The Rational Optimist (Book Review)

The Rational Optimists takes a look back at our history (in a similar way Steven Pinker does in The Better Angels of Our Nature/Enlightenment Now). And it looks forward at the progress we can be making. The main argument is that we are always progressing/changing/improving. The main cause is specialisation and exchange (that go hand in hand). What many pundits forget is that this process hasn’t stopped and by some accounts will only increase (exponentially, think Ray Kurzweil). Highly recommended book.

Progress – in the future

What I find most striking about the book is the (very obvious) observation that we’ve been making progress for thousands of years (which are explained in the book), and that we will continue to do so.

Yet most people in the news/world expect a static world, one where progress/innovation is not possible. On one hand I can imagine this, we don’t see progress on a day-to-day basis. But even looking back 10 or 20 years, we’ve made so many strides forwards.

Are we happier? We don’t think about it that much, but we are much happier. And even when happiness stalls (West-Europe, America), we have better and better living conditions and medical care than ever before.

A person in 1950 couldn’t imagine the world of 2019, in the same way we can’t imagine what we will be doing in 2100. All we can know is that through bottom-up innovation (through specialisation and exchange) we will do great new things. We might go to the moon and beyond, we might live forever, we might have abundant energy (e.g. through fission).

Yes, we do need to worry about the problems that we’re creating. But in the last chapter Ridley lays out how we’ve exaggerated many of those claims, and again forgot about the progress that we’re making.

Let us all be optimists, rational optimists!

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