Bottom of the Barrel

Week in Review / by Lee Billings /

A new book argues that marketplace innovations will make the future brighter, better, and more prosperous, but is such unbounded optimism rational?

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Credit: Fred Nienaber

Last Saturday, the acclaimed science writer Matt Ridley released his latest book, The Rational Optimist. I’m sure it’s destined for strong sales numbers, particularly among what seems to be the increasingly dominant target demographic for most popular nonfiction books: Jet-setting business-types looking for stimulating-yet-comforting reading material to kill time as they travel between Very Important Meetings around the world. And of course, if at those meetings such elites even idly discuss the ideas they glean from their reading, the book’s success and influence may grow even further.

Ridley’s reassuringly contrarian thesis, as conveyed via this extract in the Sunday Times and this article in the New York Times, is that today’s eco-pessimists are shortsighted in their prognostications of doom and gloom. According to Ridley, people of the world a century from now will probably be, on balance, far more prosperous, wealthy, and fulfilled than those today. Markets are the key to this bright future, particularly the way in which they allow goods, services, and ideas to proliferate and intermingle for the benefit of all humanity. Economic growth is an unalloyed good, and will not cease for the foreseeable future.

It’s an appealing message, and Ridley makes a thoughtful and compelling case. He also carefully includes caveats stating that the “business as usual” approach of rapacious consumption of nonrenewable resources will indeed lead to ruin. Salvation apparently lies through humanity changing its ways, though somehow without many constraints on modern consumerism. In Ridley’s view, hope springs eternal, but it is better known as “innovation.”

Yet all this rings somewhat hollow against at least one of his illustrations of the proliferation of prosperity markets allow: a summation of his morning routine.

“As I write, it is nine in the morning. In the two hours since getting up, I have showered in water heated by North Sea gas, shaved using an American razor running on electricity made from British coal, eaten bread made from French wheat and spread with New Zealand butter, brewed tea using leaves grown in Sri Lanka, dressed in clothes of Indian cotton and Australian wool and read a newspaper made from Finnish wood pulp. I have consumed goods and services from dozens of countries.”

The key enabler for Ridley’s globalized morning rituals is not just markets, but also cheap, plentiful fossil fuel. What markets (and the specialists they’ve given rise to) seem to have innovated is the ability for all of us to easily binge on the stuff. This binge is precisely what presently makes goods and services from around the globe affordable to so many people. From this perspective, the constant reliance on goods shipped from the other side of the planet is both a sign of prosperity and of potentially catastrophic inefficiency and interdependence. Suddenly deprived of inexpensive fossil fuels, Ridley and other residents of developed nations should rationally (if not optimistically) expect to awaken each morning to an existence far less comfortable and more precarious than he or most anyone else wants to admit.

Of course, innumerable data points also suggest that the excess carbon we release through our lifestyle is altering the planet in ways that threaten the stability of modern civilization. In this light, the “good” news is that global petroleum reserves, while not yet exhausted, are rapidly flagging.

There are many ways to “innovate” around these inconvenient truths, but market forces dictated more by human desires than necessities have yet to present (or accept) any simple, palatable solutions. Shall we levy taxes or a global cap-and-trade scheme to curtail carbon emissions, as the US National Academy of Sciences urged this week? If so, then sooner or later it seems most of us can kiss goodbye our easy access to things like sweet New Zealand butter and delicious Sri Lankan tea, along with inexpensive and rapid long-distance transportation of people and goods. The market’s “rational” actors can and will rail against relinquishing these freedom-enabling luxuries, just as they fight against reining in volatile derivatives and other “innovative” financial instruments that recently almost imploded the global economy.

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