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Doomsdayers Take Note: Future Is Bright #377372
05/18/10 11:46 AM
05/18/10 11:46 AM
Joined: Oct 1999
Posts: 68,223
oregon, spr
Marty Offline OP

Marty  Offline OP
From the New York Times:
Published: May 17, 2010

Long before “sustainable” became a buzzword, intellectuals wondered
how long industrial society could survive. In “The Idea of Decline in
Western History,” after surveying predictions from the mid-19th
century until today, the historian Arthur Herman identifies two
consistently dominant schools of thought.

The first school 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.

It’s an audacious task, but he has the intellectual breadth for it. A
trained zoologist and former editor at The Economist, Dr. Ridley has
established himself in previous books, like “The Origins of Virtue”
and “Genome,” as the supreme synthesist of lessons from anthropology,
psychology, molecular genetics, economics and game theory. This time
he takes on all of human history, starting with our mysteriously
successful debut. What made Homo sapiens so special? Dr. Ridley argues
that it wasn’t our big brain, because Neanderthals had a big brain,
too. Nor was it our willingness to help one another, because apes and
other social animals also had an instinct for reciprocity.

“At some point,” Dr. Ridley writes, “after millions of years of
indulging in reciprocal back-scratching of gradually increasing
intensity, one species, and one alone, stumbled upon an entirely
different trick. Adam gave Oz an object in exchange for a different

The evidence for this trick is in perforated seashells from more than
80,000 years ago that ended up far from the nearest coast, an
indication that inlanders were bartering to get ornamental seashells
from coastal dwellers. Unlike the contemporary Neanderthals, who
apparently relied just on local resources, those modern humans could
shop for imports.

“The extraordinary promise of this event was that Adam potentially now
had access to objects he did not know how to make or find; and so did
Oz,” Dr. Ridley writes. People traded goods, services and, most
important, knowledge, creating a collective intelligence: “Ten
individuals could know between them ten things, while each
understanding one.”

As they specialized and exchanged, humans learned how to domesticate
crops and animals and sell food to passing merchants. Traders
congregated in the first cities and built ships that spread goods and
ideas around the world.

The Phoenician merchants who sailed the Mediterranean were denounced
by Hebrew prophets like Isaiah and Greek intellectuals like Homer. But
trading networks enabled the ancient Greeks to develop their alphabet,
mathematics and science, and later fostered innovation in the trading
hubs of the Roman Empire, India, China, Arabia, Renaissance Italy and
other European capitals.

Rulers like to take credit for the advances during their reigns, and
scientists like to see their theories as the source of technological
progress. But Dr. Ridley argues that they’ve both got it backward:
traders’ wealth builds empires, and entrepreneurial tinkerers are more
likely to inspire scientists than vice versa. From Stone Age seashells
to the steam engine to the personal computer, innovation has mostly
been a bottom-up process.

“Forget wars, religions, famines and poems for the moment,” Dr. Ridley
writes. “This is history’s greatest theme: the metastasis of exchange,
specialization and the invention it has called forth, the ‘creation’
of time.”

You can appreciate the timesaving benefits through a measure devised
by the economist William D. Nordhaus: how long it takes the average
worker to pay for an hour of reading light. In ancient Babylon, it
took more than 50 hours to pay for that light from a sesame-oil lamp.
In 1800, it took more than six hours of work to pay for it from a
tallow candle. Today, thanks to the countless specialists producing
electricity and compact fluorescent bulbs, it takes less than a
second. That technological progress, though, was sporadic. Innovation
would flourish in one trading hub for a while but then stagnate,
sometimes because of external predators — roving pirates, invading
barbarians — but more often because of internal parasites, as Dr.
Ridley writes:

“Empires bought stability at the price of creating a parasitic court;
monotheistic religions bought social cohesion at the expense of a
parasitic priestly class; nationalism bought power at the expense of a
parasitic military; socialism bought equality at the price of a
parasitic bureaucracy; capitalism bought efficiency at the price of
parasitic financiers.”

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

“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.”

Our progress is unsustainable, he argues, only if we stifle innovation
and trade, the way China and other empires did in the past. Is that
possible? Well, European countries are already banning technologies
based on the precautionary principle requiring advance proof that
they’re risk-free. Americans are turning more protectionist and
advocating byzantine restrictions like carbon tariffs. Globalization
is denounced by affluent Westerners preaching a return to

But 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.”

If you’re not ready to trust an optimist, if you still fear a
reckoning is at hand, you might consider the words of Thomas B.
Macaulay, a British poet, historian and politician who criticized
doomsayers of the mid-1800s.

“We cannot absolutely prove,” he wrote, “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 who came before us, and with just as
much apparent reason.”

Re: Doomsdayers Take Note: Future Is Bright [Re: Marty] #377374
05/18/10 12:00 PM
05/18/10 12:00 PM
Joined: Apr 2000
Posts: 8,868
SP Daily Offline
SP Daily  Offline
Good article!

Re: Doomsdayers Take Note: Future Is Bright [Re: SP Daily] #380386
06/15/10 09:49 AM
06/15/10 09:49 AM
Joined: Feb 2009
Posts: 2,971
Coeur d'Alene Idaho, USA
champion Offline
champion  Offline
For Jhill, where ever he is.

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