The Rational Optimist

Posted: August 9, 2010 in Uncategorized
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If I am to be epistemologically honest with myself and with those reading this blog, I can’t ignore the optimists.  Although I’m not entirely convinced by the arguments made by the so-called “optimists”, that’s probably because I’ve mostly been reading the work of the so-called “pessimists” (who of course would call themselves realists).

But therein lies a big problem with the so-called “pessimists” – they often only pay attention to other pessimists.  Which also happens to be  a big problem with the so-called optimists – they often only pay attention to other optimists.  Echo-chambers exist on both sides of the optimism-pessimism continuum.

I think we’d all do ourselves a big favour if we could swallow our pride for a minute, and give a little more time & attention to those with opposing viewpoints. This is not to say that one side isn’t potentially more accurate than the other (otherwise I’d be taking the relativist perspective), but rather to point out that speculations about the future are very often derailed by events that could not be foreseen prior to their occurrence – so-called black-swans (which can be either positive or negative).

And so, in this post, I wanted to share a promo video for a book that appears to make a cogent argument for the “optimists” case.  The Rational Optimist by author Matt Ridley is the name of the book.

I don’t really want to make a lot of remarks about Ridley’s work as I’ve only just come across it and will have to get my hands on his book “The Rational Optimist” before I can really draw any conclusions.   But for right now, I thought the following video was an interesting take on why things today are actually a lot better than they seem when put into historical context.  I’ve focused a lot on the chaos aspects of this blog recently…and so wanted to explore some resources that look at the creative/optimistic side of the spectrum.

Again, I plan on writing a bit more about Ridley after I’ve studied his work in more detail, but my initial hunch is that Ridley under-appreciates the role that energy plays in sustaining socio-economic complexity.  From watching this video, it appears that Ridley believes progress is heavily a function of ever increasing socioeconomic specialization & trade.  But, is it possible that Ridley is just identifying a symptom of progress and not necessarily a cause of it?  Is it possible that specialization, trade, and so on are really just the byproducts of available natural capital (energy, water, climatic, & mineral resources).

My thinking is that it’s the ecological/resource endowments of societies which create the conditions for the possibilities of humans to interact and to create complex societies based on role specialization & trade.  Only after surplus food energy had become ubiquitous enough, did you really start to see complex societies with sectors such as politics, religion, medicine, military, aesthetics, and so on emerge.  Given that these societies were constrained by their solar flow-based energy sources, they never progressed far beyond a relatively low level of socio-economic complexity.  It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that with the discovery & harnessing of fossil fuels came the Industrial Revolution.  More energy = more socio-economic complexity.

I think we often focus too much on anthropocentric factors as the explanation for the success of our species (reason, science, technology, free markets, rule of law, etc.) while focusing too little on the role that environmental & natural conditions play.  This is not to ignore or downplay the incredible capacities that we as humans possess, but rather to point out that we should be humble and give credit where it’s due.

Ma’ Nature hooks us up…big time.  We can’t keep crappin’ on her like we have been or she’s gonna bend us over and have her way with us…

  1. You might also wish to know about another book, THE CASE FOR RATIONAL OPTIMISM (Transaction Books, Rutgers University, 2009), which makes quite similar points and arguments, but develops the case for optimism over a rather broader range of subject areas. See

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