Reasons to be cheerful?


  • Social brain

I spent too much of the bank holiday weekend sweating away at my essay and lecture on 21st century enlightenment. I now have an almost complete draft, which I hope to post as a wiki tomorrow, giving some time for comments and revision before it goes to the printers next Monday. The core argument concerns new ways of thinking to help us deal with the changes and challenges the human race faces and to enable us to live better lives in a better world.

I was given food for thought last week when I chaired Matt Ridley, author of ‘The Rational Optimist’. In fact, Matt was the latest in a set of authors who have spoken here recently to emphasise the progress the human race has made in its short history of civilisation as well as their optimism that we can achieve a great deal more in the future. David Eagleman’s account of how the internet will help us avoid all the problems that have brought down previous civilisations is another powerful example of optimism. Bjorn Lomborg’s controversial critique of environmentalist orthodoxy is also based on his optimism about the resilience of the natural world and human ingenuity.

The new optimism has a number of components. The first is the receding from popular memory of the horrors of the mid-twentieth century. The issue of global terrorism and the clash between the West and radical Islam still casts a shadow, as does the recent economic crisis, but it has become more intellectually respectable to talk about the forward march of the human race.

Rational optimism also represents a backlash against green fundamentalism. Its advocates are not necessarily climate change deniers but they are more sceptical about the most gloomy hypotheses; they see climate change having upsides as well as down, and they are very confident we will find technological solutions. They tend to be particularly scornful of ideas like ‘peak oil’ which suggest civilisation will be brought down by the finite nature of natural resources. As Matt Ridley said, people used to think economic growth would be stopped by a shortage of whale oil, and ‘the stone age didn’t end because we ran out of stone’.

Optimists are also very excited about science and technology and particularly genetics and the internet. There is, they say, plenty of scope for another doubling of average living standards across the world, something which would effectively abolish extreme poverty and would give most people in the world the opportunity for a wonderful lifestyle.

All this leads the new optimists to tend to be sceptical of the need for governmental interference and enthusiastic about the capacity of human ingenuity and the hidden hand of the market. It is a turbo charged version of Francis Fukuyama’s end of history thesis. But although it is economically liberal, it is not easy to pigeon hole the new optimists on the right of the political spectrum. They are cosmopolitans, delighted by the way the world is changing. They care about reducing poverty, conflict and intolerance, but they think these goals are best achieved by letting people get on with what they are best at: inventing, trading, and acquiring.

If you want to read a powerful refutation of new optimism and of Ridley in particular,  read George Monbiot in this morning’s Guardian.  As Monbiot says, Ridley’s credibility as a free marketer is somewhat undermined by his former status as the Chair of Northern Rock when the bank collapsed.

It is the question of how we should live that most interests me. New optimists don’t say people can’t change, nor even that they shouldn’t change, but that they shouldn’t be changed: we don’t face a crisis that requires an abandonment of modern ways of thinking; we should be proud of our acquisitive natures and what they have achieved. Most of all, we should reject the idea that we need government to save us from ourselves.     

This fault line - between the new optimists and those who say we need a changed consciousness to meet new challenges and to escape the dead ends of consumerist individualism - isn’t reflected in British party politics. Conservatives, for example, tend to combine economic liberalism with environmental concern and a strong dose of social pessimism.

I am on the new consciousness end of things, but I have to admit the optimists I have heard recently are playing the catchiest tunes. This is a debate the RSA will be finding new ways to address in the coming months.

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