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Getting better all the time
The biological, cultural and economic forces behind human progress
May 13th 2010 | from the print edition





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The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. By Matt Ridley. Harper; 448 pages; $26.99. Fourth Estate; £20. Buy from, THIRTY years ago, Julian Simon and Paul Ehrlich entered into a famous bet. Mr Simon, a libertarian, was sceptical of the gloomy claims made by Mr Ehrlich, an ecologist best known for his predictions of environmental chaos and human suffering that would result from the supposed “population bomb”. Thumbing his nose at such notions as resource scarcity, Mr Simon wagered that the price of any five commodities chosen by Mr Ehrlich would go down over the following decade. The population bomb was defused, and Mr Simon handily won the bet. Now, Matt Ridley has a similarly audacious bet in mind. A well-known British science writer (and former Economist journalist), Mr Ridley has taken on the mantle of rational optimism from the late Mr Simon. In his new book, he challenges those nabobs of negativity who argue that the world cannot possibly feed 9 billion mouths, that Africa is destined to fail and that the planet is heading for a climate disaster. He boldly predicts that in 2110, a much bigger world population could enjoy more and better food produced on less land than is used by farming today—and even return lots of farmland to wilderness. However, mankind cannot hope to achieve this if it turns its back on innovation. Feeding another 2 billion people or more will, of course, mean producing much more food. Genetically modified (GM) agriculture could play an important role, as this technology can greatly increase yields while using smaller inputs of fertiliser, insecticide and water. Many years of field experience in the Americas and Asia have shown GM crops to be safe, but, Mr Ridley rightly complains, the Luddites of the green and organic movements continue to obstruct progress. The progress (and occasional retardation) of innovation is the central theme of Mr Ridley’s sweeping work. He starts by observing that humans are the only species capable of innovation. Other animals use tools, and some ants, for example, do specialise at certain tasks. But these skills are not cumulative, and the animals in question do not improve their technologies from generation to generation. Only man innovates continuously.

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he insists. then the audacious prediction about feeding the much hungrier world of 2110 using less land than today may very well be proven right too. will be solved by bottom-up innovation in energy technologies. Mr Ridley is also generally sceptical about global warming. Through most of history. but surely a “heavy” tax suggests there is a role for government in fixing market failures? He glosses too over the vital role that air-quality regulations played in cleaning up smog in California. However. But to accomplish that. Get e-mail newsletters Subscribe to The Economist's latest article postings on Twitter Follow The Economist on Twitter See a selection of The Economist's articles. Whether one counts air and water pollution in California or vaccination rates in Bangladesh or life expectancy in Japan. require government intervention—especially because markets themselves can sometimes fail spectacularly. And yet.” declares Mr Ridley in the closing pages of this sunny book. choosing to focus instead on the inventions—like the catalytic converter and low-sulphur fuel—that arose as a result of those technology-forcing measures. since it rewarded individuals and communities who focus on areas of comparative advantage. a zoologist by training. the first British bank to be rescued by the government during the financial crisis. Mr Ridley insists.” That is a sensible prescription (often advocated by this newspaper). despite the pessimistic proclamations of Mr Ehrlich and many other pundits.3 hours 36 mins ago Venezuela's public finances. It does. The way man’s collective brain grows. networked and democratic endeavour.” He is particularly suspicious of strong governments. in fact. Others that man’s mastery of language7 or his capacity for imitation Enter topic to look up A slideshow of Libya's bloody uprising From Newsbook . If man really can find a way of harnessing the innovative capacity of 9 billion bright sparks. Another is the author’s slightly unfair attitude towards government.27 mins ago and social learning hold the key.” He is right that the leaden hand of the state has often suppressed individual freedom and creativity. he does not fully acknowledge that some problems do. in the end. as he was forced to resign as non-executive chairman of Northern Rock. most people lived lives of quiet desperation. man’s greatest asset is his ability to harness that one natural resource that remains infinite in quantity: human ingenuity. 05:52 More from our blogs » Products & events Stay informed today and every day The visible hand As Mr Simon did in his classic work. humiliating servitude and grinding poverty. is the spark that lit the fire of human imagination. he says cheekily. that explains the astonishing improvements in the human condition over time. innovation is no longer the preserve of technocratic elites in ivory towers. highlight one of the book’s minor flaws: an over-anxious cramming in of too many obscure statistics and calculations that should have been relegated to footnotes or an annex. He argues that the problem. and cut payroll taxes. He is surely right.February 25th. stagnant and self-serving.1 hour 42 mins ago What became of the big beasts? From Blighty . topical videos and debates on Facebook. that the explanation lies not within man’s brain but outside: innovation is a collective phenomenon. his conclusion is indisputable. It is increasingly an open. A disappointing day From Free exchange .economist. Mr Ridley surely knows this. is by “ideas having sex”. he is on the mark with the big things. in contrast with their generalist rivals or ancestors. Mr Ridley provides ample statistical evidence here to show that life has indeed got better for most people in most places on most measures. It is this culture of continuous improvement. from the print edition | Books and Arts Advertisement Subscribe to The Economist's free e-mail newsletters and alerts. Thanks to the liberating forces of globalisation and Googlisation. and he provides ample evidence from history that governments are often incompetent and anti-innovation: “The list of innovations achieved by the pharaohs is as thin as the list of innovations achieved by British Rail or the US Postal Service. the glorious offspring that would result if Charles Darwin’s ideas were mated with those of Adam Smith. Still. but unflinchingly in favour of markets in goods and services. Yet the most he will say about that affair is that he is now mistrustful of markets in capital and assets. Mr Share on Share on Share via Facebook Twitter email 24 24 7 that leads us to tinker. “The bottom-up world is to be the great theme of this century. Trade. “always grow complacent. His own theory is. Trade also encouraged specialisation.2 hours 34 mins ago Charging Canadians to fly to America From Gulliver . Such specialists. North American integration and butterflies in Mexico From Americas view . he wants governments to “enact a heavy carbon tax. as it made possible not only the exchange of goods. Follow The Economist on Facebook 7 Recommend (111) Like 24 2 of 3 2/25/11 4:41 PM . if it exists. events. in a way. but also the exchange of ideas. weighs up these arguments but insists. Mr Ridley makes it abundantly clear that he is a free marketeer. which was only accelerated by the industrial revolution. which he equates with monopolies—and those. “It’s Getting Better all the Time” (2000).3 hours 32 mins ago Minibar for the mind From Prospero .32 mins ago Home-team advantage pays off for Boeing From Clausewitz . had the time and the incentive to develop better methods and technologies to do their tasks. however. After all.Innovation in history: Getting better all the time | The Economist http://www. economic growth and technological progress have come to the rescue over and over again. and worries that government policies advocated by greens today will be like treating a nosebleed by putting a tourniquet around one’s neck.

economist. Advertising info Legal disclaimer Accessibility 3 of 3 2/25/11 4:41 PM . View all comments (23) Want more? Subscribe to The Economist and get the week's most relevant news and 24 24 Share on Facebook 7 7 Share on Twitter Share via email Enter topic to look up Readers' comments Readers have commented on this article (the window for new comments is now closed). All rights reserved. About The Economist online About The Economist Media directory Staff books Career opportunities Contact us Subscribe Privacy policy Terms of use [+] Site feedback Help Copyright © The Economist Newspaper Limited 2011.Innovation in history: Getting better all the time | The Economist http://www.

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