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The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves

3.98  ·  Rating details ·  9,485 ratings  ·  944 reviews
Life is getting better—and at an accelerating rate. Food availability, income, and life span are up; disease, child mortality, and violence are down — all across the globe. Though the world is far from perfect, necessities and luxuries alike are getting cheaper; population growth is slowing; Africa is following Asia out of poverty; the Internet, the mobile phone, and conta ...more
Hardcover, 448 pages
Published May 18th 2010 by Harper (first published 2010)
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Ivan Vanon Saying C02 is good for plants is...shaky. A lot of weeds absolutely love it, and it makes them grow faster. It makes various food plants grow faster t…moreSaying C02 is good for plants is...shaky. A lot of weeds absolutely love it, and it makes them grow faster. It makes various food plants grow faster too, but not as fast as the weeds, and that can be a major problem. It can also cause plants to grow faster but leave them inherently weaker (German foresters have done a lot of work in this area), almost stretching the cells out with the speed of the growth. If they produce food of some sort the food tends to be less nutritious. That's a bad combination, especially since the zones that food crops grow in are likely to shift and the weather in general is likely to become more chaotic.

Bjorn Lomborg is also not ideal. Scientific American has run several articles by several scientific specialists, claiming that in The Skeptical Environmentalist Lombord misrepresented scientific evidence and scientific opinion. The Danish Committee on Scientific Dishonesty has cited the book for fabrication of data, selective discarding of unwanted results, deliberately misleading use of statistical methods, and distorted interpretation of conclusions. If you're interested, there is a blog run by Kare Fog, a Danish biologist, that has been pointing out errors in The Skeptical Environmentalist page by page since 2004.
It's not an amazing source to use. Many media figures and politicians loved it especially after hearing years of unsettling talk from climate scientists, but scientists in general tended to be lukewarm when they weren't actively saying it was and example of a badly conducted science-shaped piece of work.

Incidentally, during the 60s and 70s there were 7 scientific studies predicting global cooling. There were 42 predicting global warming as a result of rising C02 emissions. James wasn't being dishonest at all.

I'm sure that legitimate skepticism of catastrophic, man made climate change exists, but a lot of the opposition to it seems to take the form of cynicism rather than skepticism, assuming the worst about a scientist's or a scientific group's motivations rather than the most likely conclusion. It's fine to be skeptical of science, especially when there are only a few studies - Big Tobacco funded several dozen studies saying that smoking was amazing for your lungs - but when there are several meta-studies incorporating thousands and thousands of individual studies each of which includes hundreds of pieces of data, experiments, observations, etc. are all pointing in the same general direction...well, it looks a bit cynical to say that all of those meta-studies must be wrong. (less)
Nick Alden I don't think it matters. Science is a traditionally male dominated profession. Though some women have read this book and given it good reviews.…moreI don't think it matters. Science is a traditionally male dominated profession. Though some women have read this book and given it good reviews.(less)

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I wanted to read this because of the excellent review in the Economist: Getting better all the time: The biological, cultural and economic forces behind human progress .

But I started out skeptical. I’m fairly optimistic that in the long term humans are pretty good at ratcheting up to a better future, but my gut reaction to the wide array of problems facing today’s civilization is that the cumulative effect might trigger a global “reset button” handing us a new Dark Age, relatively speaking, w
Daniel Lemire
Oct 06, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
I just finished Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley. Because I am an overly pessimistic individual, I expected to hate the book.

I loved the book.

I should point out where I read the book, because context is important in this case. I was in Berlin. My hotel room was about 50 meters away from Checkpoint Charlie the central point of the cold war. I was within 2 minutes the remains of a train station where thousands of Jews were sent to their death. I was near the remains of the Berlin wall built to pre
Daniel Clausen
Jun 04, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: books-of-2018
3.2 Stars

Review in Short: An insightful, if often crude and narrow, defense of how trade and greater specialization will continue to fuel humanity's progress toward higher living standards and greater human dignity for all.


This book definitely has its moments. The book is the outcome of one of its own ideas -- "idea sex" -- many ideas come together to mingle in this book. And, I believe that many of the ideas are clearly presented and poignant. There are many fine details that the author highl
Koen Crolla
Nov 21, 2011 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Ridley makes the obvious point that life is now better than it has been at any point in humanity's past by virtually any metric, even metrics not designed specifically to make this point (like GDP), for basically everyone. Having done this for a few dozen pages (during which he is guilty of only a few instances of exaggeration, cherry picking, or intentional omission of information; his thesis really is largely true), he realises he can never fill a book with it, so he goes off into surprisingly ...more
Oct 05, 2016 rated it it was ok
I wanted to like this, but it was filled with total nonsense so I couldn't. Some of it is mildly interesting. None of it is new. And most of the verifiable stuff is distorted into his markets-can-do-no-wrong libertarianism. I even like books that are libertarian. This one was irritating though because it was so blatantly manipulating data and facts. If you want to be an optimist, go read more rational ones like: Abundance, or Pinker, or Sapiens, etc. This is empty nonsense ...more
Mar 18, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Every so often you come across a book that causes you to reevaluate the way you view the world. The Rational Optimist is definitely one of those books. Personally, I think this may be one of the most important books of the last 10 years. In many ways I am an optimist, but when it comes to the bigger picture of the world I would have to admit I have been a pessimist for some time. While I certainly am pessimistic about the short-term in America, we are going to have to feel some pain at some poin ...more
Dean Ryan Martin
Jun 03, 2021 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: dnf
Another great book I have DNF. Too irrational of me.
Jul 26, 2010 rated it did not like it
Ridley's books on genetics and evolution are clear, well-supported books on the topic, so I was looking forward to his newest piece of non-fiction. Instead it is a conflation of economics, anthropology, genetics, gaming and a half-dozen other disciplines that argues "don't worry, be happy" about human progress.

Though he's right about human progress over centuries, the book would have been laughed off the market had it appeared in a period like that after World War II, when tens of millions had
Jun 16, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Another Goodreads member, Helen Grant, wrote a scathing review of The Rational Optimist:

I found it particularly offensive and hypocritical that she took Ridley to task for his tone, calling it “blithe and pompous” in the midst of a review which was itself sarcastic, insulting, smugly self-congratulatory, and just plain vulgar. Certainly, Ridley can be sarcastic, and I consider that a blemish on his otherwise excellent writing. However, if Grant is going to
Sense of History
Nov 27, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: global-history
This book leaves me puzzled. It offers a dazzling overview of human history drenched in an optimistic progression approach. Especially the emphasis on the evergrowing and intertwined role of exchange, specialisation and innovation is an eye-opener. For me, Ridley is also rather convincing in his condemnation of the always returning doom thinking, especially on the climate-change issue.
But, on the other hand, this is also a radical, ultra-liberal pamphlet. Ridley glorifies in one-sided freemarke
Ada Ma
Journalist famed for his books on biology writes about economic issues. He should have stuck to biology. All materials are covered in too simplistic manner without any attention to the nuances. This is not rational. This is far from rational. This is Ridley being a fool.

Like he pointed out that the costs of buying food produced and grown from afar is less costly than getting similar produces that are grown nearby. That's fine. I can accept that. But then a few sentences down the line I found tha
Sep 16, 2010 rated it liked it
3.5. I loved the first two chapters of this. After that, it got steadily worse and I ended up skipping the last 100 pgs.

The premise is that human culture is very adept at innovating and solving problems; as such, the author believes that, despite the pessimism of most people, one can very rationally feel quite optimistic over the future of humanity. We will find solutions to climate change and the other great problems that our species faces.

I am sympathetic to this argument and I thought that
Douglas Wilson
Mar 12, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: culture-studies
Very valuable read overall. Apart from the secularism and the evolutionary assumptions, Ridley does a great job of describing things in a way that counteracts the very common and insistent cultural pessimistic narrative. Postmillenialists need to read this kind of stuff together with their scriptural studies. Eschatology, markets and progress all go together.
A Man Called Ove
“I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.” - JOHN STUART MILL
And to make up for it, I will be generous and rate it 5/5. This is a slightly counter-intuitive book that argues for a bright, prosperous future of humanity despite climate change, despite clueless politicians, despite human nature itself and ofcourse despite the Left-liberals :) And religious radicalism doesnt even get a
Aug 26, 2019 rated it did not like it
A libertarian propaganda manifesto written by a convinced/convicted capitalist. The author shows evident climate-change skeptism, denies any significant contribution of scientific research and public funding policies to world prosperity, and instead attributes all the merit to free market and capital.

I will not comment any further. Here's some insightful background about the author :
Leo Walsh
Aug 25, 2015 rated it it was ok
I really thought I would like "The Rational Optimist." First off, Ridley is a science writer, and I'm a science geek. As a science writer, I'd figure that Ridley would be firmly grounded in facts. And where Ridley stuck to the science and the facts, the book is excellent.

What's more, like Ridley I am convinced that humans are safer and freer today than we ever were. And whenever people yearn for "the good old days," I cringe.Even the "good old days" of the 50's were horrific for African America
Void lon iXaarii
Dec 11, 2010 rated it it was amazing
It's very rarely i stumble upon such a rare gem. I was initially a bit skeptical, thinking by the title it might be a blabla type feel good book, but i was blown away but i what I found: a very solid strong scientific book with tons of facts and reliable research. And while i did love feeling a biologist was explaining stuff, and it took me back to my old love of history (which i now see in a completely new light) what i was so very impressed to find was that it was written by a man who understa ...more
Apr 08, 2011 rated it really liked it
Here is the central thesis of The Rational Optimist: What is uniquely human is that our intelligence is collective and cumulative in a way that is true of no other animal. (Richard Dawkins, of "The Selfish Gene" fame, dubbed the units of cultural imitation that comprise this heritage as "memes".) Evolution in sexually reproducing species is driven by genetic exchange. Culture evolution is much the same, but the unit of exchange is the idea. The truly Big Bang idea was that of division of labor, ...more
Mar 10, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A much needed shot of optimism in the best of worlds (so far) that is drowning in pessimism. He discusses why in length toward the end of the book. He's an advocate of free trade & minimal government oversight, themes that run throughout this book. His overall point that the world is getting better all the time is well made. It's important & occasionally difficult to keep in mind that he's speaking to overall trends & populations as a whole.

While he is persuasive & I generally agreed with him th
Maciej Nowicki
Dec 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing
As we are constantly bombarded with doom prophesies the book makes a really good job and puts all of that into greater perspective. Rational Optimist starts with a thesis that we are way better off than we ever were. The book states that our lives have improved significantly in terms of wealth, nutrition, life expectancy, literacy and many other measures. Matt Ridley makes convincing arguments that things will continue to improve. The book also serves as a defence of free trade and globalisation ...more
Jul 06, 2011 rated it it was ok
Shelves: read-econbiz
This libertarian screed has been praised by a predictable array of dangerous right-wing organizations, such as The Guardian and the BBC.

Perhaps these organizations saw a kindred soul in someone who was demonstrably wrong in the past (in this case, part of the “management” of a bank that went bust) and, possessing an endless supply of gaseous self-confidence, just keeps insisting that the disaster was not his fault and the rest of the world could still profit from adopting his entire world-view.
Jul 13, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: audiobook, nonfiction
Pessimists get all the media coverage; optimists are poo-pooed for their naivete. Nevertheless, Matt Ridley puts together a good argument that in general, conditions in the world are improving. Not everywhere, of course; but in general, living conditions are improving, there is less violence, innovation is accelerating, and the dire events predicted by doomsayers are not coming true.

Free trade, cheap energy, and specialization are the things that help grow civilizations. Science is not the cause
Oct 07, 2012 rated it did not like it
This is a pop economy book that makes bold suppositions but conveniently glosses over the details. All said, I think you can be a well-informed optimist who still sees light at the end of a dark and harrowing tunnel while soaking up all the gritty details Ridley conveniently chooses to ignore. Even so, this is a frustrating book to read. There were so many contradictory arguments, I wouldn't even know where to begin in picking them apart.

It's not that I don't believe things are getting better,
Nov 11, 2012 rated it it was amazing
A truly inspiring book that goes against everything I've ever heard about the future of humanity.

Ridley takes the reader on a journey from the beginnings of mankind through the present to our future as a species. The prognosis: A) We have much to be thankful for today, and B) the future may not be as bleak as we believe, in spite of climate change and other impending problems.

Here's the gist: over time, humanity has managed to capitalize on specialization, trade and the cross-breeding of ideas (
Jul 07, 2010 rated it it was ok
Some really interesting ideas and thoroughly amazing facts.... but in the end, it undermines itself. I even agree with the central tenet that the world is getting better, and could go with the argument that specialization and trade are at the center of progress. But it's a good example of how not to make an argument - it takes a persuasive theory and carries it way, way too far, mocking those who disagree and not admitting to any grey areas. Every single cause for pessimism in the modern world m ...more
Feb 14, 2017 marked it as so-bad-i-gave-up
What can I say, I'm a rational pessimist. Vomiting data on our evolution doesn't change the fact that we live in a planet with finite resources. Not sure what his conclusion is, but I'm not listening all this massive fact dumping to find out. ...more
Jul 10, 2020 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I am so, so relieved that I finally finished this insufferable book. Which I read because my book club is discussing it this month.

How crazy is it that even though I am an enthusiastic believer in science and technology improving lives (and hopefully the state of the world / planet with it) even before I heard of The Rational Optimist, I end up hating this book AND Matt Ridley? Like wow have I made so many notes in the vein of “Source?” and “Citations please?” next to author's assertions. Has t
May 26, 2015 rated it really liked it
As a callow teenager in the 1970s, I was deeply impressed by the books of Paul Ehrlich, who basically predicted that by the early 21st century the entire world would have become a hellish stew of mass famine, total resource exhaustion, rampant disease, and continuous warfare. Looking back, I can see that Prof. Ehrlich has a record of failed predictions that would make Nostradamus blush, but perhaps it was my early adherence to those views that subsequently instilled in me a healthy scepticism fo ...more
This has been on my to-read list for a long time (originally it came out in 2010). I enjoy Ridley’s work, and this fits in well. There are few surprises for those who have read Ridley or similar books. Essentially: forget the day-to-day news cycle, look at the big historical picture and the data, and human life in general has been getting better and better; and there’s every reason to think it will continue to do so. But what about….Ridley probably discusses it and has an answer. Technology, wea ...more
Jan 02, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: economics
An excellent history of civilization as a concept from prehistory to modern times. Explains why humans evolved and began to trade with each other. Traces progress and improving conditions. Makes the case for being optimistic about the long-term prospects for humanity.

When human beings were all still hunter-gatherers, each needed about 1000 hectares of land to support him or her. Now thanks to modern farming each needs little more than a tenth of a hectare. Since 1900 the world has increased its
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Matthew White Ridley, 5th Viscount Ridley DL FRSL FMedSci (born 7 February 1958, in Northumberland) is an English science writer, businessman and aristocrat. Ridley was educated at Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford where he received a doctorate in zoology before commencing a career in journalism. Ridley worked as the science editor of The Economist from 1984 to 1987 and was then its Washington cor ...more

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