George “Grinch of the Guardian” Monbiot has launched a bitter assault on the most lively, uplifting and downright brilliant pop science masterpiece you are likely to read this year. Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist (4th Estate).
Ridley argues a case so palpably true, so richly supported by so much evidence, that it ought not to need stating: life is getting better for almost all of us – and at an accelerating rate. The habit of exchange and specialisation, unique to the human species, has enabled us to evolve a kind of collective brain, a communal intelligence which allows us to make stupendous technological advances while other creatures – yes even those brilliant dolphins – remain stuck pretty much where they were 100,000 years ago.
The fact that Ridley’s argument sounds fresh and controversial rather than a statement of the bleeding obvious speaks volumes for the prevailing pessimism of our age. (And all ages actually. Every generation thinks things aren’t as good as they used to be…)
Entirely typical of this knee-jerk pessimism is Monbiot’s petulant attack on the man he describes as “a state-hating free marketeer”. He dwells lovingly on Ridley’s disastrous experiences as chairman of Northern Rock, before laying in to the vilely repellant optimism of this despicable Big-Government-hater’s loathsome thesis:
…it’s the same old cornutopian nonsense we’ve heard one hundred times before (cornutopians are people who envisage a utopia of limitless abundance)
Fine. But what Monbiot doesn’t manage to do in this frenzy of puritanical spleen and ad hom is in any way to demonstrate that Ridley is wrong.
Monbiot makes a number of accusations against Ridley, all of which Ridley very easily rebuts on his website. Ridley’s thesis stands.
The world IS getting better.
One of the many excellent examples Ridley gives to prove this is when he compares the amount of time it has taken through the ages to be able to afford an hour’s reading light. In 1800 a tallow candle would have cost you six hours’ work. In 1880 a kerosene lamp would have cost you fifteen minutes work. In 1950 a conventional filament bulb would have cost you 8 seconds’ work. Today, it will cost you less than half a second of your working time.
Clearly, to scowling Lord-Whiteadder-style puritans like Monbiot this is anathema. Maybe that’s why they’re so keen to push up energy prices. And if Chris Huhne and Dave Cameron get anywhere with their massive “low carbon” energy programme, maybe they’ll succeed.
Why, who knows, with luck, Monbiot and his fellow Watermelons might even take us back to that glorious era in 1750 BC when they knew how to treat energy with the respect it deserves. Back then, an hour’s reading time for a sesame oil lamp would have cost you more than 50 hours’ work.