Wednesday, October 06, 2021

Book Review:


The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves 

by Matt Ridley


According to Wikipedia, Matthew White Ridley is the fifth Viscount Ridley. Born in 1958, he studied at Eton and earned a Doctorate in history at Oxford. A British journalist and businessman, he is best known for his writings on science, the environment, and economics. Apart from the book I am reviewing today, his science books include The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature (1994), Genome (1999), and The Evolution of Everything: How Ideas Emerge (2015).

I must have found my hardbound copy of The Rational Optimist in a used bookstore. Although only a decade old, it is in rough shape, and sat unread on my bookshelves until the club put the topic of economics onto our program. That’s when I scanned through the book, read the prologue (titled “When ideas have sex,”) and started to read. Once I began, I had a lot of trouble putting this book down – partly because it involves such a splendid combination of economics and history, which are both among my keen interests.

A good place to start in this review would be to cite part of a paragraph from that prologue. To “say that life is the same as it was 32,000 years ago would be absurd.  In that time my species has multiplied by 100,000 percent, from perhaps three million to nearly seven billion people.  It has given itself comforts and luxuries to a level that no other species can even imagine.  It has colonised every habitable corner of the planet and explored almost every uninhabitable one. it has altered the appearance, the genetics and the chemistry of the world and pinched perhaps 23% of the productivity of all land plants for its own purposes. It has surrounded itself with peculiar, non-random arrangements of atoms called technologies, which it invents, reinvents, and discards almost continuously. This is not true for other creatures, not even brainy ones like chimpanzees, bottlenose dolphins, parrots and octopi. They may occasionally use tools, they may occasionally shift their ecological niche, but they do not raise their standard of living, or experience economic growth. They do not encounter poverty either. They do not progress from one mode of living to another and ash nor do they dip Lord doing so. They do not experience agricultural, urban, commercial, industrial and information revolutions, let alone Renaissance is, Reformations, Depressions, Demographic Transitions, Civil Wars, Cold Wars, Culture Wars and Credit Crunches….”

Our ancestors, Homo erectus ape-men, were avid tool users. We know this because archaeologists and others have found their stone axes in digs throughout Africa and Eurasia. But they were not innovators. Once they started making axes, they stuck to the same design for more than a million years. If you've seen one, you've seen them all. It never seemed to occur to these folks that you could make a better hand axe.  In Ridley’s words, “their descendants would continue to make it for hundreds of thousands more years.  That’s the same technology for more than a thousand millennia, ten thousand centuries, three thousand generations – an almost unimaginable length of time.”

Then we modern humans (homo sapiens) arrived.  During the last 100,000 years we have not only devised fishhooks and farming, but steam engines, cellophane and one-click buying. What made us so different? Why did we come so far so quickly when our hominid predecessors were stuck in a rut for thousands of generations? Ridley’s answer is trade. As he sees it, we owe the forward march of humankind to the benefits of barter. Homo erectus had a large brain and probably a rudimentary language, but never saw the point of making things they could swap. Once we cottoned on to this trick, there was no stopping us. If a person good at making fishhooks knows people who are good at fishing, he should make the fishhooks while the others do the fishing. Each party to such a transaction suddenly has free time for further innovation.  And the beat goes on.  

Ridley makes a strong case for this thesis. He takes us from the hunter-gatherers who first ventured out of Africa to the moguls of Silicon Valley, and shows how humanity has built innovation on innovation in its never-ending search for new gizmos that people will want to buy. From this perspective, specialisation is the essence of humanity, and self-sufficiency a misguided objective. If you really had to make everything yourself, you would be back in the stone age, scrabbling around with hand axes. As Ridley details ad nauseum, it’s far better to work at one thing and let the market supply the rest. 

As the book winds down, Ridley takes aim at the gloom-mongers who have always been with us, and have always been wrong. I, for one, have read many books focused on the notion that our civilization was on its way to hell in a handbasket. I’ve read numerous books predicting increasing poverty, pollution, and pestilence. Yet here we are with worldwide life expectancy up by more than a third in the past 50 years, cleaner air and rivers than we have enjoyed for centuries, and birth rates falling dramatically everywhere. In the 1950s, Ridley says, an amazed post-war world proclaimed that “we have never had it so good.” Today, those standards of living would count below the poverty line.  And so it goes throughout this charming, optimistic romp through economic history.


Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Review of Bill Gates Book on Climate Change


How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need

By Bill Gates; 2021

Published just this year, Bill Gates' first solo book couldn’t be more opportune. It emerged during the year that is seeing the costliest weather disasters in history: record global temperatures that have led to horrific forest fires in many parts of the globe, rather strangely partnered with record floods in others. I have been keen on climate change issues since the early 1970s. Also of interest to me is the person of Bill Gates (co-founder of Microsoft Corporation, with the late Paul Allen). Early investors in MS quickly became quite wealthy. For their part, Gates and his wife set up The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has done many good works throughout the world. Among the super-rich, Gates has had an extraordinary impact on the world.

In the introduction to the book, he sums up his thesis neatly. “There are two numbers you need to know about climate change,” he says. “The first is 51 billion. The other is zero.”

Fifty-one billion is how many tons of greenhouse gases the world typically adds to the atmosphere every year. Although the figure may go up or down a bit from year, it’s generally increasing. This is where we are today.

Zero is what we need to aim for. To stop the warming and avoid the worst effects of climate change – and these effects will be very bad – humans need to stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

This sounds difficult, because it will be. The world has never done anything quite this big. Every country will need to change its ways. Virtually every activity in modern life – growing things, making things, getting around from place to place – involves releasing greenhouse gases, and as time goes on, more people will be living this modern lifestyle. That’s good, because it means their lives are getting better. Yet if nothing else changes, the world will keep producing greenhouse gases, climate change will keep getting worse, and the impact on human will in all likelihood be catastrophic.

But “if nothing else changes” is a big If. I believe that things can change. We already have some of the tools we need, and as for those we don’t yet have, everything I’ve learned about climate and technology makes me optimistic that we can invent them, deploy them, and, if we act fast enough, avoid a climate catastrophe.

This book is about what it will take and why I think we can do it.

The global push for a better planet has been remarkable. While talk about climate change has been around since the mid-1800s, it’s only in recent years that people of all ages and socioeconomic levels have contributed their voices to the campaign for a more secure future. Remember Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish activist who has gained prominence for her work to halt climate change and global warming? She rose to fame for organizing the world's first school strike for climate outside Sweden's parliament in August 2018, and gave a speech at the 2019 United Nations Climate Action Summit, berating world leaders for not taking more actions against climate change. Today, the knowledge of the climate crisis is more widespread than ever, together with the understanding that if greenhouse gas emissions keep rising — or even if the numbers remain the same year-on-year – our world will become a flooded inferno faster than we think. And while many climate authors have properly situated this horror as something to run away from, Gates shines a ray of light on something to run toward. His message: we really can get to zero carbon emissions, and for our own good, we must do so within the next 30 years.

From his founding of Microsoft to the work of the Bill and Melinda Foundation’s work in tackling such horrid diseases as polio and malaria, Gates has invested much of his life in the mission to change lives. Much of his work exists within the realm of technology: a firm believer in the power of the applied sciences — and perhaps in his insufficient understanding of the social sciences, he has made such statements as “Show me a problem and I’d look for a technology to fix it” at the same UN Climate Action Summit that Thunberg spoke to. This well-written book gracefully crosses the boundary between scholarly research and creative nonfiction, and Gates makes a strong case for improvements humanity needs. Rather modestly, he says he has worked within the sphere of environmental sustainability for almost two decades, studying, travelling, and consulting with experts in the fields of biology, physics, chemistry, and engineering, among others. In this book, he delivers excellent ideas on the scale of the climate problem, using all the tools in his arsenal — percentages, indexes and charts, for example.

“We already have two of the three things you need to accomplish any major undertaking,” Gates says. “First, we have ambition, thanks to the passion of a growing global movement led by young people who are deeply concerned about climate change. Second, we have big goals for solving the problem as more national and local leaders around the world commit to doing their part. Now we need the third component: a concrete plan to achieve our goals.” On this point, he writes, “I don’t have a solution to the politics of climate change,” and makes no effort in the rest of the book to find one.

As you have probably gathered, I very much enjoyed this book, and there’s a lot more I could say about it. But I will end on his discussion of bovine flatulence – that is, the propensity of herds of cattle to emit methane. After a paragraph in which he describes a “healthy debate” he and Melinda had when discussing the use of the word “fart” in their foundation newsletter, he says “she got me down to one. As the sole author of this book, I have more leeway, and I intend to use it.” He then describes the four parts of a cow’s digestive system, and notes that “in a process called enteric fermentation, bacteria inside the cow’s stomach breakdown the cellulose in the plants, fermenting it and producing methane as a result. The cow belches away most of the methane, although a little comes out the other end as flatulence…. Around the world, there are roughly a billion cattle raised for beef and dairy. The methane they burp and fart out every year as the same warming effect as 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide, accounting for about 4% of all global emissions.”

I learned a lot from this book, and recommend it highly.