11/15/2011 11:39 EST | Updated 01/15/2012 05:12 EST

More Than 7 Billion Served: The Case for Optimism

There are more people in the world, yet we are collectively more free and prosperous. Global cooling and the viral Armageddon never happened. Communism ended, liberating Eastern Europe, all without a shot fired. Even the average IQ is -- amazingly -- trending up. The data is good. Really good.


The world's population just grew to a new high, with some speculating that we will soon have too many people on too small a planet. Scientists warn of major climate change. A new flu, possibly borne of pigs, poses a threat to our safety and could lead to a 1918-like epidemic. And let's not forget the full consequences of nuclear proliferation.

Sound familiar? The year, though, was 1974, not 2011.

That year -- when I was born in Winnipeg -- the outlook for humanity looked surprisingly bleak.

A couple of weeks ago, with the world's population pushing past 7 billion, I was reminded of the pessimism of the 1970s.

Back in 1974, the world's population hit 4 billion and massive famine seemed imminent. But if we weren't going to starve to death, we might freeze to death, because of global cooling (affirmed by leading scientists of the day). And those of us who were still standing would likely be felled by a virus. And, just in case we survived the microbes, we wouldn't survive man: the Soviet Union threatened nuclear war.

Last Friday, here in Toronto, Matt Ridley spoke at the Salon Speakers Series. Organized by Patrick Luciani and Rudyard Griffiths, these lectures, hosted by Grano, have consistently proven to be the hottest ticket in the city, with excellent speakers and entertaining exchanges and wondrous food.

On a chilly fall night, Ridley -- the bestselling author of The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves -- delivered a warm message: Life has never been better.

Ridley notes the progress since the 1970s, when he was an adolescent in Northern England. There are more people in the world, yet we are collectively more free and prosperous. Global cooling and the viral Armageddon never happened. Communism ended, liberating Eastern Europe, all without a shot fired. Even the average IQ is -- amazingly -- trending up.

The data is good. Really good.

Consider: life expectancy is up; child mortality is down; violent crime is way down. Ridley notes that the trend is hardly recent, spanning hundreds of years. He comments that, at least in the West, we all afford lives comparable to a French king, with meals prepared by hundreds. (If anything, that comparison understates our circumstance -- King Louis XVI never had air conditioning and never knew the comfort of traveling in a Camry.)

He writes elegantly about our prosperity in his book:

The vast majority of people are much better fed, much better sheltered, much better entertained, much better protected against disease and much more likely to live to old age than their ancestors have been. The availability of almost everything a person could want or need has been going rapidly upwards for 200 years and erratically upwards for 10,000 years before that: years of lifespan, mouthfuls of clean water, lungfuls of clean air, hours of privacy, means of travelling faster than you can run, ways of communicating farther than you can shout. Even allowing for the hundreds of millions who still live in abject poverty, disease and want, this generation of human beings has access to more calories, watts, lumen-hours, square feet, gigabytes, megahertz, light-years, nanometers, bushels per acre, miles per gallon, food miles, air miles, and of course dollars than any that went before. They have more Velcro, vaccines, vitamins, shoes, singers, soap operas, mango slicers, sexual partners, tennis rackets, guided missiles and anything else they could even imagine needing. By one estimate, the number of different products that you can buy in New York or London tops ten billion.

The paperback version of Ridley's book is relatively new (it was released this summer) but he isn't covering particularly new ground in his overall argument. Others, like Brink Lindsey and Gregg Easterbrook, for example, have written and written well about prosperity and how its transformed our lives.

Ridley, though, offers a creative explanation for our extraordinary success. He suggests that the exchange of goods led to greater prosperity, then to specialization. And, "at some point in human history, then began to meet and mate, to have sex with each other." He notes that ideas developed and evolved, not unlike genes, bolstering progress.

It's that exchange of ideas, and the subsequent innovation that comes from it, that Ridley finds so critically important.

And that optimistic interpretation lends itself to an even more optimistic one: that the future will be more satisfying, as people across the world unite and communicate as never before, through the Internet and social media. The world is flat, small, and wired -- more opportunities for ideas to have sex.

Ridley's argument is controversial. Some critics, for instance, suggest that he doesn't fully appreciate the consequences of global warming. (Ridley thinks the world will soon be hotter, but that we'll still be wealthier.)

And his moment for touting optimism seems poorly picked. Yes, we live in a world that seems remarkably flat, small, and wired -- at the dinner, I met a friend who just flew in from Paris; a telemarketer in India, who speaks perfect English, called; I received an email from a colleague a half a world away.

But doesn't the world feel too small? Aren't we too familiar with the inner-workings of the Greek government? Alas, our connectedness is a two-way street: yes, they drink Coke in Ulan Bator and Uxbridge, but Greek debt affects pensioners in Guelph.

As we contemplate shaky European banks and sagging stock markets, Ridley's optimism is refreshing. And in his core message -- individual, not government, ingenuity and creativity have made us collectively healthier, wealthier, and wiser -- seems like an important lesson from our past as we contemplate our future.