Optimism, pessimism and rationality

In a review essay of Matt Ridley's "The rational optimist" and Mark Boyle's "The moneyless man", scavenger and squatter Katharine Hibbert sympathises with alternative living but also wants clear thinking
Katharine Hibbert
23 June 2010

Next time you go to the shops or to work, will you be taking another step towards a happier, healthier and more environmentally sound future by encouraging ideas to lovingly procreate?  Or will you be raping the world?  It depends who you ask.  Matt Ridley will assure you of the former.  Mark Boyle is so convinced of the latter that he has abandoned money altogether and now lives in a caravan in the woods outside Bristol.
Environmentalists’ warnings –warming world, dwindling water supply, food and fuel insecurity - may make Boyle’s course look the more sensible one.  The 31-year-old vegan lives on food he grows or finds in the woods around his caravan, washes in river water, craps in a compost toilet and brushes his teeth with ground cuttlefish bones and fennel.  The only concessions (or the only concessions he straightforwardly acknowledges) to modernity are his mobile phone and laptop computer, powered by solar energy, from which he carries on a fairly vigorous campaign, on the internet and in the media, to get us all go join him in rejecting the evils of cash and embracing localism and agrarian simplicity.  For, as he asserts in his book, The Moneyless Man, his is not just a lifestyle choice – it’s the only ethically and environmentally sound way to live from here on in.
Ridley, on the other hand, is an unapologetic supermarket shopper, car driver, aeroplane passenger, and crayfish-and-mango-salad eater.  And he is as keen as Boyle to convert us all to his way of thinking and behaving in his sixth book, The Rational Optimist.  Ridley had a stint as an Economist journalist and he became chairman of Northern Rock three years before it became the first UK victim of the credit crunch. Although chastened by the experience–he no longer believes unfettered free markets are good for asset and capital allocations– Ridley remains convinced that free exchange is the way forwards for humanity.  He is confident that they will allow us to conquer the threats the “apocaholics” warn us against.  By letting the thoughts of Adam Smith and Charles Darwin to “have sex”, as he puts it, he concludes that free markets will allow us to develop the technology to feed a global population of 9bn a better diet than today, on less farmland than we currently use, while averting climate disaster – and that this will just be a continuation of the trends which have got us into the excellent situation in which we currently find ourselves.  In any case, Ridley believes, the risks of climate change, population explosion and deadly pandemics are just as overstated as the threats of acid rain or the millennium bug proved, by those who have a vested interest in scaring us.
Ridley argues that the mating of ideas is what differentiates us humans from any other species past or present, and what has allowed us to rule the world.  Many other species have been intelligent, some use tools, and some may have language.  It wasn’t our ability to master fire or to twiddle our thumbs, either.  The Neanderthals, for instance, had bigger brains than us, and the same genetic mutations that allow us to speak.  But they bumbled along for hundreds of thousands of years with no more sophisticated tool than a hand axe.  Then homo sapiens emerged and, the fossil records show, about 80,000 years ago started to trade.  Perforated seashells appear many miles from the nearest coast and, around the same time, tools made from obsidian – volcanic glass – were being used a long way from volcanoes.  A more plausible explanation than individuals trekking to where these valuable goods can be found is trade, argues Ridley – something no other animal had achieved.  Ridley quotes Adam Smith’s comment that “Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog”, and points out that we are the only ape who, upon meeting a stranger, does not immediately try to kill it.  By a quirk of genetics or culture, we became the trading ape, and life has, in Ridley’s view, improved consistently ever since.
Exchange allowed individuals and tribes to specialise and innovate, and prompted every human to work together in a “collective mind”, combining ideas and improving upon them.  The result was that ''Ten individuals could know between them ten things, while each understanding one,” as Ridley puts it.  And this is not a static or a finite process.  First, specialisation and trade let us make better axes and spears.  Then, gradually, we learned to farm in order to have a greater surplus to trade with.  The process has, Ridley believes, sped up exponentially, leading to the industrial revolution and today’s high-tech world of computers, nuclear power and genetic engineering.
This is, in Ridley’s view, an unequivocally good thing.  He cites a slew of statistics showing that life expectancy, crop productivity, real-terms wealth and leisure time have increased almost everywhere in the world, while infant mortality, deaths from homicide and even pollution have dropped.  And, he argues, there is no reason to think that this process will stop.  As long as our governments and other institutions keep their hands off and allow us to do what we humans have always done best – to innovate and trade freely - we will find new ways to cope with the problems of the future.  If the population grows significantly (which he thinks unlikely), we will find ways to produce more food.  When fossil fuels run out, we will improve our nuclear technology.  If the climate warms and the sea rises (significant rises are not a certainty, in his view), we will take it in our stride.  The climate has always fluctuated, he argues, and in any case, more rain and warmer weather will make it easier to grow crops.  As he sees it, the most likely scenario for the coming century is that “Prosperity spreads, technology progresses, poverty declines, disease retreats, fecundity falls, happiness increases, violence atrophies, freedom grows, knowledge flourishes, the environment improves and wilderness expands.”
But if the prospect of continuing to buy, sell and innovate looks so bright to Ridley, is Boyle simply wrong when he insists on the exact opposite?  The first chapter of The Moneyless Man is devoted to an allegory of how money ruined the happy, pastoral life of an imaginary village where everyone bartered wholesome goods made with love in a tight-knit community.  Boyle and Ridley agree on the consequence - increasing specialisation and separation between buyer and producer.  But Boyle is convinced that this is leading us to alienation, mistrust, ill-health, climate change and, not too long from now, a wave of death and poverty which will leave us all scrabbling to survive on the surface of a baked and chronically polluted earth (something like the scenario described by Helen Simpson in her story Diary of an Interesting Year published in the New Yorker).  Better, Boyle thinks, to get out while we still can.  He’s not quite as pessimistic as the humans in the prologue to Douglas Adams’ Hitchikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, who “were increasingly of the opinion that they'd all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans.”  But he’s getting there. Boyle is convinced that we all need to abandon cities, move into tiny communities and get hoeing and foraging.
Many people appear to feel, instinctively, closer to Boyle’s view than to Ridley’s, although most of us continue to live more like Ridley than Boyle, shopping in the supermarkets and flying away on holiday, albeit with a faint sense of guilt that we aren’t writing with pens made from ink-cap mushrooms rather than our disposable, oil-based biros. Ridley describes himself as puzzled by this pessimism, surprised that “the generation that has experienced more peace, freedom, leisure time, education, medicine, travel, movies, mobile phones and massages than any generation in history is lapping up gloom at every opportunity”, as purveyed by the likes of Al Gore, John Gray, Naomi Klein and George Monbiot.  But there can be no doubt that this dissatisfaction exists and that, to quote Adams again, the problem is that “lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches”.  Boyle has attracted a large following on his website www.justfortheloveofit.org, which hosts a skill-sharing forum as well as his blog, from which much of his book is drawn.
I should declare my own interests here.  Two years ago, after being made redundant from my job as a reporter, I decided to give up everything else as well – my flat, my credit cards, my record collection - to see whether it was possible to live by using up some of society’s waste – squatting in some of the 1m empty homes and eating some of the 20m tonnes of food waste we throw out every year by scavenging at the backs of supermarkets and cafes.  I found it was not only possible, it was, often, quite fun, and made me happier, in many ways, than my previous life.  My problem with modernity, however, is less fundamental than Boyle’s, and my aim in writing my book was as much sociological as philosophical or environmental – to document the hidden lives of the 20,000-odd squatters in England and Wales, and to see what the rest of us can learn from them.  I don’t want to get rid of capitalism or cities.  I don’t want a revolution.  I’m optimistic about our capacity to create a better version of modernity, and I don’t want to tear everything up and start again.
But I sympathise with Boyle’s search for an alternative way of life, and would like to be able to cheer him on.  The shame is, then, that his book doesn’t make a great case for his lifestyle, neither where he describes it nor where he argues for its rationality and necessity.  He is no Thoreau, barely describing the feelings, places and individuals he encounters.  We are merely told that winter in the caravan was very cold – he gives us no sense of what that coldness was like. Dozens of characters are named, but we don’t even get a physical description, let alone a character portrait of any of them, and he spends far more time cataloguing the journalists who took an interest in his lifestyle than explaining his breakup with his girlfriend, an event which occupies a single paragraph.

Indeed, his evident enjoyment of media attention becomes problematic when he begins to use it as a tool for getting free stuff - a company selling unpuncturable tyres sends him a set for his bike, and duely recieve a plug in his blog and book.  Various businesses loan him equipment on the explicit condition that he mentions them in interviews.  And he is able to spend Christmas with his family because an Irish radio station buys his ferry ticket in exchange for his appearance on one of their shows.  Every hack knows that junkets are a great way to avoid paying for things - but these freebies hardly fit into the moneyless, businessless new world Boyle is pushing.  And if Ridley's doctrine is damaged by the bailout of Northern Rock, Boyle's own "Freeconomy" ideology took a hit in February 2008 when he was forced to turn back at Calais from a well-publicised attempt to walk to India without money, when he found that the French saw him as a freeloader (this blog of a man who managed walk to Israel without money or press attention may be worth reading for proof that the task is possible, particularly if you take yourself slightly less seriously).  Boyle's attempt to live without money while staying put is his alternative to the 9000 mile walk - and avoids the problem that he can't speak French.
Nor is he convincing on the task he devotes most of the book to – arguing on principle for a simple life of agrarian self-sufficiency in small communities.  Money is inherently bad, he believes, and even bartering isn’t much better.  Skipping, my way of getting food, is no good either, because it isn’t a way of creating a new, sustainable future (a criticism I accept, but am not convinced he does better) and because the food itself is unhealthy because it’s processed and usually non-vegan. The best way, he thinks, is for everyone to give to each other unconditionally, while feeling confident that the world will somehow give back to them when they need it most.  His main source on this is the Hollywood film “Pay it Forward” – he makes no mention of current thought on the gift economy and whether it is necessarily squeezed out by commercial transactions.  Apart from his initial allegory about good old “Mr Baker” and “Mrs Brewer” and evil “Mr Banks” in his “exquisite top hat and tailor-made pin-striped suit”, and the argument that money is debt because banks create money by taking deposits then lending them out to others, he has little more than his own gut instincts to propel him away from any use of money.
This lack of rigour may, of course, be an attempt to attract a very general audience.  But in any case, the lack of academic authority for his assertions probably doesn’t worry Boyle too much.  “In my experience,” he says, “‘feeling’ is often much closer to truth than ‘knowing’”.  A core part of his argument is that we can do far better trading in small groups than in large ones, and he seems to apply this to ideas as well as goods, apparently believing that simply thinking as he forages and digs is as likely to lead him to the truth as years of academic study.
The trouble is that the poverty of his ideas would also be reflected in the poverty of his real life if he took it to its natural conclusion.  Both are good arguments for Ridley’s view that we do best when trading, exchanging and specialising in large interconnected groups.   Boyle isn’t really forced to face the practical difficulties of life without Ridley’s wide-spread trade.  Although he hasn’t handled money since November 2008, he spent some £350 on kitting himself out to start his experiment, and works on a farm in exchange for parking his caravan there – transitional devices, perhaps, like his computer and mobile phone.
The prologue to his book, however, dwells on how crucial his bicycle is to his project.  But how, in a community of 150, without any organised form of trade with other groups, would he possibly get the ingredients of even the most basic bicycle?  Consider the ball bearings, for instance.  Leonardo Da Vinci realised how useful they would be – but it wasn’t possible to actually make them until the 19th century. It seems unlikely, even, that he would be able to get the metal for rudimentary gardening tools. And so with other items - Boyle is lucky enough to find a packet of condoms in a skip, but does he really want to go back to constant pregnancy for any women in his imagined moneyless world?  Even leather or intestine condoms, which were in use before they began to be made of rubber in 1855 and latex in 1920, would be ruled out by his veganism, quite apart from the fact that they were unreliable and not exactly, one imagines, conducive to pleasure.
Even getting enough to eat would be difficult in his chaste, immobile community.  Today, he regularly barters wild food or his work with those still living in the normal world to get food, which he also gets out of the bins occasionally.  Looking at his list of edibles for the summer months, when he has the most abundant home-grown and wild food, all the serious calories – tofu, barley, rye, lentils, oil and vegan chocolate cake come from the bins or from bartering – and most are not easily grown on the smallholding in Bristol which his community would, presumably, have at its disposal.  Meat, or at least dairy products, might help people to actually get enough calories from the land to function (even though, on a large scale, it is far more efficient to get calories from soya than pork, for instance).  But this is out of the question for Boyle – it would be the moral equivalent, in his view (expressed on his blog but not in his book) of enslaving and eating old men.  It seems almost inevitable that, if we were all living without money, Boyle’s tribe would very quickly be conquered and enslaved by a more robust one – behaviour which was, as Ridley argues, commonplace behaviour before the emergence of organised trade.

Neither does Boyle have much to say about whether there’s actually enough land for our current population to survive as he suggests, or what the impact would be if we in the developed world simply stopped trading with the developing world.  He merely asserts that “Much of the material poverty of Africa stems from the spiritual poverty of the West, as institutions such as the World Trade Organisation and the International Monetary Fund continue to cripple the ‘developing’ [his quotes] nations with debts and restrictions designed to enable western governments to supply the extravagant products and cheap food we, as consumers, demand”.  He may be right on that – some do believe it.  But this statement is hardly proof.

Ridley is convincing when talking about the future for Africa.  In a continent where a majority live in grinding poverty, the solution quite probably is economic growth based on innovation, enterprise and free trade with the West rather than mineral wealth, and that this could be facilitated by uncorrupt governments that offer stability and property rights.  Ridley draws on Hernando de Soto’s work to argue for this.  His analysis of our prehistory and history as a trading species is also plausible and interesting.
But his analysis of our situation today and the most sensible course for the future fails to persuade.  I can’t claim the expertise to refute his belittlement of the risk of climate change – but his evidence appears to be selective and sometimes shaky, as when he asserts that: “Today, a car emits less pollution travelling at full speed than a parked car did in 1970 from leaks” – which turns out to be sourced from an article in AutoWeek magazine.  He is dismissive of the precautionary principle when applied to nuclear power or GM crops – but asbestos and thalidomide might be two good reasons to be cautious about innovation.
Perhaps my problem with his optimistic attitude to modernity is best exemplified by his description of the average American travelling back in time to 1967.  “He might be the richest person in town,” says Ridley, “But no amount of money could buy him the delights of eBay, Amazon, Starbucks, Prozac, Google or BlackBerry”.  That isn’t a catalogue that strikes delight into my heart.   And despite our material wealth, the pleasures of Starbucks and the magic of Prozac, many people today consider themselves unhappy.
Ridley dismisses the idea that, beyond a certain level, increasing prosperity doesn’t make you happier, citing two 2008 studies which show that, as Ridley puts it, “within countries, between countries and between times – extra income does indeed buy general wellbeing.”  The trouble is that, for many of those who follow Boyle and others who advocate a different way of life, it just doesn’t feel like that.  Perhaps we’re just failing to count our blessings.  Maybe, as Schopenhauer argued, we simply live in a world of unsatisfied wants, where pleasure is simply the absence of pain, and the only possible escape is the renunciation of desire.  Perhaps Ridley has just got his angst under control better than the rest of us.  But his argument here fails to convince those who believe, with Richard Layard and others, that we could construct a world that would make us happier, and that this will not necessarily result from more growth for the already-rich world.
Ridley acknowledges the severity of the developed world’s obesity problem.  Maybe that is a sign that we aren’t always very good at knowing what is good for us and what will make us happy in the long run, and that free markets in goods and services aren’t very successful at helping us with this.  Ridley suggests that food that is genetically engineered to be healthier might help.  This is an inadequate solution– it’s just as possible to get fat on good cheese and wine as beer and burgers, and the deeper problem seems more likely to be an emotional one.
Perhaps Boyle has a point when he says that part of the problem is that we live in increasing isolation from friends, families, community and strangers, while having less and less contact with and understanding of sources of the food, goods and entertainment we use.  This sentiment is surely part of his appeal, and the most enjoyable passages of his book are descriptions of the summer spent cycling and camping with friends.
My own experience, for what it’s worth, is that walking away from all the material possessions I thought I couldn’t live without made a negligible difference to my sense of wellbeing – and having the time to focus on projects that mattered to me, to be well-rested and well-exercised and to spend time with my friends mattered far more.   So maybe less frantic pursuit of growth, in the West at least, would do us little harm.  Maybe it would even let us all take a bit more time off work to enjoy the increasing prosperity which Ridley argues we have.
Boyle’s book will no doubt be lapped up by his followers who crave a simpler life.  Ridley’s will, like Bjorn Lomborg’s, enter the cannon cited by those who have done well out of capitalism and globilisation as proof that they are in the right, and that inequality, waste and pollution are unproblematic and will soon be sorted out by us clever old humans.  Ridley's failure to prove his position beyond doubt - and the fact that his and Boyle's books both find ready audiences - results from the fact that neither optimism nor pessimism are ever truely rational.  The shape of the past and the best course for the future are too complex for that, given that we can't even forecast the weather reliably.  Ridley's assesment of the evidence is inevitably coloured by his own success within and ease with the status quo.  His arguments might persuade a few people to abandon their romantic ideal of living in a hut in the woods without filthy lucre. But those who find appeal in Boyle’s story or who worry about the impact of our current trajectory on the environment and on human flourishing probably won’t read Ridley, stop fretting and tuck into a Happy Meal. 

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData