Book Review: The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves

Let me recommend a startling book to you, because whether you read a book a week or you haven’t picked one up since you discovered the wonders of the internet, this one deserves your attention. The book is The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (438 pages) written by Matt Ridley and published by HarperCollins ($26.99). Ridley, a Brit, used to write for the Economist magazine and knows how to make abstract concepts accessible.

In this book Ridley challenges the precepts of most environmentalists. He argues that the less independent and less self-sufficient we become and the more we rely on others (people, companies, nations) for our needs, the better off we (humans, plants, animals, land, ecosystems) all are, and will be, forever. He says we are living better, living longer, and the planet is healthier because of our interdependence.

Arguing that life is improving, for us and earth’s biomes, is a tough sell. I know this from experience. Last April, I wrote a post (Happy 40th Anniversary Earth Day) about what has happened in the forty years since the first Earth Day; how we now have less pollution, more food, and fewer people in abject poverty. The post has a poll about whether the reader was now more optimistic, more pessimistic, or ambivalent about the future. Overwhelmingly, people were (and apparently are) pessimistic about the future of the earth. Mind you, this is a tiny sample and completely non-scientific, still I suspect it is pretty close to representative of the population. In fact, a 2010 CBS News poll reveals 57% of Americans believe the world’s environment will deteriorate further in a generation.

The reason circumstances have improved for us and our world is that we’ve moved from being hunter-gatherers needing lots of land, to being specialists needing much less land. And the big reason for this specialization was the invention of exchanging one thing for a different thing. No other animal on earth trades one thing for something else with an unrelated animal. Trade is quite different from reciprocity, which is “you scratch my back, then I’ll scratch your back.” Trade involves exchanging things that are different at the same time. And trade has allowed all who do it to specialize and be better off. You can now trade things you know how to make for things that you don’t know how to make or cannot make.

Trading meant that we no longer had to be good at a lot of skills; we only needed to do one thing. Of course, by doing only one thing we need to rely on others to do those other things. Ridley argues that self sufficiency is poverty and that interdependence is a good thing. “In truth, far from being unsustainable, the interdependence of the world through trade is the very thing that makes modern life as sustainable as it is…suppose your local wheat farmer tells you that last year’s rains means he will have to cut his flour delivery in half. You will have to go hungry.” Instead, you benefit from a global marketplace, “in which somebody somewhere has something to sell you so there are rarely shortages, only modest price fluctuations.”

Because he is a libertarian, Ridley is predisposed to look favorably on commerce. He believes in small government and free markets of goods and services with few rules. Critics pounce on this and point out when he was non-executive chairman of Northern Rock, his bank’s policies of high-risk lending and high risk borrowing contributed to the economic bubble that caused the major recession that much of the world is still dealing with. It’s a fair point: How can he be a rational optimist if he participated in, what in hindsight was, irrational exuberance?

I found Ridley’s ideas and arguments compelling. Trade and commerce make everyone richer, as long as someone is willing to pay for a service there is no such thing as unproductive work, and that in a generation we will be richer still and the earth in better shape. “The rational optimist invites you to stand back and look at your species differently,” writes Ridley in his book, “to see the grand enterprise of humanity that has progressed–with frequent setbacks–for 100,000 years. And then, when you have seen that, consider whether the enterprise is finished or if, as the optimist claims, it still has centuries and millennia to run.”

I dare you to be rationally optimistic.

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Let’s not gush about our clean energy options

Estimates regarding the rate of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil blowout get spewier with each succeeding news cycle. The mess being made requires that we Americans consider what we are willing to pay—economically and environmentally— for energy.

I didn’t see President Obama’s live televised remarks to the nation on the BP oil spill but watched it online. He apparently chose not to use the speech I drafted, “Our Energy Future,” for his text. More’s the pity. He chose another path and the punditocracy are weighing in on how he said it and what he said or, more likely, didn’t say. It was a sober speech, part elegy and part jeremiad. I agreed with much of what he said: stanch the spill, help the Gulf Coast clean up and get back on its feet, investigate the blowout’s cause, tighten the regulatory oversight, and hold BP accountable.

Then our President went on set out his vision, “Each day, we send nearly $1 billion of our wealth to foreign countries for their oil… Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash America’s innovation and seize control of our own (energy) destiny.”

It’s a nice vision, full of gumdrop trees and candy kisses where the air will be so pure from our clean energy that we would have to smoke six packs of cigarettes each day to remember what the air used to be like. In the oil-free America the air will be so clean that the sun will seem like it’s gotten a new lease on life, it will be so bright. That is, if we can see the sun for all of the photovoltaic panels that we will need to power our electric cars, electric SUVs, and electric pickup trucks; electric eighteen-wheeler trucks, electric trains, electric motorcycles and scooters, electric boats and ships, and electric planes and jets. You see, our transportation industry runs on oil and if we want to replace the high-density energy of petroleum with wind or solar we’re going to need a LOT of space.

So, instead of gumdrop trees where birds flit about, imagine 32,150 square miles of wind turbines that kill eagles and interrupt bird migrations. That is what is needed to meet California’s present electricity needs, which are in the neighborhood of 97,000 megawatts. Or, instead of candy-cane cactus, imagine 5,770 square miles of solar photovoltaic panels in the Mojave Desert (about 20% of the Mojave) disrupting habitats of endangered plants and animals. Imagine the new power transmission lines to deliver the electricity. Granted, to some extent, this is “inside-the-box thinking;” some PV panels can be put on rooftops so that not all the displacement would be on undeveloped land (One source I checked had put 27 PV panels on his average sized house in sun-rich Austin, TX. The panels produced about one-third of a typical family’s electricity use.).

Now imagine where those “guilt-free” “clean-energy” machines will be manufactured. If you said, “the United States of America,” thanks for playing; you may sit down. You’re wrong. Try China. So instead of getting our fossil fuel from countries such as Canada and Mexico (only 11% of our domestic oil supply comes from OPEC), we will get our batteries, solar panels, and wind turbines from China instead. Wind turbines, photovoltaics, and electric car batteries need rare-earth metals (such as lanthanum and neodymium) and China has a near monopoly on rare-earth mining. America’s one rare-earth mine closed in 2002. It’s not that rare-earth metals are terribly rare, it’s that mining for them leaves radioactive waste. China’s state-run economy won’t care about such concerns. It will ignore the short-term environmental consequences to lock up the market and get the (low-paying) jobs for growing its middle class.

So-called clean and green energy carries considerable downsides, just as fossil fuel does. Since all actions have consequences, costs and benefits have to be assayed. As that great Roman philosopher, Anonymous, once observed, “Res ea non est quae prandium gratuitum aquet.”

There’s no such thing as a free lunch.


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You’re pulling my Yang. Ten dead-on reasons for using dead tree stuff.

Some anti-logging activists have latched onto a fact like mistletoe on a branch; it looks green but it’s hurting the trees rather than helping. The fact: Trees remove carbon dioxide from the air, and via photosynthesis combine the CO2 with hydrogen to make wood, and expel oxygen. This process pulls CO2 , a greenhouse gas, out of the atmosphere and is useful in the effort against global warming. Then, a priori, trees must not be cut down because they are waaaay too precious to be made into crass commercial stuff.

One such post on the web is “10 big reasons to stop using dead trees.” The reasons are a combination of fact and fabrication. Here’s a fact: “One tree can absorb as much carbon in a year as a car produces while driving 26,000 miles.” Fine. While the Yin might be correct, the writer has neglected the Yang. We can’t talk only of how great trees are at holding carbon and neglect the other side of the demand equation. If we don’t cut the trees what will take their place? (Hint: you can’t say “nothing does” because something will; every day 6.5 billion of us get out of bed and need to live.)

Using wood beats the scary here’s-what-happens-if-you-use-wood statistics. At the threat of being called a Once-ler, let me give you ten dead-on reasons for using dead tree stuff:

1. Wood comes from a renewable resource.

Logic should lead to the conclusion that using renewable resources rather than nonrenewable substitutes would be better for the environment. Apparently unwillingness to look at what happens if we don’t harvest trees for wood (and instead use plastics, etc.) causes this disconnect.

2. Wood products require less energy to produce.

Consider aluminum, from raw material extraction to finished product, the energy input is 70 times greater than an equivalent amount of wood; steel is 17 times greater and cement 3 times. It should be obvious that we must consider the minuses of not using wood as well as the pluses for a balanced decision. We can’t just look at the carbon that won’t be captured when the tree is harvested. We must also look at emissions due to fossil fuel use in the production (and disposal) of substitute products.

3. Using wood decreases CO2 in the atmosphere.

Once a tree is cut, it doesn’t immediately start spewing all of its CO2 into the air. In fact, when made into products, the carbon can be held for centuries.

4. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says using wood is good for the planet.

In fact, the UN says sustainable forestry can halt deforestation and forest degradation, while curbing up to 25% of the CO2. Using wood products instead of non-wood products (all of which require more fossil fuel-based energy and materials) delivers the most bang for the buck for the long run. “In the long term, a sustainable forest management strategy aimed at maintaining or increasing forest carbon stocks, while producing an annual sustained yield of timber… will generate the largest sustained mitigation benefit.” By sustainable forestry the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change means harvesting the net growth (or less), assuring the harvested area is restocked, and doing other forestry practices to assure the forest remains healthy. (For more see the 2007 Mitigation report)
Here are the numbers of net carbon emissions from producing a metric ton of product:

Net Carbon Emissions In Producing A Ton Of
Material Kg C/metric ton
Lumber -460
Concrete 45
Brick 148
Glass 630
Steel 1,090
Aluminum 2,400
Plastic 2,810
Source: Honey and Buchanan, Department of Civil Engineering, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, NZ, 1992.

    5. Wood biodegrades.

    Plastic is virtually forever. Steel oxidizes.

    6. Wood is versatile.

    It can be used to build a home and to heat the home. It is also used for paper, photographic film, plastic tape, rayon fabric, and many other products.

    7. Wood is not a good conductor.

    Which means wood insulates very well: 8.5 times better than concrete and 400 times better than steel.’[1] And, wood doesn’t conduct electricity (when dry).

    8. The timber industry is the only net-carbon sector in our economy.

    California’s forests, where I live, pull more than 14 million metric tons (MMT) annually from the atmosphere. About 10 MMT get returned to the atmosphere by fires, harvesting, insect kill, disease, and the decomposition of forest products in landfills and composting facilities. That still leaves 4MMT being sequestered. Name any other manufacturing industry that has a net carbon benefit.

    9. Forests and their inhabitants have evolved with disturbances.

    While harvesting is a temporary disturbance, this is something that forests and its inhabitants can cope with. It is the permanent loss of habitat that causes problems.
    We need to weigh not just the carbon lost when a tree is harvested but also the carbon dioxide emissions due to fossil fuel use in the production of the substitutes.

    10. We simply need to use wood.

    A lowered demand for wood means greater demand for something else. Without an incentive to keep a forest in production owners will need to sell off their lands, which more often than not, get subdivided into ever-smaller parcels.


    There has been a concerted effort to restrict logging by labeling it deforestation or degradation. Some green activists call for zero-cutting on publicly-owned lands. If green organizations truly cared about reducing CO2, they would embrace forest management. They would promote using forests because finished wood products store carbon and other products emit carbon. Rather than calling for zero-cut, they would demand that the national forests begin harvesting timber in greater quantities. They would insist that we begin using wood instead of concrete, aluminum, steel, and other substitutes. And they would see harvesting not as the end but the beginning of a new forest.

    Let’s face it, we do consume stuff. The stuff we consume should be wood-based over most other products. What do you think?

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    [1] Patrick Moore

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