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Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves

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Life is getting better—and at an accelerating rate. Food availability, income, and life span are up; disease, child mortality, and violence are down — all across the globe. Though the world is far from perfect, necessities and luxuries alike are getting cheaper; population growth is slowing; Africa is following Asia out of poverty; the Internet, the mobile phone, and container shipping are enriching people’s lives as never before. The pessimists who dominate public discourse insist that we will soon reach a ...

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The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves

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Overview

Life is getting better—and at an accelerating rate. Food availability, income, and life span are up; disease, child mortality, and violence are down — all across the globe. Though the world is far from perfect, necessities and luxuries alike are getting cheaper; population growth is slowing; Africa is following Asia out of poverty; the Internet, the mobile phone, and container shipping are enriching people’s lives as never before. The pessimists who dominate public discourse insist that we will soon reach a turning point and things will start to get worse. But they have been saying this for two hundred years.

Yet Matt Ridley does more than describe how things are getting better. He explains why. Prosperity comes from everybody working for everybody else. The habit of exchange and specialization—which started more than 100,000 years ago—has created a collective brain that sets human living standards on a rising trend. The mutual dependence, trust, and sharing that result are causes for hope, not despair.

This bold book covers the entire sweep of human history, from the Stone Age to the Internet, from the stagnation of the Ming empire to the invention of the steam engine, from the population explosion to the likely consequences of climate change. It ends with a confident assertion that thanks to the ceaseless capacity of the human race for innovative change, and despite inevitable disasters along the way, the twenty-first century will see both human prosperity and natural biodiversity enhanced. Acute, refreshing, and revelatory, The Rational Optimist will change your way of thinking about the world for the better.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Naysayers have been predicting the end of the world almost since the beginning of civilization. In this profoundly contrarian book, scientist and science writer Matt Ridley (The Red Queen; Genome) dismisses the latest batch of catastrophists by placing them in the context of past, discredited apocalyptic thinkers. The Rational Optimist argues that for 100,000 years human cultures have been evolving, surviving, and thriving by exchange and specialization and that process is not likely to be reversed during any time in the foreseeable future. Timely optimism. (Hand-selling tip: Matt Ridley attracts readers. His Genome has sold over 300,000 copies.)

Wray Herbert
…[Ridley] bolsters [his] argument with an impressive tour of evolutionary biology, anthropology, economics, philosophy and world history. His intellectual heroes are Charles Darwin and Adam Smith…This rich analysis shouldn't properly be reviewed until 2110, because only then will we know if Ridley's confidence in human ingenuity is warranted. Futurists don't have a great track record, but let's hope that future generations will review this rose-tinted vision favorably.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Ridley comes to praise innovation's ability to forestall any number of doom and gloom scenarios, everything from climate change to economic catastrophe. While sounding strikingly similar to narrator Anthony Heald, L.J. Ganser keeps a steady reading pace of Ridley's prose that keeps listeners engaged through the more challenging quantified material (statistics, data, lists) and the more nuanced conceptual material. His escalation, speed, deliberation, and pauses faithfully guide listeners through the text and at times improves upon the dry prose. However, Ganser is prone to over-project, and his forceful overemphasis can wear on the listener's attention. A Harper hardcover (Reviews, Apr. 12). (June)
George Gilder
“A superb book…Elegant, learned, and cogent…a far-reaching synthesis of economics and ecology, a triumphant new demarche in the understanding of wealth and poverty…Inspiring.”
Washington Post
“A very good book…a rich analysis…Ridley is a cogent and erudite social critic…He bolsters his argument with an impressive tour of evolutionary biology, economics, philosophy, world history.”
Washington Examiner
“A dose of just the kind of glass-half-full information we need right now…A powerful antidote to gloom-n-doom-mongering.”
New York Post
“Ridley’s dazzling, insightful and entertaining book on the unstoppable march of innovation is a refresher course in human history...Great ideas spring up unexpectedly from every direction, with each new one naturally coordinating with others...”
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
The Rational Optimist will give a reader solid reasons for believing that the human species will overcome its economic, political and environmental woes during this century.”
Los Angeles Times
“A mesmerizing book.”
Sunday Times (London)
“This inspiring book, a glorious defense of our species…is a devastating rebuke to humanity’s self-haters.”
The Guardian
“Original, clever and …controversial”
John Tierney
“A fast-moving, intelligent description of why human life has so consistently improved over the course of history, and a wonderful overview of how human civilizations move forward.”
Steven Pinker
“A delightful and fascinating book filled with insight and wit, which will make you think twice and cheer up.”
Ian McEwan
The Rational Optimist teems with challenging and original ideas…No other book has argued with such brilliance and historical breadth against the automatic pessimism that prevails in intellectual life.”
Barrett Sheridan
“Ridley eloquently weaves together economics, archeology, history, and evolutionary theory…His words effortlessly turn complicated economic and scientific concepts into entertaining, digestible nuggets.”
Trevor Butterworth
“Invigorating…For Mr. Ridley, the market for ideas needs to be as open as possible in order to breed ingenuity from collaboration.”
Donald Luskin
A fabulous new book... I was so delighted, amused and uplifted by it that I bought a couple hundred copies and sent one to all my clients.
The Barnes & Noble Review

As a financial blogger, I've spent the past couple of years following the global financial crisis as it has evolved from hour to hour and from day to day. Recently, a number of "crisis books" have come out, and some of them try to place recent events into a broader context -- going back to the 1980s or even the 1960s to explain where we are today.

University of Toronto urbanist Richard Florida has a broader perspective still. In his latest book, The Great Reset, he starts by looking at what he calls "the crisis most like our own": the Long Depression of 1873. Out of that painful era, he says, came many of the technologies which would help define the 20th Century. The electricity grid, the telephone, mass-produced steel, large-scale public education, urban sewer and public transportation systems -- they all arrived in that first great wave of urbanization.

It's no coincidence, says Florida, that a great wave of invention followed that major economic crisis. In fact, he sees a pattern, with something similar following the Great Depression: large-scale economic deprivation has a tendency to result in both a physical and a conceptual "reset," in which the failed ways of the old order crumble, die, and are replaced by something radically new. And a large part of that reset is the "spatial fix" -- urbanization at the beginning of the 20th century, and what you might call suburbanization in the middle, as America became dominated by roads and automobiles.

The conceit of this book is that the crisis of 2008 will act much like previous crises in 1873 and 1933, and mark the point at which the old way of doing things died and a new social order began to rise from the ashes.

The picture that Florida paints of where he thinks we're headed, as a country, will be familiar to students of his work. It's based around cities, and especially "megaregions" -- areas like the Boston-Washington corridor which can encompass many cities and which collectively account for the vast majority of the world's economic activity, even as they house fewer than one in five of the world's population.

Florida's vision for how we're going to rebuild our economy in the decades to come is a reasonably attractive one, although of course there are winners and losers. It's full of creative professionals in vibrant downtown live/work communities, swapping out a life of long commutes from boring exurbs for something much less carbon-intensive and much more interconnected. It's a vision where good union jobs in manufacturing industry become vanishingly rare, replaced by service-industry jobs which are only now, slowly, beginning to get the respect they deserve.

The fact is, however, that Florida has been preaching this vision for years now -- since long before the financial crisis. If Florida's Great Reset does happen -- and I hope that it does -- then its roots will lie in the revivification of downtown areas in the 1990s, as well as in the way in which the internet revolution has turned our lives from being fundamentally bipolar (work and family) to being extremely multipolar, with many of the most successful individuals being those who manage to connect dozens or even hundreds of disparate ideas, individuals, and businesses. The crisis of 2008, while it surely looked gruesome when the book was being pitched, now seems to be neither so devastating nor so important that it will ever be considered an important contributor to our future lifestyle.

But what of even bigger drivers of how we're going to live in the decades to come -- not only in the U.S., but around the world? With all the high-speed trains and creative-class economies that Richard Florida could ever want, will we still be at the mercy of global warming and peak oil?

That's the subject of Matt Ridley's new book, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. History from 1873 to the present day is nothing to him: Ridley starts his book half a million years ago, and doesn't even get to the year 1200 until page 191. (Admittedly, he does take a few detours into the present along the way.)

Ridley does an impressively comprehensive job of looking at the entirety of human history through the lens of a single big idea: that of the awesome power of trade and David Ricardo's principle of comparative advantage. Ridley's history is not one of empires and Great Men; it's one of trade in ideas and goods, and of resource management, and of the way in which humans, left to their own devices in contact with other humans, have a tendency to grow and prosper unless quashed by outside forces or rentiers.

Ridley sometimes gets a little bit too caught up in his own optimism: he claims to be quite sure that the 21st century will be a wonderful time to live, while conceding that human progress comes in fits and starts, and has often gone backwards for much longer than that. He barely mentions the horrors of the Second World War, or the fact that the invention of nuclear weapons means that the human race is now more than capable of annihilating itself many times over, and his faith in markets is so strong that he uncritically rabbits the old canard about how selling anti-malarial bed nets is better at reducing malaria in Africa than giving them away. (It isn't.)

When it comes to peak oil and global warming, Ridley makes as strong a case as I've seen that the lesson of history is that we'll be able to cope with them and thrive while doing so. Humans have been driving "renewable" resources -- especially large mammals -- into extinction for millennia, yet so far haven't run out of a single non-renewable commodity. And global warming is likely to increase the world's agricultural output, says Ridley, while remaining well within the limits of human adaptability -- at least for the next century. He doesn't deny that the challenge of this adaptation raises real issues: he's just, well, rationally optimistic that the issues will prove to be surmountable. Which doesn't stop him, late in the book, from proposing a new carbon tax to replace payroll taxes.

Ridley's book is a useful corrective to prevailing pessimism, and should certainly be read by anybody of an apocalyptic bent, or anybody who is convinced that renewable fuels and organic food are obviously better for the environment and for humanity than the alternative. Still, Ridley is himself an interesting example of what can happen when someone is too optimistic: he was chairman of UK bank Northern Rock, which, when it failed in 2007, became the first bank in the country to suffer a bank run since the 19th century, and had to be taken over by the government. Sometimes, a bit of precautionary pessimism can be decidedly useful.

--Felix Salmon

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780007267125
  • Publisher: Fourth Estate (GB)
  • Publication date: 3/28/2011

Meet the Author

Matt Ridley is the author of several award-winning books, including Genome, The Agile Gene, and The Red Queen, which have sold more than 800,000 copies in twenty-seven languages worldwide. He lives in England.

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Table of Contents

Prologue: when ideas have sex 1

1 A better today: the unprecedented present 11

2 The collective brain: exchange and specialisation after 200,000 years ago 47

3 The manufacture of virtue: barter, trust and rules after 50,000 years ago 85

4 The feeding of the nine billion: farming after 10,000 years ago 121

5 The triumph of cities: trade after 5,000 years ago 157

6 Escaping Malthus's trap: population after 1200 191

7 The release of slaves: energy after 1700 213

8 The invention of invention: increasing returns after 1800 247

9 Turning points: pessimism after 1900 279

10 The two great pessimisms of today: Africa and climate after 2010 313

11 The catallaxy: rational optimism about 2100 349

Acknowledgements 361

Notes and references 363

Index 421

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 28 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 29 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 26, 2011

    Great book, terrible ebook formatting.

    This book was a great and thought-provoking read. Unfortunately, this ebook version is rife with errors and bizzare formatting issues thar are distracting and make the book difficult to read. Please fix this!

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 20, 2012

    Great and unique book

    Worth a read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 10, 2012

    Well worth the read.

    An uplifting and evidence based account of how far we have come and why we should not be whining about the prospects for our future.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 26, 2012

    Crazyyy

    Crasy person

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 26, 2011

    Great antidote to the daily barrage of doom/gloom

    Ridley's principal point is that trade and exchange of things (tools and food) opened the door for modern man to evolve from subsistence hunter/gatherer to inventor/innovator. Trading improves the lives of both parties by encouraging each to specialize and innovate. In serial time-slices, Ridley demonstrates how culture and knowledge evolved over the last million years or so to todays marketplace of ideas that continues to improve quality of life worldwide.

    Not everywhere and not on all occasions, but in aggregate everything gets better through trade, as long as markets are free to reward/punish.

    This is a very entertaining read and Ridley deftly pulls information together to show relationships and evolutionary trends that may seem novel or unexpected. Lots of reference notes and links in the back will allow you to check facts and sources.

    What a great way to start the New Year. Buy a copy for a friend or your book club. Lots of discussion will ensue.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted November 10, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Optimistic argument that life on Earth is better than you think

    Send your inner pessimist packing - along with organic crops and ethanol. That's the contrarian message of Matt Ridley's insightful, entertaining look at humankind's steady progress over the millennia. Ridley dips into biology and economics to support his case that life is good and getting better. His wide-ranging look at humanity's past and future makes it clear that those who long for the good old days just don't realize how rugged hunting and gathering or medieval medical care must have been. Ridley meanders at times, yet, as the title suggests, his book offers a fundamentally optimistic analysis of humankind's ability to solve the planet's problems, even now. getAbstract recommends it to readers seeking a thought-provoking analysis of contemporary issues that doesn't hew to conventional wisdom.

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  • Posted September 28, 2010

    Cannot read ebook on PC

    Bought the ebook but cannot read it on my PC. Unlike a couple of classics I can read, this book has some kind of protection that does not allow me to read it. I bought it. I want to read it.

    0 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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