The Jordan B. Peterson Podcast — Matt Ridley: Rational Optimism — Transcribed

The Jordan B. Peterson Podcast — Matt Ridley: Rational Optimism — Transcribed

Jordan: I have the good fortune today of speaking with author Matt Ridley who’s written a number of books we’ll list them in the…

The Jordan B. Peterson Podcast — Matt Ridley: Rational Optimism — Transcribed

Jordan: I have the good fortune today of speaking with author Matt Ridley who’s written a number of books we’ll list them in the description of the video the ones I reviewed this week in preparation for this interview include this one published in 1996 “The Origins of Virtue”, which is a lovely investigation into the biological origins of morality essentially a very thought-provoking book and a very straightforward read for such a complex subject.

The Rational Optimist which was published in 2010 and which probably serves as a pretty good description of Matt Ridley himself, that was my impression after going through his work.

And then more recent work How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom, so I wanted to talk to Matt primarily because I’ve been struck in my career as a university professor and also on my tours talking to thousands of people, many of whom are desperate, especially young people, because they’re fed a never-ending diet of gloom and doom, it seems to be a an armageddon like cultural predisposition to assume without to to only look at evidence that suggests that the future is going to be much worse than the past despite the fact that the present is much better than the past and that’s been the case for many decades I would say and Matt’s books they’re a lovely read during the Covid crisis I would say, because of course it’s a very rough time for everyone I would say with the lockdowns and the uncertainty that reigns as a consequence of that and he very carefully documents the improvements that have been made all around the world over the last especially over the last 400 years, this incredible explosion of technological intelligence that’s produced on an unparalleled increase in human living standards by virtually any measure, across virtually all dimensions and so well that’s my rationale for talking to Matt, he’s a very straightforward author and despite the complexity of the ideas and so I’m really happy to be speaking with him today

Matt: well jordan thank you very much it’s it’s a real honor to be speaking with you and I I’m someone who enormously admires your courage and intellectual what’s the word gravitas that that that you bring to discussions and I think it’s it’s just fantastic to be able to meet you albeit online and just on that question of optimism, it’s a bit of a evangelical cause for me this because I was steeped in pessimism as a young man as a boy at school, at university I believed that the population explosion was unstoppable that famine was inevitable; that the oil was going to run out; that the rainforests were going to disappear that cancer was going to shorten my lifespan that pesticides were going to make life on level you know all that kind of stuff and it came as quite a shock when I found that the world was getting better not worse during my life dramatically so and so I want to tell today’s young people that there is another possibility to the you know extinction rebellion kind of stuff that they’re being fed by everybody not just the education system but the media and their parents you know the grown-ups. I think it’s quite important to have some optimism. Why is it that with nothing but improvement behind us we’re to expect nothing but deterioration before us. That’s a great quote and it’s not me it’s Thomas Babington Macaulay — Lord macaulay writing in 1830, so already then he was fed up with the doomsters saying it can’t get better, it’s been getting better in the past, but it’s going to get worse in the future and that’s what every generation says and I think so far they’ve been wrong and I think there’s a good chance they’re wrong now.

Jordan: well it might be a consequence of our of the human tendency to overweight negative information right we’re wired to be more sensitive to threat and to pain than we are to hope and and pleasure and I suppose that’s because you can be 100% dead but you can only be so happy and so it’s better in some sense to err on the side of caution and maybe when that’s played out on the field of future prognostications everything that indicates decline strikes us more harder than everything that indicates that things are going to get better. I mean, it’s a real mystery right because the news tilts itself very hard towards the catastrophic and I can’t think of any explanation for that given that news purveyors seek attention, I can’t come up with a more intelligent explanation than our proclivity for negative emotion but we do have to overcome that to some degree if it’s not in accordance with the facts yeah

Matt: there’s a there’s an interesting angle there that I think might be a clue to what’s going on several people have observed that we are less pessimistic about our own lives than we are about larger units so we’re not very pessimistic about our village; we’re not very pessimistic about our town; but we’re very pessimistic about our country and we’re extremely pessimistic about the planet. The bigger the unit you look at the more pessimistic people are, and of course you know so people on the whole think their own life’s going to work out it’s going to be fine they’re going to stay married they’re going to earn a lot of money you know they’re okay when they talk about themselves and I think what that’s telling you is that your information about your own life comes from your own experience your information about the planet comes from the media and that implies to me that it’s not just our inbuilt biases that are doing this, that there is a there is a top-down effect from what the culture chooses to tell us

Jordan: do you have any sense of the motivation for that I mean I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume that much of what drives the production of the news is the search for attention; the search for eyes and you’d expect the news to evolve towards the maximally attention-grabbing form, right, and so apart apart from the ability to grab attention can you think of any reason why pessimism is this is the is the sales item of the day, from from the perspective of the news companies

Matt: exactly and this is where my argument breaks down a bit because it becomes circular because I say yeah you’re right the reason they’re telling us bad news is because they know we’re interested in bad news that on the whole we don’t look at good news stories to anything like the same degree so we’re avid consumers of pessimism and that and they play to that but there’s another phenomenon too which is that good news tends to be gradual and bad news tends to be sudden that’s not always true of course but it surprisingly often is true you know 168 000 people were lifted out of extreme poverty yesterday and the day before and the day before and the day before. It’s never newsworthy whereas 3 000 people were killed when an airliner flew into a skyscraper, that is newsworthy because it’s so sudden and so unexpected so it’s so new.

Jordan: well it’s funny when I when I when I ran across statistics like the one that you just quoted which I think is worth repeating over and over 170 000 people lifted out of poverty today could be three inch headlines every day because it’s an unparalleled event in human history although it’s occurring every day right now but maybe it’s also because you have to prepare for the worst, but you don’t really have to prepare for the best you know if if if the best is happening then you can just keep on doing what you’re doing but if there’s a flaw somewhere or an error then maybe you have to make some changes in your behavior and that might be another reason why we’re prone to seek out negative information.

Matt: does that explain why we’re loss averse to the extent we are.

Jordan: well I think so I think it’s the same phenomenon so anyways the point is is that or one of the points is that despite the potential adaptive utility of being more sensitive to negative information it can really get out of hand right because it can precipitate, say a nihilistic attitude with regards to the future or depression or high levels of anxiety or resentment or even hatred of humanity for that matter if we’re the destructive species that we’re always made out to be and so it still seems to me that work that concentrates on demonstrating from a historical perspective how much better things are getting is very much worth putting forward so and there’s a deeper element of optimism in your work as well which is in a sense a kind of non-naive Rousseauism, I mean [Jean-Jacques] Rousseau of course famously believed that people were good and that human institutions made them as malevolent and evil as they might become so we’re naturally good and corrupted by culture and I think that’s half the story because we’re also naturally bad and ennobled by culture but despite that you make a really good case in “The Origins of Virtue” that virtue itself that morality itself has a biological basis and that it’s grounded in our evolutionary history and I’ll let you if you would I’d ask you to to expound on that a little bit you you talk about the discovery of the future and the necessity of reciprocity as driving agents in that evolution and that’s it’s a wonderful idea and it’s it’s a profound idea because it does hint at a non-arbitrary base for for moral thinking and that’s a I think that that’s been something I’ve been pursuing my entire life I would say

Matt: well what I set out to do in that book and it is admittedly 26 years ago or something that I finished writing it so I may have changed my mind on one or two things but what I set out to do was to persuade the reader that our good instincts are as animal as our bad instincts or our good behavior is as is as natural is as instinctive if you like as our bad behavior we tend to get I think from Christianity mainly a view that the there’s a deep sort of animal side of us which is bad but we can teach each other to be good and I don’t think that’s right I think there’s just as much of an animal instinct to be good in us as as there is bad, because if you look at you know we are a social species lots of species are very social and what they tend to do is they express various forms of kindness and generosity and self-sacrifice towards other members of their species the most obvious example is that we’re nice to our children as are most creatures and the reason we’re nice to our children is obviously because we share their genes people who were nice to their children tended to leave more children behind than people who weren’t nice to their children and so the genes for being nice to children thrived at the expense of genes that did the opposite. But obviously it goes further than that there are social species that collaborate with other ones and they do so often with a form of that collaborate with strangers as it were and they do so often with a form of reciprocity you know you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours I’ll be nice to you today you’ll be nice to me tomorrow you know when a fish visit visits a cleaner station on the reef and allows small fish to clean the parasites off it it’s resisting the temptation to eat the cleaner fish and so there’s a mutual gain from trade

Jordan: yeah that’s a remarkable example that these cleaning stations are set up on coral reefs where small fish congregate often brightly colored and large fish line up like cars at a gas station to have their scales and even their teeth denuded of of of parasites and and and dying tissue and and some of those cleaning stations are apparently tens of thousands of years old so

Matt: yes that’s that’s what and because that’s a cross species collaboration you know this is this is you know two different species collaborating but I don’t know whether it’s in that book or later in the end come down on to the view that that kind of reciprocity you scratch my back I scratch yours is surprisingly rare actually that actually you can’t find that many examples there’s a wonderful example of vampire bats doing it vampire bats that didn’t get a blood meal beg for one from their neighbor the neighbor then you then return the favor to the neighbor next time that he doesn’t get a blood meal and that way you’re both better off actually it turned out that they were closely related these were this was to some degree a family thing as well so actually and in human beings it isn’t very common for for me to say look you did me a favor yesterday so I’m going to do you the same favor today what are the circumstances under which that’s going to happen you know I mean I’m going to have too much food today and you’re going to have too much food tomorrow it’s it’s kind of doesn’t happen very often but we human beings have developed another form of exchange which is far more powerful which is I’ve got more food than I need you’ve got more water than you need I’m thirsty you’re hungry we’ll come to a deal we’ll swap so we’ll swap different things at the same time rather than the same things at different times and for me that’s the real insight into how human sociality and cooperation evolved now I’m only here repeating what Adam Smith said in “The Wealth of Nations”

about the you know the the the butcher and the baker are not giving you bread and beer because they want to be kind to you they’re doing it to make a living but they end up being kind to you and you end up being kind to them by giving them money which is what they want

Jordan: well I also I also thought that in some sense you made a deeper case than that too talking about the human capacity to understand and envision the future I mean reciprocity requires the ability to view transactions across time and so as soon as the creature becomes aware of the future like we have we can even engage in reciprocal behavior with our future selves and that makes our self-interest a much more complex phenomenon so my I might define self-interest as the impulsive pursuit of pleasure and I think that’s a perfectly reasonable definition perhaps when you’re talking about animals but the question immediately arises pleasure over what time span and at what cost and I’m compelled by my knowledge of the future to act in a way that doesn’t betray my future self and that’s very much like acting in a so then I’m a collective that stretches across time as an individual and I have to act in the best interests of that collective and I don’t think that’s very different than acting in the best interests of other people you know if I’m in
my last book I wrote about the morality that emerges from games there’s a neuroscientist who you might be familiar with “Jaak Panksepp” who studied rat behavior in games and he showed that if you pair two male juvenile rats together the one with a 10 body weight advantage will pin the other almost 100 percent of the time and you might say well what that demonstrates is that might makes right the the stronger animal wins but if you pair them together repeatedly after the first bout the defeated rat juvenile has to be the inviter of play in the next match so he’ll invite the bigger rat to play but over paired over repeated pairings unless the big rat lets the little rat win about 30% of the time the little rat will stop inviting him to play (right) so what happens is that you get an emergent morality which is not the ability to win any given game but the ability to repeatedly play a multitude of games and there’s something in that that’s very much like what you wrote about in in “The Origin of Virtue” and something very much like a complex reciprocity right so where you store your good behavior in your reputation essentially and that that’s of great advantage

Matt: yeah and and there is this you know very simple thing that was happening in the 1990s when I wrote that book which was the people were playing the Prisoner’s dilemma game on computers and finding out which strategy worked and the Prisoner’s dilemma game is is is simply a game in which if if you if if both players agree to remain silent then they benefit each other but you can make a bigger gain by by betraying the other one but then if he betrays you as well you both end up with nothing so you’ve got to find a way of reach of trusting each other enough to cooperate you’re being held in separate cells and interrogated separately is the sort of story that’s being told and it turned out that the best strategy in a repeated business dilemma game is tit for tat that is to say be nice first time around cooperate on the first play and then simply do whatever the other guy did on the previous play so as to punish or reward the other guy for behaving badly or well right

Jordan: so you’re not a sucker with using that strategy you’re a cooperative but you’re not a sucker yeah and and

Matt: and in a sense we are engaged in iterative repeated Prisoner’s dilemma games all the time you know you don’t say well I’m not gonna bother paying for this loaf of bread I’m just gonna grab it and run because then I’m better off, because then you can’t go back to the shop the next day (yeah) you’ll be recognized by the police if yeah

Jordan: so it’s morality as the shadow of the future in some sense

Matt: right and again this all comes back to Adam Smith I think because his his previous book his book in 1759 not The wealth of Nations but “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” seems to me to have a very profound insight in me and it’s taken a long time for me to understand it and that is that morality isn’t as it were taught to us by priests and other people it’s essentially a calculation by us as to what works in the society we’re in and you kind of calibrate your behavior to find out what is moral what is ethical and so on and you know 500 years ago the the right ethical thing to do when somebody snubbed you was to you know challenge them to a duel and run them through with a sword well that doesn’t get you very far today so you we’ve learned that actually you you that we’ve we’ve we’ve evolved a higher form of morality sort of gradually by by standing back and saying in this society what’s going to get me the best rewards given how other people are behaving because of course everything everything’s a moving target it seems to me too that that’s deep enough now so imagine that the landscape that human beings occupy is a social landscape but it’s a social landscape that extends across time and we’ve been conscious of that for a long time at least 150 000 years so that’s about when we changed into the genetic we changed genetically into the subspecies that we are now and so you can imagine that given the utility of perceiving the future and the clear benefits of reciprocal action that that’s altered us enough neurologically so that even conscience speaks to us internally in terms of reciprocity so it and then that goes that goes along with the idea that this isn’t something taught by priests it might be something that priests and and other ethicists remind us of yes so we can have an inbuilt moral sense that’s got a biological basis that still requires cultural activation and modification and the analog to that would be our instinct for language you can’t teach chimpanzees language because they don’t have the biological capacity for it or not to the degree that we do although some parrots can can perform remarkable stunts in that regard but we still have to be taught language or we have to be at least put in an environment where it’s happening so exactly and yeah so yeah it just beca you know there’s a language instinct but that doesn’t mean that every child is born speaking hebrew as as james the second king of england supposed to have james the first is supposed to have thought was going to be the case so you know I would say that I’ve studied archetypal representations of moral behavior because I think that dramatic stories represent various they represent various pathways through life like pathways writ large right just drama is life with all the boring bits edited out and what drama is trying to present to us are different modes of behavior some of them unsatisfactory and those would be the bad guys and some of them highly satisfactory and I would say the central hero in in in dramatic representations is someone who’s as fully reciprocal as possible that’s that’s what the drama is aiming at and and I think that’s also what you’re doing with your children when you when you teach them to be good sports when they’re playing a game you basically say to them something like although you don’t know this you say something like it doesn’t Matter whether you win or lose it Matters how you play the game and the reason that Matters and this is the part you don’t say because you don’t know it is that life is a never-ending series of diverse games and your goal as if you want to be a winner is to be invited to play as many games as possible and what that means is that you have to you have to have a morality that works across the set of all possible games and it has to trump the morality that drives you to win a single game yeah and the phrase for that is enlightened self-interest as opposed to short-term self-interest and I think it’s a very important insight for me the the interesting one is that that connects with economic optimism that connects with how we got to be so much better off because it brought us the division of labor it essentially enabled us to say look I’ll make the spears you make the axes and we’ll both be better off because we’ll both be good at what we’re doing and even if I’m better at making both spears and axes than you are it still pays me because I’m slightly better at making spears than axes for me to make the spears and get you to make the axes that’s the basis of trade that’s david ricardo’s theory in in one stone age story yeah so when we started to be intelligent enough and sophisticated enough so that a debt could be repaid in currency other than that in which it was accrued and so what that meant must have meant was that we developed the abstract representation of a reciprocal debt not only did we recip
rocate like chimpanzees do do for example with grooming but we could conceptualize the fact that we owed or were owed and were and then were able to to be repaid in all sorts of different manners so and by the way it wasn’t in this book but it was in the rational optimist that I i I did quite a diversion into the the history of trade and it’s very persuasive that the trade is far far older than agriculture that pre-agricultural people were trading probably a hundred thousand years ago the oldest evidence we’ve got is seashells moving long distances in land from the coast of north africa around a hundred thousand years ago and and they’re moving these long distances not because somebody’s walking hundreds of miles to the seashore picking up some seashells and walking back but because they’re going hand to hand from tribes and we can find I think I do tell the story in the origins of virtue of the year euront who were aboriginal tribe living in northern australia who were getting stingray barbs as many stingray barbs as they wanted on the coast by catching stingrays but what they really wanted was stone axes and several hundred miles inland there was a quarry that produced stone axes and the tribe that owned that traded with the eu euront via several other trades and you can actually see the the exchange rate of stingray bubs for stone axes along that trail so that’s when I think that’s people being nice to each other when they could be fighting each other right right well I think it was in the origins of virtue too that you you chased the idea of trade down into the past even further relating it to the strange human propensity to share food and associated that as well with hunting and I believe you use the example of mammoths which is also an example that I found fascinating because obviously you can’t store a whole mammoth but you can store it in the form of your reputation by sharing it and if you store it in the form of your reputation as a generous hunter then you can be repaid back indefinitely in a currency that doesn’t spoil so maybe it’s and then you do outline it in this manner human beings share food very in a very egalitarian manner within families so men and women share food men mostly meat historically speaking and women mostly what they gather and that makes for a balanced diet and that ability to exchange food seems to me to be perhaps the biological platform on which the idea of trade per se was able to evolve so once you can share food and trade and and enter into a reciprocal arrangement with regards to food then it isn’t that much of a leap to start do that with other commodities especially those that might be related to the provision of food like stone axes or arrows or or or any any implement of that sort I’m rather fascinated by the fact that a a sexual division of labor over food is very very universal and ancient that men hunt and women gather essentially in in hunter-gatherer societies now in some societies gathering is much more important than hunting and in some societies hunting is much more important than gathering like the inuit for example is the latter case and there are sort of odd types of foraging that are neither gathering nor nor hunting so honey tends to be something that men get because it tends to be that you get it from hunting it’s like hunting as it were and digging up reptiles and rats tends to be something that women do because it’s like digging up roots now some people think this is a sexist view you know that I’m saying you know a woman’s place is digging a man’s place is out hunting but I think it’s just that unlike other species we really did invent this really youthful distinction whereby you got the best of both worlds you got the protein from hunting but you’ve got the reliability of food from gathering so on the whole you didn’t go hungry but on the whole you did get access to protein which was difficult thing for women to do when they had small dependent kids and things like that and you can sort of see an echo in it today that far more vegetarians are women or rather far more women are vegetarians if you like that may and you know men just like me more than women do so I think there is a deep thing going on here but I’ve got to be very careful talking about it because people are quick to get upset and think that you’re in some sense saying something very very prejudicial people get upset now if you accept that there are sex differences and if you deny that there are sex differences so they’re going to get upset no Matter what you think so you might as well just think what you think you know the advantage to that sexual division of labor in part is that it it provides additional utility for long-term relationships because they’re actually more because of the the union of specialization there the gathering and the hunting you’re deriving your food from more than one source it means it’s more reliable across time and it that that’s a prerequisite for the origin of long-term pair bonds so it’s a really good thing and no one loses in that trade and that’s well that’s adam smith’s point and and the point of optimism it’s funny because economists tend to be optimistic and biologists tend to be pessimistic on along when discussing questions like this but if you make well we’re on that it’s just a this is perhaps a digression but I’ve also been fascinated but it’s quite nice to challenge people and say how about the reproductive division of labor we’re happy with all sorts of divisions of labor you know you hunt I gather you you work one kind of job I work another kind of job we’re we we were prepared to to share out absolutely everything but the one we never do is the reproductive division of labor ants and bees do they say right we’re going to leave the queen to do the reproducing and we’re all going to be the workers imagine you know not even in england with the queen do we expect to do that it’s the one thing we try and do for ourselves is and hang on to and and that’s for me rob’s home drives home the message of just how universal this division of labor concept is otherwise in our life because because it’s so shocking to try and think of a reproductive division of labor it’s just something we don’t aspire to okay so your optimism it manifested itself at least in part in your writing career with this notion that there’s a biological origin of virtue and so it’s a fundamental instinct and there’s a universality about it which which I think is very optimistic because if there is a universal basis for morality despite its its obvious cultural differences it means that we can potentially understand each other well enough to engage in reciprocal action across even tribal boundaries which we’re obviously capable of doing and it it implies that we might understand each other enough so that we could establish something like a long-term piece that would be the hope but so so that’s that’s a very fundamentally optimistic viewpoint and then when when you move into analysis of of of innovation and trade you start doing that with the rational optimist you’re documenting transformations that have made life better and and I could I could list a couple of those and maybe we can talk about them so in the rational optimism optimist for example you talk about the fact well you you start by talking about ideas having sex and so that’s a form of reciprocity I would say that’s the exchange of information rather than than than goods but information is exchangeable for goods and so in some sense it’s this it’s the abstract equivalent of the exchange of goods yeah but but I’m in a sense I’m being much more literal even than that because sex is the process by which genes get shuffled and you you recombine genes with new combinations so you’ve got a gene for for fur in one reptile and you’ve got a gene for milk in another reptile and you bring them together and you’ve got a mammal that has both fur and milk and that couldn’t happen without sex because they’d stay in separate lineages so
sex is the process that enables genetic novelties to find each other and combine it’s what makes evolution cumulative in effect and I’m saying that exchange has exactly the same role in innovation that that one one tribe can invent you know one gadget and another tribe can invent another gadget and you can’t bring them together unless they’re trading and the trading is what enables you to to make culture cumulative to start to say well hang on I’ll have that I’ll I’ll have that invention that was made in california and I’ll have that invention that was made in china and I’ll I’ll actually be able to benefit from both of them so it’s a very it’s a very explicit metaphor I mean it’s a it’s a it’s a flippant attention-grabbing phrase ideas having sex and it I used it for the title of a ted talk and it rather caught on and the next ted meeting I went to they were giving out badges saying whose ideas have you had sex with recently or something it’s a bit weird who have your anyway whatever you get well we do talk about a fertile we do and we talk about cross fertilization yes yes yes and well you hope that someone who’s specialized in one area can talk to someone who’s specialized in another and that at the border where there aren’t specialists new ideas can be generated and I mean I’ve seen that over and over when talking to well when looking for scientific innovation it’s it’s one of the things that’s happened in the field of psychology over the last hundred years is that a lot of our radical innovations especially on the methodological front have been a consequence of engineers being trained as psychologists and bringing what they knew as engineers into the field so a lot of a lot of fertile intellectual activity happens where two fields rub together so to speak that’s right and and some of the great breakthroughs in biology came from physicists moving into biology you you you move from when ideas have sex to the idea of a better today and I was actually going to read something if you don’t mind from your book from page 12 which I which I liked quite a bit it’s I suppose it’s funny in a black-hearted sort of way so there are people today who think life was better in the past they argue that there was not only a simplicity tranquility sociability and spirituality about life in the distant past that has been lost but a virtue too this rose-tinted nostalgia please note is generally confined to the wealthy it is easier to wax allegation for the life of a peasant when you do not have to use a long drop toilet imagine that it is 1800 somewhere in western europe or eastern north america the family is gathering around the hearth in the simple timber-framed house father reads aloud from the bible while mother prepares to dish out a stew of beef and onions the baby boy is being comforted by one of his sisters and the eldest lad is pouring water from a pitcher into the earth and wear mugs on the table his elder sister is feeding the horse in the stable outside there is no noise of traffic there are no drug dealers and neither dioxins nor radioactive fallout have been found in the cow’s milk all is tranquil a bird sings outside the window I’m going to read the next section too but this is it’s a very interesting paragraph because it speaks to something that that I think has a dramatic origin too a mythological or archetypal origin which is the idea of the simple life where everyone is living in harmony with nature and the depredations of culture have not yet manifested themselves and it’s a it’s it’s russoian it’s russoian but it’s deep it’s deeper than that as well because it actually reflects the truth is that there is a purity about individual individuals that can be corrupted by society but you have to take the reverse position as well if you’re going to get things balanced well then you you add a corrective to this which is quite comical oh please though this is one of the better off families in the village father’s scripture reading is interrupted by a bronchitic cough that presages the pneumonia that will kill him at 53 not helped by the wood smoke of the fire right an indoor pollution is still a leading cause of mortality worldwide often from the romantic hearth he is lucky life expectancy even in england was less than 40 in 1800 the baby will die of the smallpox that is now causing him to cry his sister will soon be the chattel of a drunken husband the water the sun is pouring tastes of the cows that drink from the brook and that would be if the water was good I would say toothache tortures the mother the neighbor’s larger is getting the other girl pregnant in the hay shed even now and her child will be sent to an orphanage the stew is gray and grisly yet meat is a rare change from gruel there is no fruit or salad that this season it is eaten with a wooden spoon from a wooden bowl candles cost too much so fire light is all there is to see by nobody in the family has ever seen a play painted a picture or heard a piano school is a few years of dull latin taught taught by a bigoted martinet at the vicarage father visited the city once but the travel cost him a week’s wages and the others have never traveled more than 15 miles from home each daughter owns two wool dresses two linen shirts and one pair of shoes father’s jacket cost him a month’s wages but is now infested by lice the children sleep two to a bed on straw Mattresses on the floor as for the bird outside the window tomorrow it would be trapped and eaten by the boy well that’s I love that that section it’s quite comical in a dark and tongue-in-cheek sort of way but it’s a great corrective to the foolish romanticism that characterizes people’s longing for even the near past you know it’s not unreasonable to say that the typical middle-class person I could say in north america or europe but increasingly anywhere in the world is wealthier by almost every measure than a billionaire was in 1920 right absolutely and you know particularly I mean I can’t remember who it was who who said just you know just take dentistry you know there’s it’s it’s the it doesn’t Matter how rich you were in 1800 it was no fun having a rotten tooth and you know and that’s a relatively basic thing that we all can have access to today so there’s no question that in material ways our lives are so much better than those of our ancestors and we tend to read jane austen and think well wouldn’t that have been fun you know but actually those are books about an incredibly small elite who were rich enough to have candles and go to go to dances yes and even even in those circumstances their social lives were restricted enough so that a single dance could be the social event of an entire year exactly and you if you didn’t fall in love with the chinless officer who took your arm you might be a widow for the rest of you I mean not a widow a spinster for the rest of your life so you know it was not much fun compared with today we are so lucky everything is so good and for me and I think I make this well actually there’s an interesting story about this this point I like to talk about how the the big theme of human history is becoming more and more specialized as in the things we produce and more and more diversified in the things we consume so you you actually but your jobs get narrower and narrower more and more specialized but your life gets richer and richer you know because you can consume you know movies and exotic foods and all these different things that’s a great antithesis to the marxist notion of alienation in labor right because one of the things that’s attractive about marxism and it’s understandably attractive there’s two things I think one is the emphasis on the unpleasantness of inequality but the other is the idea of alienation from the created product but if you make the case that well you might be alienated from the created product with regards to the workplace because of specialization but in the two-thirds of the hours that you’re spending of your life when you’re not working your li
fe is much more diverse than it would otherwise be and I think that kovid has probably taught everyone that again because we’re so isolated now and stuck at home and and and and facing the the restriction of all these things that we took for granted the the wonderful restaurants and and by the way we do sort of go backwards with respect to specialization and exchange during bad recessions so in the depression a lot of american families you know found they were keeping a chicken and growing their own vegetables again you know you you start to do more for yourself and have less to consume overall because if you only could consume what you produce it would be a pretty miserable life you had to make your own food your own lighting your own heat you know everything like that and but by the way there’s a really nice story about this concept because I read it in a book called second nature by heim ofek it’s a beautiful book that I read around 20 years ago and it’s laid out this point very nicely that we’ve become more and more specialized in how we produce but more and more diversified in how we consume and I wrote to him and said look this is a fantastic idea can you tell me how you came up with the idea and where you got it from and how it developed and he wrote back and said I got it from your book the original well that’s a good that’s a good compliment the best form of question I said but I don’t think it’s in my book and he said really I guess maybe it’s not I just you know but I thought I got it from you but so that’s a lovely example of the division of labour in the production of ideas if you like well and ideas can be implicit as well as explicit so it’s not always obvious what ideas are in your book you know and it isn’t all you can’t put a boundary around the ideas that even the ideas that you write because they have tendrils that reach beyond your understanding and so you never know which is why I’m something of a skeptic about intellectual property by the way I think copyright is vastly overdone I think we should be much more prepared to share I did share the stuff that we produced but there we go that’s another well I wonder if that if I wonder if that that anecdote that you just related is an indication of the the sexual behavior of ideas I don’t know if the metaphor works but you know every book each every each book is different for every reader and the meaning of the book is actually a complex consequence of the knowledge that’s held by the reader and the knowledge that’s implicit in the book absolutely so what that means is no book is the same for any two readers now postmodernists figured that out a while back and but they they seemed to read it to indicate that there was no canonical meaning whatsoever in a text as a consequence and and then slipped into the idea that perhaps there was no meaning at all which I think was a major mistake but is that is that a sexual is that a sexual is that process akin to sexuality as well the fact that you have a reader on one part and and something to be read on the other part and a third thing emerges as a consequence it seems like it you need two things to produce something new yes I i think yeah I i I think that is equivalent I mean we’re talking books here but if we were talking gadgets it would be much more explicit I i I love telling the story about how the the pill camera was invented it’s something you swallow and it takes a picture a film of your insides as it goes through and it came about after a conversation over a garden fence in boston between a gastroenterologist and a guided missile designer that’s a very good example of the the generation of ideas at the border between two specializations and you wouldn’t necessarily exp and if you wonder too if there’s a if particularly robust ideas emerge as a consequence of people from very disparate disciplines talking you know that would be well this there’s a I in my latest book I i talk about a website called innocentive where you can post your problems if you’re a company that’s that’s got a technological problem you can’t solve you can post the problem and say look does anyone have a solution to this and you there are ways of rewarding people who answer yes I’ve got the answer for you it’s quite well set up and a study of the successful solutions that have been provided on this website found that most of them had come from people completely outside the field so it really was a case that you needed a fresh mind with a fresh with a different training to look at the problem from a different direction so I think all this goes to show that you know we are we are more than the sum of our parts we operate in the cloud our ideas are you know again that lovely thing that leonard reed said that you know if you take a pencil there are millions of people who contributed to making it because somebody had to cut down a tree and somebody had to grow coffee for the man who was cutting down the tree and the wood had to go to the factory and so on there’s you know incredible number of people involved in making the pencil not one of them knows how to make a pencil there isn’t a human being on the planet who knows how to make a pencil because the person who knows how to work in a factory doesn’t know how to cut down a tree and so on so the the knowledge the the knowledge of how to run the human world sits in a cloud and has done since long before the internet cloud was invented it sits between brains not within brexit why do you think then look I mean we’re we’ve been talking we’ve been batting back and forth the idea that virtue itself is tightly associated with trade and then in in some sense they may not be distinguishable from one another fair trade in some manner is virtue especially fair trade across long spans of time and maybe fair trade across long spans of times with diverse communities right so why is it that why do you think that the idea of trade itself has also become contaminated with this terrible pessimism I mean one of the things that characterizes if if it’s trade that constitutes virtue and if it’s trade as well that’s lifted people out of poverty then why is it that people who engage in novel trade entrepreneurs say or even capitalists for that Matter why is it that that form of trade has be has is so easily associated with with so easily despised and and so and and so frequently met with contempt I find it baffling because you know voltaire made the point that that commerce tends to make people nicer you know it if if two people are trading then they suddenly stop fighting but they’re worth more to each other if they’re alive then well exactly then that seems to be a good thing like it’s a good thing to have everyone worth more debt more alive than dead right and and actually steve pinker talks about this too but the the the the peace that breaks out at various times in human history is tends to be more associated with whether countries are trading with each other than whether they happen to be democracies or any other relationship with their political systems so it’s you know the degree of trade really does make a difference to how peaceful things are I mean it doesn’t stop war breaking out between countries that are trading with each other but it’s now accident in the 20th century you get a a period of huge protectionism that precedes the second world war I mean and to some extent sparks it you know japan is saying well if you’re not going to trade with me I’m going to bloody well invade asia and take stuff for myself well you know I was I i thought it was of dubious entering into trade with communist china was a big risk on the part of the west yeah and when that first started to happen it was something that well I was interested in and and also concerned about but but mostly curious about because on the one hand you could say well it’s why would you trade with a totalitarian state a cruel totalitarian state a murderous totalitarian state for that Matter but on the other hand you could say well maybe it would be better off for
everyone if the chinese weren’t dirt poor and starving and if they depended on us in a in a mutually beneficial manner and I would have to say that despite the fact that the chinese communist party still rules with an iron fist that it’s probably been better for everyone all concerned that extensive trade with china has taken place I know the north american and european working class has taken a major hit because of that although they’ve benefited from cheap manufactured items for sure but you’ve got to think a chinese population where no one is starving and that’s completely engaged in trade with the west is a more reliable long-term partner than one that’s isolated and hot and and pursuing its own destiny yeah I certainly thought that until recently I you know I thought that our best chance of turning them into a liberal democracy was to trade with them and after all it was a great deal for us we gave them as don boudreaux once put it we gave them pictures of presidents and they gave us goods and services in other words money yes yes yes absolutely but but it I have to say in the last couple of years under xi jinping china has become something very different from what it was five or even or ten years ago I think and I think we are reaching the point where it is a problem that we are buying goods off a regime that is doing terrible things to hong kong to the uyghurs and there’s a moral there’s a moral quandary there but it still seems to me even that a china that holds a substantial amount of western debt is much less likely to upset the apple cart than a china that doesn’t you know it’s not such an exact thing to have yesterday they have an interest in the dollar not collapsing for example but go back to your original question though why are people so cynical and and unhappy about trade and think it’s such an evil thing and I think in the end it’s that that we are zero-sum thinkers yeah we find we find it hard to believe that the that somebody isn’t winning in a relationship and I suppose that’s because crooked people crooked foolish people do try to win yeah and for 99 of our four billion years of history it was true that if someone won it was at the expense of someone losing but you can see very clearly in the rhetoric of donald trump the view that that that trade is a is a zero-sum game is is a win-lose equation and it’s quite hard even for you and me to get our head around the idea that that actually I you know yes I’ve driven a good bargain in buying a car or house but maybe I’ve been ripped off who knows you know well I guess okay so part of the problem is that fair trade can revert to a crooked zero-sum game quite rapidly and so we’re on edge because of that but I mean people still pursue long-term relationships and they still pursue friendships they still make the assumption that reciprocal interactions are not only possible but also part of what makes life worth living a really important part and it doesn’t seem that complicated to ex I guess you it’s it’s the difficulty of extending that outward towards non-kin or even strangers but it’s a remarkable thing that that’s possible and it’d be nice if we were more grateful for it than we are right the the remarkable thing about human beings is that we do treat complete strangers as honorary brothers and sisters and how do we do that partly by building up these these levels of trust through reciprocity over long long period ebay is a great example of that because when ebay first emerged the cynics said well you know I’ll put something up for sale that’s junk and send it to you and it won’t work and you’ll send me a check that bounces and that’ll be the end of ebay and that’s not what happened is that right off the bat almost all the trades were fair and equitable and and then it evolved a reputation tracking system but even before the reputation tracking system the the default transaction was precisely what it claimed to be on face value our reputations are very precarious it’s very easy to lose your reputation yes even in quite a mobile society it will track you down well that’s even maybe more true in in society now because you can lose your reputation very easily with one misstep on twitter that’s certainly true well it’s also interesting to see how sensitive people are to to reputation maintenance because I’ve watched this intently over the last four or five years you see people who post something for example on twitter and then a small mob generates itself around them and might be it might not be more than 20 people who are complaining about this particular post and almost inevitably the person will back down with profuse apologies and show every sign of severe emotional distress and I suppose I’ve thought about it a lot I suppose it’s it’s akin to in some sense it’s the electronic equivalent to having 20 neighbors show up on your doorstep you know you’d you’d assume if you were a reasonable person that you might have done something wrong even though the analogy doesn’t really hold true if you’re communicating with 150 000 people and you upset 15 of them it’s really difficult to it’s really difficult to say exactly what that means this is back to the loss of version point because we’re all we we know this very well as authors you you read 10 good reviews of your books and you think well I you know I’m embarrassed about that I don’t really deserve it or you know it’s nice a nice good review and then one bad review and it prays on your mind and you get furious and you get upset and you write a letter to the editor saying the review is unfair and things that we’ve all done well the same thing happens with regards to comments on social media you know like I’m fortunate er with regards to what I’ve produced on youtube for example because most of it garners far more positive commentary than negative commentary you know and the ratios are usually something like 50 to 1 but it’s not the case that when I read through the comments that my mood is reliably buoyed and that is because the the outlier the negative comment strikes me strikes a pang into my heart you know and I don’t want to make too much of that because overall I think this is like the bad news story being more salient yes it is the same thing well I can’t I cannot see how people who are accumulating more negative comments in a social media platform than positive comments I don’t see how they can survive it I couldn’t survive it so and then that sensitivity to reputation I took a decision some years ago to stop looking at the replies to my tweets altogether and I’ve never done it since and it’s been very good for my so I’m sure sleeping and other things I’m sure I’m missing out on some interesting feedback yeah and every now and then you know I will look at something specific where I’ve asked someone a question or something like that but but actually and I talked to a british politician who’s a friend who was a conservative party leader and was hugely criticized at the time he never became prime minister and I i said you know how do you develop a thick skin ian because you’re still in politics 20 years later and you’re still yeah you know you’ve been a successful cabinet minister but you’ve been the subject of vitriolic cartoons and all sorts of stuff and he says nobody develops a thick skin you just learn to ignore the stuff and the politicians who decide not to ignore it but to answer back just drive themselves helps to be blessed with a favorable nervous system too and to be low in trait neuroticism so you’re not as sensitive to negative information as you might be so I i think so the thick skin might be partly a biological phenomena where you know people differ in their degree of loss aversion and I suspect that public figures who manage to maintain themselves over long periods of time in the face of criticism are relatively robust when it comes to their physiological response to threat well something I greatly admire about you is your ability to remain cool under pressure you know w
hen kathy newman is trying to rile you on channel four news or something you’re you’re you’re you’re do you remain logical I would get my heart rate would go up I would start to bluster I would stop thinking and I would say sort of stupid things that I would regret is that something you learned or well it’s very funny because I just hate it like I it’s so stressful I find that so unbelievably stressful but fortunately I think it’s probably a consequence of being trained as a clinical psychologist right is that I can detach myself and watch but that doesn’t mean the physiology isn’t racing like it’s racing and and it’s definitely the case that it’s a very strange thing because the negative interviews that I’ve conducted the interviews where people were attacking me let’s say have garnered far more views than the positive interviews so in terms of impact on my reputation the negative interviews have been more beneficial than the positive ones yeah but that’s partly because you’ve performed well in them anyone can perform well when they’re being interviewed nicely as you are interviewing me nicely now it’s the the sheep from the goats are the the the people who can can remain cool under pressure as you do I think it is a consequence of clinical training I mean because I can snap into an observer mode and and and detach myself in some sense from what’s going on partly because I know as well that it isn’t clear what’s happening like it might be a battle but it’s not necessarily the war and so being under attack doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re being defeated it’s it’s something like that but that’s associate that’s a that’s a rationalization of the ability to detach but I do think it’s it’s it’s the clinician in me that allows for that well the old bomber pilots remark that if you’re taking flack you know you’re over the target is is some comfort in this yeah well I said it yes at least there’s a possibility that that’s true so so I want to ask you some more specific questions or or not precisely that I would like you to discuss more specifically if you wouldn’t mind some of the things that you’ve outlined as so intensely positive and I can throw out some reminders these are chapter titles from the rational optimist and then maybe we’ll move to to how innovation works you talk about feeding nine billion for example which is that that’s a remarkable story and and I I’ve read it in various sources but we have biologists in particular in the 1960s were absolutely certain paul ehrlich for example that we were all going to perish of starvation if starvation combined with an absolute dearth of raw materials by the year 2000 and that hasn’t happened it’s dec now the biologists might say the malthusians might say yeah yeah well we got the time frame wrong by a couple of decades but you know the other shoe is still going to drop but nonetheless when you make a prediction you have to include a time frame or it’s not a prediction well no but they can’t even really make that claim because during that period not only have we I mean since the early 60s we’ve doubled the human population but we’ve slightly shrunk the amount of land we put under the plow every year there’s been a 68 reduction over 50 years in the amount of land needed to produce a given quantity of food that’s the most extraordinary phenomenon it’s basically the story of the green revolution you make the case there too that without that occurring and then that is a concept we should go into the green revolution to some degree because lots of viewers won’t know about that on unbelievably even though it might it’s arguably the biggest story of the last 50 years in some sense you know you make the case that had the green revolution not taken place and so that was partly a consequence of careful breeding of new food stuffs like dwarf wheat and and the the manufacture of nitrogen fixing fertilizers we would have already used up land space equivalent to more than the entire amazonian rainforest we would have converted virtually all arable land on earth into food producing well into food production and we haven’t done that and in fact I believe now there are more trees in the northern hemisphere than there were a hundred years ago oh yes definitely I mean the whole world is now reforesting fairly rapidly when I say the whole world the world is net reforesting some places are still losing forest but on the whole places like china are gaining gaining woodland at an extraordinary rate yeah well china has more woodland now than it did 30 years ago despite the fact that well they just declared this week or last week the chinese government just declared the eradication of extreme poverty in china and you know you can be cynical about that and claim that it’s a totalitarian it’s totalitarian what would you call a posturing but it’s certainly the case that even by un standards we’ve almost we’re on track to eradicate extreme poverty by according to the un definition of extreme poverty by 2030 and we’ve halved it since from the year 2000 I believe to the year 2010 it was cut in half which is it’s absolutely phenomenal 60 of the world was lived in extreme poverty when I was born today it’s less than 10 percent that’s the greatest achievement of any human generation ever it’s nobody’s lived through anything like that in the past yes and that despite the fact that the population what tripled yes well yes and and nobody saw it coming and it wasn’t planned even most of it came about because of you know relatively local innovation to make farming more efficient and things like that and the amount of calories available per head have gone up on every continent including africa there is still extreme poverty and extreme hunger and malnutrition and nutrient shortages and so on but the thing I always say to environmentalists is why do you think it would motivate people to tell them that this problem is insoluble why not say look how well we’ve done in the past why don’t we try and do just as well in the future it’s especially the case this is something that really confuses me too because I worked I didn’t I generated partly generated a u.n report contributed to a u.n report about six or seven years ago on sustainable development and I had the same sort of realization that you described was that on all these dimensions where we were supposed to be you know careening towards catastrophe we were in fact doing better and better with the possible exception I think of oceanic management but we don’t have to get into that I agree with that yeah yeah it’s like the oceanic management is a catastrophe but it’s it could still be rectified and it seems to be a tragedy of the commons catastrophe and in any case everywhere I looked at the actual statistics the the evidence was that things were getting better fast and like really fast fast in an unparalleled manner but what really got me was that the evidence as far as I can tell is clear that as soon as you make people rich enough so that they’re not living hand to mouth then they start to become concerned with environmental degradation and so the biggest contributor to pollution you could make a case a strong case the biggest contributor to pollution isn’t wealth but poverty and then if you raise people out of poverty then they start to manage their environments properly because they can afford to look at the long run and so you’d think that for the radical types who are hyper concerned according to their own self-description with poverty and oppression as well as environmental degradation that they would look at the facts and say oh my god we can have our cake and eat it too the faster we make people rich the better off the planet is going to be completely this is so clear to me and it’s so hard to get across to to a lot of the environmentalists and by the way there’s a word I want to introduce the conversation at this point which is panglossian people sometimes accuse me of being panglossian dr panglos as you remember in
candide in in voltaire’s novel is someone who says he’s a he’s a caricature of leibniz and he says that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds and yes lisbon has been destroyed by an earthquake but that must have been because they were evil people because god wouldn’t do a bad thing and it’s a very silly argument and it’s being lampooned by voltaire but actually the people who say that now are not you and me we’re saying good as this world is compared with what it was it’s a veil of tears compared with what it could be if we press on we’re not saying we’ve got to the best possible world we’re saying let’s keep going but the people who are saying that who are saying oh we mustn’t do any more development we must make sure that people still live in mud huts you outline data indicating that one of the responses by the catastrophists let’s say of the 1960s was to write off places like india and and proclaim that even aid was futile because all you were doing was encouraging increasing starvation in the future when I was writing the rational optimist in 2010 the it was quite fashionable still to write off africa to say yes asia has seen extraordinary improvements in living standards but it is very unrealistic to assume that that could ever happen in africa people would say that kind of thing quite often and in my book I said look even in africa we are seeing incredible improvements well the fastest and so I got criticized by a reviewer in the new york times for using the phrase even in africa that showed I was a racist apparently you know you can’t win can you I’m saying the opposite but now 10 years on africa’s had an incredible decade actually much better than the west which has had a rather grim decade of low productivity and the overhang of the great recession and so on but you know countries like ethiopia have doubled their income per capita in in real terms in a decade you’ve seen malaria mortality collapse you’ve seen hiv mortality falling fast you’ve seen warfare disappearing from much of the continent you’ve seen an emerging middle class you’ve seen far less hunger and malnutrition actually africa is just doing roughly what asia did a generation ago and it will soon be where asia is now which is a middle-class middle-income continent that’s an incredible thing and it it well in africa africa has has unparalleled potential I read an analysis probably 15 years ago I believe it was by the former ceo of alcoa the aluminum company who was working for a republican government as a as a as a cabinet member at that point I’m afraid I can’t remember his name but he visited uganda and was very curious about its potential with regards to agriculture and calculated first of all uganda apparently sits on a water table that’s only about 200 feet down and it’s very fertile he calculated maybe this wasn’t his calculation but he reported that uganda alone could feed all of africa yeah and so there’s there’s no reason to assume that despite the fact for example I think it’s nigeria is on course to be the world’s most populous country by the year 2100 I think the demographic projections are that it will surpass china by that point yes that that I believe that’s true and that’s that’s quite an interesting thought isn’t it but no I mean just just to cast your mind forward to the year 2100 I think we will be producing food an awful lot of it from factories by then by factories I mean vertical farms you know indoor led lit multi-story operations that why led lit why led lift because leds are so cheap they use so little electricity and produce so little heat that you can actually start to make indoor farming make sense because light was was the was the big problem for farming you had to be outdoors for the light because the plants don’t grow except in sunlight but the the led revolution has made a big difference there and you know I can imagine us having you know basically some indoor farms the size of uganda that feed the world and the rest of the planet yes we’ll have hobby farming and we’ll we’ll have grass-fed beef in here and there and so on but an awful lot of the rest of it will be one giant national park in which we will allow nature to thrive and allow people to allow people to to operate as tourists I mean increasingly ecologically pristine areas pay for themselves with tourism and so that brings them into the economy which is an almost certain way of preserving them yeah so and I suspect we’ll bring back some extinct species by then as well so you talk about you talk as well about I’m going to list a few things here so we talked about feeding 9 billion and that that’s become a possibility you talk about the triumph of cities and the escape from malthus so maybe we could talk about that briefly and the end of slavery as well which that’s a lovely one because yeah that’s unheralded I would say get partly because I i think people don’t really understand how universal slavery or near slavery was across civilizations for for the entirety of human of of of human human history so triumph of cities well people are moving into cities cities are where innovation happens on the whole they’re disproportionately innovative they’re the bigger they are the the more efficient they are in some sense they you they have fewer gas stations fewer miles of road per person than bigger cities if you see what I mean you know they become more concentrated more than half the world now lives in cities that leaves the rest of the landscape untrampled cities only occupy about three percent of the world’s land surface I believe so actually it’s a good thing because and and you know yes you you know some of us like to live in rural areas rather than in in cities but those of us who want to can do that cities are where people come together and they mix and they have ideas and they and they produce baby ideas you know so it was the city-states of ancient greece or the city-states of of renaissance italy that really drove the world economy in their day likewise in britain and victorian times or california today you know california is two great big city states los angeles and san francisco effectively and so I think I i I think the fact that the world is becoming more urbanized or was until the last year I mean it’ll be interesting to see whether city centers really do lose their allure after the pandemic because a lot of businesses have discovered that they don’t need to pay for expensive real estate they can let people work from home I suspect it’ll lead to a lot more hot desking you know people coming into the office two or three days a week working from home two or three days a week which will cut down on commuting make some of the city’s problems less bad and cut the cost of real estate in the middle of cities so I suspect we’re in that we could have quite a soft landing for some of the problems that cities have these days but it won’t all be plain sailing I mean things are going to go wrong in that respect escape from malthus well the malthusian trap was robert malthus’s notion was that the that if you kept people alive they would simply you know if you gave them more food then they would simply have more babies so they’d end up just as poor and just as hungry yeah well something like that happened in ireland when when potatoes became the dominant crop and then failed right so the irish pop you you outline this in your book it’s not an idea that originates with me when the irish started to farm potatoes their population exploded and then a blight came in and wiped out the potato crop and and blew out the irish population and that’s a classic malthusian example yeah pessimistic biologists yeah and he wasn’t entirely wrong in that respect but the thing he did get wrong is that technology might change it and we then moved to a world in which food became more and more productive babies stopped dying we got better at keeping them alive and weirdly once they stopped dying people started having fewer of them and this is a phenomenon called the dem
ographic transition that took us really by surprise you know if if you stop baby rabbits dying they have more babies but if you stop baby human beings dying people say right I’m not going to try and have as many kids as possible in the hope that a few survive I’m going to have two and try that through that’s another thing that’s that’s occurred very very rapidly in the last few generations that no one predicted is that the the the rate of reproduction is plummeted and increasingly across the world it looks like as soon as you educate women open up the marketplace to them and provide a modicum of birth control as well as these other improvements and living standard that you described that the birth rate plummets to below rep to below replacement yeah no in an awful lot of countries are going to have problems with below replacement fertility in the in this coming century which means that you’ve got a a very aging workforce which won’t be able to afford retirement because there’s not enough working people and so on you know so that’s another problem you’ve got but it’s it’s better than a population explosion continuing to the point where there’s 20 billion people trying to live on the planet which is what we were worried about 40 years ago I think the projections now are there we’re going to peak out at about 11 billion something like that that’s the un median projection but a lot of people think it’s overblown actually that the numbers if you run the numbers with sensible you know if it it a lot depends on how fast the nigerian birth rate comes down as you said earlier right but with a sensible assumption we might not even get much past 10 billion well it’d be really quite remarkable if if an emergent problem for the latter half of the 20th century was that there there was too many goods and not enough people and that that could easily be the case that could easily be the case especially not enough young people but bray so maybe the answer to malthus is sort of hidden in some sense inside the presumptions you made in your book so maybe we could pause it as a general biological rule is if the rate of sexual reproduction of ideas exceeds the rate of sexual reproduction of human beings then there’s no malthusian catastrophe that’s a very nice way of putting it I think that is exactly it’s exactly the point I like to make yeah well it’s it’s it’s it’s it’s possible it see it certainly seems to me to be possible given that we are clearly able to make more and more using less and less and you know there’s lots of things that we’re not doing that we could do that you also touch on one of the things that that strikes me as somewhat catastrophic is the tragic underdevelopment of nuclear power I I’ve spoken with a number of people about the possibilities of nuclear power and you point out in your I think it’s in how innovation works actually that there are no shortage of plans for much smaller nuclear reactors that don’t use water as the primary coolant that use salt or some other substance like that certain salts and that if they fail they actually shut down rather than melting down and so that’s another example I think of where the the environmentalists it’s a broad brush but the environmentalists got things seriously wrong and are still doing so because as far as I can tell if you wanted the question is what do you want like if you want cheap power of the sort that would make people rich enough to start caring about the environment it seems to me that you would be a nuclear power supporter rather than a supporter of solar or wind power which I think only still accounts for about three percent of total energy needs that’s true people say oh no no that’s wrong it’s more than 10 you find they’re referring to electricity but electricity is only about 25 of energy at the moment so it’s it’s around three percent comes from solar and wind but the the real problem with solar and wind versus nuclear nucleus is still horribly expensive because of the way we’ve regulated it and driven up its price so our problem is how to get the price down but the real problem is the amount of land that solar and wind use because they’re very low density sources of energy so you have to have a lot of land and you need more land than there is you know I mean even canada has hardly got enough land to produce renewable energy for its population and frankly that’s going back to a medieval economy where you had to use the landscape to produce energy you had to damn the rivers and grow the crops that you then and and cut down the forests you know to to burn it’s not obvious either that wind farms aren’t a blight on the landscape I’m afraid they are they’re terrible for birds I’m a keen bird watcher I don’t like the idea of these these birds being devastated by onshore and offshore wind and you know a wind farm spends the first seven eight years of its life earning back the energy that went into building the wind turbine you know and only after that is it net positive and even then it’s a huge investment of capital that could be doing something else you know the point about energy is it’s the master resource it’s the thing that everybody else needs to use so you want to make it as cheap and as reliable as possible yes exactly and that should be said over and over that if you were it seems to me that if you were truly concerned about the planetary fate let’s say or even more precisely the fate of the people on the planet that you would do everything you could to drive the cost of energy including the externalized costs to something as low as possible because it’s the prerequisite for everything else and starving people aren’t we already talked about this but starving people aren’t good planetary stewards so even if you you’ll notice jordan you and I have now slipped into a slightly pessimistic mood in that we’re finding the energy policies of our countries rather stupid yeah it’s probably because we’re old enough so that a 90-minute discussion starts to become tiring well there’s that but but also you know the identity politics stuff the the the anti-enlightenment mood of our times I can make a case that we might just be about to kill the goose that has been laying these golden eggs well I think look I think we should I truly think we should avoid going there and I’ve thought about this a lot watching people respond for example to some of the things that I’ve been talking about over the last few years you know there’s a huge population of young and not so young people out there who are literally starving no they’re metaphorically starving they’re psychologically starving for a positive but believable story and I think that like as you pointed out we could decry the state of modern politics and concern ourselves with the fact that counterproductive economic and social policies might be put in place for all sorts of ideological reasons but I actually think a much better use of our time is in the kind of enterprise that you’ve already pursued which is to produce a a robust counter narrative that’s thoroughly grounded in to the degree that that’s possible thoroughly grounded in the facts we can say look forget it forget about that forget about the pessimism forget about the policies that that pessimism would drive we could make the assumption that we can have our cake and eat it too we can eradicate poverty we can constrain relative inequality to the point where societies are stable and we can produce a massive increment in environmental quality and all that’s within our grasp if that’s what we want within the next hundred years and ah absolutely and didn’t mean you you’ve you’ve devoted your the last 30 years of your life at least to to exactly that message and I think that’s a much more powerful solution than being pessimistic about the counter positions you got it people need a better story you’re dead right thank you for reminding me that that’s what I think yeah yeah exactly exactly well it’s easy it’s easy to get tangled up b
ecause you did and politics especially moment-to-moment politics can tangle you up badly and knock you off your your central axis and you know your work this is probably a good place to end too your work is refreshing in in that regard there’s other people who are doing this sort of thing too like bjorn lomberg for example and hans rosling who are who are and and mary and toopey who are informed optimists yeah both bjorn and and hans were were a influences on me and very sadly hans rosling’s no longer with us but you know it it was a true bjorn’s book was a true eye opener to me it was about the same time I was starting to think along the same lines and and an eye-opener to him too exactly yeah yeah so let’s I think that would be a good place to leave it and and we could say look you know to the people who are listening to this there’s no reason for a counterproductive and anti-human pessimism we could have a planet where there was enough for everyone and where there was enough for the non-human inhabitants too that contribute to making life rich and there’s there’s no reason not to aim for that and there’s absolutely no reason not to assume that it’s within our grasp so we want to aim properly and and we can have what everyone seems to want whether they’re on the right or the left when they’re thinking properly which is an eradication of absolute poverty so no one is forced into penary and starvation and no children fail to develop we can reduce the impact of relative poverty which is an entrenched intransigent problem but not unaddressable and we could restore to a large degree or maintain and a sustainable ecology around us and we don’t want to forget that and drown in in in our threat sensitivity yeah but once but we do it by development not by anti-development yeah we do that by faith in you in in human by by faith in human beings fundamentally and I think it that faith I don’t think there’s any reason for that faith to be unwarranted we’re not a plague on the planet there’s there’s no reason to assume that so anyways thank you very much for agreeing to talk to me today and for talking to me and also for your books which which they’re uplifting in the proper manner you can read them and you can think good for us man we’re we’re incrementally making the proper sacrifices to lift everyone’s standard of living everywhere and more power to us and hopefully we’ll continue well look thank you very very much jordan it’s been an honor and a pleasure and something I’ve always wanted to do to meet you and have a conversation with you and let’s hope we can have a drink in the real world when the pandemic’s over yes god willing wouldn’t that be nice all right so I was speaking with Matt Ridley today the author of a variety of books we discussed today we discussed the origins of virtue which is a lovely description at least in part of the biological origins of morality and an optimistic book the rational optimist which contains an extended argument for why we could why reasonable people could sustain an optimistic and positive view of a future in which everyone has more of what they need and want and finally how innovation works which is Matt’s most recent book which is also a book I would really recommend during covid times because it’s an a sequence of narratives about the triumph of human ingenuity in small ways and in great ways and it’s a reminder I would say it’s a re it’s a reminder for gratitude there’s all these people who came before us worked diligently and with no shortage of self-sacrifice frequently to produce all these improvements that we now take for granted and it’s it it it’ll improve your view of humanity to read the book and since you’re a human being it’s quite good for you psychologically to improve your view of humanity so thank you all for listening thanks Matt it was a pleasure thanks jordan you

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