intimate linkage with economy driven demand and capital availability for investment. We will not have the surplus capital, nor the time, to offset declining fossil fuels with alternatives. And the low energy density of alternatives makes it very doubtful we could ever fully replace fossil fuels, even if we were rich.

In summary I really enjoyed the book, so much so that I read it twice. It was very optimistic and I can see why most readers will depart feeling very good about the future. Because Matt Ridley understands so well the pivotal role energy has played in the success of the human species it would be an enlightening exercise to re-read the book assuming that total energy begins to decline soon, even if you think energy use will continue to increase. This will give you a deeper insight into the dangers of declining energy. With this new insight you could then do some research into alternate energies and I suspect you will come to the same conclusion that I have - namely that our species will be in very serious trouble within our lifetime.

Biodiversivist's picture
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I also wrote a review.

It's too long to copy and paste here. You can read it at the following link:

What was its message? People who warn of and strive to avert potential future disasters are all pessimists?

The book was more or less a compilation of other books on the same subject. Vey little of it was novel, if any of it.



Laurent Franckx's picture
Laurent Franckx
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rational optimist

I broadly agree with your view. There are a lot of things to recommend in The Rational Optimist, but there are also some serious flaws in its analysis of contemporary issues. I have written a detailed review on

Ostrichard's picture
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Rational Optimist

About a year and a half ago, I was watching FOX news in the morning (because they have the largest lettering in the news crawl along the bottom of the screen) and there was a gal on there, a VP for something or other for BP, being interviewed regarding the new, deep drilling oil find in the Gulf.  She stated that BP had drilled 35,000 feet and found a reservoir that (loosely remembered and paraphrased), "would rival the known total reserves" of either Saudi Arabia, or the whole middle east, I forget which, and was unable to establish, because Googling the interview seemed fruitless and I never saw her again on any other network.  Not that she just disappeared, which she may have, but I at least, never ran across her since.  Anyway, it turned out that the well she referenced was the very one that blew up last summer and leaked all over the Gulf.

There also was a Russian, whose name I don't recollect, who wrote a book named, I think, called  "Endless Oil," which postulated that oil is created deep in the earth through chemical interactions of carbon and heat and pressure, and is thus not a "fossil fuel" at all, but an endlessly self-perpetuating phenomenon.  He, and others (I was able to find reference to his work online), provided chemical formulas and equations to show how this worked, although I'm not a chemist, and it doesn't take much to exceed my level of expertise in this regard, although I can manufacture a reasonable Manhatten, my wife says.   One of their statements of evidence was that if the oil was of "dinosaur/diatom" formation, there should be chemical or DNA-esque markers indicating such, and the deep oil showed only activity of contemporary microbes which feed on oil today-that is, no ancient evidence, only recent.  These sites also point to previously tapped out oil fields in the Gulf as refilling and actually oozing oil to the surface over the recent past, which I have heard of independently.  To my lay mind, the argument seemed compelling.

So, as an optimist wishing to be able to enjoy my old GTO on a sunny afternoon occasionally, have you heard any of these things on your end?  I submit to the expertise of those more able to expend time to aquire info than I, who is still building a greenhouse and trying to figure out how, or if I can grow enough of anything to stay alive.  It would sure be nice to move any overt disaster thirty years down the line-though it may be argued that it is precisely that type of thinking that got us into this mess to begin with.

Thanks in Advance



jturbo68's picture
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Oil Optimist



The subject of Abiotic oil come up regularly on these forums.  Indeed, there are always post on big new finds and huge reserves. 


The believers in Abiotic Oil defend those beliefs quite voraciously.  However

Whether or not Oil is generated spontaineously in the core of the earth, is irrelevant.  How quickly oil can be discovered and produced is the real key.  And we have been exploring and finding less oil every year worldwide sonce the 1960s.

A big find now and again does not change that trend and the nature of exponential growth makes a big find increasingly irrelevant because the resource use is so large.





Ostrichard's picture
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Abiotic oil

Hmmm.  Daunting reply.  This gal on the news did make a comment that I remember now and forgot to include in my previous post, and that was that this find was SO huge, we "may have to rethink the Theory of peak oil."  That is not a paraphrase, but a direct quote which has stuck in my mind.

Further, it appears there was a good amount of crude being tapped there before the oil rig fire and leak (an old-style gusher, actually), leading to the totally unsuspicious cessation of ALL DRILLING whether related or not to this type of technology by the administration of our benevolent pro-American president (sic), which, remarkably, persists to the time of this writing, despite being held in contempt of more than a few courts which had ordered such a moritorium terminated.

I realize the total premise of this site is to guide us all gently back to the Amish ways of our great grandparents, reveling in quiet evenings enjoying our organically grown vegetables by, what-the fire?  Are there enough resources to even do that with the exponential growth of which you speak?  (BTW- A hundred years ago, when the average life span was about 55 years or less, I submit that nearly ALL food was organic.  Make your own correlations...)

My grandmother was born in 1894.  During the 1960's, when the orange sun was shining in the atmospheric cesspool known as Los Angeles, and daily reports for all aged, very young and infirm to stay indoors and avoid breathing at all, if possible, were on the news every night even in the nothwestern U.S., she told me this: 

"These people should have been alive when I was young.  You take a city the size of, say,  Tacoma, Washington, and run 8 to 10,000 horses up and down the (as yet) unpaved streets on a 70 degree day following a week of rain, and what with the mud churned up, the dung and flies it attracts, along with everyone cooking either with wood or coal, using hand dug cesspools and it won't take you very long to discover just what real pollution really is.  When the Model T came out, a little blue smoke was nothing."

I know this means nothing to those here who feel we are all doomed, and perhaps we are, but you know, great strides have been made towards cleaning up the environment in my lifetime.  The air is better, despite population growth.  I would swim in Puget Sound today, if the water weren't prohibitively cold, but I would not be prevented by the "Ewww" factor of overt pollution as we were when I was a kid.  Today is better,  the limiting factor being preposterous monetary policy and debt systems.  It galls me to the quick that whether by ignorance or design our human attempts toward sustainability will most likely be scuttled by policy before attainment. 

It always seems to come down to time, doesn't it?  A race to save the planet before the end of life as we know it.  I guess it has always been such, and as numerous civilizations have shown, we are often late to the picnic.  It's a shame it's happening on my watch, and I'm relegated to ineffectual remedies like flourescent lights, weak solar panels, a greenhouse, storing food, smaller cars and washing my clothes during off peak hours. 

I guess compared to some, I've done a lot.  Too bad it's probably too little, too late.  Maybe my blood sugar is low today, sorry.  I feel like I've been watching Glen Beck, for pete's sake.

And I apologize for the lengthy ramble of this diatribe.




jturbo68's picture
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OIL Optimist



The Numbers that I recall for the well that blew out in the gulf.  It was estimated between 25Mil and 100 Mil Barrels.  That is not all that large as oil fields go.  THe largest that I have heard speculation about is a deep water find in Brazil.  Something like 10 Billion Barrels.

But with world consumption of oil at 80 million barrels a day, a 10 Billion barrel find is not THAT large either.

I agree, people have made great strides in solving problems.  However, we have taken those solutions and used them to foster additonal growth.  That has its own set of unintended consequences.

I tend to think that circle will break badly at some point, maybe during our lifetimes.


I dont really think the CM site promotes the "good old times", when we were gardening and storing food to our hearts content, however, it does recognize that when the game of musical chairs stops, it will be better to have prepared a place to sit.





Ostrichard's picture
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I must apologize, this site

I must apologize, this site is huge, and as a newbie, I'm afraid I hadn't had an opportunity to canvas much of it, so to make a blanket statement  as I did regarding the return to the old times was totally out of line.

You know, there was a state senator and later, a US representative from Washington State in the 1980's named Jack Metcalf, who lectured on the exact same thing as the Crash Course.  His discovery was that then, as now, remarkably, with the exception of the actual precious metal content, US coins are still produced by the US Mint, and therefore, remain constitutional.

Thus, unlike the Federal Reserve paper money, the coins of the realm, if you will, are still under control of the congress, and if used, since they are constitutionally produced, again with the exception that they contain no precious metals, they are still issued in such a way that they do not add to the national debt when spent.  This is poorly worded, but I think you are sophisticated enough to get the gist of it.

Then Representative Metcalf, who I'm sure was a great influence on a young senator, one Ron Paul of Texas, even was able to garner some news coverage for his "coin days" when groups would get together at certain government offices and pay fees and/or taxes and the like with coins instead of folding notes, to illustrate the point of not adding to the debt burden of the country.

Unfortunately, the participants were no better at explaining what they were doing than I just was, and so the fledgling movement really went nowhere.   The movement was ahead of it's time.

His main objective, he stated, was to get the government to go one step further, to issue US Greenbacks, a paper currency, alongside Federal Reserve notes (after all, who wants to carry around 30 pounds of coins all the time?) and since they would be backed with the actual force of the United States, the value would remain constant, and the fiat currency in the form of the Fed notes, would inflate to infinity over time, maybe a very short period of time, and the US debt could be serviced and retired with perhaps a single, actual, constitutional greenback, or at least it would be very cheap to do so.  What do you think?  Or is there a thread that already deals with this issue of which I am as yet unaware?

Nearly 30 years later, I think the public, aided by sites like this are beginning to get an idea of what has actually been done to them, and we're seeing the fruit of that new awareness in the last November elections and in states such as Wisconsin.  Even though the ability to articulate this issue is often lacking, the populace knows in a general way what is wrong, and as education continues, the future could be brighter than we may think at this time.  Unless the middle east blows up, or the purveyors of the status quo are able to scuttle us first.  Again, it's always a race to avoid extinction, isn't it?

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