Is this Rational Optimism or Irrational Fantasy?

I predict that by the second half of this century nine billion human beings will be living mostly prosperous lives, eating chickens and pigs and cattle while coexisting with about as much nature as was there before we even came on the scene. We will be steadily decreasing the footprint of each human life by moving to cities, getting our food from intensive fields fertilized with nitrogen fixed from the air, our energy from natural gas or nuclear reactors, rather than horse hay or dammed rivers, and our buildings from steel and glass from beneath the ground, rather than forest timber.

From Matt Ridley (who else?), the Tony Robbins of futurism.


46 Responses to “Is this Rational Optimism or Irrational Fantasy?”

  1. Tom Gray says:

    Why do you think that any of these future scenarios are rational?

  2. Menth says:

    What did you think of his book Keith?

  3. Tom Fuller says:

    I liked the book very much, and I think this is not only rational optimism, it is highly conservative.

    Just hope I’m around to see it happen. 

  4. Hector M. says:

    most of the predictions in the cited paragraph are quite probable.
    Tom Gray, the future scenarios envisaged are not “rational”. They are simply the probable shape of the future, as Ridley sees it. One may disagree with some of the predictions, but that’s quite different. What is supposed to be “rational” is the method used to obtain the predictions, which Ridley holds are derived from a rational analysis of objective trends and possibilities, as opposed to mere speculations based on hope or other non-rational grounds. To learn more about it, it is advisable to read the Ridley book, The Rational Optimist.

  5. Dean says:

    It’s a silly article. Re AGW for example, he puts his faith in CO2 fertilization of crops. Optimism? Sure. Possible? Maybe. Rational? Not at all. It is faith-based optimism.
    The problem underlying a lot of these kinds of opinions is that they are based on mere decades of history, in some cases a century or more. A mere speck of time. It’s kind of like saying because I wasn’t hit by a car yesterday, I never will be.

  6. Tom Fuller says:

    Dean, you might do a bit more reading before you write things like that. Have you ever heard of Ray Kurzweil? He has a chart that goes back a bit more than a century that might be interesting to you. It’s called the countdown to singularity and you can find it here:

  7. rustneversleeps says:

    Ridley. Pick appealing pairs of dots. Pencil. Ruler. Draw lines. Q.E.D. Write book Sell book Awesome.

  8. Eric says:

    Assuming that this scenario is plausible, should we consider it merely inevitable and stop worrying about greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, agricultural runoff, mountain-top removal, and all the rest? Or is the expression of concern today for the negative consequences of these activities helping to advance us toward the scenario described in this post?

  9. rustneversleeps says:

    Ray Kurzweil! Wins the thread.

  10. Tom Fuller says:

    Rust never sleeps, it’s easy to be cynical at a distance. Is there some concrete point of criticism you’d like to offer about either Ridley or Kurzweil? 

    Or do you think that if you snigger long enough you can discredit them without addressing them? It’d be a cute trick if it worked. 

  11. Tom Fuller says:

    Oh, that’s right–that’s your tactic with everyone. Sorry.

  12. rustneversleeps says:

    Ridley’s data on global forests smell bogus to me. I recall posting on this.

    He also seems to essentially ignore marine fisheries, amphibians, birds, bees, anything that interrupts his narrative. Carbon? Fertilizer!

    Irrational tone-deaf destroyer of endagered spicies afaict

  13. Tom Fuller says:

    Have you looked into how he spends his leisure time, Rust Never Sleeps?

  14. Tom Fuller says:

    “Do not get me wrong. I am not denying that species extinctions are occurring. I passionately believe in saving threatened species from extinction and I have  twice worked on projects attempting to rescue endangered species–the cheer pheasant and the lesser florican. But the threats to species are all too prosaic: habitat loss, pollution, invasive competitors and hunting being the same four horsemen of the ecological apocalypse.”

    Rational Optimist, p. 339 

  15. Tom Fuller says:

    Smells bogus? Attend children, and watch science in action! It smells…bogus…

  16. Menth says:

    “The problem underlying a lot of these kinds of opinions is that they are based on mere decades of history, in some cases a century or more. A mere speck of time”

    Here’s an opinion based on a longer timescale: people have been predicting and fretting over the end of civilization since civilization began. Is it possible? Sure. Rational? Often not. Why do we do this? I’m sure there’s a compelling argument from evolutionary psychologists on why we do. Is it possible this tendency can adversely affect rational thinking? I think so.

    I agree it is foolhardy to take an overly cornucopian vision of the future with too much certainty the same way it is foolhardy to clutch to doomsday scenarios with too much certainty. Somewhere in between these cultural biases is objective reality which both claim to hold a monopoly on.

  17. Tom Fuller says:

    “On what principle is it, that when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?”

    Thomas Macaulay, Review of Southey’s Colloquies on Society (h/t to umm, The Rational Optimist, p. 11) 

  18. Jarmo says:

    Ridley does not mention the political dimension which is the prerequisite for his vision to come true.

    In politically stable countries, economies will grow, people will prosper, population growth will decline and urbanization increase. Ridleys vision is realized.

    In politically unstable countries (much of Africa), economies stagnate or decline, populations grow fast, environment suffers (in poor countries the main fuel is still wood -> deforestation.) Primitive and organic agriculture requires larger and larger areas to feed the people. 

  19. Tom Fuller says:

    Ridley isles optimistic about Africa than any other commentator I have read. What is it with you people? Is it a religious thing to condemn a writer without ever reading a word they have written?

  20. Reading coffee grind.

  21. lou says:

    The cornucopian vision might sustainably work for a world population of about 1 billion.  9 billion?  Shear fantasy.  The current mess with 6+ billion ain’t good enough so lets try 9 billion!  Insanity.  

  22. Jarmo says:


    These guys claim the planet can feed up to 13 billion people, even with climate change:

    “The context behind these figures is that globally, land and crop resources, together with technological progress, appear to be sufficient to feed a world population of about 9 billion people (13 billion in A2) in 2080″Ž “Ž(nevertheless with great uncertainty in some developing regions).””Ž

  23. Jarmo says:


    Tom, I take the comment was directed at me. I read the post in the link provided by KK and there was no mention of the impact of politics or Africa, just about climate change mitigation. My comment is based on that text.

    Also, I think you misunderstood my point. I think Ridley’s vision is more likely to happen than all the doomsayer stuff you see every day. It is a possible future.

    However, people can fuck it up. Witness Somalia, Zimbabwe, Congo etc., countries that are worse off now than in the 1960’s. Bad government, corruption, dictators, economic chaos.

    Without playing the blame game, I am of the opinion that unless these countries get good government, they’re doomed to stay the way they are…. or worse. The rest of the world will move on.

  24. Tom Fuller says:

    Jarmo, sorry if I misunderstood. Yes, obviously Africa needs better government. But Ridley says that and more. Don’t have time to leaf through the book but I think he went as far as saying this might well be the African Century.

    But with people like lou and rustneversleeps making arguments from the position of blissful ignorance, I got a bit jumpy. Sorry. 

  25. Jarmo says:


    Nation-building is perhaps the most demanding task in the world. But Africa has many things going for it and huge potential.

    These days, the Africans who earn serious money will quickly move it out of Africa:

  26. @ Tom Fuller.
    Ridley’s article doesn’t provide any references, and you never seem to read or acknowledge any that I provide you. But let’s just say I find it dubious when he says “in the second half of the (20th) century, … the total forest area on the planet went up slightly, not down.”
    But even if that were the case, it’s kind of moot since we are certainly now back to mowing them down at a fantastic rate. “Around 13 million hectares of forest were converted to other uses or lost through natural causes each year in the last decade.” And leading the charge? Well lookie-lookie! It’s Canada and the United States! Boreal forests are shrinking the fastest globally. Exactly the kind of countries that Ridley’s world view would say would be reforesting.
    As to marine fisheries decline, try this, from here.

  27. harrywr2 says:

    Jarmo Says:
    September 22nd, 2011 at 1:08 am
    In politically unstable countries (much of Africa), economies stagnate or decline, populations grow fast, environment suffers (in poor countries the main fuel is still wood -> deforestation.)
    It’s not just governance, female literacy has a big impact on fertility rates. India is relatively politically stable and still has a substantial dropout problem.

    The world literacy map and the world fertility rate map have lot’s of similarities. I.E. The lower the literacy rate the higher the fertility rate.
    A polic document examining dropout rates in developing countries.
    Whether or not all the countries with abysmal literacy rates and resulting high fertility rates will win the race of ‘educating before total resource exhaustion occurs’ is anyone’s guess. It is a race and serious people are working the problem.
    Progress/Lack of progress on female literacy in the developing world doesn’t get much news coverage as it’s for the most part not controversial.

  28. Dean says:

    I scanned Kurzweil’s article – hilarious. Or why exponential growth is in fact possible forever. It strikes me as the kind of intellectualizing that gives the concept a bad name. His singularity concept would make a fantastic sci-fi movie.
    But don’t get me wrong. I’m not a population alarmist. Fertility rates are decreasing globally, China is already below replacement fertility last I saw. One way or another, global population growth will probably end some time this century. Did folks see the recent article, SciAm I think, about fertility declines in Brazil? In the end, the issue is consumption, and how it works in the real world, as opposed to Kurzweil’s mind.

  29. Jarmo says:


    I am afraid that your source is not dependable, especially that map which shows forest losses as different  shades of red.

    For example, this source
    claims that the forest cover in North America did not change between 2000-2005. The red colour in Scandinavia is also misleading: forested area has in fact increased. When measured by biomass, the Scandinavian forests have more of it now than in any other time for at least 100 years.

    I suspect that the satellite imagery does not show reforestation for many years, up north it can take more than 10 years before a pine grows to be as tall as a man. 

  30. Tom Fuller says:

    Dean, Kurzweil does not think and does not write that exponential growth can last forever. Just that it describes the history of this planet to date. From his point of view it doesn’t have to. It just has to continue through the first part of this century to get to his desired end-state.

    It’s sort of the same argument you see regarding solar panels. Their price has declined at an exponential rate similar to Moore’s Law, although for very different reasons. Those who don’t like renewable energy for other reasons or are skeptical of solar’s potential point out that solar technology is dissimilar in many ways to computing technologies.

    They’re right. It’s irrelevant. Solar improvements don’t have to last for 50 more year. Four is enough, at which point it has reached grid parity without subsidy and we’re off to the races. 

  31. JustaSquirrelTryingtoFindhisNut(s) says:


    “at which point it has reached grid parity without subsidy and we’re off to the races. ”

    paging harry2wr-coalbot in 3…2….1


  32. Keith Kloor says:

    You know how annoying I find it when anonymous commenters go back and forth between their handles. 

    Stick with one name or go on moderation. 

  33. Marlowe Johnson says:

    no sweat…JASTTFHN was just a one-off tribute to the rats of rapa nui…

  34. Tom Scharf says:

    @6, Tom Fuller, thanks for that Kurzweil link.  I hadn’t seen this before and it was very, very interesting.  

  35. Neven says:

    White middle-aged males who were born rich, you gotta love ’em…

  36. lou says:

    TF: “But with people like lou and rustneversleeps making arguments from the position of blissful ignorance, I got a bit jumpy. Sorry.”

    Tom, ain’t so much my ignorance as my not seeing from your fundamentally different worldview.  And I don’t believe there is any bridging the chasm.   

  37. Tom Fuller says:

    Mm, Neven, I’m not sure if that’s an insult, ad hominem attack or just a random stringing together of syllables. I don’t qualify as part of the group you attack, except on the white part.

    I’m not sure why that group would come in for criticism, in any event.

    If you’re looking to insult me specifically, I would suggest something like ‘geezers in garages’ or something that would show you have actually had a thought in your life.

    You could also try variants of:

    Lily-livered Lukewarmers
    Authors Without Birders
    The Hockey Team’s self-appointed Inspector Javert

    But please deliver your next fusillade in limerick form.

    Lou, you may well be correct, but you should consider what it says about you as well as what you are inferring about me… 

  38. Menth says:

    It’s stupid to make crass generalizations about identifiable groups; only old white men do that.

  39. Marlowe Johnson says:

    or as Nigel Powers once said….

    “There’s only two things I hate in this world. People who are intolerant of other people’s cultures and the Dutch.”  

  40. Tom Fuller says:

    What was that Peter Falk movie where he spent the whole time hating on Albanians? 

  41. Matt B says:

    PJ O”Drunk, I mean PJ O’Rourke had a hilarious chapter on Albania in “Eat The Rich”………..

  42. Neven says:

    I don’t qualify as part of the group you attack
    I know, Tom. You are just one of the fanboys, who lap up anything their ultrarich brothers toss towards them.

  43. Tom Fuller says:

    Good, Neven. Racism, class-ism, ad hominem attacks on your counterpart in the discussion. You just keep on living down to expectations.

    I’ll be your pet Albanian. 

  44. thingsbreak says:

    The Falk movie you’re thinking of is an adaptation of the classic Vargas Llosa novel “Tia julia y el escribidor”. The scorned group in the original is Argentinians, which makes a bit more sense in context than the remake’s Albanians (though some might say the absurdity of the latter makes it even funnier).

  45. Tom Fuller says:

    Thank you TB. you don’t happen to recall the movie’s title, do you?

  46. thingsbreak says:

    It has a different name in the US, when I saw it was shown under the direct translation of Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. The Googles tell me it was “Tune in Tomorrow” in the US.

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