Monday, August 9, 2010

John Gray Reviews Matt Ridley’s Rational Optimist

John Gray puts his finger on many of the misgivings I had about Ridley's book, The Rational Optimist (upon which I commented earlier). Gray's review in the New Statesman makes an interesting point about distinguishing evolution, progress, and actual human history. In addition, Gray points out that Ridley was chairman of Northern Rock, a major failed British bank. One would think that he would not be such a Pollyanna after that experience. Ridley seems to be indifferent to the risks of climate change, while not exactly becoming a climate skeptic. "We'll get used to it" seems to be his answer. I fear Mother Nature, and I don't suggest that we're wise to poke her unnecessarily. While I recommend Ridley's book because he does have an interesting and well-argued perspective, in the end, I come down much closer to Gray's analysis.


Frank S. Robinson said...

It is difficult to know where to begin in critiquing the extreme foolishness of Gray’s review. For example, it is downright idiotic to imply that economic growth won't help poor countries cope with climate change. This disdain for economic growth is common among supercilious intellectuals who live cushy lives of affluence as a result of economic growth, and bemoan the plight of the poor while opposing everything that would actually help them become not-poor.
John Gray is quite simply in denial about the big picture: 1) life has gotten hugely better for the average human over the past few centuries; 2) there are powerful reasons for that, which are continuing to operate; and 3) more freedom is better than less, not only because it is morally preferable, but also because it makes people better off, with more rewarding lives. 
These are Ridley's basic messages. And also mine, in my own book: THE CASE FOR RATIONAL OPTIMISM (Transaction Books, Rutgers University, 2009), which makes quite similar points and arguments, but develops the case for optimism over a rather broader range of subject areas. See

Stephen N. Greenleaf, Esq. said...

Mr. Robinson,
Thank you for your comment. I certainly don't disagree that human life has improved immensely for mass of humanity over the last two hundred years. I don't think Gray argues to the contrary. Rather, my concern, and what I take to be Gray's concern, is that such progress is contingent and not at all guarantied. While many a doomsayer has been proven wrong, so has many an optimist.

I've read the information on Amazon about your book, as well as information on your web site. I don't think that we'd disagree about a great deal, although since were both lawyers . . . . I suppose I'd describe myself as the rational skeptic, believing that things can go well or poorly, in large measure according to the wisdom of the choices we make and the appreciation that our wisdom is limited.
I look forward to reading your book.