The Rational Optimist

Matt Ridley takes the reader on a journey throughout human history to point out that living standards in every metric have dramatically improved since our hunter-gatherer days.

I found it refreshing to read counterpoints to the pessimism and bleak outlooks found in every nook of thinking when it comes to the future of humanity. Ridley even goes on to explain why a pessimistic worldview is so attractive. Remember Y2K?

“I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.”

John Stuart Mill, 1828

Instead of doom and gloom, young people need hope to continue to innovate. Ridley proposes rational optimism as a positive lens to see where we are today instead of longing for a romanticized past. He demonstrates history has proven time and time again humanity's trajectory shifts to find solutions to the local and global challenges through collaboration, specialization, and exchange. Tools of trade, technology and trust.

Like most books, Matt Ridley probably stretches his singular idea of rational optimism a bit too far out of his realm of expertise and research once he gets into climate change, Africa, and pandemics.

My main issue with the book was the tone felt dismissive. The writing is accented by Ridley's bent on political ideologies. Easy to be retroactively because catastrophic and apocalyptic futures were avoided.

It suffers from the "The Map is Not the Territory" mental model.

"When we see a powerful model work well, we tend to over-apply it, using it in non-analogous situations."
- Farnam Street, "The Map is Not The Territory"

As in the case of the dismissive rhetoric surrounding the danger from pandemics, Ridley's mental model of rational optimism does not take into account the extremes. The funny thing is I don't even think he needed to address this to support the central theme of his book.

He's might be saying everything will work itself out in the end implicitly but I've heard him in lectures discussing the book to further clarify he believes on our current trajectory humanity will not survive. But

The section on "plague" (ebola virus, lassa fever, HIV, mad-cow disease, and so on) does not hold up well in the COVID era. He notes how they all "proved ridiculously overblown" and goes on to spend some time mocking the threat that came from the H1N1 virus.

Think the book would be better served to be shorter than to include incomplete ideas.

Bill Gates in response to reading The Rational Optimist makes the point that worrying about the worst-case scenario "can actually help to drive a solution."

Point 1: Ideas have sex.

Point 2: Human prosperity is a result of exchange.

Trade between unrelated strangers. Makes a convincing argument for the value of trade and a free-market economy.

He illustrate points in history when Isolationism lead to stagnation in innovation globally markedly because trade was either limited or extinguished. Castro, Mao, who restricted trade

Central theme running through the book

Again, Gates questions some of the content in the book "What's wrong with worrying about and guarding against threats that might become real, large problems?...If we all agree to join Mr. Ridley as rational optimists, does that mean that we should stop worrying about trends that might cause problems and not take action to anticipate them?"

Even before the pandemic and the obvious climate change currently plaguing the planet, doomday apocalyptic narratives were common.

There are a lot of interesting correlations made in the book but it's problematic when Ridley implies causation.


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©2024 Milani Creative LLC. All Rights Reserved