In 2003 the psychologist Gregg Easterbrook published a book called The Progress Paradox: How life gets better while people feel worse. Easterbrook writes a compelling account of how life today, viewed from the past, seems marvellous. He points out how comfortable our lives are in comparison to previous generations who wore heavy, itchy clothes, were frequently cold and had to suffer huge discomfort to travel any distance. As Easterbrook also argues even the poor today live much better lives than their counterparts a few generations ago.
Easterbrook is extremely good at helping us explain why, despite these facts, our psychological lives are not improving at the same pace. He helps us understand the hedonic treadmill (adapting to good things and so not benefiting from them long term), the social treadmill (being driven by status) and the negativity bias – the way that fear and what’s wrong often trumps the positive.
The latest offering on how we seem blinded to what’s great about contemporary human society is a book called The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley. Ridley has a Ph.D in Zoology, has been a journalist for years, and is an accomplished writer and author of various popular science books.
I am in Canada on holiday just now and don’t know how easily I’ll get the book which has just been published in the UK. However, I’m already aware of the controversy it’s causing. Ridley is a writer who likes a big idea. In The Red Queen, a book which greatly impressed me when I read it, he shows, amongst many other things, how sexual selection and the drive to procreate has influenced human civilisation but is repeatedly ignored by social scientists. In the Rational Optimist the big idea is that the division of labour, and specialisation, has encouraged creativity and enterprise and created a world of rising prosperity.
As far as I can see there are two particularly contentious aspects of Ridley’s new book. The first is that he is passionately in favour of free markets and against government intervention which he believes stifles creativity and ingenuity. However, Ridley was Chairman of Northern Rock the British bank which got into so much trouble that it was not only bailed out by British taxpayers but effectively nationalised. As some critics are pointing out more Government intervention – in the shape of regulation of the financial sector – would have been appropriate and perhaps the only thing that might have averted the financial calamities wreaked on the economy by the banks. What’s more, if the Government hadn’t bailed it out, nationalising its losses, countless individuals would have seen their savings disappear in a puff of smoke. There’s no getting away from the fact that the bank, which Mr Ridley chaired, is not a good example of the benefits of the free market.
The second contentious point is that Ridley’s case for optimism – how life is just getting better and better as a result of human creativity, growth and ingenuity – leads him to be in effect a climate change denier. I am in no position to evaluate this evidence but it is worth noting that there are already countless blogs and articles pointing out serious flaws in Ridley’s arguments. Some critics are saying that there are countless factual errors in the book and that he presents evidence, selectively quoting from sources which prove his big idea.
Ridley wrote his book before the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. This unfolding environmental disaster – like the subprime lending which broke many banks – is in part fuelled by unbridled and irrational optimism: the belief that things will turn out all right and that we don’t have to bother taking seriously the potentially negative outcome of our actions. Yes, human beings are ingenious creatures but we are not masters of the universe and even capping an oil well can take a lot longer, and be a much greater challenge, than we had ever thought.
Carol Craig is the Chief Executive of the Centre for Confidence and Well-being and the author of three books including. She is the driving force of the Centre, constantly seeking new and innovative ideas to ensure that it maintains its leading role in the field of confidence and well-being. She blogs on www.centreforconfidence.co.uk/carolsblog.php