Optimism–The New Dirty Word Tracey Barnett ©March 2011

Forget about Japan getting eradiated, Libyan brutality or Christchurch in splinters. I’m worried sick about the brouhaha over whether Natalie Portman actually did all her own dancing in Black Swan.

Hey, I pick my battles. I lie awake at night wondering if Portman’s unborn child will come out amphibious or what ‘brouhaha’ even means anyway.

Logically, what have I got to worry about? I haven’t been carted away by pro-Gaddafi forces lately. Prevailing winds from Fukushima don’t blow in our direction. I’ve never gone home with Darren Hughes. Things are fine.

On Sunday, one Japanese reactor, the previously well-behaved baby blue Number #2 was said to have radiation levels 10 million ka-booms above normal—until Monday we heard it was a mistake. Levels were only 100,000 times worse than normal. Oh. That’s okay then.

It’s all about whether you see the proverbial reactor core as half melted or half full. There’s no place for things to go but up.

I know, this pathetic new positivism doesn’t sound like me. The problem is, I‘ve been reading Matt Ridley on Deep Optimism and it’s eating a hole in my cynical raison d’être.

Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist, argues that contrary to the conventional belief that human culture evolved through language, the real core of our cultural evolution hinges on our unique ability to do one thing no other mammal does well; trade and exchange ideas. “Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog,” Ridley quotes Adam Smith.

So far, so good. It’s the next sentence that I have trouble typing without retracting my inbred journalistic snarl; despite all evidence to the contrary [see paragraph one], humankind is getting better all the time.

Ridley argues that our progress is measurable, enduring, widespread and for the foreseeable future—unlimited. Who wouldn’t want to believe the slew of statistics he cites? We are becoming healthier, smarter, cleaner, kinder, happier and more peaceful.

Since 1800, our life expectancy has more than doubled. Real income has multiplied more than nine times. Child mortality is down by two-thirds. Our IQs are increasing three points per decade. Food production is up by one-third per capita. Indeed, poverty has fallen more in the last 50 years than in the previous 500.

We’re even getting more peaceful. Charles Kenny of the Center for Global Development says that military expenditure as a percentage of global GDP is about half of its 1990 level. Worldwide, combat casualties fell 40 percent, from 2000 to 2008 alone. Violent deaths per capita this past decade were the lowest in 50 years.

And all of this has happened when world population has doubled. Ridley asks, how did we become the only species to get more peaceful and prosperous as we become more populous?

His answer is that amazing little human proclivity; we let ideas have sex too. Cultural evolution depends on ideas meeting, mating and creating something entirely new when stirred together. Hence, sex is to biology as exchanging ideas is to culture.

For example, in 1800, you would have worked for six hours to buy one hour of candlelight to illuminate your evening. By 1880, it took 15 minutes of work to buy kerosene lamp oil to last an hour.

But by 1950, it took only 8 seconds of work to pay for an hour of an electric light bulb. In 1997, a mere half-second of labour paid for an hour from a compact fluorescent bulb.

It’s pretty simple. Over time, culture becomes cumulative. Shared ideas build on each other, stimulating specialization, trade and innovation. Innovation saves time, which equals prosperity and rising living standards.

Doom-mongers aren’t necessarily wrong, they just aren’t seeing the long view that humankind will find a way to invent new, work-around solutions.

What of global warming or peak oil? “Of course it’s right to say, ‘We can’t carry on like this.’ We can’t. But the point is, we don’t: we find ways to replace things, to be more frugal, more productive. We shouldn’t be saying, ‘We can’t go on as we are,’ but: ‘How can we best encourage change?’” Ridley told The Guardian.

It’s when Ridley veers toward non-interventionism and even climate change skepticism that he loses me. Guardian columnist George Monbiot says Ridley cherry-picks his facts, and fawns at free markets—and maybe he does. I, too, still can’t find a way to buy into Ridley’s whole-hog optimism if the very nature of the concept fosters complacency.

But this week, as we stare at that belching Japanese reactor on the news most nights, a sector of the German government fell to an anti-nuclear ticket for the first time. One disaster triggered new scrutiny of an entire energy industry worldwide that would have been unheard of just one month ago.

Can’t we just pretend Ridley is right. Because imagining the alternative—that we won’t be able to hang on to a better future—is just too much brouhaha to bear.


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