Monday, May 23, 2011
In Defence of Gloomy Columnists
The other day, I bumped into a friend from my days at The Economist. Why are your columns so depressing, he asked me? I began to deny the charge until it was pointed out that I had recently published a book with the doom-laden title Zero-Sum Future.
So instead of denial, I went for explanation. The western world is in serious economic and political trouble, I argued. Europe is ensnared in a debt crisis that threatens the future of its single currency, and the social stability of the European Union. The US cannot control its budget deficit and must contend with infantile politics and a palpable sense of national decline.
It is true that there are still plenty of reasons for optimism in the rising powers of Asia, in particular China and India. But the flow of political and economic power from west to east is raising international tensions. The relationship between the US and China is becoming more openly adversarial. As a result, it is becoming harder to find co-operative solutions to the big international problems – from climate change to failed states and global economic imbalances.
But the more I laid out my case, the more uneasy I felt. Perhaps all my short-term gloom is missing the point. Maybe the really big trends still point inexorably upwards – towards a more prosperous and peaceful future for humanity?
That is the argument made by Matt Ridley, another former Economist colleague, who is much truer to that magazine’s optimistic creed. Mr Ridley is the author of a fine, recent book called The Rational Optimist. For him, history is characterised by technological transformation, with better communications and more trade, leading to ever higher living standards and longer and more fulfilling lives for an ever-expanding global population. Despite intermittent wars and famines, the long-term trend is for a better life for almost everybody. The average Mexican now lives longer than the average Briton did in 1955.
This relentless improvement is largely down to technological change, driven by human ingenuity and market economics. As Mr Ridley writes, even in the worst recessions: “Somebody, somewhere, is still tweaking a piece of software, testing a new material, or transferring a gene that will make your and my life easier in the future.”
Mr Ridley is sceptical of claims that climate change will wreak disaster upon the world, partly because, as he illustrates, technological advances have regularly made fools of pessimists throughout the ages. Thomas Malthus, an 18th century economist, famously predicted famine because he believed that there would not be enough food to sustain a growing population. He failed to anticipate how the agricultural revolution would increase food production. Ridley says that Malthus’ heirs keep making the same mistake: “It is a common trick to forecast the future on the assumption of no technological change and find it dire.”
Reading Matt Ridley, it struck me that even political writers who are interested in technology have often been gloomy. George Orwell was hardly a ray of sunshine. In his book 1984 he foresaw a world in which modern technology would be used to enslave individuals – “Big Brother is watching you”. In 2011, however, innovations like mobile phones and the internet are empowering individuals and threatening dictators – just as the techno-optimists would have predicted.
A belief in the power of technology to transform the world for the better is simultaneously an empirical observation about the past and an act of faith about the future. The optimists assume that technology will rescue us from today’s problems, just as it has in the past, even if they cannot quite say how.
Bill Gates is perhaps the purest technological optimist I have met. He is simultaneously a man who is deeply aware of the complexity of the scientific challenges the world faces on issues such as food supply or climate – and convinced that they will, in time, be solved.
I was once told a story about Mr Gates that may be apocryphal, but still seemed to capture the man’s outlook. The founder of Microsoft was singing the praises of the advances for mankind that had been made over the course of the 20th century. “But what about the second world war?” somebody objected. Mr Gates, it is said, barely paused. “Sure there were some blips,” he replied.
To the real techno-optimists, world wars are mere blips. Mr Ridley writes that “in the half-century between 1875 and 1925, while European living standards shot up to unimaginable levels … intellectuals were obsessed with imminent decline, degeneration and disaster.” He cites many amusing examples that make these pessimists seem absurd. But if one remembers that 1875-1925 were also the years of the first world war and the prelude to the Great Depression, then one might conclude that those silly old intellectuals were on to something.
And that is, I think, my response to the charge of being what The Economist would doubtless call a “gloom-monger” or, even worse, a “doomsayer”. It all depends on what timeframe you are looking at – and whether you are worrying about politics or enthusing about technology. In the long run, I think that the techno-optimists like Matt Ridley and Bill Gates will be vindicated. The world will get richer, more peaceful and more prosperous. It is just that I think there may be a few serious “blips” along the way.