Six-and-a-half billion reasons to be cheerful

Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist, tells spiked why eco-catastrophists are so wrong about humans and our impact on the planet.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Science & Tech

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Never has catastrophe seemed so mundane. The end, we are told, is always approaching. No sooner has one super-resilient-flesh-eating-virus been forgotten than an imminent ecological collapse or a new strain of influenza takes it place. All of which makes Matt Ridley – journalist, businessman and author of several books on genetics and biology – such a refreshing person to talk to. ‘Yes, we are too gloomy about the future’, he says, cheerily.

That’s the thing about Ridley: whatever else he is – diffident, humorous, engaging – he is also resolutely optimistic. And it is this, his optimism, which he has sought to justify, to rationalise, in his new book The Rational Optimist. Given today’s readiness to imagine the apocalypse, especially in environmental terms, being an optimist is a very unfashionable position to take.

‘The imagining of imminent catastrophe is a routine habit and it’s been going on all my life’, says Ridley. ‘And to start with, when I was younger, I believed it. I thought people had good reason to raise the possibility of these catastrophes. When I was first becoming an adult it was Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and all this anxiety about DDT and other chemicals, and how they were going to cause an epidemic of cancer. Then it was the population scare. And then it was the oil running out. And then it was acid rain. And then it was the Ebola virus. And then it was global warming. And on and on it goes… I’ve heard enough cries of wolf during my lifetime to become sceptical about imminent environmental catastrophe.’

Ridley’s unwillingness to accept the doom-laden predictions of environmentalists is not just born of his own experience. Wider history, too, is testament to the unreliability of the catastrophic, morbid mindset. Just after the end of the First World War, Britain’s Liberal prime minister David Lloyd George lamented: ‘How can Britain run an A1 empire with a C3 population [medical categories for army recruits]?’ This was no isolated complaint – it was indicative of a wider sense of Britain’s national decline refracted through the prism of biology. ‘If you go back to the turn of the twentieth century’, Ridley says, ‘there was an absolute domination of the book-publishing world by “declinism” literature, particularly about the so-called “degeneration of the race”. In the view of many at the time, this was because “stupid” people were having too many babies, the lower classes were evil, nasty and full of tuberculosis, and didn’t have the requisite physical strength. All this ludicrous stuff was hugely dominant.’

The biological deterioration of the British never came to pass, but catastrophists are nothing if not persistent: they always return with a new scare, or an old one tweaked and updated. ‘You can’t keep banging the same drum, something that environmentalists seem to have learnt’, says Ridley. ‘This is why you get this succession of scares: the GM crops scare comes along in 1998 as the Ebola virus is fading from the news.’

Ridley experienced the life and death of a scare at first hand during the 1980s: ‘For me, acid rain was the most influential one, because I covered it very closely as a science correspondent at The Economist. And at the time, I was a routine alarmist, like everyone else. But gradually worries were forming at the back of my mind. Some of the things that were being said, such as all the trees were dying in Germany, just didn’t seem to be quite true.

‘And now the data’s in, both on the Eastern seaboard of America and in Western Europe, it turns out that forests did not retreat in the 1980s – they actually expanded! There were a few isolated die-offs from some local pollution incidents but none of these were due to acid rain. In fact, because acid rain contains nitrates, it actually proved to be a fertiliser and accelerated forest growth. That isn’t to say acid rain had no effect. It had some effects, particularly on the acidification of some water courses, but not as many as people said, and not as permanently. The acid rain story was a case of huge exaggeration.’

And the aftermath? Is there ever a reckoning with such ‘exaggeration’? ‘When one of these scares doesn’t pan out’, says Ridley, ‘you don’t get a great big, drains-up inquiry into what went wrong, like we’ve had with Iraq. It’s quite the opposite. The issue will simply be allowed to fade away. It will just stop being talked about. Acid rain, for instance, just drops out of the news around 1990, only partly because of the Clean Air Act just then passed, which people presumed was going to solve the problem – despite it largely being a non-problem all along.’

So what of the latest, most dominant form of catastrophism: climate-change alarmism? ‘The thing about global warming is that it’s all about things that are still to happen in the relatively distant future. Hence it is very difficult for people to grow sceptical about it because of the difficulty of falsifying it.’ This is not to suggest that climate change has been falsified by any means, Ridley stresses. ‘I’m not denying that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas – and I never have – but I do think that we are gradually seeing the public wake up to the fact that the empirical and theoretical study of climate supports a small degree of warming and not yet a catastrophic effect from that small degree of warming. A lot of people are wising up to that, particularly over the last year. And you’re seeing that in recent opinion polls.’

While climate change might not seem to be the inexorable disaster it was just a couple of years ago, Ridley has observed another, often related threat looming ever larger. And it’s not a new one. ‘The population bomb is one that still rumbles on, and as spiked’s Brendan O’Neill has pointed out, it is remarkable the number of people who are reviving it, in a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger way. They’ll sidle up to you and say “you know, maybe it’s not climate change that’s the real problem, maybe it’s because there are too many people” as if they were saying something new. One fact of which the population crew are seemingly unaware is that the rate of human population growth has been falling since 1967. It is now half of what it was in the 1960s.’

When it comes to this revival of Malthusianism, Ridley’s anger is clear. ‘There’s a general misanthropy to it’, he says. ‘If you read about the origins of the population movement, particularly in books like Fred Pearce’s Peoplequake, you realise how much of it was tied up with twentieth-century eugenics and concerns about IQ and the over-reproduction of people with low IQ. This had been a worry for many in the first half of the last century and it leaked into the second half, too. But it gradually changed from “there are too many poor people and stupid people having babies” to “there are too many people having babies altogether”. There’s such a misanthropic tone to it, even to this day.’

Listening to Ridley, it is clear that one thing he is not is misanthropic. Rather he seems animated and inspired by human achievements, by our collective, historically evident ability to continue to innovate, to change and improve the conditions under which we live. This is why overpopulation fears seem to Ridley to be such rubbish. ‘If we continue to improve agricultural yields at the rate we have been doing – and we have nearly trebled cereal yields from the same acreage in the last 50 or so years – then by the middle of this century we will not only be able to feed the nine billion people expected to be on the planet with the same acreage, we will actually be able to do so with a noticeably smaller acreage. So for the total farmed area allocated for cereal crops, you’d need roughly three quarters the size of Australia instead of roughly the size of Russia.

‘So, couple the population growth rate with the improvements in things like agricultural yields, and a fall in things like the amount of copper you need to provide a telephone wire or the amount of water you need for irrigation because of efficiencies, and it becomes possible to imagine a future in which more people have less impact on the planet. That’s exactly the opposite of what the environmental movement tends to say.’

The reason for environmentalists’ pessimism, Ridley argues, is that they unthinkingly extrapolate from the present state of society – the current means of production and so on – and project it into the future. In doing so, they fail to imagine the future in any terms apart from those of the present. So, assuming population rises, while the current means of production remain the same, the environmentalist concludes that we cannot go on as we are. ‘But’, Ridley points out, ‘we ain’t going to go on as we are’.

‘For the last 100,000 years at least, we have actually changed how we live on the planet in ways that are surprising and result from innovations that we can’t forecast’, he says. ‘So if you stand in the 1950s and ask “what’s the future going to be like?”, people extrapolate the improvements in transport that they’ve seen in their lifetime and talk about personal gyrocopters and supersonic transport and interstellar travel. Nobody mentions the internet and the mobile telephone. Likewise, you and I standing here will extrapolate into the future that we’re going to have even better mobile phones and even more websites. But I suspect that in 50 years’ time both of those phrases will be laughably old-fashioned. In the twenty-first century it might all be about bio-tech, or it might all be about something else. So while one can extrapolate just to see how much change can occur quantitatively, you’ve always got to bear in mind that qualitative changes will throw off those extrapolations.’

This is not to suggest that Ridley does not himself extrapolate. Indeed, some of his optimism is grounded in extrapolation. ‘I do believe in extrapolating – I already talked about if agricultural yields improve at the same rate as they have in the last 50 years we’ll be able to feed far more with far less. This is a big increase, and a big “if”, and there are times in history when trends don’t continue, so one mustn’t be a naive extrapolator. On the other hand, extrapolation does sometimes open up one’s mind to the possibility of how different the future will be.’

This openness to the future, to the possibility that life will get better, ought not to be confused with blind faith. ‘Rational optimism is not naive, personal and hopeful’, concludes Ridley. ‘It is something one arrives at by studying the facts. Moreover, rational optimism is based on the fact that there is a reason to be optimistic – namely that there is a grand theme in human history called the exchange and spread of specialisation, which, by enabling us to work more and more for each other, does raise living standards. So there is actually a rationale for my optimism. It is not just hopeful.’

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley is published in the UK by Fourth Estate. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) To find out more about the book, visit the Rational Optimist website.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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