The Rational Optimist

[Amazon Link]

If you're old—like I am—you have been exposed to decades of doom mongers. OK, so the Ice Age they predicted didn't get us, but Global Warming will. OK, so we didn't all die from that 70's disease; or that 80's disease; or that 90's disease; or that 2000's disease; but just you wait; this decade is going to get us. OK, acid rain didn't eat off our faces while we were out scavenging for mushrooms during the worldwide famine after the population bomb blew up, and we ran out of non-renewable resources, and pollution overwhelmed us. Also, that big final financial apocolypse? Didn't happen on schedule either, but (mind my words) it's just around the corner.

In addition: kids today are no damn good, and their music? It's just noise! And they should get the hell off my lawn.

Matt Ridley calls bullshit on the doom mongers, but that's just one part of this book. His primary purpose is to explain how prosperity happens: why it occurred when it did, how it became self-sustaining, and how it can falter. The scope is wide, covering millennia, examining cultures over the whole world. He brings in insights from history, anthropology, economics, science, and technology.

His "hook" is: ideas have sex. Hence they procreate and evolve, and this happens blindingly faster than biological evolution. The "sex" thing is kind of cheap attention-grabbing, the analogy is strained, but illuminates something real: an innovation originally confined to some backwater can be exchanged between cultures until it dominates worldwide.

Ridley is no Pollyanna, but he points out that many actual problems could be better ameliorated if we stopped wasting so much time and resources on the chimerical ones. He has no patience with technophobes.

Ridley's website is here; I've started subscribing to its RSS feed. Here's a video from the site:

Fittingly, I alternated reading the book between my Kindle and my iPad. As Arthur C. Clarke predicted: this would have seemed like magic just a few years back. Now, commonplace.

Last Modified 2012-09-24 8:46 AM EDT