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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Archive for date: 05-2010

Richer for poorer

Average incomes of the poor now exceed those of the rich 50 years ago.

In my book I point out that an unemployed British father of three on welfare today receives more in state support than a man on the average wage received in income in 1957. It's an eye-catching reminder of how wrong J K Galbraith was to argue that affluence in the late 1950s had already gone too far.

Now the Institute of Fiscal Studies has compiled data on average incomes in Britain since 1961, coming to the remarkable conclusion that

in real terms the bottom 25% are now considerable richer than were the top 25% in 1961.

African optimism

Jonathon Porritt versus Jonathan Dimbleby

In my book I quote the English environmentalist Jonathon Porritt as follows: 'It's blindingly obvious [that] completely unsustainable population growth in most of Africa will keep it permanently, hopelessly, stuck in deepest, darkest poverty.'

At first I had assumed that the quote, which I had found in another book, must be out of context. Surely nobody would say anything so foolish or so heartless. Surely he was caricaturing some blimpish view from a reactionary? So I looked up the original article, in The Ecologist in 2007, to be sure I was not being unfair to quote him thus. You can read the whole article here. Here's the longer context of the quote.

Yet the facts speak for themselves: the fewer there are of us, the greater our personal carbon budgets - and just remember we're starting from a baseline here in the UK of around 12½ tonnes of CO2 per person!I can't tell you how politically incorrect it is to spell things out in those terms. Even those who are getting more and more enthusiastic about the idea of personal carbon budgets (including Environment Secretary David Miliband) wouldn't dream of giving voice to such a crass calculation. Leaders of our ever-so-right-on environment movement can barely bring themselves to utter the dreaded "p" word. The Millennium Development Goals don't mention population. Tony Blair's Commission for Africa ignored it entirely, even though it's blindingly obvious that completely unsustainable population growth in most of Africa will keep it permanently, hopelessly stuck in deepest, darkest poverty. Our very own Department for International Development grits its teeth and reluctantly doles out little bits of money for family planning projects, but the idea that it should be the Department's No 1 priority - if it was remotely realistic about its poverty alleviation aspirations - remains anathema to most officials and ministers.

Unprecedented warming?

Around 7,000 years ago it was much, much warmer all around the globe.

There's a lot of debate about the `Medieval Warm Period'. But I've always been intrigued by the warm period of 7,000 years ago, known as the Holocene Optimum, and I have been doing some digging to find out just how warm it was. I've come away rather amazed.

Have a look at this image, which uses stalagmites in caves to estimate ancient temperatures (as graphed by Wilis Eschenbach)

Handaxe and mouse

Canadian style

The Globe and Mail (Toronto) has made a nice new version of my "handaxe and mouse" image to illustrate their review of The Rational Optimist

Ash, flu and mad cows

Caution should be applied to predictions as well as to risks

Tim Black has an excellent article in Spiked about the hypercautious European reaction to the Icelandic volcano in April:

We have sincediscoveredthat the maximum density of ash (100 micrograms of ash per cubic metre) over the UK during the ban was one fortieth of that nowdeemeda safe threshold (4,000 micrograms of ash per cubic metre). In other words, the ban was nowhere near justified by what is now the official threshold.

He goes on to give some remarkable numbers from the similar over-reaction to avian flu:

Rational Optimism on the radio

Everything from star signs to slavery and coals to Newcastle

Listen to my interview on NPR's Leonard Lopate Show

and an MP3 of my interview on PM with Marc Colvin, in Australia

Seeds of an idea

Bacteria that live in the clouds and the prospect of controlling the weather

My good friend Dave Sands is not only a brilliant biologist -- I cite him in The Rational Optimist arguing for genetic modification to improve the quality rather than the quantity of food -- but a very fine poet. He's profiled in yesterday's New York Times discussing his latest theory that ice-forming pseudomonas bactera in the air play a central role in precipitation:

In the last few years, Dr. Sands and other researchers have accumulated evidence that the well-known group of bacteria, long known to live on agricultural crops, are far more widespread and may be part of a little-studied weather ecosystem. The principle is well accepted, but how widespread the phenomenon is remains a matter of debate.

If true, this could have all sorts of implications.

The Mustang test

Pollution from driven cars has fallen so fast it is now below that of parked cars in 1970

One small fact in my book has caught several readers' attention:

Today, a car emits less pollution travelling at full speed than a parked car did in 1970 from leaks.

My source for this remarkable statistic was Johan Norberg's 2006 book När människan skapade världen. In a translation he sent me it reads:

Guardian interview: 'We can overcome disease, poverty and climate change

Jon Henley interviews Matt Ridley: The Rational Optimist is, essentially, about progress: how, of all the species on earth, only humans have managed so radically and completely to change the way they live. Animals, even the most intelligent ones, have not thus far known "economic growth" or "rising living standards" or "technological revolutions" (or, indeed, "credit crunches"). Why?

nterview in the Guardian today:

"If people are all the same underneath, how has society changed so fast and so radically? Life now is completely different to how it was 32,000 years ago. It's changed like that of no other species has. What's made that difference? Clearly our genes haven't changed; this process has happened far too fast for genetic change. My answer, bringing together my evolutionary knowledge and a lot of economic reading, is this: sex is to biology as exchange is to culture."

Sunday Times review

Generous praise from Dominic Lawson

The Rational Optimist in the Wall Street Journal

Human take-off after 45,000 years ago followed the invention of exchange

Organisms must compete in Nature's jungle

The Red Queen versus Craig Venter's new cell

Here is why Craig Venter's new organism carries absolutely no fears for me: the Red Queen. Evolution is a treadmill.

People speak about artificial life forms getting loose and running amok. But that's not how life works. It's a jungle out there.

Nature is continually trying new life forms on a truly gigantic scale and testing them against each other. Very few get to take over the world even briefly and even they soon succumb to evolving predators, parasites and competitors.

New York Times reviews The Rational Optimist

John Tierney writes in today's New York Times: Doomsayers beware, a bright future beckons

John Tierney reviews The Rational Optimist in today's New York Times:

Every now and then, someone comes along to note that society has failed to collapse and might go on prospering, but the notion is promptly dismissed in academia as happy talk from a simpleton. Predicting that the world will not end is also pretty good insurance against a prolonged stay on the best-seller list.

Sunday Times seria

Humans’ capacity for solving problems has been improving our lot for 10,000 years. Don’t think it will stop now

The Sunday Times printed an edited extract of the book on 16 May.

Shale to the chief

Gas is great stuff

People love to talk about the energy industry in voices of gloom and doom. The oil's running out, the lights are going out, the pollution's getting worse. But pause to consider the good news. Like shale gas.

Over the past decade, a wave of drilling around the world has uncovered giant supplies of natural gas in shale rock. By some estimates, there's 1,000 trillion cubic feet recoverable in North America alone-enough to supply the nation's natural-gas needs for the next 45 years. Europe may have nearly 200 trillion cubic feet of its own.

Imagine a source of energy...

First reviews of The Rational Optimist

These are a bit premature, but the book's available next week in the US, week after in the UK

Polarised on polar ice

Science gets polarised when people only read their friends' caricatures of their enemies' views

As own goals go, this was a stunning shot.

Organic's footprint

Buying organic food may make you feel superior, but stop pretending it is better for the planet

The quantity of cereals harvested in the world has trebled in 40 years [correction: nearly trebled in 50 years!], but the acreage planted to cereals has hardly changed at all.

(graph from my book)

The bright side of living longer

People are not only spending a longer time living, but a shorter time dying.

My good friend the evolutionary biologist and expert on old age, Tom Kirkwood, has made a splash in my local newspaper, The Newcastle Journal, by writing to all three British party leaders to ask them to emphasise the positive rather than the negative aspects of people living longer.

Our studies are revealing high levels of capability and good quality life among people who are well into their 80s. They are not all in poor health needing high levels of care. Indeed, many view their health as 'excellent' and still live highly independent lives.

I point out in The Rational Optimist that the average lifespan has increased by a third during my lifetime; life expectancy is increasing globally by 5 hours a day. Kirkwood's Changing Age Charter, like my book, says:

Oil spills

Bad news from oil spills has been getting rarer, though that may be of little comfort right now

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a horror, for people and for wildlife. It will surely cause huge damage. It is a reminder that for all the talk of global impacts, the worst environmental crises are still local ones.

But it is worth pausing to reflect how rare such terrible oil spills have now become. Here is the data on world tanker spills over the past 40 years: