December 24, 2019
British journalist, businessman and book author Matt Ridley wrote a piece for The Spectator this week entitled “We’ve just had the best decade in human history. Seriously.”
This is a great example of the devil using promises of riches to cloud people’s judgments.
Let nobody tell you that the second decade of the 21st century has been a bad time. We are living through the greatest improvement in human living standards in history. Extreme poverty has fallen below 10 percent of the world’s population for the first time. It was 60 percent when I was born. Global inequality has been plunging as Africa and Asia experience faster economic growth than Europe and North America; child mortality has fallen to record low levels; famine virtually went extinct; malaria, polio and heart disease are all in decline.
Little of this made the news, because good news is no news. But I’ve been watching it all closely. Ever since I wrote The Rational Optimist in 2010, I’ve been faced with ‘what about…’ questions: what about the great recession, the euro crisis, Syria, Ukraine, Donald Trump? How can I possibly say that things are getting better, given all that? The answer is: because bad things happen while the world still gets better. Yet get better it does, and it has done so over the course of this decade at a rate that has astonished even starry-eyed me.
If you look around now, do you feel that this past decade was an improvement over the ones that came before it?
Perhaps one of the least fashionable predictions I made nine years ago was that ‘the ecological footprint of human activity is probably shrinking’ and ‘we are getting more sustainable, not less, in the way we use the planet’. That is to say: our population and economy would grow, but we’d learn how to reduce what we take from the planet. And so it has proved. An MIT scientist, Andrew McAfee, recently documented this in a book called More from Less, showing how some nations are beginning to use less stuff: less metal, less water, less land. Not just in proportion to productivity: less stuff overall.
This does not quite fit with what the Extinction Rebellion lot are telling us. But the next time you hear Sir David Attenborough say: ‘Anyone who thinks that you can have infinite growth on a planet with finite resources is either a madman or an economist’, ask him this: ‘But what if economic growth means using less stuff, not more?’ For example, a normal drink can today contains 13 grams of aluminum, much of it recycled. In 1959, it contained 85 grams. Substituting the former for the latter is a contribution to economic growth, but it reduces the resources consumed per drink.
Imagine the frame of mind that you have to be operating under in order to think that using an example of beverage cans is a good idea to illustrate the point that you’re trying to make about humans experiencing the best moment in their whole history.
That unseductive lack of subtlety puts into perspective the nature of the true battlefront of our time.
No one ever suggested that the people of today aren’t, on average, materially better off than people of the past.
Talking about how efficient we are at making useless disposable junk that needs to be bought and consumed in order to keep The Economy going indefinitely wasn’t the brightest or the most inspired opening for his article, but nonetheless makes it clear that what Matt Ridley is trying to do is to exalt the notion of having more material things and being able to live longer in order to interact with those things as the smoking gun that proves that everything is better than it used to be.
We get it. Everyone gets it. We have nice gadgets. We have computers, science, and technology. We have glowing screens.
We’re not fighting against famine or the plague.
Our battle isn’t material in nature.
Our battle is a spiritual one.
The rest of his piece can be summed up with “we’re getting more efficient at using resources.”
As for Britain, our consumption of ‘stuff’ probably peaked around the turn of the century — an achievement that has gone almost entirely unnoticed. But the evidence is there. In 2011 Chris Goodall, an investor in electric vehicles, published research showing that the UK was now using not just relatively less ‘stuff’ every year, but absolutely less. Events have since vindicated his thesis. The quantity of all resources consumed per person in Britain (domestic extraction of biomass, metals, minerals and fossil fuels, plus imports minus exports) fell by a third between 2000 and 2017, from 13.7 tons to 9.4 tons. That’s a faster decline than the increase in the number of people, so it means fewer resources consumed overall.
Efficiencies in agriculture mean the world is now approaching ‘peak farmland’ — despite the growing number of people and their demand for more and better food, the productivity of agriculture is rising so fast that human needs can be supplied by a shrinking amount of land. In 2012, Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University and his colleagues argued that, thanks to modern technology, we use 65 percent less land to produce a given quantity of food compared with 50 years ago. By 2050, it’s estimated that an area the size of India will have been released from the plough and the cow.
As we enter the third decade of this century, I’ll make a prediction: by the end of it, we will see less poverty, less child mortality, less land devoted to agriculture in the world. There will be more tigers, whales, forests and nature reserves. Britons will be richer, and each of us will use fewer resources. The global political future may be uncertain, but the environmental and technological trends are pretty clear — and pointing in the right direction.
What about the decade after that one? What about 30 years from now? Will we continue to see it? Will Britons be richer?
His prediction is based on current trends. If we take the current trend in demographics to make a prediction of our own, it’s clear that looking a bit further into the future, what we understand as a Briton won’t be getting any richer.
No amount of romanticizing can make the materialistic landscape any less brutal.
We’re not living in the best moment of human history.
We’re living in the time of disposable consumer products and disposable consumers.
We’re living in a time where people are seen as replaceable, interchangeable cogs for the machinery that keeps putting garbage on supermarket shelves.
Everyone is equal, so it’s all the same if you live or die.
Religion is just a flavor you choose.
You don’t have a past.
You don’t have a future.
You don’t have an identity.
You’re not really here for a reason, so enjoy all of these gadgets and taste all of these flavors. Indulge in all of these pleasures. I’m giving you a purpose. I’ll make up a background story for you and I’ll give your people an origin story. I’ll show you a bright future full of all of these things that the world has to offer.
You just have to hand over your soul.