Maybe I’m Being Irrational. But This Terrible Oil Spill Has Ruined My Appetite at the Moment for Matt Ridley’s “Rational Optimism” Book

Let me share a few quick reasons why I’m not really a beach person.

Most visits to the beach quickly turn hot and sweaty. I’m more the 72-degree thermostat variety. Moreover, it is infernally difficult to leave the beach behind once you’ve been there; it adheres to your flesh and picnic utensils, invades your sandals, sticks to your clothes and goes home with you, defying all efforts to be rid of it. Besides that, it moves. You can hear thousands of sand grains displacing each other with every step you take. I keep asking myself, “Was that me or an earthquake?”

Still, because I’m a grandfather, my visits to the beach are not that infrequent. Earlier this week, there I was again, half-way up to my ankle bones in Florida’s incomparable bleached-white seaside sands.

However, my mind was restive. Rather than undulating waves and freshly soaked sands, I kept thinking of BP’s runaway oil well out there, down there, not far over the horizon. The thought that oil could soon be washing up on this very beach was impossible to ignore.

Hubris in the Air?
As I walked along the extraordinarily beautiful beaches of Siesta Key, Florida, it wasn’t BP’s hugely flawed CEO Tony Hayward who came to mind. You’ll probably remember Hayward’s self-pitying plaint the day he got word that the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig had caught fire in the Gulf of Mexico: “What did we do to deserve this?” The Brit on my mind was one Matt Ridley, whose controversial new book,The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, is just out.

Because the Gulf oil spill has not only shattered Hayward’s credibility. It has also put a sizable dent in Ridley’s. Odd thing is that, perhaps to this very moment, neither of these gentlemen seem to have realized it very much. Hayward’s repetitive gaffs have made him a video poster boy for penthouse corporate hubris. And Ridley? When you go to his website, you get a Hayward-like, tone-deaf discussion mostly about “how rare such terrible oil spills have now become.”

I first became aware of Ridley’s gift as a popular science writer around the turn of the millennium when I read, cover to cover, his superb bestselling work, Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters. In that book, he wasn’t all that far from his training as a naturalist, one with a Ph.D. in zoology from Oxford. In The Rational Optimist, as I’ll elaborate on a little bit more in a moment, he probably isn’t that far from home either. But Ridley’s particular stomping grounds this time don’t inspire the confidence in his analysis of “how progress evolves” that we had in his genome book about how biological evolution works.

Campaigning Against Gloom and Doom
Still and all, I’m more than a little interested in Ridley’s inquiry and open to the possibility that he might turn out to be right. His view, stated in a few words, is that humanity is on a roll and has been for, oh, 100,000 years. Decade by decade, century by century, things have been getting better, especially of late. He really thinks that things are going to keep getting better and better and is vexed that “eco-catastrophists” like those warning of global warming are such predictable spoilsports. (He feels that he was first misled as a young thinker by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and her anxiety about DDT and other chemicals.)

If you are interested in Ridley’s pet theory explaining why the human species has been so persistently (despite setbacks) blessed, you’ll find it summarized in numerous recent articles in the British and American press (like this one). Ridley is, in a way, still rooting around in his genetics ideas. Simply put, he suggests that ideas need sex, too. And they get it when trade picks up. The more people can interact with each other and trade their innovations, the more their ideas can have sex. And, ergo facto, that increases the rate of cultural and economic progress.

As Ridley told a reporter for The Guardian: “And if 6.7 billion people continue to keep specialising and exchanging and innovating, there’s no reason at all why we can’t overcome whatever problems face us—population explosions, food shortages, disease, poverty, terrorism, climate change, you name it. In fact I think it’s quite probable that in 100 years’ time both we and the planet will be better off than we are now.”

Another “Jolly Good Idea” Idea?
The rah-rah flavor of Ridley’s prose and pronouncements is sure to appeal to that slice of book-reading Americans and their pundits who love to pummel anyone who might suggest that “market fundamentalism” needs checks and balances and who counsel a strong ratio of realism and rationalism to optimism. (New York Times science section columnist John Tierney praised Ridley’s book in a column headlined, “Doomsayers Beware, a Bright Future Beckons.”)

Please don’t interpret what I’m about to say as a sign in the slightest that Anglophobia suddenly has a chokehold on your humble scribe. There are sound, lasting reasons why I watch the BBC World News nearly every night, experience something akin to pain if I miss the latest British literary melodrama on Masterpiece Theater, prefer MI5 over any of the CSI shows and count Inspector Lynley as my all-time favorite fictional gumshoe. But the more I look at the Ridley phenomenon the more I suspect that there is something peculiarly British in all this: that this is a raging instance of British ideas having wild sex with British ideas, some of them a bit hoary. (Nobody ever quite milked “trade” like the British Empire in its heyday milked trade!)

We now know that Matt Ridley turned to writing popular science books because he needed something to do after his wife, neuroscientist Anya Hurlbert, got a job at Newcastle University. He was the third member of the Ridley family to sit on the board of the infamous Northern Rock bank. He was non-executive chairman of the bank in 2007 when it experienced Britain’s first bank run in 150 years and ended up costing taxpayers twenty-plus billion dollars. Ridley’s family is British upper crust and two centuries’ wealthy. He was born on third base and had no need to hit a triple. So we shouldn’t be surprised to find a patrician “We Shall Fight Them on the Beaches” quality in his jolly-good-idea, sunny-lip-upward expectations in The Rational Optimist.

As I walked on the beaches of Florida the other night, I made a decision. I’m not going to read Matt Ridley’s latest book. And it really isn’t Ridley’s fault. I even think I probably have a lot of “rational optimist” views myself. (For instance, few articles have ever gladdened my heart quite like Dr. Steven Pinker’s notable New Republic analysis of declining violence in the world.) But I think the screw-ups (from America’s political and regulatory myopia) and the screw-ups (hello, again, Mr. Hayward) who have put at risk much of Gulf of Mexico and all who depend on the habitability of her waters leave me with little interest in hearing arguments that it only happens once every ______ years. So, coitus interruptus, Dr. Ridley. S*** happens.

If I hear that you are donating your book earnings to help the shrimpers of south Louisiana recover or have been spotted helping clean oil off dying pelicans and damaged sea turtles, maybe I’ll change my mind.

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