Authors@Google: Matt Ridley

Uploaded by AtGoogleTalks on 21.07.2010

>>male presenter:Welcome everybody. It is my distinct pleasure to welcome Matt Ridley
today to Google. So, I don't know about you but I've heard the saying, "nuclear fusion
is about 20 years in the future every time you ask a fusion physicists." It may not be
true apparently people at Lawrence Livermore are doing something to change that, but it's
been true for the last 50 years. So there's a category of people who have sort of the
same saying. They say, "well you know, our civilization is doomed. You know like in the
next six months we'll see everything collapse and the world will change as we know it. We
are over using the planet. We are not doing the right things." Well, our guest today will
hopefully disprove this notion. He's written a great book which I recommend to all of you
to read, check it out. It's called the, Rational Optimist and it deals with some of the issues
of society today.
Matt Ridley is the author of proactive books on evolution, genetics, and society. His books
have sold over 800 copies--800,000 copies, I'm sorry!
[audience mumbling, laughing] [audience member clapping]
Been translated into 27 languages, have won several awards including: the award for "the
Best Science Book published in 2003" from the National Academy of Science, and the Los
Angeles Times book prize.
The Rational Optimist has been categorized As the trumpet blast against despair. Let's
see if Matt can tip our way of thinking about the world for the better. Please welcome Matt
[audience applause]
>>Matt Ridley: Thank you, Boris very much indeed, and it's a terrific honor to be here
at Google. I was thinking the other day that actually the technology that's changed my
life as an author most in my lifetime is probably the search engine. It is truly as revolutionary,
I think, in my life--what I do as--as the steam engine was in my great--my ancestors'
lifetimes. So what I want to do today is some, here's a 20 seconds summary of the talk. First
of all, I want to to make the case that ideas have sex and that's where innovation comes
from; that exchange has the same impact on economic progress that sexual reproduction
has on biological evolution. It's a specific analogy that I will expel out. Uh. The effect,
the reason that progress happens is essentially because everybody works for everybody else
which is great theme of human history. It's a habit that started 120,000 years ago. It
results in something called "collective intelligence" whereby the knowledge of how to do things
to make things is stored across society not within our brains. The results is that things
are actually getting better not worse. People are surprisingly getting nicer and we ain't
seen nothing yet, and the global pessimists are wrong. So those are the topics I'll try
and cover in the next 40 minutes or so.
Very clear-
I went to be very clear what I'm not saying. I'm not saying everything is fine in the world
quite the reverse. I actually think it's because there's so much still wrong with the world
that we need to understand how much better we can make it. I'm not saying nothing's getting
worse, there are things getting worse in the world of course there are trends that are
going in the wrong direction. And I'm certainly not saying that everything is fine in any
one individual country. We're clearly in the middle of the terrible financial crisis in
the West at the moment. We've managed in this crisis to actually shrink the world economy
in 2009, but only by 1%. Globally though now China is growing at 12%, the world at 4%.
So, my focus is global it's not local in this. And I'm not saying, you know, that you need
to sort be individually happy or anything like that. This isn't about individual optimism
this is about optimism for the species. In some respects people are too optimistic about
their own lives, and not optimistic enough about the species. For example, people think
they're going to stay married longer than they do.
I want to end up by having you asked the question, whenever anybody says pessimist things to
you, "On what principle is it that when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we
are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?" And that was said 1830, and it's even
more true today.
So essentially what I want to start by doing is explaining how we went from making things
like that to making things like that. These are both real objects they sit on my desk
at home they are identical in size and shape and yet of course a very different. The one
on the left is made from one material the one on the right is a confection of lots of
different substances and has a huge complexity within it. And the one on the left, which
is called an Acheulean handaxe, was made to roughly the same design for nearly a million
years. Homo erectus made these things, and he made them incredibly well. He was very
good at them, but they were the same all over the world and they were the same for a million
years. It's quite unimaginable to us that a technology which stand still in that way.
But during Homo erectus' time his body changed faster than his toolkit. That's an extraordinary
idea. We think that when we invented tools we must invented innovation, too. It didn't
happen. Technology came before innovation. The object on the right is obsolete already
after five years. So let me start by making the case that exchange is the thing that has
accelerated cultural change in the way sex accelerated biological change.
Culture is a combinatorial thing. It brings together ideas, it reorganizes atoms and electrons
in different combinations. So every technology we look at is actually a combination of other
technologies and of other ideas. And its ideas coming together in changing each other that
is innovation in a way--is to some of the things going to making bicycle, they are all
different. And in order to be combinatorial, in order to be cumulative you need to have
process of exchange. And it's the same in biological evolution. My body is also a combination
of inventions. Different proteins, different genes, different cell types that have all
come together. We were all diff--invented in different places, at different times, by
different organisms and they've all come together in me and indeed in you. How did that happen?
Well ,sex was absolutely key to that. The invention of sexual reproduction. Let me explain.
If you imagine an asexual animal an animal that simply gives birth mother to son--mother
to daughter rather--without any males forever, then what's going to happen if you have mutations--good
ones--is that they're going through in competition with each other. So if you invent the green
thing and somebody else invents the red thing. Natural selection is going to have to decide
which one is better and make the other one extinct. So imagine this is an ancestral mammal
and one of them invents milk and the other one invents the placenta and we have to decide
which of these two innovations we want in the species. But if they're having sex then
of course at some point you can get an organism that has both of these. So, the effect of
sex--the invention of sexual reproduction--enabled evolution to become cumulative and combinatorial.
It wasn't the case before that.
Now the invention of exchange had the same impact on cultural evolution. Because you
can actually have cultural without sex--as it were, you know--you can have culture without
exchange. And the effect is you get no cumulative combina--combinatorial. Chimpanzees have culture's,
they have traditions of how to break open nuts with rocks. And the fascinating thing
is that if you go to different parts of Africa--indeed even to different parts of the same forest--you'll
find different troops of chimpanzees have different cultures, different traditions of
how to break open rocks. And they--because they never trade they never exchange. You
can't get the ideas coming together and therefore culture never builds. It's not progressive,
it's not cumulative in these animals. That's what's different about us, not that we've
got culture, but we've got cumulative combinatorial culture. And it's this process of exchange,
this process of swapping things with each other that's had a huge impact on our development.
So why is it? Why does exchange cause innovation? Why does exchange raise living standards,
indeed? And the answer really is a pretty old one. David Ricardo, a stockbroker, in
England in the early 19th century coined a thing called "the Law of Comparative Advantage".
He was talking about international trade, but I want to rephrase it in stone age terms.
There are two guys sitting around a fire called Adam and Oz. Adam takes four hours to make
a spear and three hours to make an ax. Oz Is better at making both spears and axes than
Adam. Adam doesn't-so Oz doesn't need Adam does he? You know, Adams is a waste of space
as far as Oz is concerned. Well no, because all Oz has to do is make two spears and get
Adam to make two axes and then they trade. And the result is that they've both saved
an hour of work each. That's the law of comparative advantage. Now the point is, that if they
do that a couple of times then Oz is going to get even better at making spears and Adam
is going to get even better at making axes. So it's going to be even more true every time
they do it that there are going to be gains from trade in it. And that's the story of
human progress really. It's the specialization that each of us, we get more and more specialized
as producers and that enables us to be more and more diversified as consumers. Because
in the end what we're doing is we're all working for each other.
Go back to this image of the stone ax and the computer mouse. The stone ax was made
by one man for his own use. We actually know this because you can find archeological sites
where they were made and you can find the chips how they fell from the Boulder as the
man was chipping it. And you can see that five people were sitting around after they
killed a horse. And this is one particular case in southern England 500,000 years ago.
And they each made their own ax to help butcher the animal. The object on the right was made
for me very kindly by lots of people. Tens of people, hundreds of people, thousands of
people I think it's millions of people actually when you think about it. Because it's not
just the man who assembled the computer mouse. It's the man who drilled oil well to get the
oil to make the plastic to house it. And the man who brewed coffee for the man he drilled
oil well and so on. Once you start counting the number of people who contributed to making
me that computer mouse just when I needed it, there were an awful lot of them. A million
people working for me. It's an extraordinary phenomenon.
Here's a rich man, Louis XIV, the King of France in the late 17th century. And he's
rich because he had a lot of people working for him. He had--he could get almost anything
he wanted because he could ask people to make it for him or to do it for him. So somebody
made that silly outfit he's wearing for example and somebody precious hair in that strange
way and Louis XIV had 498 people to cook his dinner every night. Which is quite a good
number, but an ordinary modern tourist in the Palace of Versailles looking at Louis
XIV's possessions today--she's not rich and yet when you think about it she's got people
working for her. Somebody made those jeans. Somebody made the electricity that's lighting
the room, and she has cut 498 people to cook her dinner tonight. They're all in restaurants
and cafés and shops all over Paris but within an hour's drive she could find at least 498
people ready to serve her meal at very short notice. What's the difference? That's essentially
the process of prosperity--is increasingly--that we've worked for each other.
Now this happens in other animals, too. ”The division of labor", Adam Smith called it or
exchange in specialization. And it happens in, for example, social insects like ants--where
this is a worker ant feeding a queen ant. But there's one big difference in all other
examples of animals which work for each other, they do it within the family. An ant colony
is just a big family. Everybody is the daughter of the queen, essentially. And so they do
not ever work for strangers. The one division of labor that always have is a reproductive
division of labor, so that only one individual reproduces. You get a specialist casts that
reproduces, the queen. That's the one division of labor we never do human society. It's the
one specialization--we don't have specialized breeders in our society. We have specialized
producers and everything else that not even in England in the production to the queen.
[Audience laughter]
And of course agriculture is same idea. It's working not just for each other and for other
species and other species working for us. So, for example, ants also an indulgent agriculture
in the sense that they farm aphids. Here's an ant on the left taking honeydew from an
aphid and working for the aphid--in the sense of guarding it--and the aphid is working for
it. But human agriculture is the same. The shepherd on the right is working for the sheep
and the sheep are working for the shepherd and the dog is working for both of them and
so on. That's what agriculture is. Its species working for each other.
Now I'm going to argue that this habit of working for each other, of specialization
in exchange, began around 120,000 years ago. And I'm going to present some evidence for
that. And it explains human take off. Explains how we went from being very clever, very linguistic
all these kinds of things, but still having no great--what you might call--explosion of
numbers or prosperity to becoming a species that totally dominates the planet. Because
if you look at a graph of human brain size over time--from fossils--like this one, you
can see that it's a pretty gradual process, the increase in brain size. And if you put
on this--the great things that we think make us human, that distinguish us from other animals,
they all come at the wrong time to explain what's going on. So for example standing on
two legs, well, that happened at least 2 1/2 million years ago.
Yesterday I was handling a replica of Ardipithecus ramidus. The 4.4 million-year-old ancestral
species which was pretty well bipedal already 4.4 million years ago. So, freeing
up the hands had an impact, but it wasn't the key ingredient. You mention of tools,
stone tools are 2 1/2 million years old. Fire, we don't know when it happened maybe half
million may be 1 1/2 million years ago. And it had a big impact because once we'd invented
fire, we could do cooking, and that's external digestion which means you don't need to such
a big gut, so you can have a bigger brain etc. etc. But it comes too early in the story.
Even language, we now know Neanderthals probably had the same mutations in the genome that
facilitate language that we did. Which means that our common ancestor with Neanderthals
400,000 or so years ago probably had incipient language. So, it doesn't look like language
had quite the impact we often thought it did.
My argument is that exchange comes at just the right time. The invention of swapping
things which was a very difficult thing to invent because their homicidal relations between
troops of apes usually. Came around the right time to explain the sudden transformation
is just another successful but relatively rare ape into the creatures that dominates
the planet. It may have been preceded--perhaps--by an older division of labor which probably
preconditioned us to this. And this is sexual division of labor, the division of labor between
males and females. In all extant hunter gatherer society as a specialization in the way creatures
forage between males and females. It is usually hunting males and gathering females but it's
not always quite that simple. So for example in the Hadza here, men go out hunting for
things like warthogs and women go digging for roots. Now it's a beautiful system because
has a wonderful Ricardian gains from trade in it. All a women has to do if she wants
protein is dig up some extra roots. So as to have something to trade for food. She doesn't
have to go out on an exhausting hunt. And all a man has to do to have a plentiful supply
of food, even on days when he hasn't managed to catch anything, is make sure that when
he does catch something it's big enough so that he can share the meat with a woman. Both
sides benefit from the system. It's a beautiful invention. And it looks like that it was something
that Neanderthal might not have had. Neanderthals were--they're an enigma, they're highly intelligent
creatures. They have on average bigger brains than us. The probably one of the biggest fossil
craniums that's ever been found was neanderthal. They, as I said, they had imagination, because
they buried their dead. They had language. The puzzle--and yet they, their technology
did not progress. It remained very similar until the last few thousand years, before
they went extinct. And their numbers didn't change. They had nothing like the kind of
take off that we did. They certainly didn't invent civilization. And it looks like they
didn't have a sexual division of labor. This is the theory of Mary Stein and Steve Kuhner--it's
the other way around--Mary Stiner and Steve Kuhn at Arizona, who argue that you look at
Neanderthals sites you can't find the sorts of toolkits and objects that women would've
been using if they were like hunter-gatherers. There's no plant processing tools, there's
no Grindstones, there's no clothes making, all those kinds of things. So, they're not
saying that women did nothing, they're saying actually that women were probably out hunting
with men and that this was a highly cooperative species in which everybody helped each other
but they didn't have a distinction between the roles of the males and females, they were
all hunters. And we know that Neanderthals did not trade because Neanderthal tools are
always made from local materials. The stone tools were made from rocks found within just
a very short distance from where they are. Whereas, modern human tools after 100,000
years as ago start cropping up were made from things a long, long way away. For example
in the Caucuses there is a site where the Neanderthal remains on one side of the valley
and modern human remains on the other. The Neanderthal remains are associated with the
local chert. And the modern human remains are associated with obsidian from up to 100
miles away. So the earliest evidence for trade is when things start moving long distances.
And in Ethiopia you see stone tools starting to move long distances around 100,000 years
ago something similar and Algeria where these marine shells are moving 125 miles inland...
What happened? Did it go--has it gone a funny color?
[Mumbling] Can you see this clearly?--Well the image
is very dark.
So these marine shells which have been drilled to make beads and have been worn smooth by
being worn probably on a string. These date from at least 80,000 and probably up to 120,000
years ago. And this is the first time were saying objects moving long distances. How
do we know that moving long distances is trade and not migration? Well, because in relatively
modern Stone Age people like Australian Aborigines he could see the same phenomenon. There was
a quarry called Mount Isa in northern Australia where the Kalkadoon tribe dug up stone axes.
And they traded them with their neighbors for things like stingray barbs. And as a result
of the stone axes ended up all over Australia in a far larger area than the Kalkadoon tribe
ever went to.
And what happens when you cut a human off from trade and exchange networks? Well, one
of the fascinating natural experiments
… in this is what happened to Tasmanian Aborigines. They occupied Tasmania 35,000
years ago when it was firs--when it was a peninsula of the Australian continent. About
10,000 years ago the sea levels rose at the end of the ice age in Tasmania was cut off
and became an island. Over the next 10,000 years to 4,000 or so people living on Tasmania
not only experience and no progressive innovations in the tools that they were making, they actually
experienced regress. Their tools became simpler and they lost certain technologies altogether.
They lost the ability to make bone tools for example lost the ability to make fishing equipment.
And they lost the ability to make clothing. What's going on here, is that they can't sustain
in that small of a number, in that sort of isolation, they can't sustain the different
specialized skills even to keep their existing technologies alive. It's as if the hundred
or so people in this room were dumped on an island, how many of the technologies in our
pockets would we still be able to make after 10,000 years? Obviously, not very many.
Tierra del Fuego is a very similar islands, equally inhospitable, equally cold, equally
sparsely populated, and yet this didn't happen here. Why not? Because the Magellan Straits
is narrower than the Bass Strait, and there was continuous trading contact between the
people of Tierra del Fuego and the mainland of South America, which there was not in Tasmania.
So my argument is this process of exchanges specialization leads to something called collective
intelligence which transcends the power of our brain. If you go back to the image again
of the hand ax and the mouse. The hand ax--as I say--was made by one person for his own
use and he knew how to make it. Nobody knows how to make a computer mouse. Quite literally,
I don't mean that figuratively I mean that literally. There's nobody on the planet that
knows how to make a computer mouse. The president of the computer mouse company only knows how
to run a company. But the person who assembles it, he knows how to assemble it, but he doesn't
know how to drill an oil well to get the oil and turn it into plastic. The knowledge is
not held in any one brain. And the brain cannot comprehend that knowledge actually. We've
transcended the ability of our brains, because we are able to use brains as nodes in a network,
I hope this is reverberating well at Google, that's essentially what we're doing. We're
allowing--if I could go back to the analogy between sex and exchange--we're allowing ideas
to have sex in this network, and come together and combine and produce something that's greater
than the sum of its parts.
"Knowledge", said Friedrich Hayek, "never exist in concentrated or integrated form,
but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which
all us separate individuals possess." He is arguing against central planning here and
it's basically the same point. So people are nodes in a network and that's what lights
up the light bulb of human achievement. And here of course, is where we get to the modern
world's where ideas are having sex in a furious fashion compared with what ever went before.
Ideas can come together and combine and recombine far faster than before and on a far bigger
scale than before. And if that is what drives innovation, as I argued that it does, then
surely were going to see an acceleration of innovation in this century not a diminution.
So I then want to tie all of this to an argument that things are actually getting better. Now
very few people in my country seem to believe this. Everybody thinks that things are getting
worse. And I used to be the same. I was brought-I became an adult in the 1970s when Britain
was a pretty dire place and every one was pretty pessimistic. I was told that the population
explosion was unstoppable, an epidemic of cancer was beginning because the chemicals
in the environment, famine was going to reduce the human population, nuclear war was on the
way, various diseases were coming back, the oil was going to run out, and so on and so
forth. And I actually realized about the age of 21 that nobody ever said anything optimistic
to me about the future of the human race at all. Not in a pub or a television program
or anything. And I couldn't help noticing some of these gloomy things just kept not
happening. And in fact, everything started getting better. And all sorts of people started
getting richer and not only my country but around the world. And I've been going back
and looking at the numbers on what's happened in my lifetime, and I've astounded myself.
But this happens because we work for each other we produce things for each other and
we make it cheaper for each other to achieve things. So ask yourself how long it takes
you on the average wage in America or Britain, it's roughly the same it turns out, to earn
an hour of ever reading light. That is to say, an 18 watt compact fluorescent bulb burning
for about an hour which comes to about 1200 lumen-hours. Um. And the answer is that today
on the average wage you have to work for about half a second to earn that much liked which
is not very long. In 1950 you'd have had for 16 times as long to earn that much light.
And in 1880 you'd have had to work a whole 15 minutes to earn an hour of reading light.
That was the cost of kerosene and the amortize cost of a kerosene lamp. Back in 1800 and
you'd have to work for six hours--on the then average wage--to earn the price of a candle
that gave you that much light. What that tells you is that in 1800 the average person on
the average wage could not afford a candle. And he certainly couldn't afford to sit reading
Jane Austen every night because he had worked all day to achieve what he want it. And that's
just a measure of how extraordinarily much technology has changed and improved our lives.
And here are some numbers: life expectancy in my lifetime up roughly 30%, it's going
up at five hours per day, life expectancy. This is global. This isn't America this it
is a all around the world. It's going up faster in countries like China.
Poverty: this is one of several measures of poverty, but they're all declining and they
all have been declining for at least 30 years. That's true even in Africa. Africa had a couple
back decades in which the poverty rate actually increase because population was going up faster
than economic growth. That's now turned around. We've seen pretty steady progress in the diminution
of poverty in Africa--a long way to go--but it's starting.
Air pollution: air pollution is halved in the United States since 1980. A Ford Mustang
car in 1970 emitted more hydrocarbons sitting on his driveway than a 2010 Mustang emits
try traveling at 70 miles an hour on the freeway.
Even oil spills. Gasp!
How dare I say that with a British accent.
[audience laughs]
This is clearly going to be a terrible year for oil spills. Its going to be one of the
big green bars on this year. Hopefully it won't be too big but it it it it could be
at least half the size of some of the three big ones. Are they green or yellow to you,
sorry? But notice the context. Which is, over the past 30 years despite a huge increase
in the amount of oil transported on the ocean the amount spilled has actually been going
down. Death rates from water related diseases, they've virtually ceased to kill people in
the United States. Tuberculosis, scurvy, and measles, other causes of death are not going
down as fast as infectious diseases but they're not going up either. Where is this cancer
epidemic that we were promised from chemicals in the environment. Age-adjusted cancer rates
are going down this shows non-age-adjusted rates in there pretty level Heart disease
is going down. The AIDS epidemic came but it has--to a degree--retreated. So just to
summarize, since 1955 life expectancy is up a third, per capita income rate is up threefold,
that's corrected for inflation. Food per capita is that the third, child mortality is down
two thirds, and population growth rate has halved. That's in my lifetime. In the world
as a whole. And actually, I think people are getting kind of less cruel, and less tolerant
of violence, more tolerant of difference and ethnic differences and so on.
Some examples, the homicide rate in Europe this is one of the crimes, one of violent
crimes can get fairly good data. And this is Spierenburg's calculation for what the
homicide rate per hundred thousand people was in Europe, even if it ticks up a bit it's
a long way short of your probability of being a homicide victim in the Middle Ages. This
is an ancestral relation of mine called Bishop Nicholas Ridley. He was burned at the stake
slowly--from the feet upwards--as a spectator sport in 1555 for the crime of believing that
the sacrament, during the Communion, was figuratively not literally the body of Christ. You know,
that was fun in those days you couldn't imagine that nowadays. Of course, terrible horrible
violent things still happen in the world, but on most measures they are actually getting
rarer and are getting harder to justify. Even inequality is falling. Did you know that?
Most people think inequality is rising and increment inequality has risen in countries
like the US but globally it's going down. Why? Because poorer countries like China are
getting rich faster than rich countries are getting rich. So finally, I don't think that
this process is over. I don't think that we're like the man falling past the second floor
of the skyscraper who says, "So far so good."
[audience light laughter]
I think we ain't seen nothing yet. I don't see any why this process of exchange and specialization
which produces new technologies will not continue to improve people's lives in what comes ahead.
Just to give you one example of how ambitious I think we should be about what to do in this
century to improve human lifestyles. If we believe in progress, if we don't say we need
to stop now--and that is to say--ask yourself how much land you need to feed a person on
the planet. If we were hunter gatherers we would need a thousand hectares per head. Early
farmers used only about 10 hectares to feed one person. That's how the density of human
people human population increased so dramatically when farming was invented. By the 1950s we
were feeding people off of about 4000 m². And today with the average cereal yield you
can produce enough calories on about 1200 m² to feed a person. So here's the global
cereal harvest over the last 50 years and it's very nearly traveled over 50 years. And
yet the acreage that we plant in cereals has not changed at all. And so of course, in increasing
the productivity of cereal growing land around the world we've actually taken the pressure
off wild habitats. It's the increasing intensity of farming that has actually save the rainforests.
And if we were to pull off the trick again--if we could trebles yields from land again--and
I think it could be done with existing technology let alone new ones, because there are large
parts of the world still not getting access to fertilizers and things like that which
is what makes the difference.
Then what can we do in this century? Apparently we crop about 15,000,000 km² which is almost
the size of Russia. If we were farming much less efficiently, like early farmers we'd
need an awful lot more land. It couldn't be done. We couldn't feed 9 billion people which
is how many there will be by the middle of this century, from ah from that kind of agriculture.
Even if we went back to the type of agriculture used in the 1950s we'd struggle, and even
with today's average yields we need more land to feed 9 billion people in 2050 than we use
to feed 6.8 billion today. It stands to reason. But if we were to double yields again in the
next 50 years, and as I say we jolly nearly trebled them in the last 50 years. Then we
would actually be able to feed more people--that's 9 billion people--on less land than we cultivate
today. That means we can start to think about rejoining rain forest patches, linking up
nature reserves, setting land aside, re-flooding marshes that kind of thing. In fact, in some
of the rich Western countries we're already doing that. That's the sort of ambition we
should have for technology and progress, and by then population will be falling on most
projections. So actually if we did it again in the following half-century we could imagine
feeding people from a still smaller patch and giving even more land back to nature.
So I think people who take a very pessimistic view of the future are actually not going
to be right.
Certainly I'm not ruling out disasters. We are certainly going to have horrible wars
in this century, I don't doubt it. We're going to have depressions, we're going to have recessions,
we're going to have natural disasters. Horrible things will happen. Ethnic conflicts all sorts
of things, just as we had in the 20th century. But I think, after all population is only
an increase 1 1/2 times the century. It quadrupled in the 20th century. It's going to get easier
and easier in that sense to improve people's lives. This is what the preamble to Agenda
21, signed by the world leaders in Rio in 1992, started by saying. It said, "Humanity
stands as a defining moment in history. We are confronted with a perpetuation of disparities
within and between nations a worsening of poverty, hunger, ill health, illiteracy and
in the continued deterioration of the ecosystems of which we depend for our well-being." With
the partial exception of the last parts of that statement, everything in that statement
turned out to be utterly wrong about what happened there for the next 18 years till
today. That is to say disparities within and between nations got better not worse, poverty
got better not worse, hunger got better not worse, ill health got better not worse, and
so on. Woody Allen put it this way rather similarly, "more than at any time in our history,
mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness the other
to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose carefully."
So there's the percentage increased population in the world's population, it's almost halved
the early 60s, it's continuing to fall. And why do we--why are we so pessimistic? My think
part of the problem is there's a conspiracy to keep the good news from us. We only like
telling each other the bad news. Here's an example from the New York Times, recently,
which is about an article that appeared in the Lancet magazine on maternal mortality,which
is death in childbirth and pregnancy. Which was falling for a while and then it leveled
out because of the AIDS epidemic and now it's falling again. And when this was published
the editor of the Lancet came under a lot of pressure not to publish from various pressure
groups. Because they were in the process of arguing for funding increases to work on maternal
mortality and they didn't want the good news out there spoiling their pitch. You can understand
the motivation of that. But I think it's just a tiny example of how there is much more vested
interests in telling us bad news than telling us good news. Another example, this is the
data that appeared in the intergovernmental panel on climate change report in 2007. And
it shows the number of people who are likely to be at increased water stress as a result
of four different scenarios of global warming in the 21st century. And in each case it's
over a billion people who are likely to be at increased water stress. But what they didn't
say in the 2007 report was that the paper from which they got this data also had the
number of people that would be decreased water stress as a result of each of these warming
scenarios. And not only is a number greater in every case but its greatness the difference
is greatest in the warmest cases. So again this is telling us only half the story. The
intergovernmental panel on climate change uses economic assumptions to try and work
out how much carbon dioxide is going to be produce in this century. And they--and this
is some of the--these are their four scenarios for what GDP per capita will look like. And
obviously the highest scenario is the one that produces the most carbon dioxide. But
it's worth reflecting that these are showing increases in average GDP per capita of the
citizen's of the world between four and 18 times. And if we went on like we did in last
50 years then the average citizen of the world would be nine times as rich--corrected for
inflation--in 2100 as he was in 1990. That's a fairly interesting number, I think. I'm
just going to give you one example of why I'm not that worried about climate change
one of many and are lots of reasons and lots of subjects to discuss about this and I'm
not going to go into all of them in the depth. But A. I don't see that climate change is
happening particularly fast, and I know that's an un—an exceptional thing to say. And B.
I see no reason why human ingenuity is not likely to lead to our ability to adapt to
it. As long as we take precautions and invest in new technologies. Here's an example, this
is the United States average temperature over the last century. And the rural data is a
dark blue line and urban data is the pink line. So very clearly you can see the postwar
heat island effect. How okay sorry the color is completely different. The blue line is
urban data and the black line is the rural data. What a strange projector you have here
[laughs, audience laughs]. It looks quite different on my screen. So you can see the
urban heat island effect--which we all know--which is the cities with all the concrete get warmer
than the countryside. But that's the unadjusted raw data. When that stuff is published and
put into the international record, the rural data is adjusted upwards rather than urban
data adjusted downwards. I find that very puzzling. But either way it's not particularly
fast change in temperature. And here's why--even on theoretical grounds--I think it's perfectly
legitimate to be a complete believer in the greenhouse effect, as I am. And still not
be convinced that were in the face of catastrophic warming in this century had anything like
a high probability. Everybody agrees on how much warming a doubling of carbon dioxide
will produce and its about a degree. But the 3° prediction that we're all given from the
intergovernmental panel on climate change comes from a water vapor feedback and two
extra degrees. And that comes about because the 1° will produce more evaporation therefore
there'll be more water in the air and water is a greenhouse gas too, fair enough. But
water also forms clouds and clouds can reflect sunlight back into space. And some of the
data that is now coming in a showing that that water vapor feedback is not likely to
be so large. And it may not even be positive in all it may even be negative. In which case,
the net warming would be less. So there's no disagreement about the blue bit there is
huge disagreement about the green bits and therefore there's big disagreement about the
red bit that were facing. Anyway, I didn't want to get bogged down on climate change.
I just wanted to give you a couple reasons why--after looking at as much of it is possible--I
have come to the conclusion that, yes it's possible that we face catastrophe but, no
I'm not yet worried that is likely. Of course all this optimism is no good because optimism
sounds silly and pessimism sounds wise "I've observed," said John Stuart Mill,"that not
the man who hopes when others despair but the man he despairs when others hope is admired
by a large class of persons as a sage."
Thank you very much.
[audience applause]
>>male presenter #2:Alright if you have some questions just gather at the microphone here.
Yup, that one there.
>>man in audience#1: Hi. I noticed that you didn't mention anything about the topic of
energy. Obviously it's important questions, I'm wondering why he skipped that. You know,
if you have bacteria in a petri dish and a supply of energy you will see growth. And
a lot of the charts you showed for progress--if you plot progress--some measure of progress
as a present danger of availability of cheap energy, some of the commentators have said
that is actually falling if you plot GDP versus available resources in terms of oil or whatever.
Ridley: Yeah, yeah. It's a very good question and in the longer version of this talk I do
have some charts on energy. You are absolutely right, cheap energy made this possible. The
reason the last 200 years have been so good--we had improvements before that--but the last
200 years have been so good because the inexhaustible fossil fuels that did not get more expensive
the more you used them like wood did, like charcoal did, coal in particular came along
in the industrial Industrial Revolution in Britain. It turned out there were--as it were--limitless
supplies of coal at the same price and eventually the price even fell for most. So, yes cheap
energy makes all the difference. And each of us sitting here today consumes the equivalent
in fossil fuel energy or at least electricity and other kinds of energy of having roughly
600 slaves in the back room on exercise bicycles working for us. Which was how you had a rich
lifestyle if you were a Bronze Age emperor of course. You actually literally had the
600 slaves working for you.
So, in that sense I think the appearance of cheap energy has made an enormous impact on
our lives. And enabled us to work for each other in a way that doesn't involve the exploitation
of people to the same extent. So that's one point. But the second point is will it all
run out? Will all come grinding to a halt very soon? And I think in terms of the three
big sources of fossil fuels: coal, oil, and gas which give us about 88% of the world's
energy use at the moment. Therefore, they're the big ones to talk about. There's no question
that there's enough coal to last for many centuries yet. It's simply a matter of how
deep you dig. And there are all sorts of ways coming on stream for getting down to deeper
seams of coal and getting gas out of them rather than having to dig out the coal themselves.
So, I don't think there's any chance of running out of coal. At least not before we've invented
things to take its place.
Gas had looked a little more finite until a few years ago. The shale gas revolution
that has transformed the United States gas supplies is quite extraordinary. In the last
five or 10 years America has gone from thinking it had about 20 to 30 years of gas left to
realizing it's probably got 50 to 150 years of gas left, because of the ability to get
gas outs of shale. And that's a relatively cheap technology, and now they're trying it
in Europe and they're expecting to find huge reserves of the stuff in China too. So it's
not looking like gas is going to run out anytime soon. And by the way gas is a low carbon fuel
compared with coal and oil. CH4, you're burning a lot more hydrogen than carbon when you burn
Oil looks more finite. It looks like were going to run out of oil a lot sooner than
we are of the others. Not literally runs out because there are huge reserves of very expensive
forms of oil like the tar sands in Alberta and so on. They really will last 100-200 years
at some point but at a price. And I think there is no question, at some point we are
likely to see oil getting more and more expensive. The question is will that actually start to
pinch off human living standards before we have invented cheap alternatives? And I don't
think it will because I think for a start you can substitute cheap gas for a lot of
the uses of oil. You can make petroleum out of coal if necessary. You know, we're leaving
aside the sort of climate consequences to all of this. I'm just talking about the costs
of energy. So I rather support what, I've forgotten his name, the guy who's just written
a book called Power Hungry. It says--which is--this century is going to be "N2N", as
he calls, it natural to gas and nuclear. That's sort of the--the source of most of our energy
in this century. Long answer, good question. Thanks for the question.
>>man in audience #2: You had a good statistic on homicide rates, but I'm curious about wars.
Do you have any statistics on say, you know, per capita the number of people that die in
>>Matt Ridley: Yeah, that's a really good question. The answer is, you know the 20th
century deaths per capita in wars were bad. I don't need to tell you that you already
knew that. 200 million people killed in wars in the 20th century compared with many fewer
in the 19th century. But nearly all of that happened in the first half of the 20th century.
There were about 20 million people killed in wars in the second half of the century
about 180 million in the first half. So, you know, we went to a very very bad 50-year patch.
But even if you take that 50 years and you say this is your probability of dying in war.
It was roughly 1/10 of your probability of dying in war you lived in a hunter gatherer
society in Brazil or Papua New Guinea. Hunter-gatherer warfare is a low grade thing with a lot of
skirmishing and a lot of posturing and the odd throwing of things that results in a surprisingly
large number of deaths per head of population, even compared with industrialized warfare
in the 20th century. So yeah, by 1950 the trend had got a lot worse on wars over the
last couple of hundred years. It looks like it's gotten a lot better again in the last
50 years. Which we will go in this century I don't know. But it's a you know, it's wise
to be cautious, about that I agree.
>>man in audience #3: Do we have time for one more question...
>>man in audience #3: You say you're an optimist's, but do you functioned as a futurist as well.
Do you subscribe to the singularity or anything like this?
>>Matt Ridley: Well, it's a good question, and I'm looking at Stephen because we were
talking about this earlier. And the answer is that I kind of duck that at the end of
the book. In other words, I say I don't see any reason why these good things can't continue
but I'm not going to try specify what the future's going to look like. Why? Because
every futurologists I've ever read is looks awfully silly 50 years later. I hope that's
not true of Ray Kurzweil and people like that. But if you look at HG Wells or Isaac Asimov
or George Orwell or anything, you know, Aldous Huxley
they're writing about their own time. They're not writing about the future actually. So
for example the 1950s everyone predicted by now we would have an incredible transport
revolution. We'd all have personal gyrocopter's and space travel would be routine and supersonic
aircraft would be routine. They were completely wrong about that transport in the turned out
to be a technology that stagnate in terms of rate of speed of transport.
>>man in audience #4: And what about the information explosion?
Ridley: Exactly, and what they didn't spot was that communication was going to have this
explosion. So I feel at some point this communication revolution will run out of steam as the transport
one did. Steam is wrong word but you know what I mean. Some time around the middle of
this century, perhaps. But by than some other technology will be expanding rapidly. I don't
know what it will be. It'll probably be biotech or something related to biology. But all I
know is that as Yogi Berra, the baseball player, was supposed to have once said, "I never make
predictions especially about future."
>>male presenter #2: Thank you. So we'll have some time at the end of the talk if you have
any other additional questions. But for now Matt thank you for an amazing talk at Google.
>>Matt Ridley: Okay. Thank you.
[audience applause]