The End of the World is Postponed?

There’s something about humans (rational or otherwise) that makes us prone to the spectacular in considering our collective future.  It’s always destruction this or doomsday that.  According to the Mayans, we have about 16 months until things really come apart.  Even optimists stretch the limits of the realistic; we were promised so much by the year 2000.

What, then, do we do with someone like Matt Ridley, the author of a new book titled the Rational Optimist? He writes that during his lifetime he has “listened to solemn predictions of growing poverty, coming famines, expanding deserts, imminent plagues, impending water wars, inevitable oil exhaustion, mineral shortages, falling sperm counts, thinning ozone, acidifying rain, nuclear winters, mad cow epidemics, Y2K computer bugs, killer bees, sex-change fish, global warming, ocean acidification and even asteroid impacts that would soon bring our happy interlude to a terrible end.”

The presumption is that most of the listed catastrophes in waiting have been either solved or radically mitigated. The reason for the overestimation of impending catastrophe, he argues, lies in a logical misstep he calls extrapolationism: “in other words, assuming that the future is just a bigger version of the past.”

Ridley writes that on a purely logical level, extrapolations are correct:

“the man who (probably apocryphally) predicted that the streets of London would be buried under 10 feet of horse manure by 1950 would have been right, had things continued linearly and unabated. So too would IBM’s founder Thomas Watson when he said in 1943 that there was a world market for just five computers and Ken Olsen, the founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, when he said in 1977 that there is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home. Both remarks were true enough when computers weighed a ton and cost a fortune.”

Extrapolationism is tempting though, and everyone from Al Gore to the crazy people behind Arizona’s immigration laws uses it.  Simply, if any impending threat continues linearly and unabated, it will reach its logical, predictable end.  The problem with extrapolationism, however, is that such linearity rarely occurs and things have a way of being abated.    Take, for example, the current bit of good news that the ozone layer is no longer thinning and should be restored fully by mid-century.

Ridley argues, in his rationally optimistic way, that “the human race has become a collective problem-solving machine which solves problems by changing its ways. It does so through invention driven often by the market: scarcity drives up price and that in turn encourages the development of alternatives and efficiencies.”  History confirms this. When whales grew scarce, for example, petroleum was used instead as a source of oil.

There’s something refreshing about Ridley’s reasoning, perhaps it’s the foreign feeling of optimism. Nevertheless, his perspective on problem solving is a bit passive and suffers from a problem similar to that charged against extrapolationism: rather than imaging the linear progression of current events, Ridley is simply looking back on events we’ve managed to solve successfully.

The truth is that neither of these views of problems is inherently helpful, but at least extrapolationism can serve to frighten us into action. Indeed, this is the point Ridley seems to miss: that our general success at problem solving is due to our inherent pessimism. Extrapolationism, then, is like erring on the side of caution, better to prepare for the worst and be pleasantly surprised by the result.

Michael Nicin

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