Reports of accidents, floods, drought, recession, unemployment, incurable virus outbreaks, energy shortage, global warming, etc dominate the news programs of TV and newspapers. Forecasts of doom and collapse tend to get far more attention than predictions of rosy scenarios.
“Pessimism has always been big office” says Matt Ridley in his latest book, “The rational optimist”. It plays into what Greg Easterbrook calls ‘the collective refusal to believe that life is getting better’. People do not apply this to their own lives, interestingly: they tend to assume that they will live longer, stay married longer and travel more than they do. Yet surveys consistently reveal individuals to be personally optimistic, yet socially pessimistic. Dane Strangler calls this a ‘non-burdensome form of cognitive dissonance we all walk around with’. About the future of human race and society, people are naturally gloomy. It goes with the fact they are risk-averse: a large literature confirms that people much more viscerally dislike losing a sum of money than they like winning the same sum. And it seems that pessimism genes might quite literally be commoner than optimism genes.
“As the average age of a country’s population rises”, says Ridley, “people get more and more neophobic and gloomy. There is immense vested interest in pessimism too. No charity ever raised money for its cause by saying things are getting better. No journalist ever got the front page by telling his editor that he wanted to write a story about how disaster was now less likely. Good news is no news, so the media megaphone is at the disposal of any politician, journalist or activist who can warn of a coming disaster.”
Ridley adds: “Apocaholics exploit and profit from the natural pessimism of human nature, the innate reactionary in every person. For 200 years, pessimists have had all the headlines, even though optimists have far more often been right.”
Ridley has taken pains to debunk every doom prophesy- be it on climate change, population explosion, nuclear showdown, energy crisis, uncontrolled epidemic- and to show that each is based on irrational fears. True, in his zeal to promote optimism, he has at times, cherry-picked evidences that support his argument. But I’d like to believe him for the simple reason that he makes the world appear far less dreary than it did before I read the book.
Now, is pessimism all wrong? Doesn’t it have some virtues? Trust P.G.Wodehouse to find a silver lining in the cloud of pessimism. Here he is in his book “Something Fresh”.
Among the advantages of advancing age is a wholesome pessimism, which, while it takes the fine edge off whatever triumphs may come to us, has the admirable effect of preventing Fate from working off on us any of thoe gold bricks, coins with strings attached, and unhatched chickens at which Ardent Youth snatches with such enthusiasm, to its subsequent disappointment. As we emerge from the twenties we grow in a habit of mind which looks askance at Fate bearing gifts. We miss, perhaps, the occasional prize, but we also avoid leaping light-heartedly into traps.
Ridley’s key theme is the salience of trade — commerce — exchange — in propelling progress. The great point (which too many fail to grasp) is that trade makes both sides better off. Ridley draws an analogy to the biological exchange of information, i.e., sex, which propels evolution. Trade, he writes, is akin to ideas having sex with each other.
Ridley’s book celebrates the human achievement. To lament modernity, to deny that we’ve progressed, even to condemn what we’ve done, while romanticizing a supposedly halcyon past, is pitiably foolish. Ridley does a great job showing just what progress has achieved in quality of life for the average human. He and I share a profound reverence for the titanic human exertions standing behind this.
Reading his book on an airplane — a half-day transcontinental trip that for our forebears was arduous, miserable, dangerous, and took months — made me marvel anew at the vast web of contributions by untold thousands of people across the globe and across centuries that made this possible. The same is true of even our simplest modern conveniences, to which most of us give scarcely a thought.
I have been following the reviews and blog commentaries on Ridley’s book. Most have been quite positive. The nastiest was by George Monbiot in Britain’s left-wing Guardian newspaper. One can of course quibble with details of Ridley’s analysis. But to dismiss his basic story, to actually condemn it as villainy, takes a really diseased cynicism, and blinding oneself to what is, well, blindingly obvious. It’s painful to observe. And it’s harmful, standing in the way of a better world (especially for the downtrodden, about whose plight such pundits constantly whine).
Monbiot et al are intolerant guardians of a narrow orthodoxy. They portray Ridley’s book as fanatically pro-capitalist and anti-government. It is not, and only a fanatic would see it so. Their critiques reveal more about the critics than about the book.
Bravo to Ridley for his breath of fresh air and clear thinking. That his message is widely labeled “radical” is ironic — the reaction really should be, “Duh! Tell us something we don’t know.” Yet Ridley is indeed telling us something that, sadly, most people don’t know.
My own book, The Case for Rational Optimism (Transaction, Rutgers University, 2009), does make many points and arguments similar to Ridley’s, but is far broader in scope, covering not only such topics as the economy, war and peace, technology, democracy, etc., but also the evolutionary background and the philosophical and psychological issues involved with optimism versus pessimism. See http://www.fsrcoin.com/k.htm
This is what Ridley says in defence of science in an article :
"For the past century the world has got steadily better for most people. You do not believe that? I am not surprised. You are fed such a strong diet of news about how bad things are that it must be hard to believe they were once worse. But choose any statistic you like and it will show that the lot of even the poorest is better today than it was in 1903. Longevity is increasing faster in the poor south than in the rich north. Infant mortality is lower in Asia than ever before. Decade by decade per-capita food production is rising.
Here at home, we are healthier, wealthier and wiser than ever before. Pollution has declined; prosperity increased; options opened.
All this has been achieved primarily by that most hated of tricks, the technical fix. By invention, not legislation."
I think he is absolutely right. There is reason to be optimistic about the future.
PGW as always, makes one smile, but if you ask me, age may not bring pessimism, but pessimism certainly ages a person.
Frank, thanks for the inputs. I have not attempted a review of Ridley's book here. I liked his central point on how trade and mating of ideas have contributed to innovation and progress.
But,in the extract that I have posted, he seems to suggest that a pessimistic mindset is innate to humans and is hardwired into our brains. Perhaps this provided a survival edge as we were evolving, but is misplaced today. If it is so entrenched, can we get rid of it merely on the basis of assurances from Ridley?
Best wishes for the success of your book.
Anu: I like your point about pessimism making a person old, and not the other way.
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