Quotes from The Rational Optimist

Book Quotes

Extracted from The Rational Optimist.

Specialisation encouraged innovation, because it encouraged the investment of time in a tool-making tool. That saved time, and prosperity is simply time saved, which is proportional to the division of labour.
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This, along with unbridled commerce, seems to be the point of this book.

This book dares the human race to embrace change, to be rationally optimistic and thereby to strive for the betterment of humankind and the world it inhabits.
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And fails somewhat.

I find the world is full of people who think that their dependence on others is decreasing, or that they would be better off if they were more self-sufficient, or that technological progress has brought no improvement in the standard of living, or that the world is steadily deteriorating, or that the exchange of things and ideas is a superfluous irrelevance.
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He clearly isn't in Silicon Valley. Or Portland.

Had I only known it, experiments in laboratories by the economist Vernon Smith and his colleagues have long confirmed that markets in goods and services for immediate consumption – haircuts and hamburgers – work so well that it is hard to design them so they fail to deliver efficiency and innovation; while markets in assets are so automatically prone to bubbles and crashes that it is hard to design them so they work at all. Speculation, herd exuberance, irrational optimism, rent-seeking and the temptation of fraud drive asset markets to overshoot and plunge
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This rose-tinted nostalgia, please note, is generally confined to the wealthy.
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I can believe this.

even housing has probably got cheaper too : surprising as it may seem, the average family house probably costs slightly less today than it did in 1900 or even 1700,
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A three-minute phone call from New York to Los Angeles cost ninety hours of work at the average wage in 1910; today it costs less than two minutes.
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people are programmed to desire, not to appreciate.
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Let it never be for gotten that, by propagating excessive caution about genetically modified food aid, some pressure groups may have exacerbated real hunger in Zambia in the early 2000s.
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They misallocated the resources to unproductive ends. Most past bursts of human prosperity have come to naught because they allocated too little money to innovation and too much to asset price inflation or to war, corruption, luxury and theft.
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It may even be that parts of the world will be convulsed by a descent into autarky, authoritarianism and violence, as happened in the 1930s, and that a depression will cause a great war.
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Two economists recently concluded, after studying the issue, that the entire concept of food miles is ‘ a profoundly flawed sustainability indicator'. Getting food from the farmer to the shop causes just 4 per cent of all its lifetime emissions. Ten times as much carbon is emitted in refrigerating British food as in air-freighting it from abroad, and fifty times as much is emitted by the customer travelling to the shops.
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Yet, surely, long ago, before trade, technology and farming, human beings lived simple, organic lives in harmony with nature.
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Here is the data. From the ! Kung in the Kalahari to the Inuit in the Arctic, two-thirds of modern hunter-gatherers have proved to be in a state of almost constant tribal warfare, and 87 per cent to experience annual war.
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Because, he answers, human beings evolved to strive to signal social status and sexual worth. What this implies is that far from being merely materialist, human consumption is already driven by a sort of pseudo-spiritualism that seeks love, heroism and admiration.
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There is a single twitch of progress in biface hand-axe history : around 600,000 years ago, the design suddenly becomes a little more symmetrical. This coincides with the appearance of a new species of hominid which replaces its ancestor throughout Eurasia and Africa.
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As a result, whereas other primates have guts weighing four times their brains, the human brain weighs more than the human intestine.
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There is sharing within families, and there is food-for-sex exchange in many animals including insects and apes, but there are no cases in which one animal gives an unrelated animal one thing in exchange for a different thing.
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Trade is often unequal, but still benefits both sides. This is a point that nearly everybody seems to miss.
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Or imagine a Trobriand island tribe on the coast that has ample fish and an inland tribe that has ample fruit : as long as two people are living in different habitats, they will value what each other has more than what they have themselves, and trade will pay them both.
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I am saying that barter – the simultaneous exchange of different objects – was itself a human breakthrough, perhaps even the chief thing that led to the ecological dominance and burgeoning material prosperity of the species.
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True barter requires that you give up something you value in exchange for something else you value slightly more.
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It is as if the species now has two brains and two stores of knowledge instead of one – a brain that learns about hunting and a brain that learns about gathering.
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Is the sexual division of labour a possible explanation of what made a small race of Africans so much better at surviving in a time of megadroughts and volatile climate change than all other hominids on the planet ?
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To me this is a vital clue
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Without trade, innovation just does not happen. Exchange is to technology as sex is to evolution.
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The answer, I suspect, lies in the fissile nature of human culture. Human beings have a deep capacity for isolationism, for fragmenting into groups that diverge from each other.
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Human beings have a deep capacity for isolationism, for fragmenting into groups that diverge from each other.
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‘ Whereas vertical transmission of cultural traits goes largely unnoticed, horizontal transmission is far more likely to be regarded with suspicion or even indignation,' say the evolutionary biologists Mark Pagel and Ruth Mace. ‘ Cultures, it seems, like to shoot messengers.' People do their utmost to cut themselves off from the free flow of ideas, technologies and habits, limiting the impact of specialisation and exchange.
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I have done nothing here but retell, in Stone Age terms, the notion of comparative advantage as defined by the stockbroker David Ricardo in 1817.
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It is such an elegant idea that it is hard to believe that Palaeolithic people took so long to stumble upon it ( or economists to define it );
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According to the anthropologist Joe Henrich, human beings learn skills from each other by copying prestigious individuals, and they innovate by making mistakes that are very occasionally improvements – that is how culture evolves.
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The bigger the connected population, the more skilled the teacher, and the bigger the probability of a productive mistake. Conversely, the smaller the connected population, the greater the steady deterioration of the skill as it was passed on.
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Tools are in effect a measure of the extent of the division of labour and, as Adam Smith argued, the division of labour is limited by the extent of the market.
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Self-sufficiency was dead tens of thousand years ago.
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A few hundred people cannot sustain a sophisticated technology : trade is a vital part of the story.
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Much the same happens in two New Guinea tribes, the Au and Gnau, whose members often make ‘ hyper-fair' offers and yet see them rejected : in such cultures, gifts can be a burden to the receiver because they carry an obligation to reciprocate.
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The lesson of this study is that, on the whole, having to deal with strangers teaches you to be polite to them, and that in order for such generosity to emerge, costly punishment of selfishness may be necessary.
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The argument is not that exchange teaches people to be kind; it is that exchange teaches people to recognise their enlightened self-interest lies in seeking cooperation.
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And generally speaking the more cooperative a species is within groups, the more hostility there is between groups.
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So – as animal experiments have suggested – oxytocin does not affect reciprocity, just the tendency to take a social risk, to go out on a limb.
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As a broad generalisation, the more people trust each other in a society, the more prosperous that society is, and trust growth seems to precede income growth.
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I shall be amazed if the genetics of the oxytocin system do not show evidence of having changed rapidly and recently in response to the invention of trade, by gene-culture co-evolution.
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What is miraculous is that in modern society you can trust and be trusted by a shopkeeper you do not know. Almost invisible, the guarantors of trust lurk beneath every modern market transaction : the sealed packaging, the warranty, the customer feedback form, the consumer legislation, the brand itself, the credit card, the ‘ promise to pay the bearer' on the money.
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Exchange breeds trust as much as vice versa. You may think you are living in a suspicious and dishonest world, but you are actually the beneficiary of immense draughts of trust.
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A successful transaction between two people – a sale and purchase – should benefit both. If it benefits one and not the other, it is exploitation, and it does nothing to raise the standard of living.
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You just don’t hear people coming out of shops saying, ‘ I got a great bargain, but don’t worry, I paid enough to be sure that the shopkeeper feeds his family, too.'
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In market societies, if you get a reputation for unfairness, people will not deal with you. In places where traditional, honour-based feudal societies gave way to commercial, prudence-based economies – say, Italy in 1400, Scotland in 1700, Japan in 1945 – the effect is civilising, not coarsening.
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Unimaginable cruelty was commonplace in the precommercial world : execution was a spectator sport, mutilation a routine punishment, human sacrifice a futile tragedy and animal torture a popular entertainment.
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Murder was ten times as common before the industrial revolution in Europe, per head of population, as it is today.
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The ‘ long tail' of the distribution – the very many products that are each wanted by very few, rather than vice versa – can be serviced more and more easily.
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Among the upper-middle classes, though, it was a badge of rank, handed down from the feudal past, to be or to have a non-working ( or at least housekeeping ) wife.
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Countries that lose their liberty to tyrants today, through military coups, are generally experiencing falling per capita income at an average rate of 1.4 per cent at the time – just as it was falling per capita income that helped turn Russia, Germany and Japan into dictatorships between the two world wars. One of the great puzzles of history is why this did not happen in America in the 1930s, where on the whole pluralism and tolerance not only survived the severe economic shocks of the 1930s, but thrived. Perhaps it nearly
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did happen : Father Coughlin tried, and had Roosevelt been more ambitious or the constitution weaker, who knows where the New Deal might have led ? Perhaps some democracies were just strong enough for their values to survive.
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Like Milton Friedman, I notice that ‘ business corporations in general are not defenders of free enterprise. On the contrary, they are one of the chief sources of danger.'
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Looking around the world, there are plainly societies which manage their citizens' lives well with good rules and societies which manage their
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citizens' lives badly with bad rules. Good rules reward exchange and specialisation; bad rules reward confiscation and politicking.
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Both Orestes and Romeo and Juliet ( and The Godfather and Dirty Harry, for that matter ) capture societies in the act of wrestling with the issue : all can agree that the rule of law is better than the rule of reciprocal revenge, though it makes less good theatre, but not all can overcome their instincts and customs to achieve it.
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And if you look at the history of, for instance, merchant law, you find exactly this : merchants make it up as they go along, turning their innovations into customs, ostracising those who break the informal rules and only later do monarchs subsume the rules within the laws of the land. That
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It was also somewhere near the Baltic or the Black Sea between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago that a genetic mutation, substituting G for A in a control sequence upstream of a pigment gene called OCA2, gave adults blue eyes for the first time. It was a mutation that would eventually be inherited by nearly 40 per cent of Europeans. Because it went with unusually pale skin, it probably helped those people who were
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trying to live on vitamin-D-deficient grain in sunless northern climates : sunlight enables the body to synthesise vitamin D. The gene’s frequency speaks of the fecundity of farmers. One of the reasons that farming
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Almost by definition, the more wealthy somebody is, the more things he acquires from specialists. The characteristic signature of prosperity is increasing specialisation. The characteristic signature of poverty is a return to self-sufficiency.
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Just as modern economists often exaggerate the cold-hearted rationality of consumers, so anthropologists exaggerate the cuddly irrationality of pre-industrial people.
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Worse still, as Friedrich Engels was the first to argue, agriculture may have worsened sexual inequality.
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Wherever archaeologists look, they find evidence that early farmers fought each other incessantly and with deadly effect.
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Pre-emptively raiding your neighbours lest they raid you is routine human behaviour. As Paul Seabright has written : ‘ Where there are no institutional restraints on such behaviour, systematic killing of unrelated individuals is so common among human beings that, awful though it is, it cannot be described as exceptional, pathological or disturbed.'
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As late as 1920, over three million acres of good agricultural land in the American Midwest lay uncultivated because it was more than eighty miles from a railway, which meant a five-day trip by horse wagon costing up to 30 per cent more than the value of the grain.
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This is what it would take to feed nine billion people in 2050 : at least a doubling of agricultural production driven by a huge increase in fertiliser use in Africa, the adoption of drip irrigation in Asia and America, the spread of double cropping to many tropical countries, the use of GM crops all across the world to improve yields and reduce pollution, a further shift from feeding cattle with grain to feeding them with soybeans, a continuing relative expansion of fish, chicken and pig farming at the expense of beef and sheep ( chickens and fish convert grain into meat three times as efficiently as cattle; pigs are in between ) – and
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Indeed, come to think of it, let’s make farming a multi-storey business, with hydroponic drip-irrigation and electric lighting producing food year-round on derelict urban sites linked by conveyor belt directly to supermarkets. Let’s pay for the buildings and the electricity by granting the
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developer tax breaks for retiring farmland elsewhere into forest, swamp or savannah. It is an uplifting and thrilling ideal.
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That technology was genetic modification, which was first invented in the mid-1980s as a kinder, gentler alternative to ‘ mutation breeding' using gamma rays and carcinogenic chemicals.
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In every study of bt cotton crops across the world from China to Arizona, the use of insecticides is down by as much as 80 per cent and the bees, butterflies and birds are back in abundance.
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First they said the food might be unsafe. A trillion GM meals later, with not a single case of human illness caused
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by GM food, that argument has gone.
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crops denied to farmers and consumers by the pressure of militant environmentalists,
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Instead, genetic modification provides an obvious solution : to insert healthy nutritional traits into high-yielding varieties :
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Soooooo, instead of undoing the mistake, double down and fuck with it more?

Not a good plan AT ALL.

So what was driving people together into these South American towns ? The answer, in a word, is trade.
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Because it fits with his theory

The settlements on the coast harvested fish in huge quantities, mainly anchovies and sardines, but also clams and mussels. For this they needed nets.
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Again, and again, citation needed.


Throughout both the Iliad and the Odyssey, ‘Homer’ displays a relentlessly negative attitude to Phoenician traders and hints that they must be pirates. Greek trade in the age of Homer was supposed to handle precious reciprocal gifts between elites, not workaday goods in demand among ordinary people. The snobbery of the elite towards trade has ancient roots.
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I find this fascinating, and added the Odyssey to my book list. Of course, examples would have been great, if only Ridley knew to supply them.

When HMS Dolphin’s sailors found that a twenty-penny iron nail could buy a sexual encounter on Tahiti in 1767, neither sailors nor Tahitian men could believe their luck; whether the Tahitian women were as happy as their menfolk about this bargain goes unrecorded.
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If they were allowed to keep their hard-earned iron, they might have been.

We would never have heard of Pericles, Socrates or Aeschylus had there not been tens of thousands of slaves toiling underground at Laurion and tens of thousands of customers for Athenian goods all over the Mediterranean.
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See? This is one of those conjectures that you don't know. Seems plausable. I'd like to believe this. The Murray Gell-Mann amnesia effect is strong here.

The chief reason is surely that strong governments are, by definition, monopolies and monopolies always grow complacent, stagnant and self-serving.

Monarchs love monopolies because where they cannot keep them to themselves, they can sell them, grant them to favourites and tax them.
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I can agree with this one.

The scientist and historian Terence Kealey points out that entrepreneurs are rational and if they find that wealth can more easily be stolen than created, then they will steal it: ‘Humanity’s great battle over the last 10,000 years has been the battle against monopoly.’
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Rome’s particular speciality, from its very first days until the end of its empire, was simply to plunder its provinces to pay for bribes, luxuries, triumphs and soldiers’ pensions nearer to home.
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But then, as Peter Turchin argues following the lead of the medieval geographer Ibn Khaldun, governments gradually employ more and more ambitious elites who capture a greater and greater share of the society’s income by interfering more and more in people’s lives as they give themselves more and more rules to enforce, until they kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.
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Economists are quick to speak of ‘ market failure', and rightly so, but a greater threat comes from ‘ government failure'. Because it is a monopoly, government brings inefficiency and stagnation to most things it runs; government agencies pursue the inflation of their budgets rather than the service of their customers; pressure groups form an unholy alliance with agencies to extract more money from
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taxpayers for their members.
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Ming officials had high social status and low salaries, a combination that inevitably bred corruption and rent-seeking.
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The message from history is so blatantly obvious – that free trade causes mutual prosperity while protectionism causes poverty – that it seems incredible that anybody ever thinks otherwise.
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Satanic the mills of the industrial revolution may have looked to romantic poets, but they were also beacons of opportunity to young people facing the squalor and crowding of a country cottage on too small a plot of land. As Ford Madox Ford celebrated in his Edwardian novel The Soul of London, the city may have seemed dirty and squalid to the rich but it was seen by the working class as a place of liberation and enterprise.
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Just as Henry Ford said he was driven to invent the gasoline buggy to escape the ‘ crushing boredom of life on a midwest farm', so, says Suketa Mehta, ‘ for the young person in an Indian village, the call of Mumbai isn’t just about money. It’s also about freedom.'
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Uh huh.

Two-thirds of economic growth happens in cities.
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As Edward Glaeser put it, ‘ Thoreau was wrong. Living in the country is not the right way to care for the Earth. The best thing that we can do for the planet is build more skyscrapers.'
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Earth. The best thing that we can do for the planet is build more skyscrapers.' After a ‘ stinking hot'
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On the way up the graph, abundant food encourages some people to specialise in something other than growing or catching food, while others produce food for sale not for self-sufficiency.
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In no animal species do individuals become more specialised as population is rising, nor less specialised as population is stalling or falling.
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This suggests that good old-fashioned Malthusian population limitation does not really apply to human beings, because of their habit of exchange and specialisation.
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The Malthusian crisis comes not as a result of population growth directly, but because of decreasing specialisation. Increasing self-sufficiency is the very signature of a civilisation under stress, the definition of a falling standard of living. Until 1800 this was how every economic boom ended : with a partial return to self-sufficiency driven by predation by elites,
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Until 1800 this was how every economic boom ended : with a partial return to self-sufficiency driven by predation by elites, or diminishing returns from agriculture.
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Uh, he just quoted the 1930s depression example.

Ironically, the plague may have been one of the sparks that lit the Renaissance, because the shortage of labour shifted income from rents to wages as landlords struggled to find both tenants and employees. With rising wages, some of the surviving peasantry could once more just afford the oriental luxuries and fine cloth that Lombard and Hanseatic merchants supplied.
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Your chances of being a victim of homicide in England fell from 0.3 per thousand in 1250 to 0.02 per thousand in 1800 : you were ten times more likely to be killed in the earlier period.
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Garrett Hardin, in his famous essay ‘ The Tragedy of the Commons'
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Yet the tragedy is that this top-down coercion was not only counter-productive; it was unnecessary. Birth rates were already falling
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rapidly in the 1970s all across the continent of Asia quite voluntarily. They fell just as far and just as fast without coercion. They continue to fall today.
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Today, fifty years later, that ratio has more than halved, to about 2.7 children per woman. On current trends Bangladesh’s population will soon cease growing altogether.
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Russia’s population is falling so fast it will be one-third smaller in 2050 than it was at its peak in the early
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Only when women think their children will survive do they plan and complete their families rather than just keep breeding. This remarkable fact seems to be very poorly known.
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Having more income means you can afford more babies, but it also means you can afford more luxuries to divert you from constant breeding. Children are consumer goods, but rather time-consuming and demanding ones compared with, say, cars.
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A typical woman probably reasons thus : now I know my children will probably not die of disease, I do not need to have so many; now I can get a job to support those children, I do not want to interrupt my career too often; now I have an education and a pay cheque, I can take control of contraception; now education can get my children non-farming jobs, I shall have only as many as I can support through school; now I can buy consumer goods, I shall be careful not to spread my income across too large a family; now I live in a city I will plan my family.
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Seth Norton found that the birth rate was more than twice as high in countries with little economic freedom ( average 4.27 children per woman ) compared with countries with high economic freedom ( average 1.82 children per woman ). Besides, there is quite a neat exception which proves
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The more interdependent and well-off we all become, the more population will stabilise well within the resources of the planet.
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Most economists are now more worried about the effects of imploding populations than they are about exploding ones.
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So, all in all, the news on global population could hardly be better, though it would be nice if the improvements were coming faster. The explosions are petering out; and the declines are bottoming out. The more prosperous and free that people become, the more their birth rate settles at around two children per woman with no coercion necessary. Now, is that not good news ?
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There were horses, forges and sailing ships as well, but the chief source of watts in Rome was people.
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The secret of the industrial revolution was shifting from current solar power to stored solar power.
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This leads to a shocking irony. I am about to argue that economic growth only became sustainable when it began to rely on non-renewable, non-green, non-clean power. Every economic boom in history, from Uruk onwards, had ended in bust because renewable sources of energy ran out : timber, crop land, pasture, labour, water, peat. All self-replenishing, but far too slowly, and easily exhausted by a swelling populace. Coal not only did not run out, no matter how much was used : it actually became cheaper and more abundant as time went by,
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This is not to imply that non-renewable resources are infinite – of course not.
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Non-renewable resources such as coal are sufficiently abundant to allow an expansion of both economic activity and population to the point where
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they can generate sustainable wealth for all the people of the planet without hitting a Malthusian ceiling, and can then hand the baton to some other form of energy.
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There are still people about, including it seems those who write the textbooks from which my children learn history, who follow Karl Marx in believing that the industrial revolution drove down most living standards, by cramming carefree and merrie yokels into satanic mills and polluted tenements, where they were worked till they broke and then coughed their way to early deaths. Is it really necessary to point out that poverty, inequality, child labour, disease and pollution existed before there were factories ? In the case of poverty, the rural pauper of 1700 was markedly worse off than the urban pauper of 1850 and there were many more of him.
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As for pollution, smog undoubtedly increased in industrial cities, but the sewage-filled streets of Samuel Pepys’s London were more noisome than anything in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Manchester of the 1850s.
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What is he saying here? Sure there was smog but the smell of sewage drowned it out, so it was okay?

The rise was steepest for unskilled workers : the wage premium for skilled building workers fell steadily. Income inequality fell, and gender inequality, too. The share of national income captured by labour rose, while the share captured by land fell : the rent of an acre of English farmland buys as many goods now as it did in the 1760s, while the real wage of an hour of work buys immensely more.
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Between 1750 and 1850 British men ( some of them immigrants ) invented an astonishing range of labour-saving and labour-amplifying devices, which allowed them to produce more, sell more, earn more, spend more, live better and have more surviving children.
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By 1722 Parliament had bowed to the wishes of these weavers and on Christmas day that year, when the Calico Act took effect, it became illegal to wear cotton of any kind, or even to use it in home furnishings. Not for the last time, the narrow interest of producers triumphed over the broader interest of consumers in an act of trade protectionism. And not for the last time, protectionism would fail, even backfire. To get round the law, East India merchants began to import raw cotton instead, and entrepreneurs started ‘ putting out' cotton to the cottages of rural spinsters and weavers to be made into cloth for export or even, mixed with a little linen or wool to keep it legal ( the Calico Act was eventually repealed in 1774 ), for domestic sale.
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You can see these folk as desperate wage slaves driven off communal land by enclosure acts, the division of common land into private plots that gradually spread across most of England between about 1550 and 1800. But this is misleading. It is more accurate to see the rural textile workers as taking the first step on the ladder of producing and consuming, of specialisation and exchange. They were escaping self-sufficiency into the cash economy. It is true that some people were dispossessed of their livelihoods by enclosure, but enclosure actually increased paid employment for farm labourers, so it was for most a shift from low-grade self-sufficiency to slightly better production and consumption.
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Slaves did the work. Cotton was a labour-intensive crop, in which a single man could sow, weed ( again and again ), harvest and clean the product of just eighteen acres, and there were few economies of scale. In land-rich, thinly populated America, the only way to expand production was to kill the market in labour altogether : to force the workers to work for no wage.
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Electricity’s contribution to human welfare can hardly be exaggerated. To my generation it is a dull utility, as inevitable, ubiquitous and mundane as water or air. Its pylons and wires are ugly, its plugs tiresome, its failures infuriating, its fire risks frightening, its bills annoying and its power stations monstrous symbols of man-made climate change ( complete with Al Gore hurricanes coming from their stacks ). But try to see its magic. Try to see it through the eyes of somebody who has never known power that was invisible and weightless, that could be transmitted miles through a slender wire, that can do almost anything, from lighting to toasting, from propulsion to music playing.
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slaves. Let me repeat a declaration of interest here : I am descended from a long line of people who profited from the mining of coal, and I still do. Coal has huge drawbacks – it emits carbon dioxide, radioactivity and mercury; but my point here is to note how it contributes to human prosperity as well.
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In fact, by 1990 unexploited reserves amounted to 900 billion barrels – not counting the Athabasca tar sands of Alberta, the Orinoco tar shales of Venezuela and the oil shale of the Rocky Mountains, which between them contain about six trillion barrels of heavy oil, or twenty times the proven oil reserves in Saudi Arabia. These heavy oil reserves are costly to exploit, but it is possible that bacterial refining will soon make them competitive with conventional oil even at ‘ normal' prices. The same false predictions of the imminent exhaustion of the natural gas supply have recurred throughout recent decades. Shale gas finds have recently doubled America’s gas resources to nearly three centuries' worth.
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And yet, he does the same false predicting that the supplies won't run out.

Where I live, streams flow free; timber grows and rots in the woods; pasture supports cows; skylines are not scarred by windmills – where, were it not for fossil fuels, these acres would be desperately needed to power human lives. If America were to grow all its own transport fuel as biofuel it would need 30 per cent more farmland than it currently uses to grow food. Where would it grow food then ?
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I would LOVE the source of this statistic! Because, wow, does that sound made up.

Meanwhile, the environmental benefits of biofuels are not just illusory; they are negative. Fermenting carbohydrate is an inefficient business compared with burning hydrocarbon. Every acre of maize or sugar cane requires tractor fuel, fertilisers, pesticides, truck fuel and distillation fuel – all of which are fuel. So the question is : how much fuel does it take to grow fuel ? Answer : about the same amount.
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This is known as the Jevons paradox after the Victorian economist Stanley Jevons, who put it thus : ‘ It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth. As a rule, new modes of economy will lead to an increase of consumption.'
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answer. Inventors will not invent unless they can keep at least some of the proceeds of their inventions. After all, somebody will not invest time and effort in planting a crop in his field if he cannot expect to harvest it and keep the profit for himself – a fact Stalin, Mao and Robert Mugabe learned the hard way – so surely nobody will invest time and effort in developing a new tool or building a new kind of organisation if he cannot keep at least some of the rewards for himself.
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In other words, we may soon be living in a post-capitalist, post-corporate world, where individuals are free to come together in temporary aggregations to share, collaborate and innovate, where websites enable people to find employers, employees, customers and clients anywhere in the world. This is also, as Geoffrey Miller reminds us, a world that will put ‘ infinite production ability in the service of infinite human lust, gluttony, sloth, wrath, greed, envy and pride'. But that is roughly what the elite said about cars, cotton factories, and – I’m guessing now – wheat and hand axes too. The world is turning bottom-up again; the top-down years are coming to an end.
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Throughout history, though living standards might rise and fall, though population might boom and crash, knowledge was one thing that has showed inexorable upward progress. Fire, once invented, was never forgotten. The wheel came and never left. The bow and arrow has not been disinvented even though it is obsolete except in sport – it is better than ever. How to make a cup of coffee, why insulin cures diabetes and whether continental drift happens – it is a fair bet that somebody will know these things or be able to look them up for as long as there are people on the planet.
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I cannot recall a time when one or other of these scares was not solemnly espoused by sober, distinguished and serious elites and hysterically echoed by the media. I cannot recall a time when I was not being urged by somebody that the world could only survive if it abandoned the foolish goal of economic growth.
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Let me make a square concession at the start : the pessimists are right when they say that, if the world continues as it is, it will end in disaster for all humanity.
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Doom after doom was promised : nuclear war, pollution, overpopulation, famine, disease, violence, grey goo, vengeful technology – culminating in the eruption of civil chaos that would undoubtedly follow the inability of computers to cope with the year 2000. Remember that ?
Page 290

Consider the opening words of Agenda 21, the 600-page dirge signed by world leaders at a United Nations conference in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 : ‘ Humanity stands at a defining moment in history. We are confronted with a perpetuation of disparities within and between nations, a worsening of poverty, hunger, ill health and illiteracy, and the continued deterioration of the ecosystems on which we depend for our well-being.' The following decade saw the sharpest decrease in poverty, hunger, ill health and illiteracy in human history.
Page 290

When I go into the local superstore, I never see people driven to misery by the impossibility of choice. I see people choosing.
Page 291

The endless modern laments about how texting and emails are shortening the attention span go back to Plato, who deplored writing as a destroyer of memorising.
Page 292

engagement. The Sims 2 game, which sold more than a million copies in ten days when launched in 2004, is a game in which the players – often girls – get virtual people to live complex, realistic, highly social lives and then chat about it with their friends.
Page 292

Or ‘ our stolen future' ? In 1996 a book with this title claimed that sperm counts were falling, breast cancer was increasing, brains were becoming malformed and fish were changing sex, all because of synthetic chemicals that act as ‘ endocrine disruptors', which alter the hormonal balance of bodies. As usual, the scare proved greatly exaggerated : sperm counts are not falling, and no significant effect on human health from endocrine disruption has been detected.
Page 293

Well, actually...

Even if you take E.O. Wilson’s wildly pessimistic guess that 27,000 species are dying out every year, that equates to just 2.7 per cent a century ( there are thought to be at least ten million species ), a long way short of 50 per cent in sixty years.
Page 293

That's a lot of dying that won't come back.

Yet surveys consistently reveal individuals to be personally optimistic yet socially pessimistic. Dane Stangler calls this ‘ a non-burdensome form of cognitive dissonance we all walk around with'. About the future of society and the human race people are naturally gloomy. It goes with the fact that they are risk-averse : a large literature confirms that people much more viscerally dislike losing a sum of money than they like winning the same sum. And it seems that pessimism genes might quite literally be commoner than optimism genes : only about 20 per cent of people are homozygous for the long version of the serotonin transporter gene, which possibly endows them with a genetic tendency to look on the bright side.
Page 294

Good news is no news, so the media megaphone is at the disposal of any politician, journalist or activist who can plausibly warn of a coming disaster.
Page 295

is. Still, I should stop carping : in this case, getting chlorine out of the atmosphere was on balance the wise course of action and the costs to human welfare, though not negligible, were small.
Page 296

Influenced by Carson and her apostles I set out to do a biological project. I would walk the countryside and pick up the dying birds I found, have their cancers diagnosed, and publish. It was not a great success : I found one corpse, of a swan that had hit a power line.
Page 298

"Well, _I_ didn't see it, so it must not be," isn't a valid refute of an argument.

Of course, DDT should have been used more carefully than it was, for although it was far less toxic to birds than previous pesticides, many of which were arsenic-based, it did have the subversive ability to accumulate in the livers of animals and wipe out populations of predators at the top of long food chains, such as eagles, falcons and otters.
Page 299

By striking contrast, there is not a single non-renewable resource that has run out yet : not coal, oil, gas, copper, iron, uranium, silicon, or stone. As has been said – the remark has been attributed to many people – the Stone Age did not come to an end for lack of stone.
Page 302

"We haven't run out of X, so we won't ever run out of X" is horrible logic.

The amount of oil left, the food-growing capacity of the world’s farmland, even the regenerative capacity of the biosphere – these are not fixed numbers; they are dynamic variables produced by a constant negotiation between human ingenuity and natural constraints. Embracing dynamism means opening your mind to the possibility of posterity making a better world rather than preventing a worse one.
Page 303

Fine. Yes.

thrived. As for North America, the official, ten-year, half-a-billion-dollar, 700-scientist, government-sponsored study did a great rash of experiments and found that : ‘ there is no evidence of a general or unusual decline of forests in the United States or Canada due to acid rain' and ‘ there is no case of forest decline in which acidic deposition is known to be a predominant cause.'
Page 305

Due to acid rain, sure.

Due to drought, changing cliimate, fires, and bark beetles, really really not true. And they are all tied into the same Earth biosphere.

Predicting illness will make health insurance impossible, groaned others – yet health insurers' rates are so high precisely because they cannot predict who will get ill, so predicting and preventing will bring some costs down.
Page 306

For those not already sick, of course.

For those sick, however, this system says, "Oh, let them die. Too expensive."

Even AIDS, while terrible especially in Africa, has failed to live up to the dire predictions commonly made in the late 1980s for its global effects.
Page 307

And this is where Ridley's non-scientific training becomes apparent. The man is confusing cause with effect. The epidemic wasn't as bad as the predictions BECAUSE of the dire predictions, which caused many scientists and drug companies to invest heavily time and resources into finding a treatment.

By developing the treatments, the spread slowed, and the direness didn't happen.

Ridley ignores the direction of the cause and effect, confusing the effect for the cause.

Indeed under the warmest scenario, much land could revert to wilderness, leaving only 5 per cent of the world under the plough in 2100, compared with 11.6 per cent today, allowing more space for wilderness.
Page 338

Take coral reefs, which are suffering horribly from pollution, silt, nutrient runoff and fishing – especially the harvesting of herbivorous fishes that otherwise keep reefs clean of algae. Yet environmentalists commonly talk as if climate change is a far greater threat than these, and they are cranking up the apocalyptic statements just as they did wrongly about forests and acid rain.
Page 339

Ah, like the death of the Great Barrier Reef? Yeah.

My general optimism is therefore not dented by the undoubted challenge of global warming by carbon dioxide. Even if the world warms as much as the consensus expects, the net harm still looks small alongside the real harm now being done by preventable causes; and if it does warm this much, it will be because more people are rich enough to afford to do something about it. As usual, optimism gets a bad press in this debate. Optimists are dismissed as fools, pessimists as sages, by a media that likes to be spoon-fed on scary press releases. That does not make the optimists right, but the poor track record of pessimists should at least give one pause. After all, we have been here before.
Page 341

Uh... no, we haven't. We have never been in this place before ever in human history.

Notes made during the reading of the book

This book is rage-inducing. Here's the in-progress summary: "Hey, everything is great! Trade is the reason for economic booms and cultural evolution. Because things have continued to become better historically, they will continue to become better in the future. I say all of this without actually citing references or providing studies or data to support my statements." Reading this book so soon after reading The Black Swan, with that book and its admonishments that you can't predict the future, and my general disdain for the my-anecdote-proves-this-theory-I-have-cited-no-data style of Gladwell, which this book follows, has me frustrated with this book. I do not understand why Ferriss speaks so highly of it unless he has been sponsored to shill it, which, now that I write it, seems a reasonable theory. This book has the Murray Gell-Man amnesia effect writ LARGE across it.

The only reason this book hasn't become kindling for me is that I have it only in Kindle format. Terrible.