It’s curious to see Matthew Taylor (Reasons To Be Cheerful?, 1st June) giving credence to what he describes as the new optimists. There seems very little that’s new about them. Matt Ridley (new book, The Rational Optimist) argues that markets have in the past and will in the future deliver to us all the benefits we seek, David Eagleman argues how the internet will help us avoid the problems that have brought down previous civilisations, and climate change critic Bjorn Lomberg finds answers in human ingenuity and the resilience of the natural world.
I see no reason to treat them as a new school of thought. There is a great danger in false categorisation. The optimists represent a mindset that has always been with us, a necessary balance maybe to all the pessimism and talk of a broken society that the press and pre-election politicians latch on to. But we shouldn’t hallow it with the name of a movement, and give it momentum.
Taking each of the three areas mentioned above:
There’s good evidence for the unsustainability of the current Western model, taking as one key example the $900bn Chinese debt that’s been built up to fund American consumerism. (Matt Ridley, as George Monbiot points out, was chairman of Northern Rock, and there, under Ridley’s nose, is another example.) It can’t go on, and yet how can it be stopped? All the technical knowhow and human ingenuity in the world won’t be enough. We may also find that China becomes the driver of both the world economy and political economy. There’s much evidence to suggest that in the face of global threats societies are becoming more closed. Ironically, that’s the direction the American right is headed, as it becomes more parochial, more defensive, and argues for new trade barriers, just the environment in which technology and ingenuity won’t flourish.
It is impossible to predict how the internet will develop over the next twenty years. There is good reason to be fearful, as undifferentiated knowledge substitutes expert and researched opinion, as free removes (by definition) both monetary and intellectual value. It’s hard for a society fragmented by myriad opinions to retain homogeneity and identity.
And it’s not enough to argue that technology will find answers to climate change issues, that growth will not be impaired by the finite nature of natural resources. I’ve no arguments with it as a proposition … but there is no evidence to support it. We’ve coped in previous ages but we’re now in a global world and we can’t rely on empire and the endless discovery of new mineral resources to bail us out.
There is another scenario for the world, where we identify and move toward self-sufficiency, and put all our efforts, all our ingenuity and technical skills, into making economic and social improvement sustainable. But if the new optimism holds sway there will be no place for it. We’ll be in a world of random accumulation, feeding on the kinds of hope which always get dashed.
Matthew Taylor is allowing his concerns to identify a new enlightenment for our times to lower his defences. Improvement at a personal, political and business level should be a core aspiration, but we should be aware how each generation mixes failure and success, that material improvement may facilitate happiness, but cannot be its cause.
He makes it clear that he is still ‘with those who say we need a changed consciousness to meet new challenges and to escape the dead ends of consumerist individualism’, and yet he also argues that currently the new optimists have the best tunes.