On Being a Rational Optimist

By August 22, 2012Books, Climate Change, Society

I have been an optimist all along, I think, and a rational one since I began to study politics, history and society in a serious way. I had not, however, used the term ‘rational optimist’ to describe myself — usually just ‘optimist’, since in the university world we are all almost by definition rational (!), though some are pessimistic about humanity and its future.

A few years ago a journalist called Matt Ridley wrote book called The Rational Optimist, and I then knew what I really was. It is a yet another good book waiting for me to open its pages (my bucket list of books that ought to be read is very large), but in the meantime he has written a long article that I have read: ‘Apocalypse Not’, which you can read online in Wired. In it he sets out the cries of doom that I have witnessed all my adult life, and advises us firmly to take scant notice of them. He starts with the religious ones, prophesying the end of the world on a given date (there is one offered for 22 December this year).

And what a list they make. He groups the others in four categories, his Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. See how many you can remember or at least recognise.


DDT (Rachel Carson in Silent Spring, 1962)

Air pollution (1970s)

Acid rain (1980s)

The ozone layer (chlorofluorocarbons) (1990s)


Swine flu


Mad cow disease

SARS (a virus from civet cats)

Bird flu

Swine flu again (this time Mexican)


The population bomb (Ehrlich, 1966)

Mass starvation (Malthus again)


Peak oil

Running out of needed metals

I remember all of them, and I could add, probably under People, the proposed nuclear holocaust, which would kill us all and make the world uninhabitable. There are three points to make about this list. First, there were those who saw in these threats the end to civilisation as we know it, and the mass media picked up these doomsayers and gave them plenty of space and airtime. Second, in each case there was something to the threat, but either we dealt with it, or it proved not to be nearly as serious as had been feared. Third, they keep coming: there is rarely a time when we don’t have such a scare in front of us.

What he doesn’t say about this list is how many of the scares have their origin in science or, more generally, in prognostications of the supposedly well informed. I am not aware of examples earlier than the 1950s other than Malthus, who excelled at mathematics in Cambridge, and wrote that population would always increase faster than the means of subsistence. He has his followers today. But science, the vital weapon in the hands of the Allies in the second world war, has been the basis of our material success since, and is also the basis of our proposed dooms. That is worth thinking about, and I’ll have a go at another time.

What Ridley does say is that if you examine the recent scares hard, they prove to be pretty dodgy: ‘ the promised Armageddons—the thresholds that cannot be uncrossed, the tipping points that cannot be untipped, the existential threats to Life as We Know It—have consistently failed to materialize’. Acid rain was  more of an environmental nuisance than a catastrophe; the hole in the ozone layer stopped growing before the ban on CFCs took effect, and it is still there; HIV-AIDS never became a broad-based epidemic in the developed world and is retreating in Africa; mad cow disease killed 176 people in the UK not the hundreds of thousands of victims predicted; and so on.

And the neo-Malthusians don’t consider what has happened about population. Population growth rates have declined, while food production has risen dramatically — and areas of former agricultural land have been returned to forest. Peak Oil? People have been claiming that we have passed the peak for a long time, and it may  be that much of the easily recoverable oil has been found. But there is plenty more than can be recovered at a price, while we could, if we had to, convert our vehicles to run on gas, of which there is a large abundance.

Why we fall for these prophecies of catastrophe is another story, and I’ll go there soon too, but I’ll finish with Ridley on climate change, which he sees as a case where the doom-sayers triumph over the moderates — those (like me) who accept that burning fossil fuels will warm the atmosphere, but see that as slow and small in comparison to natural variability, see the effects as including important gains for humanity (like improved agricultural productivity and less severe winters), and see adaptation rather than mitigation as the way to go.

I think there are reasons for optimism in viewing how humanity has grown and prospered since the last war. We can take action across whole societies. Britain’s clear air act in 1964 transformed the face of urban Britain over the next few decades: black was replaced by the original colour of the stone and brick. We are a clever species that can find technological solutions to real problems, and I am optimistic that we will continue to do so.



Join the discussion 5 Comments

  • pjb253 says:

    Lot of common threads between Hayek’s Fatal Conceit and The Rational Optimist.
    Hope this comment doesn’t put off the Keynesians. Perhaps they can find common cause also.

  • Chill says:

    It was rational optimism on the part of Neville Chamberlain that allowed Hitler to grow from a minor nuisance of no real consequence to the world’s most murderous warmonger. It was rational optimism that led people to destroy the mangroves and reefs that would’ve offered some measure of protection during the Asian Tsunami. It was rational optimism that convinced the Japanese that it was a good idea to place a nuclear reactor in an earth quake and tsunami prone location.

    It was rational pessimism that saw people in the west modify their sexual behaviour to stave off the threat of AIDS. It was rational pessimism that gave rise to profound changes in the way we use agricultural chemicals subsequent to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. And so on and so forth.

    You have the story arse about tit, as grandfather would say.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      I don’t agree at all. Your examples are odd ones. One defence of Chamberlain is that he bought time. Reefs and mangroves would have been no defence against the (which?) tsunami, which was higher by far. The location of the Fukushima reactor may have been a bad idea, but did not seem so at the time of its establishment. All of Japan is subject to earthquakes, and it seems that the reactor building survived the quake. The tsunami was higher than its predecessor. Humans modified their behaviour re HIV-AIDS in engaging in ‘safe sex’, but the virus did not become epidemic anyway.

      Perhaps you miss the point, or I did not make it well enough. The rational optimist, I think, sees the glass half full, and has confidence in our capacity to overcome problems in time. So he/she does not go round crying ‘doom, doom’, but does what seems sensible at the time, and goes on learning from mistakes.

      • Don – I absolutely agree that the only useful attitude to have is a positive one. Clearly, however, this attitude has been and is held by the great many people who have taken positive steps to address the issues that you raise above. While there will be a body of people who do nothing else than cry ‘doom, doom’ there will be many (most, I would say) others who look for solutions.

        I was reminded of this blog entry of yours recently while reading an article in The Conversation on changes to ozone levels over time, and how these changes are ‘broadly consistent with the trend in ozone depleting substances’ (ref.18 Sept 2012, Measuring the missing molecules: a history of overseeing ozone). So, here was a problem (depleting ozone) and rather than just crying ‘doom, doom’ people did something about it.

        The concerns raised about the Y2K bugs are another example. After huge problems did not eventuate there was much talk about the doomsaying that had gone on about Y2K, yet a tremendous amount of effort had been put into debugging code precisely to ensure that the predicted problems would not occur.

        So, I agree, those who sit back and idly doomsay are unhelpful – but most of the problems you raise above have had a considerable amount of useful effort directed towards their remediation.

        • donaitkin says:

          I am away from base at the moment, so this is a quick and temporary response. I am not sure that the ozone hole ever was a real problem. There seem to be conflicting accounts. it seems that the hole is alive and well, and waxes and wanes over time. More later.

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