Ridley on The Munk debate

Matt Ridley now has an online version of his opening statement for the recent “Humanity’s best days lie ahead” debate, one of the Munk Debates series. Good stuff, though I’d say he needs to find an alternative for that tired Woody Allen quote that he uses a lot — it probably confuses as many in an audience as it enlightens.


Malcolm Gladwell’s counter-argument to Ridley seems like a futurist’s odd extrapolation of the Precautionary Principle, with a dash of the notion of unintended consequences…

“one cannot classify a phenomenon as a success unless one can establish that its long-term benefits will outweigh the long-term risks it generates and the damage it wreaks.”

Which is unanswerable, in its own terms. But Gladwell gave an example, which suggested that he objects to the global economy rapidly taking millions out of poverty, because he thinks that the nouveau middle-classes will produce gross pollution and over-consumption of the ‘smoggy Chinese city’ type.

Yet I would say that the West has already been though that same historical process, and as a result we have developed a myriad of financial and ecological tools to deal with such problems in fairly short order. I’ve seen it happen — I live in an English Midlands post-industrial city, that was basically a giant industrial cinder-heap in the 1970s and one of the most polluted places in Europe. In just 35 years it has been radically greened and made verdant. The world is also highly likely to develop even more effective and cheaper tools for industrial clean-up and consumption mitigation in the near future.

As Matt Ridley has pointed out in podcasts, once a developing nation’s population gets to a certain income and educational level then their children start to care deeply about the environment. Any politician who then wants to be re-elected has to start cleaning up rivers and re-planting forests. This process is likely to be speeded up, even in heavily corrupt nations, by high-powered social media tools. It may even be that many people in developing nations will eventually have genuinely useful jobs in actively cleaning up and stewarding their landscapes — a further twist that would complicate Gladwell’s argument. Such a notion gets even more complicated when one considers that an African in Kenya may soon be able to tele-operate a tree-planting robot in the Lebanon, via fast satellite Internet.

Gladwell’s companion speaker de Botton seems to have been on somewhat firmer ground, stating that gloomy pessimism about the future helps humanity to avoid future threats. There’s something in that point, in a world where even a small future war might involve a crippling cyberwar alongside the use of biowar attacks via drones. Or in a world where failed socialist policies might still derail enough emerging economies to cause a global depression. But isn’t there a vast psychological and economic cost to maintaining our current set of interlocking pessimisms, surrounded as they are by a shrill chorus of alarmist sirens? Is it worth the human cost, simply in order to prod a few funders into dealing with what are mostly large-scale and slow threats — most of which are probably going to be solved anyway in the fullness of time and progress?

de Botton also seems to implicitly assume that it will always be impossible to train a mass of people to sift the real threats from the faux / politicised / over-estimated threats, and to grade the threats according to their genuine probability, scale and priority. He also implicitly assumes that it is impossible to reform the media’s relentless desire to focus on bad news and pessimism, something which has become its own self-fulfilling prophesy.