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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: 05-2011

The surprising resilience of continental species

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

A recent paper in the journal Nature concluded that species extinction caused by habitat loss is happening less than half as fast as usually estimated. The normal method for calculating rates of extinction assumes that doomed species merely cling temporarily to a shrunken patch of habitat, on their way to disappearing (an idea called "extinction debt"). Apparently, this isn't the case: Although a larger patch of habitat has more species in it, shrinking a patch does not lead to a proportional rate of species loss.

According to the authors of the study, the biologists Stephen Hubbell and Fangliang He, estimates of extinction rates based on the usual method are "almost always much higher than those actually observed." Though you need a big patch of forest to attract a rare species, you do not need such a big patch to retain it once it is there. Mr. Hubbell added: "The method has got to be revised. It is not right."

Bed news is lumpy, good news is smooth

I sent this letter to the Financial Times:

Sir, Gideon Rachman ("In defence of gloomy columnists", May 24) is right to point out that terrible blips will still happen in an improving world. Another way of making the same point is that good news tends to be gradual, incremental and barely visible, while bad news almost by definition comes in sudden, newsworthy lumps: wars, crashes, disasters, epidemics. It is impossible to see a field of wheat growing, but easy to see it washed away by a flood.

Matt Ridley

Why renewables keep running out

Forests are self-replenishing but easily exhausted; fossil fuels are the opposite

My latest Mind and Matter column from the Wall Street Journal:

Shale gas emissions are lower

Warmiong potential of methane emissions from gas do not nearly match carbon dioxide emissions from coal

It turns out I was right to be sceptical about the Howarth study claiming that shale gas production produces more greenhouse gases than coal.

Ther's now a definitive study here thoroughly debunking Howarth and showing that shale gas results in 54% less GHG production. Howarth claimed that the gap between gas produced and gas sold indicated leakage. Instead it indicates usage in powering equipment.

This is Howarth's second big mistake. His first last year was to assume that coal mining produced no methane.

Quintuple whammy

Britain's neo-medieval green policy robs the poor to pay the rich

`Greener food and greener fuel' is the promise of Ensus, a firm that opened Europe's largest (£250 million) bio-ethanol plant at Wilton on Teesside last year - and has now shut it down for lack of profitable customers. This is actually the second shut-down at the plant - which takes subsidies and turns them into motor fuel - the first being a three-week refit to try to stop the stench bothering the neighbours.

Welcome to the neo-medieval world of Britain's energy policy. It is a world in which Highland glens are buzzing with bulldozers damming streams for miniature hydro plants, in which the Dogger Bank is to be dotted with windmills at Brobdingnagian expense, in which Heathrow is to burn wood trucked in from Surrey, and Yorkshire wheat is being turned into motor fuel. We are going back to using the landscape to generate our energy. Bad news for the landscape.

A long way from our peak

Sean Corrigan's superb essay on finite resources

Now this is what I call magnificent writing in the sprit of Swift: Sean Corrigan riffs on peak oil, finite resources and the planet's carrying capacity:

It is much better to forget all that Sierra Club/WWF elitist, anti-mankind, horse manure about 'the call on the planet' exerted by us members of the 'plague species' and to take a little Bjorn Lomberg, a smattering of Julian Simon, and a riffle-through of Matt Ridley, regarding the minuscule size of the impact which our tiny little ilk - unimaginably outweighed by living forms we cannot even see - can really expect to exert on the vast, negatively-feedbacked rock which we inhabit-and to glory in the sustained quality of our response to the challenges which confront us, even under the far-from-ideal conditions under which we are usually asked to make it.

For example, just as an exercise in contextualisation, consider the following:-

Making two ears grow where one grew

In praise of the Green Revolution

Here's a piece I wrote for a Times supplement published yesterday in print, not available online.

In the twentieth century, the world population quadrupled. By the 1960s, it was growing at 2% a year. Yet, unlike the nineteenth century when the prairies, pampas and steppes had been brought under the plough, little new land was available to grow human food. Some in the western world began to suggest that food aid to the poor was only making the population problem worse. The ecologist Paul Ehrlich forecast famines `of unbelievable proportions' by 1975; the chief organizer of Earth Day, 1970, said it was `already too late to avoid mass starvation'; a professor in Texas said that by 1990 famines would be devastating `all of India, Pakistan, China and the Near East, Africa'.

Why did this not happen? Why was India a net exporter of food by the mid 1970s? Why did China never revisit the horrors of Mao's famines? Why has famine virtually disappeared from Africa except where foolish dictators cause it? Why has the growth rate of the world population halved to 1%?

Evil, empathy and the evolution of morality

My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal, with added links:

It's presumably neither ethical nor practical, but supposing that somebody could sequence Osama bin Laden's genome, which genes would you want to examine to try to understand his violent desires?

I put this question to the psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, the author of a new book called "The Science of Evil" (and a cousin of comedian Sacha Baron Cohen). He replied that there is no evidence that bin Laden's crimes came from his nature, rather than from his experiences, so you might find nothing.

Spectator Diary

Random thoughts on gas, songs, weather, walls and dead flies

I wrote this week's Spectator diary (no link yet):

A day in London for the launch of my new report `The Shale Gas Shock', published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation. I argue that shale gas calls the bluff of the renewable energy movement in the same way that genetically modified crops called the bluff of the organic farming movement. Just as GM allows the organic dream of drastic cuts in pesticide use to come true without high cost, so shale gas promises gradually to displace both coal (in electricity generation) and oil (in transport), drastically cutting carbon emissions without needing subsidy. Since subsidy is the lifeblood of most of the busybodies in the energy business, and since good news is no news, few people turned up for my report's launch. Back in the north, watching Newcastle United unconvincingly defeat Birmingham at St James's Park, I tried to explain `Blaydon Races' to my wife's Swedish cousin. Tyneside's national anthem chronicles no climactic battle, doomed love affair, prolonged feud or heroic feat, but the crash of a horse-drawn bus when a wheel fell off. Bizarrely, the crash never even happened, let alone on the date mentioned in the second line, 9th June 1862 - four days after the song was first performed by the song's writer, Geordie Ridley (no relation). Apparently the only bit that came true, in a verse added after the event, is the line (in Ridley's spelling) `The rain it poor'd aw the day an' myed the groons quite muddy'. By last weekend, it had not done that for weeks. I realised the drought was getting to me when I dreamed about rain. For weeks we have stared at the sky, and the web page of the Met Office rainfall radar, in the hope of a smudge that might presage a deluge. But still the sun shone every dawn, promising (in the Sarah Miles' character's words from the film White Mischief) ``another ****ing beautiful day''. The barley is beginning to suffer, though it is not yet at the point of no return. A friend says in Iowa snow and frost has delayed the maize planting to the point where it is almost too late. This is weather, not climate: noise, not signal. Just like last December's cold, or Alabama's tornadoes, or Queensland's floods, things are well within the pattern of normal variation. The global average temperature in April was 0.12 of a degree above the long term average, according to satellites: after 30 years of supposedly worrying warming. Not that this will stop the climate preachers claiming the drought as evidence of Gaia trampling out her grapes of wrath. Watch for the have-it-both-ways words: `while no single event can be blamed on climate change, this is the sort of weather we can expect more of.' The barley is grown on contract for Famous Grouse whisky. Apparently, because there is not enough winter barley in Scotland these days, they have had to redefine Scotland to Hadrian's old border, the wall, and we are north of that. Can we vote in Scotland's independence referendum, then? Driving along the military road, atop Hadrian's wall, on another ****ing beautiful evening, I ponder a simple question: did it work? We keep telling ourselves it was an act of visionary genius to build an eighty-mile whinstone border fence with watchtowers, but maybe it was just a bureaucratic folly, signed into existence by a distracted emperor with whom nobody dared argue and then found to be Maginot-useless at stopping regular barbarian incursions. Given what we know about the relentless decay into self-serving incompetence of all modern monopolies - public or private - I suspect we are too forgiving in our accounts of ancient ones, the Roman army included. As I drive, a blizzard of hawthorn flies and other insects die (dies?) on my windscreen. Judging by the Geiger-counter noise they make, it must be hundreds a minute. And there are millions of cars on the roads. Say ten billion deaths a day in Britain alone. Does this worry Jain or Buddhist drivers, who don't like killing living things? I google (actually Bing) the question and immediately find a Buddhist who advises sticking Tibetan mantras on the car so that `even if the insects get struck by the car and die, at least they touched the mantras and purify their negative karma.' A bit like papal indulgences, or carbon offsets. On Saturday night, the rain came.

Wolf!

The BBC draws no lessons from its relentless, and relentlessly wrong, alarmism

I stumbled on a BBC television program this evening (watch it here), which was unintentionally revealing. It was a compilation of extracts over several decades from its flagship science series `Horizon', all on the theme of the `end of the world'. The episodes covered asteroids, supervolcanoes, contagious earthquakes, bird flu, the Y2K computer bug, the greenhouse effect, the melting of Antarctica, the collpase of the Gulf Stream as a consequence of global warming.

In every episode, the alarm was maximised, the worst case emphasised, the language ludicrously extreme. Not one hint was allowed, even in tonight's commentary linking the episodes, that perhaps the failure of these extreme predictions of disaster should lead to just a little caution about continuing apocaholism.

The BBC's unbalanced championing of alarm continues.

Credit for cost-cutters

New technologies raise living standards, not when they are invented but when their cost falls within most people's range

My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal is about the innovation that leads to the cheapening of technologies, as opposed to the invention that leads to new technologies.

Cheapeners deserve as much credit as inventors.

Last week a Minneapolis firm called TenKsolar announced that it reckons it can soon cut the cost of rooftop solar power in sunny locations to as little as eight cents a kilowatt-hour-which is almost competitive with conventional electricity. It borrows an idea from computer memory technology to wire up solar panels in a new pattern so that the current can take many different paths through the cells in the array. The result is that the output of the panel is no longer limited to the output of the worst-performing cell. Until now, a shadow passing over one cell would cut the output of the whole panel.

Wrong about running out

I published an article in The Times this week about fossil fuel reserves:

Booming demand and stagnant supply drove oil prices to $125 a barrel last week. Is this a sign that fossil fuels are running out? It is more likely a sign that the cheap-oil age is giving way to the cheap-gas age. As the oil price heads north, the gas price is drifting south.

In 1865 a young economist named W. S. Jevons published a book titled The Coal Question in which he argued that Britain's "present lavish use of cheap coal" could not continue as coal would soon run out and continued prosperity was therefore "physically impossible. We have to make the momentous choice between brief greatness and longer continued mediocrity." Gladstone, as Chancellor, found Jevons' "grave and ... urgent facts" so persuasive that he proposed to Parliament, with the support of John Stuart Mill, to retire the national debt while the good times lasted.

The Shale gas shock

Yes, it really will change the world energy scene, mainly because it is low-cost

Read my report for the Global Warming Policy Foundation on The Shale Gas Shock here.

The foreword is by Freeman Dyson.

This is the summary

The Hayek prize

The Rational Optimist has won the Hayek Prize from the Manhattan Institute. I will be giving the Hayek Lecture when I accept the prize later in the year. The Hayek Prize honors the book published within the past two years that best reflects Hayek's vision of economic and individual liberty. The Hayek Prize, with its $50,000 award, is among the world's most generous book prizes. It was conceived and funded by Manhattan Institute trustee Tom Smith to recognize the influence of F.A. Hayek and to encourage other scholars to follow his example. The winner of the Hayek Prize is chosen from among the nominations by a selection committee of distinguished economists, journalists, and scholars. Past winners include: William Easterly for The White Man's Burden, Amity Shlaes for The Forgotten Man, and, most recently, Benn Steil and Manuel Hinds for Money, Markets & Sovereignty.

This is a great honour because my central themes about collective intelligence and spontaneous order are in many ways prefigured in F.A.Hayek's work, and his ideas on the evolutionary nature of economic progress are ones that I share and have built on.

The Rational Optimist has also won a silver medal Axiom Business Book Award.

Vote for nutters and you can vote twice

I don't have terribly strong views on the alternative-vote referendum that Britain holds this week. But I found this radio exchange on the BBC between John Humphreys and the prime minister, David Cameron, remarkable. If even Humphreys does not know how the system would allow the second votes of extremists to be counted more than those of moderates (and he clearly does not), then it does not sound like a comprehensible system.

DC: "...you start counting some people's votes more than once".

JH: "No, you don't. That simply isn't true, that you count some votes more than once."

Perishability and democracy

Food that can be stored can be traded and trade leads to democracy

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on grain, fruit and the economic underpinnings of democracy.

When I was young, I had a mug on a shelf in my bedroom, and on it was a poem about a farmer-a simple hymn to self-sufficiency. Here's a bit of it:

I eat my own lamb, My own chickens and ham I shear my own fleece and I wear it. I have lawns, I have bowers I have fruits, I have flowers The lark is my morning alarmer.