Just when you think it’s all bad news, a writer comes along with a fundamentally optimistic view. That’s certainly true of a new book, The Rational Optimist, by Matt Ridley. In fact, it’s so optimistic, you are bound to find something unbelievable about it, but it makes you question the prevailing pessimism and perhaps rightly so. He even argues we don’t have a global warming crisis and that we can overcome our energy shortages, though he’s slightly less optimistic about water shortages.
What he argues basically is what I’ve been harping on – that we can solve pretty much any of the problems facing us with ingenuity if we build our capacity to innovate in all our organizations. He makes his arguments in context of a very interesting survey of history in which he insists the urge to trade, to do business with each other, leads to each of us specializing in some skill set we can get exceptionally good at. therefore producing far more than if each of us tried to produce all the things we individually need. By becoming specialized we can ‘over-produce’ beyond what we each need and thus trade the surpluses among ourselves so we all have more of everything. It’s fascinating to view the history of the world in this light (and I have to agree generally with his conclusions).
Overall it’s a great, positive message for those who choose to work in commercial endeavors. Of course, not surprisingly my copy was a gift from a Canadian mutual fund company, Vertex One, that stands to gain if we believe the future is literally worth investing in. Good marketing (the second year in a row they’ve chosen a book that is definitely worth not only reading, but thinking about). On a cautionary note, this isn’t a fund recommendation, but for disclosure, it is one I hold a small stake in. It definitely promotes the concept that business can have a significant role in saving the world, perhaps not a surprise from a West coast company.
Of course, we can never be sure of the future, but Ridley’s makes a good point that throughout our spectacular rise to technological superiority of today, there have always been pessimists predicting we would run out of the ability to improve things. Every generation has predicted we’d run out of food, etc., but so far we haven’t. so far.
What we can’t disagree with is his conclusion that we better continue to innovate at a rapid pace or we most certainly will be faced with problems the globe can’t overcome. Innovation has become the prime strategic imperative and we know that a unique sort of leadership and human resources environment is required to support that. In one sense, we’ve set ourselves on a treadmill and have to keep it going at least until we find population numbers decreasing significantly (hopefully not due to catastrophe). His view of ‘evolution’ is most interesting, too, arguing we’re the only species to have ‘evolved’ through social re-structuring, education and development. It’s a powerful conclusion, but just how true or how much we can count on this continuing remains to be seen.
Suffice it to say, I enjoyed the new insights and would recommend this for many college curricula.