Doomsayers, is it time to retire?

Good one from the New York Times on Matt Ridley’s new book “The Rational Optimist“:

Long before “sustainable” became a buzzword, intellectuals wondered how
long industrial society could survive. In “The
Idea of Decline in Western History,”
after surveying predictions
from the mid-19th century until today, the historian Arthur Herman
identifies two consistently dominant schools of thought.

The first school despairs because it foresees inevitable ruin. The
second school is hopeful — but only because these intellectuals foresee
ruin, too, and can hardly wait for the decadent modern world to be
replaced by one more to their liking. Every now and then, someone comes
along to note that society has failed to collapse and might go on
prospering, but the notion is promptly dismissed in academia as happy
talk from a simpleton. Predicting that the world will not end is also
pretty good insurance against a prolonged stay on the best-seller list.

“The Rational Optimist,”
by Matt Ridley. It does much more than debunk the doomsaying. Dr.
Ridley provides a grand unified theory of history from the Stone Age to
the better age awaiting us in 2100.
It’s an audacious task, but he has the intellectual breadth for it… he takes on all of human history, starting with our mysteriously
successful debut. What made Homo sapiens so special? Dr. Ridley argues
that it wasn’t our big brain, because Neanderthals had a big brain, too.
Nor was it our willingness to help one another, because apes and other
social animals also had an instinct for reciprocity.

…“Forget wars, religions, famines and poems for the moment,” Dr. Ridley
writes. “This is history’s greatest theme: the metastasis of exchange,
specialization and the invention it has called forth, the ‘creation’ of
time.”

You can appreciate the timesaving benefits through a measure devised by
the economist William D.
Nordhaus
: how long it takes the average worker to pay for an hour of
reading light. In ancient Babylon, it took more than 50 hours to pay
for that light from a sesame-oil lamp. In 1800, it took more than six
hours of work to pay for it from a tallow candle. Today, thanks to the
countless specialists producing electricity and compact fluorescent bulbs, it takes less
than a second. That technological progress, though, was sporadic.
Innovation would flourish in one trading hub for a while but then
stagnate, sometimes because of external predators — roving pirates,
invading barbarians — but more often because of internal parasites, as
Dr. Ridley writes:

“Empires bought stability at the price of creating a parasitic court;
monotheistic religions bought social cohesion at the expense of a
parasitic priestly class; nationalism bought power at the expense of a
parasitic military; socialism bought equality at the price of a
parasitic bureaucracy; capitalism bought efficiency at the price of
parasitic financiers.”

Progress this century could be impeded by politics, wars, plagues or climate change, but Dr. Ridley argues that,
as usual, the “apocaholics” are overstating the risks and
underestimating innovative responses.

“The modern world is a history of ideas meeting, mixing, mating and
mutating,” Dr. Ridley writes. “And the reason that economic growth has
accelerated so in the past two centuries is down to the fact that ideas
have been mixing more than ever before.”

Our progress is unsustainable, he argues, only if we stifle innovation
and trade, the way China and other empires did in the past. Is that
possible? Well, European countries are already banning technologies
based on the precautionary principle requiring advance proof that
they’re risk-free. Americans are turning more protectionist
and advocating byzantine restrictions like carbon tariffs.
Globalization is denounced by affluent Westerners preaching a return to
self-sufficiency.

Findings – Doomsayers Beware, a Bright Future Beckons – NYTimes.com

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