Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Things Can Only Get Better

Pessimism is cool, optimism isn't. Try telling someone the interesting fact that if all the ice at the north pole melts sea levels will actually fall and look at the disbelieving, unhappy expression on their face and you'll see what I mean. (Sea levels will fall of course because icebergs displace more water than the equivalent amount of water alone.) And what about the glaciers? Even with runaway global warming under the most severe models it would take 1000 years to melt the Greenland icesheets which would give us a bit of time to figure out the physics of CO2 scrubbers etc. What about species going extinct? Well, 99.99% of all animal species that have ever lived have gone extinct and the planet seems to be doing fine. No, really, unless a comet is heading our way we are not doomed.
This was brought home to me today by a book review I read in The New York Times by John Tierney. The book is called The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley. Here's some of the review:

The first [doomsaying] school [of history] despairs because it foresees inevitable ruin. The second school is hopeful — but only because these intellectuals foresee ruin, too, and can hardly wait for the decadent modern world to be replaced by one more to their liking. Every now and then, someone comes along to note that society has failed to collapse and might go on prospering, but the notion is promptly dismissed in academia as happy talk from a simpleton. Predicting that the world will not end is also pretty good insurance against a prolonged stay on the best-seller list. Have you read Julian Simon’s “The State of Humanity”? Indur Goklany’s “The Improving State of the World”? Gregg Easterbrook’s “Sonic Boom”? Good books all, and so is the newest addition to this slender canon, “The Rational Optimist,” by Matt Ridley. It does much more than debunk the doomsaying. Dr. Ridley provides a grand unified theory of history from the Stone Age to the better age awaiting us in 2100.

Progress this century could be impeded by politics, wars, plagues or climate change, but Dr. Ridley argues that, as usual, the “apocaholics” are overstating the risks and underestimating innovative responses. “The modern world is a history of ideas meeting, mixing, mating and mutating,” Dr. Ridley writes. “And the reason that economic growth has accelerated so in the past two centuries is down to the fact that ideas have been mixing more than ever before.” With new hubs of innovation emerging elsewhere, and with ideas spreading faster than ever on the Internet, Dr. Ridley expects bottom-up innovators to prevail. His prediction for the rest of the century: “Prosperity spreads, technology progresses, poverty declines, disease retreats, fecundity falls, happiness increases, violence atrophies, freedom grows, knowledge flourishes, the environment improves and wilderness expands.”

I think a lot of people prefer the idea that everything is going to the dogs and that in the "good old days" things were better, kids knew their place, etc. Of course this is an absolute crock of shite. It may be a tediously trendy position but its a fallacious one. Professor Steven Pinker in the video above puts things in perspective.