Technology should make us optimistic

Author Matt Ridley's favorite books on technologies that make the world a better place

Topics: The Browser, technology, Books, Optimism, Writers and Writing,

Technology should make us optimistic
This interview first appeared in The Browser, as part of the FiveBooks series. Previous contributors include Paul Krugman, Woody Allen and Ian McEwan. For a daily selection of new article suggestions and FiveBooks interviews, check out The Browser or follow @TheBrowser on Twitter.

Before we start talking about the books tell me why you’ve chosen this topic.

The BrowserBecause it’s my new passion. Because I spent my youth being a pessimist about the future of the world, but then it dawned on me that things were getting better and all my friends were getting richer and I didn’t need to be a pessimist. And that all sorts of trends were going in the right direction and it was all basically down to technology in the end, and I wanted to understand what this process was that was creating technologies that raised living standards.

I wish I was one of your friends.

Well, I’m talking about the 1980s. We all sat around in the 1970s as students, saying: We’re finished, it’s all over, the world’s going to come to an end, economic growth is a vile, idiotic and futile plan. I thought they meant it but it turned out that what they meant was: I’ve just applied to Goldman Sachs for a job.



Excellent. Tell me what’s so optimistic about these books then. Let’s start with Julian Simon.

Julian Simon is really the god of this subject in many ways. He died terribly young in his 50s or 60s about ten or 15 years ago and he produced a series of books that were just riddled with numbers. He was a fanatic for digging up trends. So, for example, he traced the wheat price back to the Middle Ages, and he’d drawn a graph of it and shown that, except in the odd bad year, wheat prices have basically been falling since the Middle Ages. Wheat has been getting cheaper for people in terms of wages since then. Likewise a lot of pollution issues, etc, etc. He was amazing at digging out numbers and trends.

Wait. You mean the world is less polluted now than it was in the Middle Ages? That doesn’t sound very likely.

Well, in many ways it is. The amount of sewage you encounter in your water supply, for example. Simon’s big thing was the population explosion and how it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing and nor was it any longer exponential and in fact it was slowing down. It was basically the conflict between population and resources that became an obsession in the early 1970s, with the publication of the Club of Rome’s report in 1970 which said that humankind is going to run out of metals, oil, gas and all these kinds of things. He said, no, what a resource is is human ingenuity turning something else into something useful. And if you look at the way we use resources we get better at finding them. We get better at finding things we hadn’t used before and we get better at refining them. So we produce more oil from the same oil field or we find new ways of getting metals out of ores. He said, look, the prices of metals have been falling for hundreds of years. Almost any metal you choose is getting cheaper, despite the fact that there are more people.

Eventually he was offered a bet by somebody called Paul Erlich, a famous doomster, who said: ‘I bet you that metals are going to get more expensive in the next year.’ Julian Simon took him up and said, OK, you name the metals and we will buy a basket of these metals in 1980, and in 1990 we will see who’s right. If they’ve got cheaper you pay me the difference, if they’ve got more expensive I pay you the difference. It was $1,000 on the table and Erlich chose the metals and, as he said, he wanted to grab the offer before somebody else picked up this incredibly easy win. Of course, Simon won by a mile: commodity prices fell during the 1980s.

Maybe that’s just because we’re using small children and slaves to dig them out?

Well, we’ve been doing that for a long time too. We’re doing it less.

Oh, are we? What great news.

Yup. The Potosí silver mine in Bolivia was run by the Spanish in the 1500s and had the biggest slave population of anywhere in the world, but they now use five big diggers. Show me a metal mine in the world run by slaves rather than diggers. Doesn’t exist. Anyway, the point was that Erlich reacted very badly to losing this bet and said: ‘The only thing the world is not running out of is imbecility.’ But Simon is a great hero. He took these people on and said there was something wrong with their model. Human beings are solution machines as well as problems; the ingenuity of human beings is what drives the world. For example, uranium ore. It is not a resource until someone invents nuclear fission. The idea of resources as sort of fixed things that you run out of is just wrong. It’s a negotiation between human ingenuity and what’s available in the world. So, for example, phosphorous. People say it’s going to run out, but what they mean is the really rich phosphorous ores will probably run out quite quickly.

I don’t even know what we use it for apart from matches, which we presumably don’t use all that many of.

It’s a fertiliser. It’s a huge, huge fertiliser. Of course, it doesn’t disappear. Pig shit is ten per cent phosphorous and it runs into rivers and into the sea and ends up in mud, so we can always use the mud as an ore. Eventually. See what I mean? A beautiful example recently is shale gas, which is the new and exciting form of energy that is going to save the world big time in the 21st century because we’ve always known that there is a lot of methane in shale but it has always been assumed that you can’t get it out. About ten years ago a Texan worked out how you can get it out and the result is that America has turned from being an importer of natural gas to an exporter and reckons that now, instead of having 20 years of natural gas supplies, it has probably several hundred years. China is about to do the same, and Poland, South Africa. The shale gas revolution is incredible. It’s a resource we knew was there but it wasn’t a resource if you couldn’t get it out.

Bjørn Lomborg.

He read a famous article about Julian Simon in Wired, about the bet and Simon’s views, and Bjorn, being a gay, vegetarian, left-wing Dane thought: ‘This is crap.’ But he was an economics professor so he set some of his students to show what was wrong with Simon’s argument but, instead of showing what was wrong they concluded, after a term, that Simon was absolutely right, and Bjorn became a convert to Simon’s view and he started taking on environmental pessimism and wrote The Skeptical Environmentalist. He said, hang on, most of the environmental trends in the world are getting better not worse. There is more forest now than there was 50 years ago.

No. Really?

Yup. Not in the right places necessarily. Rain forest is retreating but go to the Eastern seaboard of America. It’s covered in forest. It used to be farmland. Some of it’s plantations but some of it’s just wild forest that’s regrowing. The total number of trees in the world is going up at the moment, not down. There’s less water pollution, less air pollution, the kinds of things that caused urban smog in LA in the 1960s are going down dramatically.

With the trees. That sounds so unlikely.

Exactly. A lot of what he says sounds unlikely because, as he says, people have heard the litany over and over again. He went back to reputable sources – UN, World Bank, other sources – and he found that the numbers simply don’t support the pessimism. There aren’t as many trees as there were…well, when?

1510.

Britain probably has more trees now than in 1510. Huge forest clearances had happened long before that. The forestry commission has planted a lot of trees. There’s certainly more forest today than at any point in the last couple of hundred of years. When it got to be this lightly forested, it was probably the Middle Ages. There were huge forest clearances to fuel the iron industry in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. And real problems because they started running out of charcoal. The iron industry had to leave the South of England because there were no trees left. They moved to Wales and Cumbria and deforested that too. Species extinction rates for mammals and birds peaked around 1900 and they’ve been dropping since. That’s not in Bjørn’s book but I’ve been looking into it.

OK. Assuming that this is true, it must be then that we love being pessimistic. If this is the evidence right in front of our faces and yet we’re all dooming and glooming around saying it’s the end of the world and our children are all going to drown, then we must love it. Why are we so pessimistic?

Good question and one I don’t have a complete answer to. A lot of it, of course, goes back to the media. Good news is no news. There was a good example the other day. Maternal mortality rates in the world were going down for a long time and then started levelling out because of Aids in the 90s. It’s resumed its decline and global maternal mortality has been falling steeply in the last few years. The Lancet received a paper about this and the editor of The Lancet came under huge pressure from NGOs not to print this paper because those NGOs were negotiating for grant increases to work on maternal mortality and they didn’t want the good news out there. I think they should want the good news out there because it shows that what they’re doing is working.

Yes, but I suppose if everything is great then everyone relaxes and people stop working on it and then it will all get worse.

I thought journalists wanted the truth.

Oh. I have never been under that illusion.

No. Exactly. But Lomborg’s book was hugely controversial and he was attacked viciously, physically in one case. Mark Lynas hit him in the face with a cream pie. So much for free speech. Lomborg was rocking the boat and was a nightmare for the Green movement. Bjorn has since made himself famous in the climate debate with Cool It, saying that we need to press ahead with technology rather than trying to change the world economy. When I read The Skeptical Environmentalist and said it was an important book some people ostracised me even for that. It was so controversial. The Danish Academy of Sciences set up a commission on scientific dishonesty, which condemned Lomborg in a sort of medieval way but then they had to undo that and say: ‘Sorry, we were wrong.’

The Bottomless Well.

This book points out that the cheaper energy gets the more we use. Electric light is now ludicrously cheap compared with candlelight in the days of Jane Austen, and the result is that I’ve got ten bulbs on in this room on a bright day. So, if we conserve energy through insulating our houses then we burn more. If we make our cars more energy efficient we’ll drive them further. What he’s saying on the one hand is: don’t kid yourself that we’re going to use less energy. On the other hand he’s saying: don’t kid yourself that energy’s going to run out. The degree to which we can make our use of energy more efficient means that our resources will stretch further and further. He gives the example of the old steam engine which was 99 per cent inefficient. Only one per cent of the coal you burnt turned into energy. Nowadays a modern turbine using gas is 60 to 80 per cent efficient. There’s an extraordinary reduction in the amount of fossil fuel you have to burn to produce the same amount of work. The result is that electricity is cheaper and therefore we use more of it. It’s a wonderful explanation of the technologies and how they fit into the world.

Does it matter if we use more of it, because according to Julian Simon we’ll think of other ways of making it?

That’s roughly where I am. Natural gas is going to do us nicely for this century, with nuclear added in. It’s highly unlikely that we’re going to run out of sources of cheap energy. If we look at the industrial revolution and what happened there was the discovery of cheap energy. Wood, wind and water got more expensive the more you used it. You’d dam the best rivers first and then the streams in the hills. The thing about coal was that it got cheaper the more you dug out. Same with oil and gas. That’s the story and that’s why we’ve been able to give up using slaves and forests and use these lovely things that come out of holes in the ground. Ha.

This is Kevin Kelly’s very new book which I think is very profound. He’s the editor ofWired and has a really interesting background. He grew up in some sort of Amish-like community. Why do I think that? Anyway, in a backwoods, rural way, but he’s now the editor of a magazine about computers. He realises that there’s an inexorability about the way technology changes and that it’s almost as if technology has its own agenda. He talks about the technium, the technologies that drive our lives and have a sort of inertia, a momentum about them. We invent the adjacent possible. We don’t make great leaps. We think we do and we give out Nobel Prizes but they are always building on the shoulders of others and making tiny incremental changes, but they happen to be in the right place at the right time when we’re giving out the prizes. So you don’t invent the internet before the computer. It edges forward incrementally, one step at a time. That’s why you get the simultaneous discovery of things. Almost every exciting technology has about five angry people saying, hang on, I invented it. Neptune was discovered by a Frenchman and an Englishman on the same day.

Yes. There’s the woman who was overlooked for the DNA Nobel Prize.

Rosalind Franklin. She was one of the people on whose shoulders everyone trod, but then she was standing on Maurice Wilkins’s shoulders. She was a huge part of the story but was badly treated, as was Maurice Wilkins. She’s a classic example of how the incremental nature of discovery is overlooked in how we tell history.

How is this part of our optimism theme?

Because there is no end to this process. The only fuel that technology needs is ideas. You recombine thoughts to produce new thoughts. That process can go on indefinitely. We’re not going to run out of ways of tweaking cars and computers. There is an infinite supply of improvements to technology which will raise living standards.

Whole Earth Discipline.

Stewart Brand is the god of the environmental movement. He invented pretty well everything you’ve ever heard of in California in the 1960s. He started a campaign for the Apollo mission to show us pictures of the whole planet. He handed out badges with ‘Why Haven’t We Seen The Whole Earth Yet?’ and the Apollo mission had sort of forgotten to take pictures, in fact, though it’s now the most iconic of all the images that came out of the space race. In this book he describes how one of the things he did was spawn a back-to-the-land movement with people growing their own vegetables and forming communes. He says that people like him did that, and it was muddy and dirty and no fun and we all drifted back to the cities and got proper jobs and made friends.

The thing I love in this new book is that it’s a paean for three things he thinks the environmental movement should adopt and has got wrong. One is nuclear power, the other is GM food and the third is cities. He says urbanisation is a good thing because it’s all about people moving from the countryside into cities where there’s opportunity and they can raise their living standards and escape the stifling social aspects of villages. He has wonderful images and slides of what’s happening. He thinks that favelas and slums are not terrible sinks where people are miserable and dying – these are places where poor people are coming in, getting better off and moving out. They are engines for creating slightly better living standards for the poor. More than half the world now lives in cities and they are places of ferment and innovation etc. The exciting thing about what Steward Brand is saying is that the urbanisation revolution that’s continuing is a good thing, not a bad thing.

We try to grow vegetables at our house in Italy and only very rich people can really do this because it’s so expensive. Each carrot, and there were only two last year, effectively cost about 500 euros. You should go to the supermarket as nature intended.

Exactly. Self-sufficiency is another word for poverty.

Thinking about why we like being pessimistic, I think that every generation has a theory that it’s going to be the end of the world when they themselves die. Because we know we’re going to die we partly want to imagine that so is everybody. Nuclear war, Aids, global warming.

I like that. That’s really good. Somebody said to me the other day that they think the reason for this is that the past is certain; we know we survived it and we are descended from the successful people in the past. But the future is uncertain. Anything could happen.

But it’s not uncertain. We are going to die.

You’re right. We are going to die. There’s a huge element of narcissism in this. Whenever I hear the phrase ‘We stand at a turning point in history’, my hackles rise. Everybody thinks they stand at a turning point. This tipping point, turning point metaphor that privileges your own generation in a form of chosen race is purely narcissistic and wrong.

I really think it’s to do with the lifeline. The turning point means: ‘I am between 20 and 50.’

Yes, that’s nice. Thank you for that. I’m going to steal it but I’ll credit you, I promise.

Whole Earth Discipline.

Stewart Brand is the god of the environmental movement. He invented pretty well everything you’ve ever heard of in California in the 1960s. He started a campaign for the Apollo mission to show us pictures of the whole planet. He handed out badges with ‘Why Haven’t We Seen The Whole Earth Yet?’ and the Apollo mission had sort of forgotten to take pictures, in fact, though it’s now the most iconic of all the images that came out of the space race. In this book he describes how one of the things he did was spawn a back-to-the-land movement with people growing their own vegetables and forming communes. He says that people like him did that, and it was muddy and dirty and no fun and we all drifted back to the cities and got proper jobs and made friends.

The thing I love in this new book is that it’s a paean for three things he thinks the environmental movement should adopt and has got wrong. One is nuclear power, the other is GM food and the third is cities. He says urbanisation is a good thing because it’s all about people moving from the countryside into cities where there’s opportunity and they can raise their living standards and escape the stifling social aspects of villages. He has wonderful images and slides of what’s happening. He thinks that favelas and slums are not terrible sinks where people are miserable and dying – these are places where poor people are coming in, getting better off and moving out. They are engines for creating slightly better living standards for the poor. More than half the world now lives in cities and they are places of ferment and innovation etc. The exciting thing about what Steward Brand is saying is that the urbanisation revolution that’s continuing is a good thing, not a bad thing.

We try to grow vegetables at our house in Italy and only very rich people can really do this because it’s so expensive. Each carrot, and there were only two last year, effectively cost about 500 euros. You should go to the supermarket as nature intended.

Exactly. Self-sufficiency is another word for poverty.

Thinking about why we like being pessimistic, I think that every generation has a theory that it’s going to be the end of the world when they themselves die. Because we know we’re going to die we partly want to imagine that so is everybody. Nuclear war, Aids, global warming.

I like that. That’s really good. Somebody said to me the other day that they think the reason for this is that the past is certain; we know we survived it and we are descended from the successful people in the past. But the future is uncertain. Anything could happen.

But it’s not uncertain. We are going to die.

You’re right. We are going to die. There’s a huge element of narcissism in this. Whenever I hear the phrase ‘We stand at a turning point in history’, my hackles rise. Everybody thinks they stand at a turning point. This tipping point, turning point metaphor that privileges your own generation in a form of chosen race is purely narcissistic and wrong.

I really think it’s to do with the lifeline. The turning point means: ‘I am between 20 and 50.’

Yes, that’s nice. Thank you for that. I’m going to steal it but I’ll credit you, I promise.

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