June 23, 2013

Review Corner

Hat-tip Blog friend SC. Today's selection was spotted on his shelf: The Rational Optimist (P.S.) by Matt Ridley.

Yet, I am a big fan of his work, and it fits eerily perfectly in my Deutsch-McCloskey-Lal-Hubbard examination of economic history and our specie’s elevation from privation. It's truly a wonder I missed this -- it was published in 2010.

Ridley doesn't contradict the others. He does recognize more activity at the left tail. Most works of this ilk start the wonder at The Enlightenment, or Industrial Revolution, or some Capitalizable Date. Ridley looks a bit further back at incremental if not explosive growth and innovation leading up, such that the Industrial Revolution becomes more an inflection point than a launching pad.

And what launched this incredible ride from living as animals to living like people? Ideas having sex. (I do remember reading reviews or compilations of this -- that's a memorable phrase). Unique to man is not ideas so much as sharing them. An asexual creature can evolve, but the mutation and selection process is exponentially accelerated by sex. So too does innovation happen when I see your hay baler and think how I could make a metronome along the same lines.

Neanderthals had all of these: huge brains, probably complex languages, lots of technology. But they never burst out of their niche. It is my contention that in looking inside our heads, we would be looking in the wrong place to explain this extraordinary capacity for change in the species. It was not something that happened within a brain. It was some thing that happened between brains. It was a collective phenomenon.
I am going to argue that the answer lies not in climate, nor genetics, nor in archaeology, nor even entirely in 'culture', but in economics. Human beings had started to do something to and with each other that in effect began to build a collective intelligence. They had started, for the very first time, to exchange things between unrelated, unmarried individuals; to share, swap, barter and trade. Hence the Nassarius shells moving inland from the Mediterranean. The effect of this was to cause specialisation, which in turn caused technological innovation, which in turn encouraged more specialisation, which led to more exchange -- and 'progress' was born,

If I were to give my Facebook friends one book to explain me -- well it wouldn't really matter because they wouldn't read it -- but this book would be a great choice. Like Deutsch, Ridley is a big fan of affluence and modernity. He looks at a pastoral hamlet setting of 1800 in much the same way I would. There's a warm fire in the hearth, Father is reading from the Bible and the children pour water from an earthenware jug as Mother prepares dinner
Outside there is no noise of traffic, there are no drug dealers and neither dioxins nor radioactive fall-out have been found in the cow's milk. All is tranquil; a bird sings outside the window.

Oh please! Though this is one of the better-off families in the village, father's Scripture reading is interrupted by a bronchitic cough that presages the pneumonia that will kill him at 53 -- not helped by the wood smoke of the fire. (He is lucky: life expectancy even in England was less than 40 in 1800.) The baby will die of the smallpox that is now causing him to cry; his sister will soon be the chattel of a drunken husband. The water the son is pouring tastes of the cows that drink from the brook. Toothache tortures the mother. The neighbour's lodger is getting the other girl pregnant in the hayshed even now and her child will be sent to an orphanage. The stew is grey and gristly yet meat is a rare change from gruel; there is no fruit or salad at this season. It is eaten with a wooden spoon from a wooden bowl. Candles cost too much, so firelight is all there is to see by. Nobody in the family has ever seen a play, painted a picture or heard a piano. School is a few years of dull Latin taught by a bigoted martinet at the vicarage. Father visited the city once, but the travel cost him a week's wages and the others have never travelled more than fifteen miles from home. Each daughter owns two wool dresses, two linen shirts and one pair of shoes. Father’s jacket cost him a month’s wages but is now infested with lice. The children sleep two to a bed on straw mattresses on the floor. As for the bird outside the window, tomorrow it will be trapped and eaten by the boy.

And a happy Earth Day to you too, Mister Ridley! He nods to Deirdre McCloskey, but seeks to flip causation: perhaps wealth comes first:
Contrary to the cartoon, it was commerce that freed people from narrow materialism, that gave them the chance to be different. Much as the intelligentsia continued to despise the suburbs, it was there that tolerance and community and voluntary organisation and peace between the classes flourished; it was there that the refugees from cramped tenements and tedious farms became rights-conscious consumers -- and parents of hippies. For it was in the suburbs that the young, seizing their economic independence, did something other than meekly follow father and mother’s advice. By the late 1950s, teenagers were earning as much as whole families had in the early 1940s. It was this prosperity that made Presley, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Brando and Dean resonate. It was the mass affluence of the 1960s (and the trust funds it generated) that made possible the dream of free-love communes. Just as material progress subverts the economic order, so it also subverts the social order -- ask Osama bin Laden, the ultimate spoilt rich kid.

Though optimistic about the prospects for reason and continued growth, he worries about threats to reason from climate change, GMO food opponents, and locavores. He demolishes each bit of nonsense expertly, with a long chapter on agriculture. Continuing the genius of Norman Borlaug with today's tools will allow us to feed the whole world well -- and return a hunk of today's farmland to wilderness. You and Ridley would think the hippies would like that, but if they don't kill it with organic food, locavorism, and opposition to GMO crops, a wondrous world awaits.
Borlaug’s genes, sexually recombined with Haber's ammonium and Rudolf Diesel's internal combustion engine, have rearranged sufficient atoms not only to ensure that Malthus was wrong for at least another half-century, but that tigers and toucans can still exist in the wild.
Should the world decide, as a professor and a chef have both suggested on my radio recently, that countries should largely grow and eat their own food (why countries? Why not continents, or villages, or planets?), then of course a very much higher acreage will be needed. My country happens to be as useless at growing bananas and cotton as Jamaica is at growing wheat and wool. If the world decides, as it crazily started to do in the early 2000s, that it wants to grow its motor fuel in fields rather than extract it from oil wells, then again the acreage under the plough will have to balloon. And good night rainforests. But as long as some sanity prevails, then yes, my grandchildren can both eat well and visit larger and wilder nature reserves than I can. It is a vision I am happy to strive for. Intensive yields are the way to get there.

And do not worry, brother jg, Ridley is on board with "brown energy:"
Fossil fuels cannot explain the start of the industrial revolution. But they do explain why it did not end. Once fossil fuels joined in, economic growth truly took off, and became almost infinitely capable of bursting through the Malthusian ceiling and raising living standards. Only then did growth become, in a word, sustainable.

This leads to a shocking irony. I am about to argue that economic growth only became sustainable when it began to rely on non-renewable, non-green, non-clean power. Every economic boom in history, from Uruk onwards, had ended in bust because renewable sources of energy ran out: timber, crop land, pasture, labour, water, peat. All self-replenishing, but far too slowly, and easily exhausted by a swelling populace. Coal not only did not run out, no matter how much was used: it actually became cheaper and more abundant as time went by, in marked contrast to charcoal, which always grew more expensive once its use expanded beyond a certain point, for the simple reason that people had to go further in search of timber.
This is not to imply that non-renewable resources are infinite – of course not. The Atlantic Ocean is not infinite, but that does not mean you have to worry about bumping into Newfoundland if you row a dinghy out of a harbour in Ireland. Some things are finite but vast; some things are infinitely renewable, but very limited. Non-renewable resources such as coal are sufficiently abundant to allow an expansion of both economic activity and population to the point where they can generate sustainable wealth for all the people of the planet

Ridley does fear "The wrong kind of chiefs, priests and thieves could yet snuff out future prosperity on earth." As do I. But without "a globalised retreat from reason," things don't look too bad:
The more you prosper, the more you can prosper. The more you invent, the more inventions become possible. How can this be possible? The world of things -- of pecans or power stations -- is indeed often subject to diminishing returns. But the world of ideas is not. The more knowledge you generate, the more you can generate. And the engine that is driving prosperity in the modern world is the accelerating generation of useful knowledge.

Five Stars and an Editor's Choice Award.

Review Corner Posted by John Kranz at June 23, 2013 10:34 AM

Rereading, it seems I implied that Ridley considers climate change to be nonsense. I'll share one more excerpt to provide his more nuanced view:

In short, the extreme climate outcomes are so unlikely, and depend on such wild assumptions, that they do not dent my optimism one jot. If there is a 99 per cent chance that the world's poor can grow much richer for a century while still emitting carbon dioxide, then who am I to deny them that chance? After all, the richer they get the less weather dependent their economies will be and the more affordable they will find adaptation to climate change.

Ridley, Matt (2010-06-10). The Rational Optimist (P.S.) (Kindle Locations 4622-4625). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Posted by: jk at June 23, 2013 11:46 AM | What do you think? [1]