Tuesday, August 25, 2015
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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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Hope springs in Wells

Here's the text of an opinion piece I wrote, which was published in the Western Daily Press (link to home page, not article itself) this morning to publicise a talk I am giving in Wells Cathedral on Tuesday 14th. Come along if you live nearby for the peculiar sight of me speaking in a church. Will I get to use the pulpit?

``If you write a book saying the world is getting better, you might get away with being thought eccentric. But if you write a book saying that the world is going to go on getting better and that in 2100 people will be healthier, wealthier and wiser -- and have more rainforests too - you will be though stark, raving bonkers. It is just not sane to believe in a happy future for people and their planet.

Yet I cannot stop myself. I've looked at all the statistics, facts, anecdotes, predictions and pronouncements I can get hold of and they all seem to me to suggest that we will be better off in 2100 than we are now. Much better off.

Global warming, I hear you say. Yes indeed. The official forecasts say world temperature will rise by 2-4C in this century. It is going to have to start accelerating soon, because the rate of increase since 1980 is about 1C per century - and that's if you ignore the satellites and rely mainly on the land-surface records, which many now think are hopelessly contaminated with the effects of urbanisation. Even then, it has been slowing down.

Moreover, the very same official forecasts also say that global per-capita income will multiply by 4-16 times in the same period - and the higher the temperature, the higher the income. Seriously: go look at the numbers; that's what they say. The warmer we get, the richer we will get (or rather, the other way round). In which case, what exactly is the problem?

What about the ice-caps then? They will be gone, along with Bangladesh and Florida, surely. No. There's a satellite called GRACE, which is so clever it can weigh Greenland every time it goes over it. The scientists who tell it what to do have calculated that Greenland is losing 200 cubic kilometres of ice a year, and they say that scares them. Other scientists say no, Greenland is shrinking at half that rate, because the others forgot to correct for the rise and fall of the land beneath the ice.

Whatever. How much of Greenland's ice is 200 cubic kilometres? About one half of one hundredth of one percent - which means that Greenland is losing ice at the rate of half a percent per century. It will be half gone in 10,000 years. Or 20,000 if the other lot is right. So in 2100, Greenland's ice cap will be 99.5% intact - according to the scariest estimate.

Population, you reply. Well, did you know that population is growing at the rate of a little over 1% a year, whereas in the 1960s, it was growing at 2% per year. The number of net new people born each year has been falling for 20 years. World population quadrupled in the twentieth century. It won't even double in the twenty-first. The median UN projection has it levelling off in 2075 at roughly 1.5 times today's level.

Despite that quadrupling, we ended the twentieth century having largely extinguished famine (except in countries run by criminals, like North Korea and Sudan). We actually increased food production per capita by about 30% in 50 years -and we did so without ploughing new land. The world cereal harvest trebled from the same acreage. Repeat that trick - plausible with new seeds and technologies coming along all the time -- and we will feed  9 billion people in 2100 very comfortably from a smaller acreage than we plough today. We can rebuild large chunks of rainforest and other wilderness. We might even bring back some extinct species by genetic engineering.

Yes, you say, but the oil will run out. Actually people have been predicting the imminent exhaustion of fossil fuels since 1860. There are many decades' worth of coal and oil left at the right price, and as for gas: the biggest technology breakthrough of the last decade is the new ability to get gas out of shale, which means that suddenly America and China and Poland and other places are looking at abundant gas for at least a century. With nuclear getting cheaper and safer all the time and solar promising to help by mid century, I suspect fossil fuels will be obsolete before they are extinct.

Africa, you say. So great is its burden of poverty, violence and disease that it can never catch up. They said exactly the same about Asia in the 1960s.

The truth is that all my life I have been told that the future is bleak. Population, famine, cancer, viruses, climate change, desertification, falling sperm counts, acid rain - I've lost count of the reasons they give. Yet all my life, the health and wealth of people keeps on getting better. People live 30% longer than they did when I was born, on average all around the world. Child mortality is down by two-thirds, globally. People earn three times as much money as they did in the 1950s, corrected for inflation.

The world is also cleverer (IQ scores have risen), more equal (the `Gini coefficient' has fallen), nicer (charitable giving is up, violence is down), freer (autocrats have fallen), and even happier (yes, the statistics do show that happiness increases - a bit - when people get richer. The Thames is cleaner. Deaths from weather-related diseases are at record lows (yes - despite Pakistan). The quantity of oil spilled in the ocean has fallen by 90% since the 1970s (yes - despite BP).

Horrible things will still happen, but inch by inch, people will raise their living standards in this century. There is a lot to look forward to. Don't let anybody tell your children otherwise''