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Sandor Dargo
Sandor Dargo

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The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley

I have a long list of books to read. I think I need some improvements to that catalog. After I finished reading The Rational Optimist I'm going to present you now, I questioned myself from where I got the inspiration to read it? How did I learn about it?

After a small research, I still have no idea at all.

Anyway, it's a great book with the longest references section that I have ever seen. On my Kindle, it took about 20% of the whole content.

As it touches many nowadays controversial topics - honestly what is not considered controversial? - it is indeed necessary to provide some pieces of evidence, or at least numbers that your opinion is based upon. We have way too many people out there throwing in opinions presented as facts - no matter which political/cultural/etc side we take.

Ridley discusses in details many interesting topics, but I'd pick only three.

He looks at how people evolved during the past tens of thousands of years and he arrives at the conclusion that our incredible progress since we started hunting and gathering is due to trade and specialization. The more we specialize, the more we can trade and that leads to more specialization.

What did we need to make this happen? More human beings. During our history, we can see that when people were cut from the rest of the civilization when the connectedness of a society decreased or almost disappeared, their level of advancement also declined, simply because there were not enough crowd who could have sustained specialized people. Everybody had to go back to produce their own food and most imminent necessities, nobody had the necessary time to practice special crafts, therefore knowledge was lost.

Another interesting topic he writes about is the growth of the population and the effect of cities. He claims that after a society evolves and most people get access to modern healthcare and entertainment, the slow-down of population growth is inevitable.

As those usually come with big and modern cities, they are the key to a stabilized population size. Throughout history, the fertility rate of those living in cities was always below that is necessary for survival (nowadays with the low child mortality rate it's about 2.1).

According to Ridley, cities are not just good because they limit the size of the population, it's good for the environment as well. As more people live in a smaller area, we have more to give back to the environment taken into account that the population growth is also smaller and that due to technological advancement we can produce the same amount of food in a smaller area.

The last topic, I wanted to mention... We live in the last decade(s) before our civilization would collapse. The author claims that it was always the case. People were always panicking and media was always there backing this view of the point - it pays off. Yet we are still here, still alive, our resources still haven't run it, diseases didn't wipe us out, nor the disappearing ozone layer, and so on. He also tells that those panicking people were always right in the sense that if we hadn't changed, we would have been dead in 10/20/50 years.

But we do change. Constantly. We innovate and reinvent ourselves every single day. So he is optimistic that it won't be different this time or any other time.

Even if you don't want to agree with all of his points, The Rational Optimist is an interesting book not just on our possible future, but on our past as well. A highly recommended read.

Happy reading!

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Top comments (1)

jmfayard profile image
Jean-Michel Fayard πŸ‡«πŸ‡·πŸ‡©πŸ‡ͺπŸ‡¬πŸ‡§πŸ‡ͺπŸ‡ΈπŸ‡¨πŸ‡΄ • Edited

I have a counter argument to this book.

TLDR: the reason that Ridley can be a rational optimists is that we are all biological pessimists.

longer version:

I won't dispute that trade and specialization are one key to prosperity, we know this since at least Adam Smith.
or that big cities are a bit deal. We know this since at least antic Ron, if it's not the ancient dead cities of Mesopotamia.

But there is something I want to point out.

The reason we are not going to die all in 10 or 30 years is precisely because of our survival bias that makes us focus on what seems bad and dangerous.

Yes, that makes us unhappy, but at the same time that makes us survive.

I can assure you that rational optimists would not have lived long in the Stone age.

If we tried today to fight biology and become all rational optimists, we would probably all die soon. Either quickly from a nuclear apocalypse, or slowly but surely from an ecological exhaustion of our resources

For example that cities do not cause exhaustion of resources is only the case because people can see that it can actually happen and do something about it. If you don't believe me, study what happened with the Maya cities, which were as impressive as Rom and the like, but did destroy themselves long before the Spanish came in to destroy the rest of what used to be a brilliant civilization