The biological, cultural and economic forces behind human progress
May 13th 2010 | From The Economist print edition
The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. By Matt Ridley. Harper; 448 pages; $26.99. Fourth Estate; £20. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk
《一位理性乐天派描摹的繁荣变迁图》，Matt Ridley 著，Harper与Fourth Estate出版，448页，售价26.99美元，亚马逊在线有售
THIRTY years ago, Julian Simon and Paul Ehrlich entered into a famous bet. Mr Simon, a libertarian, was sceptical of the gloomy claims made by Mr Ehrlich, an ecologist best known for his predictions of environmental chaos and human suffering that would result from the supposed “population bomb”. Thumbing his nose at such notions as resource scarcity, Mr Simon wagered that the price of any five commodities chosen by Mr Ehrlich would go down over the following decade. The population bomb was defused, and Mr Simon handily won the bet.
Now, Matt Ridley has a similarly audacious bet in mind. A well-known British science writer (and former Economist journalist), Mr Ridley has taken on the mantle of rational optimism from the late Mr Simon. In his new book, he challenges those nabobs of negativity who argue that the world cannot possibly feed 9 billion mouths, that Africa is destined to fail and that the planet is heading for a climate disaster. He boldly predicts that in 2110, a much bigger world population could enjoy more and better food produced on less land than is used by farming today—and even return lots of farmland to wilderness.
However, mankind cannot hope to achieve this if it turns its back on innovation. Feeding another 2 billion people or more will, of course, mean producing much more food. Genetically modified (GM) agriculture could play an important role, as this technology can greatly increase yields while using smaller inputs of fertiliser, insecticide and water. Many years of field experience in the Americas and Asia have shown GM crops to be safe, but, Mr Ridley rightly complains, the Luddites of the green and organic movements continue to obstruct progress.
The progress (and occasional retardation) of innovation is the central theme of Mr Ridley’s sweeping work. He starts by observing that humans are the only species capable of innovation. Other animals use tools, and some ants, for example, do specialise at certain tasks. But these skills are not cumulative, and the animals in question do not improve their technologies from generation to generation. Only man innovates continuously.
Why should that be? Some have suggested that perhaps it is the chemistry of big brains that leads us to tinker. Others that man’s mastery of language or his capacity for imitation and social learning hold the key. Mr Ridley, a zoologist by training, weighs up these arguments but insists, in the end, that the explanation lies not within man’s brain but outside: innovation is a collective phenomenon. The way man’s collective brain grows, he says cheekily, is by “ideas having sex”.
His own theory is, in a way, the glorious offspring that would result if Charles Darwin’s ideas were mated with those of Adam Smith. Trade, Mr Ridley insists, is the spark that lit the fire of human imagination, as it made possible not only the exchange of goods, but also the exchange of ideas. Trade also encouraged specialisation, since it rewarded individuals and communities who focus on areas of comparative advantage. Such specialists, in contrast with their generalist rivals or ancestors, had the time and the incentive to develop better methods and technologies to do their tasks.
It is this culture of continuous improvement, which was only accelerated by the industrial revolution, that explains the astonishing improvements in the human condition over time. Through most of history, most people lived lives of quiet desperation, humiliating servitude and grinding poverty. And yet, despite the pessimistic proclamations of Mr Ehrlich and many other pundits, economic growth and technological progress have come to the rescue over and over again.
The visible hand 看得见的手
As Mr Simon did in his classic work, “It’s Getting Better all the Time” (2000), Mr Ridley provides ample statistical evidence here to show that life has indeed got better for most people in most places on most measures. Whether one counts air and water pollution in California or vaccination rates in Bangladesh or life expectancy in Japan, his conclusion is indisputable. It does, however, highlight one of the book’s minor flaws: an over-anxious cramming in of too many obscure statistics and calculations that should have been relegated to footnotes or an annex.
Another is the author’s slightly unfair attitude towards government. Mr Ridley makes it abundantly clear that he is a free marketeer, and he provides ample evidence from history that governments are often incompetent and anti-innovation: “The list of innovations achieved by the pharaohs is as thin as the list of innovations achieved by British Rail or the US Postal Service.” He is particularly suspicious of strong governments, which he equates with monopolies—and those, he insists, “always grow complacent, stagnant and self-serving.”
He is right that the leaden hand of the state has often suppressed individual freedom and creativity. However, he does not fully acknowledge that some problems do, in fact, require government intervention—especially because markets themselves can sometimes fail spectacularly. Mr Ridley surely knows this, as he was forced to resign as non-executive chairman of Northern Rock, the first British bank to be rescued by the government during the financial crisis. Yet the most he will say about that affair is that he is now mistrustful of markets in capital and assets, but unflinchingly in favour of markets in goods and services.
Mr Ridley is also generally sceptical about global warming, and worries that government policies advocated by greens today will be like treating a nosebleed by putting a tourniquet around one’s neck. He argues that the problem, if it exists, will be solved by bottom-up innovation in energy technologies. But to accomplish that, he wants governments to “enact a heavy carbon tax, and cut payroll taxes.”
That is a sensible prescription (often advocated by this newspaper), but surely a “heavy” tax suggests there is a role for government in fixing market failures? He glosses too over the vital role that air-quality regulations played in cleaning up smog in California, choosing to focus instead on the inventions—like the catalytic converter and low-sulphur fuel—that arose as a result of those technology-forcing measures.
Still, he is on the mark with the big things. “The bottom-up world is to be the great theme of this century,” declares Mr Ridley in the closing pages of this sunny book. He is surely right. Thanks to the liberating forces of globalisation and Googlisation, innovation is no longer the preserve of technocratic elites in ivory towers. It is increasingly an open, networked and democratic endeavour.
If man really can find a way of harnessing the innovative capacity of 9 billion bright sparks, then the audacious prediction about feeding the much hungrier world of 2110 using less land than today may very well be proven right too. After all, man’s greatest asset is his ability to harness that one natural resource that remains infinite in quantity: human ingenuity.