"The Rational Optimist" by Matt Ridley

The other day Steve and Chris (Blindside) recommended a book called „The Rational Optimist“ by Matt Ridley. I havn’t finished all of it yet but I found it a very interesting read indeed. I started with the chapters about energy and food which interest me the most. I hadn’t expected to agree on so much he says:

  • He insists that our modern way of living including our food production is dependent on fossil fuels to provide the energy and that fossil fuels are good and not bad. I couldn’t agree more with this. I liked his analogy in chapter 7 of 150 slaves having to toil eight hours a day to provide the average energy needs of each one of us (the average US citizen would need 660 slaves!) if it wern’t for fossil fuels.

  • I also agree that GM food should be explored further and that some environmetalists reject it for emotional reasons rather scientific ones.

  • I fully agree with Ridley that biofuels are terribly inefficient and if pursued threaten to gobble up a large portion of the rainforests.

However he spends very little time on speculating about what will replace fossil fuels and that is where I have a BIG issue with him. He simply hopes for the best and says fossil fuels will last a century and points to alternatives such as solar, nuclear and hydrogen. Now, for all we know, oil might peak in five to ten years and his energy alternatives won’t be ready for a very, very long time.
So in a sense the book left me with a strange feeling because it so aptly explains our total dependence on fossil fuels but points to no short term energy solutions. Looking forward to your opinions.


Matt Ridley agrees that eating less meat, especially less beef is a god thing and would reduce the needed agricultural output. I also agree, but have to admit that I like some meat once in a while. Don’t forget that modern agriculture requires a lot of energy input and if fossil fuels become scarce, food production will be more difficult. So I don’t know if being vegetarian alone is enough with 9 billion people and less oil.

I am not a biologist but MR argues that a lot of food engineering is actually not so different from what happens in natural processes as well.

The energy problem is a big one. It is disheartening to see cars like the ECOnetic model not being produced in the USA when they outperform the prius in MPG. Hopefully we can have a solar breakthrough a some point such that solar can capture 50% of the energy. With that kind of output everyone will be strapping solar panels to everything :slight_smile:

Yes, energy is a big challenge. Also note that most of the alternative sources discussed today provide no liquid fuels, instead they provide electricity (solar, wind, nuclear).

I wonder if there might be a possibility for organic based energy through genetic engineering of bacteria. Similar to how they engineer bacteria in number of other areas, like to eat oil for example. I’m not sure how this would work, but I do wonder about it.

Of course, liquid fuel might not be as necessary if electric cars are used. However, electric cars, like other electronic devices with batteries, will require awhile to charge. Time to refill at a gas station? About 5 minutes. Time to recharge your car’s battery? 4+ hours.

Regarding the bacteria as energy, see: http://tinyurl.com/25y2nys

I am no biologist and have little grasp of engineering of bacteria. I am sure people are looking into that. I work in the automotive sector and I would never buy an electric car or even a hybrid at the moment. Especially the capacity of the battery stacks still needs a lot of improvement. Also I am not so sure if Americans would be happy to abandon their 3L engines and pickups.

What do you think about the new “charge and go” vehicles? Supposedly they hold enough electricity to drive ~40 miles, but then switch to gasoline after that. For example, Chevrolet Volt - Wikipedia

I would consider buying a charge and go, but I could not at this point because I live in the city. If I had a garage with a plug I might strongly consider getting something like the Chevy Volt.

“Matt Ridley agrees that eating less meat, especially less beef is a god thing…”

I think that the food is defined by requirements of an organism. Fortunately, a person needs a little meat and more vegetables and fruits to maintain good health :wink:

I don’t remember Ridley saying that in the book, but I don’t doubt he did, I suppose the book is fresher in your mind. To me most of these questions are economic questions. When there’s demand for something, for example cheaper energy, you get the whole of the developed working on it. When there’s no demand, you have a few scientists with a government grant poking around at some ideas that will never pull though and end up costing more money than the plan was worth.

There are promising ideas in solar, wind (even though Ridley dislikes wind power heavily) ect, but none are near as good as fossil fuels are for us at the moment. And in the US gas is mostly cheap because of indirect subsidies like war (unfortunately) and other annoyances like corporate welfare (which I wish was a bigger political issue, but when both parties support some for of it…).

Friedemann, Ridley doesn’t have a direct answer to what will replace fossil fuels, and you knew that coming into reading the book, if he did, and it was genuine, everyone would have heard of this book and large corporations would have long ago started spending money on it. But giving a plan for energy specifically is well beyond the scope of the book, and if you bought because somewhere I or Steve implied that he had an answer to every question concerning energy, then for that I’m sorry, I certainly didn’t mean too.

The book however is not about energy specfically, it’s about human ingenuity, how our ideas spawn new ideas that make all of our lives better and why he’s come to his optimism through a very rational means (and not in an Oprah or Deepak Choprah way). It was a wonderful book, but it was really a book that equally had biology, economics, and history meet (maybe a touch of climate science), to bring him to his conclusion. He doesn’t predict the future directly, he only shows that we’ve faced worse and have always made it out better, and maybe we should be careful about ruining economies over certain things like climate change and oil spills, when there are more pressing matters at hand… like starvation in Africa ect…

The book was very solid and I think you’d agree now that you’re reading it, very well referenced. It’s not the Bible though. (it’s better :wink:

forgive me again for being a fool and not editing a large post like that… hope it’s clear enough

Clear as a bell, no problem!

As I said there are large portions of the book that I liked a lot. I think he really makes the reader appreciate what the technical revolution has given us in terms of making our lives more enjoyable. Unfortunately we all take it for granted way too often. As I said above, I really liked the slave analogy to explain how much manpower each of us consumes.

He is a believer in science and technology, a view that I share of course. I don’t know a lot about history so his accounts of economic development during the last two millenia in various parts of the world was also very interesting indeed. However if you read his book carefully, energy is like a red thread. When he discussed England’s rise, he analyses return per acrage, he says that a key precondition for the industrial revolution was coal (and America to relief Malthusian pressure) as much as oil and gas was key for further economic expansion in the 20th century.

Given all this insight and given how much he blasts alternative sources of energy (not only wind) I am surprised that the question how to replace oil/gas does not seem to worry him at all. I guess he just believes/hopes that peak oil/gas will hit much later than many observers fear it will (like an oil decline in 10 years or so which would leave our economies really exposed). He doesn’t even go into saving fossil fuels which is the easiest source of alternative energy right now. Insulating homes and improving fuel mileage are things that come to mind.

One part that I thought was a bit over the top is the part where he debunks past pessimisms. Some of his comments on Y2K and acid rain I do share. However nuclear war and the ozone depletion were in fact very real dangers which didn’t materialise because of sheer luck (the former) and swift action (the latter). He sort of admits between the lines that some desasters have in fact not been anticipated (he cites Hitler and the financial meltdown of 2008).

Overall an interesting read, thanks for the tip!

I forgot to say:

Like most people criticising the famous book “Limits to Growth” Matt Ridley seems not to have read it. I have and the book never predicts that we will run of certain resources by 1992. This false claim to discredit LTG has been handed down from author to author but few seem to have double-checked it. In fact I’ll pay a premium membership at LingQ for one year to anyone who can show me such a passage in the book!