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The Rational Optimist

How Prosperity Evolves

By Matt Ridley
  • Read in 16 minutes
  • Contains 11 key ideas
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The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley

The Rational Optimist addresses the major problems that have faced human beings since the dawn of civilization, and describes how methods of exchange and specialization created innovative solutions to deal with each new obstacle. Through science, economics and historical examples, the author reveals many reasons to be optimistic about the adversities we are facing today or might encounter in the future.

Key idea 1 of 11

We are lucky to live in the modern world – life in the past was violent, arduous and short-lived.

Today, when we read a newspaper or watch TV, we are confronted by numerous experts expounding on the dangers of the modern world and telling us to fear coming calamities. They contend that new diseases are unstoppable, famine will kill billions, overpopulation will ruin the environment and climate change will destroy the planet.

Many of these experts argue that the solution to escaping these impending modern catastrophes lies in the past. They suggest that because past societies lacked such modern problems, they were simpler and more idyllic. Some even argue that our own society should be modeled on those of the past. In reality, this rose-tinted view of history is far from the truth; the past was a truly dreadful time to live.

Right up until the Industrial Revolution, life was dominated by violence, famine, illness and early death. In early hunter-gatherer societies, where neighboring tribes fought for scarce resources, violence was often imminent. Many burial sites from the era show evidence of entire communities massacred by blows to the head, or struck by arrows, spears and darts.

Famine and illness were also constant threats to early societies. Communities lacked adequate agricultural technologies, so they were especially susceptible to drought, crop failures and famines, which often led to malnutrition, decreased fertility and starvation. Disease was rife and the prevalence of aggressive bacteria like gangrene and tetanus made every wound potentially deadly.

There’s just no comparison to modern times. Today, the living standard of human beings is at an all-time high. Since 1800, the global population has grown by a factor of six, life expectancy has doubled and real income has increased almost ten-fold. Today, most of us live incredibly safe and healthy lives.

We are lucky to live in the modern world – life in the past was violent, arduous and short-lived.

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