on 4 July 2011
An enjoyable and thought provoking read, if somewhat lacking proper intellectual rigour or originality. Ridley's Hayekian approach to markets and the role of the state are nothing new and his up-beat analysis is too often journalese masquerading as something deeper (you often get the impression he's doing all his research on Wikepedia). But his views on climate change and food production are clearly thought through and are genuinely strong and heartfelt arguments. To my mind this is when the book succeeds the most. The problems arise in Ridley's general lack of nuance in understanding the subtleties of human psychology and emotion (e.g. when he's describing the social changes caused by the industrial revolution or enclosure acts). This is not helped by the book's sometimes geeky, lecturing and boffin-like tone which lacks a certain gravitas. But putting these criticisms aside, I would definitely recommend the book, if only for the reason that he demands an intellectual response and makes you question your ideological and political assumptions. Now that can't be a bad thing.
on 1 September 2012
There is much to admire in this book. Ridley makes a good overall case, based on solid and substantial research. It is a hefty corrective to much sloppy thinking in current political and social debates. It's a pity he mars it by some glib over-simplication in places and by caricaturing his opponents to a silly degree.
On the plus side, he says many things that need to be said. It's a book I'd recommend to anybody, simply because of the sheer number of shibboleths of both left and right that he deftly and enjoyably skewers. This sort of thing is essential in a world where too many of all political persuasions have given up thinking for themselves and rely instead on timeworn cliches. He also, true to his rationalist title, leans heavily on a weighty ballast of credible evidence drawn from a range of good sources.
It's a pity, then, that in places he lets his enthusiasm run away with him and writes like a journalist rather than an academic. For example, I'm no expert in primatology, but even I know that you can't make simplistic points about the relative nastiness of our fellow primates (p.65) without acknowledging that there are relevant distinctions between our two closest cousins, the common chimpanzee and the bonobo. Given his academic credentials, Ridley should be better than this (indeed, I'm surprised it wasn't pointed out to him by Frans de Waal, whom he cites in his acknowledgments). Then again, he isn't the first well-known writer to dive into into the exciting field of primatology, grab the first thing he sees to back up his point and rush for the surface to catch breath; see Francis Fukuyama's latest on the origins of political order for an even worse example of exactly the same approach.
I also grew a little tired of his presentation of his opponents, mainly on the left, as a monolithic establishment, with himself and his merry band of fellow free-thinkers engaged in a David versus Goliath struggle. It may make him feel good but if you look around the world it is hardly the case. Likewise I was disappointed by his tendency to characterise those opponents as idiots, narcissists or power-crazed zealots. No doubt this is true in many individual cases, but such a sweeping dismissal is a cheap way of avoiding the possibility that some of their arguments may be worth taking seriously. It also suggests that they are all singing from the same PC-Guardian-Reader crib sheet, which is simply not the case. However, it certainly cuts down on the number of books one might feel obliged to read.
As a result of this mindset, there is a tendency to a panglossian view of the world. Perhaps Ridley feels a need to overcompensate for the doom-mongering that he so rightly criticises. However, one can still feel positive about the human capacity to solve its own problems while discussing the issues that are currently extremely challenging. Indeed, it would have strengthened Ridley's case if, to take just one example, he hadn't blithely skipped over the world-wide growth of obesity. Some of the answers to this problem are implicit in his central thesis. He would have helped his case by deploying them.
For all that, this remains a substantial and worthwhile book. I learned much from it and will doubtless read it again with profit. Much as I would differ very strongly from Ridley politically (notice how daintily he skips over questions of economic inequality by focussing on the - admittedly very positive - good news in many parts of the world), I was impressed by his general approach. It is certainly a far deeper and more thoughtful analysis of current social and economic trends than one gets from the mass media. That might not seem much of a compliment, given that this is a book. However, in a world drowning in unthinking soundbites and rent-a-quote 'experts' it makes a refreshing change to read someone whose arguments are based on hard work and research and who is prepared to present them in an interesting and relevant way to the general reader. So many non-fiction books on social issues these days are little more than journalism writ large (indeed, often written by journalists who have been carried away by their public profile). Ridley is much better than that.
on 24 February 2012
Most of the news I get bombarded with is negative: Greek debt close to default, economic decline in Europe, you name it ... and it feels that our civilisation has reached its peak and is in constant decline. Interestingly, this has been true for many years and we are still around and overall are better of than ever before. Why is that?
"The Rational Optimist" brings it down to the simple principal of "comparative advantage". While I did know about comparative advante, I did never think about it's consequences. Finally, a believable argument why we can have hope that our "world" will continue to improve and move forward.
on 20 August 2015
I really enjoyed this book, it can labour some points but it's highly readable and engaging. However sometimes you do feel the author is determined to get to a particular conclusion on a given topic and spins it in a certain way to do so. A valid counter-point to this might be that the book is called the 'Rational Optimist' afterall but I do feel it falls down in these areas objectively speaking. The most glaring example being his brief discussion of nuclear arms and the potential for mankind to wipe itself out. Whilst he's right that the threat of nuclear annhiallation is reduced now in comparison to where we were in the 80's, he could do with re-reading the closing remarks of Carl Sagan's 'Cosmos' and ponder the fact that we are still in a position where, in the long perspective, we are at risk of destroying our entire existence.
Overall though a great read and it has gave me a newfound respect for the human propensity for trade and specialisation. To be read with an open-mind and prior knowledge of the authors political and economic views.
on 27 February 2016
Ridley's ideas could have been dealt with in 10 pages but it runs to 464 pages on a paperback. The writer wants to write about economics but he has zero awareness of some basic economics concepts - like the marginal returns to utility falls as you do more and more of the same thing, like the 10-millionth example he gave about people in ancient times did trades and exchanges with one another. He's into free market, free trades, and people having their freedom. But as soon as your freedom concenrs preferring organic food, any form of government regulation, renewable fuels, then he isn't fine with it. With so many inconsistencies in his preferences and beliefs, it's very hard to see the ideas presented in this book as being thoroughly rational.
The only thing rational about this book is the author's incentives to write this book. To part you with your money.
on 21 December 2014
Matt Ridley draws upon a huge base of diverse knowledge. He writes a fascinating book to expound his theories of how H.Sapiens developed culture and how things inevitably improve for mankind. he reserves scorn for the parasites of society - bandit warlords/politicians and bureaucrats.
I borrowed this book from the library but halfway through decided to buy my own copy. Not often I do that!
on 31 December 2013
To be honest, I was expecting more optimism from this book than I got. Instead of a straight counterblast to much of the doom-mongering we receive from the media today (not that this is a new thing, as Ridley often points out) we get much more about how the free market, and how the trading of goods and ideas has improved mankind's lot. The central argument boils down to this - that if I'm a good cook and you're a good hunter, we'd get a better deal together if we both specialised in what we're good at and shared the spoils. In this way, mankind has flourished. The more we can do to encourage this trade, the better we will improve. And we've just built the best "sharing tool" ever in the internet. There's a lot to be optimistic about, and it's difficult to disagree with Ridley. It's easier, however, to focus on the downside, which is what many people have a vested interest in doing. You could argue that it's this paranoia that drives us forward - if we didn't worry about climate change, would we bother trying to tackle it? If we were all "rational optimists", or even if the majority were, maybe we wouldn't drive ourselves so relentlessly forward? After all, as the old joke goes, just because we're paranoid doesn't mean that they aren't out to get us.
It's a stimulating read and I found the book easier to get through in short doses. I think it could have been a bit shorter, a bit punchier and a bit more aggressive toward the nay-sayers, but overall I found it a refreshing change to a lot of the messages we receive today about us all being doomed.
on 10 November 2010
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.
on 19 October 2013
If you have ever thought that the U.K. will end up being a place of destitutiion then this book looks back in history and predicts that it wont be so. Learning from bad lessons in the past, (like those greed ridden bankers), humanity should be progressing upwards - despite the downs, the ups should always make trends upwards for prosperity.
Like The God Delusion, this will hopefully come to be thought of as one of the key books of its time.
For me, it articulated every thought I'd ever had about consumer capitalism. What a delight to read someone as intelligent as Matt Ridley eloquently voice my thoughts about the free market, how it has helped bring prosperity, learning, democracy, freedom and charity wherever it has been applied. The book certainly proves that the current intellectual force is with what could loosely be termed the right, if only in the sense that socialism gets another huge battering here.
As the title suggests, Ridley is a rationalist. He's also a humanist and a capitalist which, as he convincingly demonstrates time after time, is anything but a dirty word. It's the opposite: it's the way to health and happiness, the way to the stars. Where financial enrichment appears, so do cultural and scientific enrichment. He exposes those who would wish to stop the economy dead as dunderheads, showing how it is only an advanced, innovative, risk-taking economy that can provide the best solutions to problems that life and the planet can throw at us. Entrepreneurs are the answer, not the clumsy hand of the state.
My only slight criticism would be that there's a few too many historical examples from history of specialisation and exchange working their magic - with a few less we'd still get the point.
But this is still a brilliant book, and note that those who give it low marks are those who do not comment on the book itself but only choose to abuse the author. Ignore these skulking socialists and buy this book to make this planet's future a whole lot better.