Book Review: The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley

I decided to pick up Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist after seeing it appear repeatedly in Hacker News threads.

I would recommend The Rational Optimist to everyone. However, I would strongly recommend it to anyone who has anxiety about the state of the world—be it overpopulation, the environment, politics or capitalism.

There is so much nonsense in the media about why things are terrible today and that tomorrow the world will end. This book provides a nice counterpoint. Ridley argues that things have never been better and that the common doomsday scenarios are overblown.

The truth is things are objectively better today for most people than at any point in human history. Since 1800, real income has grown almost ten-fold. Today’s poor are better off than almost everyone on the planet 50 years ago.

Wars and disasters are temporary setbacks, but human progress continues to go forward. Specialization and trade have allowed humans to innovate and then build upon those innovations.

Ridley address two pessimisms about the future that plague many: Overpopulation and climate change. He agrees these are acute challenges, but that they are likely to be solved. I was so surprised by this chapter (Chapter 10)—I went back through it three times.

Overpopulation will be a problem that likely solves itself. As societies modernize they transition from high mortality and high fertility to low mortality and low fertility. Because of this, there may never be more than 9 billion people on earth. That will likely be the peak and then it will likely decline.

Ridley believes that climate change is an issue—a largely man made one, but it is not as dire as most believe. It is currently not realistic or feasible to power the world on renewables alone. It is especially not possible for countries in Africa to modernize without burning dinosaurs.

So what’s the answer?

Let these countries modernize and add to our collective knowledge about energy. As this happens real solutions will appear. Battery technology and improvements long-distance transmission are two areas where improvements would obviously move us in that direction.

He makes another surprising point—that most climate policy ends up hurting more than helping. He disagrees that large subsidies for solar and wind are worthwhile. A much better approach is cap and trade policy along with carbon taxes. This would allow markets to determine the best solution, while still meeting the goal of carbon reduction.