Wandering with my eyes and heart open, searching for pieces to add to my own personal big picture.

Tag: matt ridley

Optimism is What Will Save Us: A Book Review

Optimism in The Rational Optimist

“The Rational Optimist – How Prosperity Evolves” by Matt Ridley is a book that will change you and then you’ll start to change your world, and as a result change the whole world. Positivity and optimism will become a movement! I’ll start with a quote from the last chapter of this book.

“In this book I have tried to build on both Adam Smith and Charles Darwin: to interpret society as the product of a long history of what the philosopher Dan Dennett calls ‘bubble-up’ evolution through natural selection among cultural rather than genetic variations, and as an emergent order generated by an invisible hand of individual transactions, not the product of top-down determinism.”

“Futurology always ends up telling you more about your own time than about the future.”

The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley

This book is so full of legitimate reasons to be optimistic about the future that it’s hard to quote from, hard to pull out one piece and attempt to get you excited about reading it. But I want you to read it. It’s still (10 years after publication) what we need to hear as we continue to pull each other down across the internet.

Politicians, activists, scientists, and media producers have always been telling us that the world is getting worse. If they told you that everything was great, we are right on track, and not to worry, it would seem that we need fewer laws, lower taxes, and fewer politicians. And they aren’t doing it intentionally or because they are evil. They do it because optimism doesn’t sell, pessimism is what keeps them employed. It’s the same reason the new soap company tells you that your old soap is causing you problems and theirs is going to solve all those problems you didn’t know you had.

The book does not deny that things can be improved. It’s rational optimism, not putting on rose colored glasses. It doesn’t deny climate change or science. It doesn’t claim that the world is so damn rosy that we can just sit back and enjoy the ride. His claim is that things are getting better and will continue to do so IF we can keep communicating ideas between each other and have the freedom to work together in amazing ways.

This morning I read in the August issue of Reason magazine, “When things are worse, or perceived as worse, people grow less tolerant, less empathetic, less open to compromise, and they offer each other less leeway. A sense of scarcity or impending scarcity fosters a zero-sum mindset.”

The more we believe what they say instead of evaluating our own experience (through their lens not our own), the angrier and more distrustful we are of the people around us, which creates the negative experiences we read about and then gets amplified on social media because we just have to warn the others. It’s a spiral downward.

I loved this book because he doesn’t claim to have the answers. He doesn’t even claim that everything will work out for the best in the end. What he does say is that we should be aware that this world is changing so rapidly, no one can clearly predict what will happen and what we should do about it now. In the past, freedom and less control are what seem to get us where we want to be with the fewest casualties, maybe we should try staying on that track.

And there are rational reasons for optimism, despite what the news and the politicians are saying. I can see that in my own life, without ever opening my computer or watching the news. My life is much easier and richer than my parents’ was, and my children are already better off than I was at their age. Watching them find jobs and housing this past year was FAR easier than when I was doing it. Your field of search is unlimited. You can search, interview, and apply for an apartment, all online from a thousand miles away.

Don’t know how to do something? Google it and you’ll find a step-by-step video from a hundred different people or a free online class. Want to visit a place? Whip out your phone, read reviews, make reservation, all while you’re driving following directions that tell you where the traffic is lighter. Want to skip the crowds? Order online, have things delivered, or look at an app that tells you how crowded a restaurant or park is in real time.

And there’s not just optimism in our personal lives. The whole world is getting better, and he shares all the statistics to prove it. We feed more people, live in cleaner environments, and live healthier, longer lives. And richer we get, the more we have to share and help others get where we are.

It all starts with the freedom to trade, the building of technology, and trust. The more we see the positives, the happier we all are, and the more we start to trust and help each other.

So…yeah, this was a great book. I’m glad I read it again. Have you read The Rational Optimist? You should! If each of us started to have a slightly better outlook about the future of humanity, just think how much good we could do!

Want to read my original thoughts about this book? Go back to my first post, The Rational Optimist: New Read.

Social status, trade, and trust, oh my!

Social status, trade, and trust are the first three things I’m riffing on from The Rational Optimist. Humans are so very fascinating.

social status, trade, and trust

There’s just so much to talk about in this book! It’s riveting and not a slog to read at all. It’s fun and light and changes your perspective. I am happy that I decided to re-read it.

At first, I thought, “I’ll summarize each chapter so everyone can get the info in here!” Nah, that’s boring. Then I thought maybe I’d just take a line or two from each chapter. Too many posts. A line or two from two chapters? Still too much. Screw it. How about a line that made me say, “Yeah, dammit!” That sounds doable.

Here’s something to chew on.

“Why, asks Geoffrey Miller, ‘would the world’s most intelligent primate buy a Hummer H1 Alpha sport-utility vehicle’, which seats four, gets ten miles to the gallon, takes 13.5 seconds to reach 60mph, and sells for $139,771? Because, he answers, human beings evolved to strive to signal social status and sexual worth.”

This book was written in 2010, so the signals have changed dramatically, in some circles, but there are still signals and there always will be. One generation, subculture, and such, won’t understand another’s and call them crazy, selfish, obnoxious, and/or old school evil. Humans are so strange.

“Trade is often unequal, but still benefits both sides.”

I always find it odd that someone outside an exchange believes they can tell whether the exchange is beneficial. If it weren’t, they wouldn’t have completed the exchange. Are you saying one side is too feeble minded? They can’t understand their own wants and needs and need to be taken care of by their betters?

If I come to you with something that is easy for me to get or make and say, “I’ll give you four of these if you give me two of those awesome things that I can’t make for myself.” You’re laughing inside thinking, “What a goof! These things are everywhere or are easy to make.” I’m thinking the same about you. We both walk away thinking we won.

The same goes for labor. My son, when he was young, was asked by a neighbor to come clean his yard each week and do a few chores. He’d give him $50 each week to do this. My son jumped at the opportunity. As a parent, I realized that he’d be working there all day, probably nearly ten hours in the heat. That’s $5 an hour, not worth it to me. But to a twelve-year-old? That’s some serious cash. I didn’t interfere. He’s free to exchange his time and labor for whatever he thinks is fair.

A few weeks into the job, he realized how much time he was spending there and asked for a raise. The neighbor thought his work was worth the money and started giving him $100 a week. He knows the value of his own time and effort and was willing to exchange it for that price.

Should someone step in and stop this exchange? Apparently, most of us say yes.

About a year later, my son found other things that were worth more to him than that $100 a week. And when he turned 16, he found “legal” (insert eyeroll) work that paid him more. That job lasted until he decided he had enough, his time was worth more, so he went in search of someone that felt the same way.

If he hadn’t found anyone that believed his work was worth more, he would have had to change his work, build new skills, or lower his expectations. Forcing someone by law (violence) to exchange at a pre-fixed rate is wrong and creates more problems.

Ok, enough of that. Moving on.

“Famously, no other species of ape can encounter strangers without trying to kill them, and the instinct still lurks in the human breast.”

Ha ha! No shit, right? Humans do this really weird thing called trust. We invented it. All other animals only build trust within a family. Trust is what lets us trade things with other people. And when we don’t trust, that’s when things start to get ugly.

I think we’re in a pretty low state of trust at the moment and the government, with the help of our media, is taking advantage of that. THOSE people are out to get you. THEY get more. THEY want to hurt you. And it’s coming from both Democrats and Republicans in the US. Why? I’m not sure, but I bet I has something to do with staying in control since that’s the only commodity a government has.

In my town this past year, I’ve seen more and more “Go Back to LA” stickers and they make me sick. I’ve been told that it is in response to the wave of people from the city moving out into rural areas and “taking over.” How dare they? This is OUR turf. They don’t belong here. The crazy part is that I’m hearing it directly from people who also moved out here to escape city life a bit, like me.

I live near a National Park and a Marine base. Everyone here is from out of town. The area relies on it and wouldn’t exist if not for those attractions. This “Go Back to LA” slogan is only another wall between me and my neighbors, and the tourists that come here to visit and vacation. And what about those few souls that feel drawn to this place and come here to build a life for themselves? How do they feel when they see those? I’ve talked to a few. They’re afraid of their neighbors.

If trust is that low in a neighborhood, between friends, at businesses, and online, can you imagine what it is up the chain? How about banks, investors, and government officials; those people that keep this giant machine we’ve created going, the ones with the money and guns and the law to back them? This is how trade slows. This is how people starve. This is how wars start and are supported. This is how people die.

How can we help? I think it starts with turning off the news and maybe even dropping social media for a while. It’s a lot easier to relax when you’re not bombarded with bad news messages at every moment of every day.

Everyone on this planet has the power to start being nicer, assuming positive intent, and trusting the people around us. We can do our best to take care of ourselves, our families, and one other person, maybe even two. Your neighbor isn’t a monster. That person at the grocery store you haven’t seen before isn’t trying to horn in on your game. He’s just a guy trying to get through this world just like you.

Maybe we can create some new “social status” cues, like being kind and generous in person instead of putting a special frame on our social media profile.

Want to read more posts about this book? Pop back to my first post, The Rational Optimist: New Read. You’ll find my first thoughts about the book and links to any follow-up posts there.

The Rational Optimist: New Read

The Rational Optimist book cover on the rocks.
That’s the sun coming up on my book!

“The Rational Optimist – How Prosperity Evolves” by Matt Ridley is a re-read for me. Do you re-read books? Many of my re-reads are simply because I forgot that I read them. Yep…sometimes I still wonder if there is any point to me reading anything. It’s rather frustrating.

The best kind of re-read is because the book was so good, so packed full of awesome, that I want to read it all again and savor it. If it’s been a while since I’ve read the book, I wonder if it will feel different this time around. Will it still be relevant? Will I still feel the same way about the text? Have I changed, has the world changed, so much that I’ll get something completely different from this read? THAT happens to me most with fiction. Books that I read when I was a kid, or even ten years ago, have a different effect on me. I’ve grown, but the book remains the same.

What brought me back to The Rational Optimist? A couple things. First was that I was cleaning and reorganizing my bookshelves and rediscovered it.

“Oh, yes! This book was great!”

And I was listening to an interview with Matt Ridley on the Jordan Peterson podcast recently. When I heard Matt Ridley mention “when ideas have sex,” the book came to mind, and I made a mental note to put it back on my TBR shelf. And we all know where mental notes end up.

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

The final straw was the last book I started reading, “Mao – The Unknown Story.” It was so depressing, that I dropped it and went to look for an antidote. There was The Rational Optimist staring at me from the shelf calling quietly, “Pick me!” So, I did.

And here we are. I’m one hundred pages in so far and enjoying it immensely.

From the introduction chapter, “When Ideas Have Sex”

“What is it about human beings that enables them to keep changing their lives in this tumultuous way? It is not as if human nature changes. Just as the hand that held the hand axe was the same shape as the hand that holds the mouse, so people always have and always will seek food, desire sex, care for offspring, compete for status and avoid pain just like any other animal.”

“It was not something that happened within the brain. It was something that happened between brains. It was a collective phenomenon.”

“At some point, human intelligence became collective and cumulative in a way that happened to no other animal.”

And my favorite, “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.”

I’m excited. Are you? I believe the world in general is getting better but lately, like the past ten years, we’ve been letting fear resonate instead of hope, and letting the internet scare us into thinking it’s worse and someone should do something about it.

The Rational Optimist was written in 2010, just as social media was getting busier. I last read the book in 2015. It’s 2021 now. Have things changed for the worse? I don’t think so.

Have you read this book? Do you want to? Leave a message in the comments!

Want to read more posts about this book? Check these out!
Social status, trade, and trust, oh my!
Optimism is What Will Save Us: A Book Review

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