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Expired · 26th June 2010
Ray Grigg
In contrast to the gloomy foreboding that seems to pervade the mood of our time, Matt Ridley is hopeful. He is a British science fiction writer who has recently published The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, a book that is upbeat and positive about our future. Indeed, his ideas are a pleasant antidote to the ominous and sinking sense of ruin that is expected to accompany the environmental mayhem predicted for the coming decades.

"If things are going so badly, why are we doing so well?" This is his implicit question. And, to be objective about our present situation ‹ with the emphasis on present ‹ things are going well for humanity. Generally, we are richer and healthier than at any time in our history. Growing numbers of us live with amenities and comforts that would be the envy of early emperors. In an interview for The Guardian, Ridley said, "You can regret the sinful profligacy of the modern world, which is the conventional reaction, or you can conclude that were it not for fossil fuels, 99 percent of people would have to live in slavery for the rest to have a decent standard of living, as indeed they did in Bronze Age empires." So the way we got to this state of luxury is worth considering.

The secret, Ridley contends, is our capacity for exchanging ‹ first things and then ideas. The process is like sex, the fundamental biological mechanism that is key to evolution and the success of species. Sex is the exchange of genes in nearly infinite variations, with each new combination offering new possibilities for adaptation and improvement. The same process occurs in culture, Ridley contends. "At some point, human intelligence became collective and cumulative in a way that happened to no other animal. Ideas began to meet and mate, have sex with each other." Those combinations that failed to improve our wellbeing disappeared into history; those that were beneficial were propagated and refined.

Rather than thinking of our present civilization as a disarray of economics and information, we can consider it a time of incredible exchanging, an exponentially growing pool of global knowledge that is interconnecting and, therefore, fertilizing endless possibilities. The prospects being offered by science, invention, engineering, innovation and technology are incredible. Think genetics, medicine, bio-chemistry, renewable energies, computers, nano-technology, communication....

So what's wrong? In Ridley's words, "The generation that has experienced more peace, freedom, leisure time, education, medicine, travel, movies, mobile phones and messages than any generation in history is lapping up gloom at every opportunity." If we are living in Ridley's world of "rational optimism", why are we hearing a rising chorus of concern from learned scientists, philosophers, academics and authors who are warning us of impending disaster? The palpable sense of foreboding doesn't match the affluence and success of our time.

The paradox confuses Ridley. And it should give us pause for consideration, too. So here are some possible explanations.

Information is knowledge. But it is also a loss of innocence. If we use existing data to extrapolate from the present to the future, we detect unfolding environmental, energy and resource problems that are huge and unprecedented. Our anxiety about being able to solve them is caused by the disruptive character of new information. We don't know, given the complexity of the problems and the limited time constraints, if we have the ability to find and implement solutions. The pervasive doubt undermining our confidence is a condition that Thomas Homer-Dixon calls the "ingenuity gap".

And Ridley's sex and evolution analogy overlooks the fact that cultural evolution, like biological evolution, is also a trial-and-error process. In biology, time is required for an ecology to regain its equilibrium when a species obliterates itself with an adaptive mistake that proves to be terminal. Why should our culture be exempt from the same fate? Could our measures of success possibly be attributes of failure? We don't know yet. But we must admit the possibility. Such doubt is a legitimate concern and a healthy adaptive mechanism.

And affluence is an enemy ‹ the more we have, the more we can lose. This attachment is the bane of being rich. Much seems to beget the quest for more, until we spend all our time and effort getting, protecting and worrying. Leisure is consumed by busyness and contentment by anxiety. "Those who know when enough is enough," advised the old Taoist sages, "will always have enough." Maybe in our cultural evolution we have been striving for the wrong kinds of riches.

Success, it seems, is more complicated than affluence. So, at a subconscious level, perhaps we are aware that we are living beyond sustainability and beyond happiness, that we are being stuffed to death and starved to death at the same time. Those who take the time for honest reflection may be discovering that our prosperity is more outer and material than inner and satisfying, that we are living in an illusion of constructed optimism designed and perpetuated by an economic system whose sole function is to create need and promote consumerism.

So we should not be surprised if some thoughtful people are awakening to a cultural malaise that is a combination of "habituation and amnesia", a poignant phrase recently used in Newsweek (May 17/10) to describe our propensity for collectively forgetting the consequences of our behaviour ‹ in this particular case, our dependence on oil. The unfolding environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico is now poisoning more than an ocean and its shorelines. It is rapidly becoming a sobering symbol of a structural flaw in the way we are living on our planet. This is not as comfortable an idea as Matt Ridley's "rational optimism" but it is a better survival strategy.

by Ray Grigg