The Rational Optimist examines the major problems human beings have faced since the dawn of civilization, and discusses how innovative solutions were developed by means of exchange and specialization. This book presents many reasons to be optimistic about today’s or tomorrow’s challenges based on science, economics, and historical examples.
You may be wondering if you should read the book. This book review will tell you what important lessons you can learn from this book so you can decide if it is worth your time.
At the end of this book review, I’ll also tell you the best way to get rich by reading and writing.
Without further ado, let’s get started.
Lesson 1: We have advanced as a species by capturing and using energy more efficiently
We have learned to use energy more efficiently as civilization has progressed.
It began with cooking food and gaining more calories from it, and it continued when we began using domesticated crops and capturing more sunlight. We were able to increase productivity as soon as the drought animals began to increase productivity, the wind powered our sailboats, and the streams powered our waterwheels. We prosper whenever we can efficiently use stored energy.
The discovery of fossil fuels like coal resulted in the greatest increase in energy efficiency. In the late 1900s, these fuels accounted for 85% of global energy consumption. Because fossil fuels were so efficient, slavery and animal labor became unprofitable. The use of fossil fuels increased everyone’s income and standard of living.
Energy sources such as coal have drawbacks. They emit greenhouse gases as well as radioactivity and mercury. However, the advantages are astounding. To match coal’s energy output in the 1870s, 850 million laborers would have been required, which would have required 20 times the wheat harvest to feed the nation.
Energy efficiency is still a driving force today. At the moment, our combined-cycle turbines are 60% more efficient than the first steam engines, which converted only 1% of their heat energy into useful work. Every unit of fossil fuel generates an increasing amount of work for societies.
Lesson 2: By increasing trade and innovation, poorer countries will become wealthier while limiting the effects of global warming
The majority of people in our time are concerned about the impending disaster of climate change. Experts, politicians, and environmentalists are constantly warning us that the planet is in danger. Even if the dire predictions come true, it is possible to remain optimistic.
Because the world is becoming wealthier, the warnings are necessary. Global temperatures are rising primarily as a result of increased use of fossil fuels in developing countries. As these countries developed, they increased prosperity in the developing world by joining the global economy.
Even if climate change becomes a reality, a richer world would be better protected. As developing countries develop, so do their citizens’ living standards and wealth. People in wealthy countries are more likely to spend money on protection, such as insurance, and weather has little impact on their mortality rate.
A Category 5 hurricane struck relatively wealthy Yucatan in 2005, killing no one; however, a similar storm struck Burma the following year, killing over 200,000 people.
The outlook is even more optimistic: perhaps we can completely avoid climate change. Even if environmentalists try to reduce carbon emissions through coercion, natural reductions occur. To reduce carbon emissions, technologies are constantly being improved.
As humans transitioned from wood to coal, oil, and gas for energy, the carbon-to-hydrogen atom ratio decreased dramatically. By 1935, only 50% of all energy-producing combustion was based on carbon atoms. Because of innovation, most carbon atoms will have been removed from the energy system by 2070.
Lesson 3: Humanity’s collective knowledge has been vastly expanded by the sharing of global ideas via the internet
Untold numbers of strangers share photographs, advice, recipes, donations, and even medical records online 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with no promises of receiving “real” money in return. The simple act of sharing benefits others and contributes to a vast knowledge network in significant ways.
Despite the fact that we all live separate lives in different parts of the world, the Internet has transformed the Internet into a global city in which almost everyone on the planet can freely share knowledge. Because the Internet is focused on one thing: exchange, a massive cultural revolution is taking place.
It has accelerated the spread of ideas by allowing people from all socioeconomic backgrounds and geographical locations to teach, learn, entertain, buy, and sell. Internet users now have access to previously inaccessible goods, services, and concepts.
Direct interaction with people all over the world enriches lives on a never-before-seen scale.
The Internet, like early trading societies, allows for the morphing, changing, and cross-pollination of products, services, and ideas. As a species, this is especially advantageous because it allows for the dissemination of more useful knowledge when societies freely exchange and comprehend collective knowledge.
Because of the Internet, we are storing more knowledge in the collective brain of humanity than ever before.
Lesson 4: Sharing ideas increases living standards, making the 21st century an exciting time to live
To be optimistic about the future, consider the incredible achievements of the past. Over the course of human history, we have made steady progress in terms of ideas, knowledge, and living standards. Life is constantly getting better.
This is possible because ideas are infinite. They grow and thrive by exchanging ideas. As a result of the accumulation of collective knowledge since the 1800s, we have increased our living standards. As more people learn about a bicycle, for example, they will discover new ways to use it and develop new technology based on it.
Our improved ability to share ideas raises the bar for all of humanity.
We often do not realize how good our ideas are until they are shared with others. When the laser was invented in the 1950s, it was dismissed as a “invention looking for a job,” but as people grasped its concept, they built on it and discovered new applications for it.
Lasers are now used to play music, print documents, send messages, and assist surgeons. With each new piece of information we gain, we move forward.
Predicting the future for pessimists means assuming no technological advancement – and, indeed, the situation would be dire if civilization did not advance. However, if everyone continues to exchange and share, our species will advance and people’s standard of living will rise in the long run. We can look forward to a fantastic twenty-first century.
About the Author
Matt Ridley is a British scientist, journalist, and businessman. He has six books to his credit, including The Rational Optimist, which won the Hayek Prize in 2011. His columns appear on a regular basis in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.
Buy The Book: The Rational Optimist
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