In a castle in Newcastle, complete with reflecting pool, dappled woods nooked with marble sculptures, and pastures lowing with cattle, Matt Ridley, dean of British science writers and author of four erudite, Darwinian bestsellers, might seem an intellectual grandee ready for an honorable, bland retirement in a North Country Eden, perhaps readying himself for the House of Lords.
But at the end of his lawn, invisible throughout a leisurely walk down its length, is a vast and amazing surprise that offers a vivid portent of this new Ridley book: a tome as unexpected and as ambitious and as contrarian as a massive coal mine under an environmentalist’s lawn. Far below, a visitor can descry the tractors and extractors crawling around in the dirt like yellow-jacketed ants. And like the Ridley mine, this book, The Rational Optimist, is a trove of readily combustible fuel.
In this volume, Ridley announces a shift: “In the last two decades I have written four books about how similar human beings are to other animals. This book is about how different they are.” What he discovers roundly refutes the prevailing gloom about the human future epitomized by John Kenneth Galbraith’s view that the rational response to the predicament of the poor is to accommodate their poverty, with the only remedy being government planning and stimulus. Ridley devastates not only the case for expanded government, but also the worldview of environmentalism as a vessel for rational pessimism.
Cogently showing that the environment faces no threat so dire as environmentalism itself, he spurns the “precautionary principle — better safe than sorry” as self-refuting: “In a sorry world there is no safety in standing still.” In a typical aperçu dramatizing the benefits of economic advance, he comments, “Today a car running at full speed emits less pollution than a parked car of 1970 [did] from leaks.” Combining Adam Smith’s division of labor with Charles Darwin’s natural selection, he frames a far-reaching synthesis of economics and ecology, a triumphant new démarche in the understanding of wealth and poverty.
He begins with a fruitful comparison between two similarly shaped artifacts on his desk: a cordless computer mouse and a million-year-old Acheulean hand axe. “Both are designed to fit the human hand — to obey the constraints of being used by human beings. But . . . one is a complex confection of many substances reflecting multiple strands of knowledge. The other is a single substance reflecting the skill of a single individual.”
The difference between humans and other animals, he writes, “cannot just be that I have a bigger brain. . . . After all, late Neanderthals had on average bigger brains than I do.” The stone axe “was invented in the Paleolithic period, spread widely, yet never improved significantly over the subsequent million years while the hominid brain enlarged by one third.” Over eons of hominid history, biological evolution was many times faster than technological evolution.
He continues: “No single person knows how to make a computer mouse. The person who assembled it in the factory did not know how to drill the oil well from which the plastic came, or vice versa. At some point, human intelligence became collective and cumulative [through interdependent trade and exchange] in a way that happened to no other animal.” Conversely, economicindependence produces decline: “Self-sufficiency is poverty.” With exchange, consumption could diversify while production specialized. But protectionism or parochialism reverses the process. The Dark Ages, Ridley writes, were “a massive experiment in the back-to-the-land hippy lifestyle (without the trust fund).” He quotes the Whole Earth Catalog’s Stewart Brand: “Many of my contemporaries in the developed world see subsistence farming as soulful and organic, but it is a poverty trap and an environmental disaster.”
Because Ridley flaunts his ownership of coal mines, his elegant, learned, and cogent defense of fossil fuels will incur the usual critique of self-interest that self-indulgent academics wield against their entrepreneurial benefactors. Coal is the environmentalist’s ultimate evil: a black distillation of carbon, pouring out pollution, stripping vast acreage of forest and topsoil, chopping off mountaintops, loading the lungs of miners, darkening the skies of cities. Ridley boldly demonstrates that these evils are merely diminutive echoes of the evils produced by so-called clean power.
The industrial revolution, he writes, shifted the world from recent solar power (burning trees, catching wind, feeding grain) to tap “solar capital laid down some 300 million years before.” Ending all previous economic booms were busts that occurred when “renewable sources of energy ran out: timber, cropland, pasture, labor, water, peat.” All were self-replenishing, like wind and biofuels today, but “were easily exhausted by a swelling populace. Coal not only did not run out . . . it actually became cheaper and more abundant as time went by. . . . Economic growth only became sustainable when it began to rely on non-renewable, non-green, non-clean power.”
Far from relying on technologies that squander farmland and wilderness to avoid emissions of life-enhancing carbon dioxide, “a sustainable future for nine billion people on one planet is going to come from using as little land as possible for each of the people’s needs.” Nuclear, oil, gas, and coal represent “an almost laughably small footprint — even taking into account the land despoiled by strip mines.” In Appalachia, “roughly 7 percent of 12 million acres were affected [by strip mines] over 20 years,” an area somewhat bigger than Rhode Island. But to serve “the 300 million occupants of the U.S. with their current power demand . . . would require: solar panels the size of Spain; or wind farms the size of Kazakhstan [the ninth-largest country in the world]; or woodland the size of India and Pakistan; or hayfields . . . the size of Russia and Canada combined [first- and second-largest]; or hydro dams with catchments one-third larger than all the continents put together.”
To Ridley, the ultimate scandal is biofuels, which require that Americans “in effect” be “taxed thrice over” — to subsidize corn growing, support the production of ethanol, and then face increased food prices. But in a globalized economy, such blunders may be absorbed: “The price of wheat roughly trebled in 2006–8, just as it did in Europe in 1315–18. . . . Yet in 2008, nobody ate a baby or pulled a corpse from a gibbet for food. . . . Interdependence spreads risk.” Echoing Peter Huber’s pioneering Hard Green (1999), Ridley observes that to support the current U.S. standard of living without fossil fuels would either strip most of the world of its trees — including all the rain forests — or require nonexistent trillions of slaves.
So Ridley adopts a materialist model of advance and hurls it in the face of the materialist doomsayers. He sees a hedonic mode of human incentives demolishing the claims of leisured stagnation. Wealth grows through “what Hayek called ‘the catallaxy’: the ever-expanding possibility generated by a growing division of labor,” while the socialist alternative offers only a Moloch to which to sacrifice human lives in an ever-growing state. To the great consternation of movement “scientists,” Ridley masterfully refutes every pretense of the climate-change pretenders, from ocean acidification and disappearing coral reefs to Al Gore’s hockey-stick graph eclipsing the medieval warm period. The hideous horsemen of the apocalypse — disease, resource exhaustion, infrastructure decay, tribal war — cannot permanently strangle progress, even in long-afflicted Africa. He offers a definitive answer to Galbraith’s idea of rational resignation to an “equilibrium of poverty.”
Reason, to Ridley’s mind, impels us relentlessly forward and upward. Religion, on the other hand, he sees as a reactionary obstacle to growth, progress, and even morality. He cites, for example, the indignation of Israel’s prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel, along with Homer, against the pride of the Phoenician traders as typical rants of reactionary traditionalists against the creators of wealth.
Instead — echoing his previous books on the evolution of virtue and the superiority of sexual reproduction to reduplicative cloning — Ridley maintains that moral codes naturally evolve from the rise of catallaxy. Cultures that reach out to immigrants and new ideas gain cultural and genetic innovation. As wealth grows, population growth relents; women instead release their energies into the marketplace.
This inspiring Ridley vision is full of fascinating insights. But by exaggerating the sufficiency of unaided reason, Ridley fails to confront the current predicament of remorselessly secular Europe — where women are bearing children at a rate that ensures ever fewer workers to support the throngs of retirees, remittees, and welfare parasites. (For details, consult Mark Steyn’s America Alone or Melanie Phillips’s World Turned Upside Down.) The collapse of Judeo-Christian religion enables the ascendancy not of rational enterprise and feminist productivity but — as minarets sprout in European cities — of a patriarchal and often barbarous Islam that prevails through raw fertility, masculine ferocity, and lethal anti-Semitism. Secular culture seems to harbor an inexorable bias toward sexual suicide and socialist stagnation. (The U.S. and Israel currently resist the demographic sink chiefly through the fertility of their religious minorities.)
That a secular-feminist society, feeding on hedonic incentives, can ultimately sustain a functional national defense capable of standing up to the Vandals and Goths of the 21st century is yet to be proven, but the portents are unpromising. Europe is dismantling its military, while the U.S. increasingly regards its own chiefly as an arena for sex-role gaming.
Religion projects a society into the future and provides a foundation for a durable optimism. Ridley’s blindness to religion stems from reliance on Darwinian materialism and Smithian catallaxy as sufficient sources for wealth and morality. He insists that economic growth is driven by consumption and governed by the emergence of “spontaneous order.” Thus he shares Hayek’s confusion between order, on one hand, and information and creativity, on the other. Order is what is not spontaneous; it is the opposite of information and creativity. Order is an effect of institutions, legal protections, stable currencies, and social regularities such as family and tradition. It is not bottom-up but largely top-down. In terms of information theory, order is low in information (it is low in “entropy,” and in surprises) but indispensable for creativity. It takes a low-entropy carrier (one in which there are no surprises from intrusive governments) to bear the high-entropy, information-rich inventions that drive economic growth.
Citing the reductionist schemes of Paul Romer, who considers invention essentially a process of recombining chemical elements or generating new combinations of atoms, Ridley even sees entrepreneurial creations as “mistakes,” like mutations, selected naturally by the “market.” Entrepreneurs are seen as responding to external stimuli in a bottom-up scheme resembling Darwinian natural selection or Skinnerian stimulus and response.
As supply-siders know, however, the invention comes first, not the market. A typical invention does not break down the manufacture of, say, carriages, vacuum tubes, or typewriters into fine-tuned components that respond to demands of existing consumers. Rather, the inventor surprises customers with a new system. The car (or transistor or computer) subsumes any existing components into a higher-level machine.
The chief discovery of 20th-century mathematics was the incompleteness of all logical systems; as Kurt Gödel showed, all logical schemes depend on outside axioms that they cannot prove. The entrepreneurial inventions stem from this strict limitation on the determinist rationality of socialism and the emancipation of creativity, which always comes as a surprise. The root of invention is within imagination and aspiration, faith and freedom — the kind of values that elude the larger philosophies of the author but are manifest in this superb book.
Mr. Gilder is a co-founder of the Discovery Institute, and the author most recently of The Israel Test.