Yount: A brighter outlook ahead

July 17, 2010|By DAVID YOUNT / Scripps Howard News Service

Thomas Hobbes, a pillar of the Age of Enlightenment, famously predicted that an unrestrained birthrate would overpopulate and impoverish the world. In his book "Leviathan" he warned that human life everywhere would become "nasty, brutish, and short."

Hobbes was wrong, not for want of reason, but because he failed to take into account how adaptable people could be.

In our present-day, world pessimism is rampant, focusing on deterioration of the environment and failure of economic markets. Left unchecked, our dour pundits predict, the world is going to hell in a hand basket.

In a new book, "The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves" (Harper), Matt Ridley argues otherwise. Over time, he writes, not only will we neutralize present problems, but improve the world and its people. A former writer for The Economist, Ridley invites his readers "to stand back and look at your species differently, to see the grand enterprise of humanity that has continued to progress -- with frequent setbacks -- for 100,000 years."


Then he asks us "to consider whether that enterprise is indeed finished or if it still has centuries -- and millenniums -- to run."

Ridley is no cockeyed optimist. He reminds readers that the human population has expanded in 10,000 years from fewer than 10 million people to nearly 10 billion.

Despite pockets of dire poverty, the vast majority of the world's population today is better housed and fed than ever, entertained, protected against disease, and likelier to live to old age than its ancestors.

Ridley agrees with the pessimists in this respect: that if the world continues as it is, it will end in disaster. But the human race will not allow it, he argues, because "the human race has become a collective problem-solving machine which solves problems by changing its ways."

Fortunately, shortsightedness is trumped by inventiveness. Before the introduction of the automobile, an anonymous Englishman predicted that by 1950 the streets of London would be buried under 10 feet of horse manure. In 1943 IBM founder Thomas Watson predicted that there was a world market for no more than five computers. Digital Equipment Corp. founder Ken Olsen said in 1977 "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home."

On the whole, people who are motivated by religious faith are cautious optimists, buoyed by hope. Devoting oneself to improving the quality of life for oneself and others is considered virtuous by all major faiths. Scripture is filled with examples of tragedies converted into joy.

Facing execution, Jesus of Nazareth could have been tempted to despair. Instead, he promised his disciples, "Your grief will turn into joy" (John 16:20).

St. Paul wrote concerning God: "Here we take our stand, in happy certainty of the glorious things he has for us in the future" (Romans 5:2).

o David Yount's latest book is Making a Success of Marriage (Rowman & Littlefield). He answers readers at P.O. Box 2758, Woodbridge, VA 22195 and">

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