The End is *Not* Near

Matt Ridley discusses some of the themes from his new book the Rational Optimist.

I now see at firsthand how I avoided hearing any good news when I was young. Where are the pressure groups that have an interest in telling the good news? They do not exist. By contrast, the behemoths of bad news, such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and WWF, spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year and doom is their best fund-raiser. Where is the news media's interest in checking out how pessimists' predictions panned out before? There is none. By my count, Lester Brown has now predicted a turning point in the rise of agricultural yields six times since 1974, and been wrong each time. Paul Ehrlich has been predicting mass starvation and mass cancer for 40 years. He still predicts that `the world is coming to a turning point'.

Ah, that phrase again. I call it turning-point-itis. It's rarely far from the lips of the prophets of doom. They are convinced that they stand on the hinge of history, the inflexion point where the roller coaster starts to go downhill. But then I began looking back to see what pessimists said in the past and found the phrase, or an equivalent, being used by in every generation. The cause of their pessimism varied - it was often tinged with eugenics in the early twentieth century, for example - but the certainty that their own generation stood upon the fulcrum of the human story was the same.

I got back to 1830 and still the sentiment was being used. In fact, the poet and historian Thomas Macaulay was already sick of it then: `We cannot absolutely prove that those are in error who tell us that society has reached a turning point, that we have seen our best days. But so said all before us, and with just as much apparent reason.' He continued: `On what principle is it that, when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us.'

Check out the article for more.  I am currently reading his book -- good stuff so far.  He quotes both my college roommate Brink Lindsey as well as yours truly in the book.  How can you go wrong?


  1. Benny The Man:

    Doomsters said commies would take over the world, and we had to spend trillions fighting them, including a lengthy war in Vietnam that took 60,000 young Americans and left them dead. Then they said we had to be terrified of terrorists, and we have spent $3 trillion in Iraqistan fighting terrorists. I guess terrorists would take over the world?
    We spend $800 billion a year on the DoD, VA, and homeland security-civilian defense, fighting terrorist "threats." Lately, we have seen a one punk with an underwear bomb, and another punk who left a car parked in Times Square. Woo-wooo I am so afraid.
    The doomstrers say every year we need to spend more money on our defense establishment or something really terrible will happen to us.
    The doomsters sure know how to spend money--taxpayer money, your money and my money.

  2. Patrick:

    Interesting. I saw the headline before I saw the article and thought it was going to make the case for economic optimism. Economic doom-n-gloom fits the times we are in, given our horrible job-killing Obama administration agenda ... but even there, the end is not near. Perhaps we will have a Japan-like 'lost decade'. Perhaps we can lead again, with the right leadership. We will survive.

    Recent fads in doom have been Peak Oil and Global Warming. It's fascinating, though, that economic collapse *and* peak oil *and* global warming have all been predicted, and they are logically mutually exclusive. They are all inevitably overhyped.

  3. Jeff:

    There must be money to be made here. A fund that goes short on whatever the doomers say we're going to run out of next.

  4. caseyboy:

    Doom and gloom makes the news, car wrecks, hurricane in the Gulf, the bizarre is celebrated. Too many prognosticators are elevated to high status and not enough are publicly brought back to earth when their predictions prove wrong.

    By the way, Benny The Man, commies are taking over the our world one government program and entitlement at a time.

  5. Benny The Man:

    Yeah, yeah---it was Nixon who implemented wage and price controls. Bush Jr. who implemented pervasive government intrusion into your life--nearly proctological in scope--under the guise of "national security," seeing as we were "threatened" by a few hundred punk terrorists.
    Imagine this CaseyBoy--we will spend about $10 trillion in the next 10 years on national defense-homeland security. We are doomed if we do not, no doubt. There is no nation-state threatening us, only terrorists.
    Let us say there are 10,000 terrorists in the world. That's a huge and generous estimate.
    Do the math: We are spending about $1 billion per terrorist in the next 10 years.
    The federal government in action. You gotta love it.

  6. ArtD0dger:

    Nice, but would be better if he had the guts to say "tipping point" instead of "turning point."

  7. Gil:

    Suppose something did go horrible wrong around the world and everyone went back to the standard of living of the 1400s and it's not going change for the next thousand years or so. Is this necessarily the end of the world or merely a return to the standard of living that most people had throughout history? The standard of living was poor in the 1400s but it was still better than in the 1100s? After all the standard of living we take for granted is incredibly recent in the course of human history and is mostly due to cheap oil. If there's no easy alternative to oil in the horizon (and there doesn't seem to be) then we could go back to at least the standard of living of around 1900. Then again people would notice the old notion that "each generation should live a little better than the previous one" is being replaced by "we must give up our wanton ways and return to a traditional lifestyle to heal Mother Gaia".

  8. thebastidge:

    It's true: every generation does stand upon the fulcrum of human history.

    Not to say that they will tip it the wrong direction, but it could happen. Dark ages have indeed happened in the past. It's not impossible or even particularly improbable for it to happen again. People often don't even realize that they are slipping into a dark age, or that they live in one- being fairly ignorant of history when that happens. It takes the perspective of time to see whether one has lived in a golden or a dark age. We all have our peronal golden age and dark age as we slip inevitably towards decrepitude and death. That probably contributes to those who think the world is ending: it is, on a personal level.

    Personally, I'm prepping for the worst and hoping for the best. Inivduals can benefit even when the world is falling to shit. I hope it doesn't happen because I have no particular hatred for mankind. I also see that rising tides are better for me individually as well as everyone else, but I plan to be afloat no matter what.

  9. dullgeek:

    I'm about 2/3 through this book. Where are you quoted? Did I miss it? I've read several Brink Lindsay quotes as well as quotes from Don Boudreaux. But haven't seen yours yet.

  10. dullgeek:


    Reading the book, it's pretty apparent that returning to the standard of living of the 1400's would be a tragedy. First, because we would not be able to feed as many people who live on the planet using the technologies of the 1400s. Doing this would require that billions of people die to support that.

    Second, the book makes the case that the great depression was a lowering of the standards of living in the 1930s to roughly the level of the 1910s - merely 20 years. And that created massive hardship for enormous numbers of people.

    Third, the book makes the case that the increase in the standard of living over the last 50 years has been greater than the increase of the standard of living over the previous 500 years.

    The point: the difference between the standard of living in 1400 vs 1100 is tiny in comparison to the difference between 2010 and 1900. Reverting back would consign billions of people to starvation.

    If the book is right, and I'm fairly convinced it is, then we can't go back.

  11. Gil:

    Why can't 'we' go backwards? Why did Rome go backwards at all? Why presume there's a ratchet-mechanism by which any improvements in the standard of living wil be permanent? How many people in the whole world as at 2010 still live very poor conditions as people lived over 200 years ago? War or political ideology on a global scale could indeed set people and the technology back a thousand years.

  12. dullgeek:

    @Gil: When I said "we can't go back" I did not mean it's not possible for us to go back. Clearly it is. What I meant was that we should work hard to avoid this. Going back means that enormous numbers of people must starve to death.

    The productivity that we currently enjoy supports, among other things, feeding the population of the planet. If we reduce that productivity level to the level it was at in 1400, we will not be able to produce enough food to feed the 6.8 billion people currently on the planet. Probably fewer than a billion would be able to survive.

    At the same time, going back to those productivity levels would require us burning wood instead of fossil fuels. Which would, of course, eviscerate all of the forests including the rain forests. Which would, in turn, reduce the biodiversity of life on the planet. But it would also release an enormous amount of pollution into the atmosphere. Pollution we are freed from since instead of getting energy from wood, we get a lot more energy for a lot less pollution from fossil fuels.

    That said killing off all of the forests would have an advantage that we could reclaim some of the land that we currently leave for nature reserves for producing food. We'd need it in order to reduce death by starvation by as much as we possibly could.

    Certainly we're capable of going back, but doing so would be very very bad.

  13. Ira Portwood:

    Useful and great things you got here. Keep on! I'm usually looking to read on that issue.