I’ve got the feeling that if Matt Ridley were to read this blog he’d dismiss it as so much New Age tosh. The quote from Thoreau on the title page would really get up his goat. He’d be surprised to hear me say that I, on the other hand, think his new book, ‘The Rational Optimist- How Prosperity Evolves’ is brilliant in every respect and I agree with every word. It’s the sort of book which you want everyone to read because if they do then they might just “get it”.
Here’s an extract, which hits the spot exactly:
“There are people today who think life was better in the past. They argue that there was not only a simplicity, tranquillity, sociability and spirituality about life in the distant past which has been lost, but a virtue too. This rose-tinted nostalgia, please note, is generally confined to the wealthy. It is easier to wax elegiac for the life of a peasant when you do not have to use a long-drop toilet. Imagine that it is 1800 somewhere in Western Europe or eastern North America. The family is gathering round the hearth in the simple timber-framed house. Father reads aloud from the Bible while mother prepares to dish out a stew of beef and onions. The baby boy is being comforted by one of his sisters and the eldest lad is pouring water from a pitcher into the earthenware mugs on the table. His elder sister is feeding the horse in the stable. Outside there is no noise of traffic, there are no drug dealers and neither dioxins nor radio-active fall-out have been found in the cow’s milk. All is tranquil; a bird sings outside the window.
Oh please! Though this is one of the better-off families in the village, father’s scripture reading is interrupted by a bronchitic cough that presages pneumonia that will kill him at 53- not helped by the wood smoke of the fire. (He is lucky: life expectancy even in England was less than 40 in 1800.) The baby will die of the smallpox that is now causing him to cry; his sister will soon be the chattel of a drunkard husband. The water the son is pouring tastes of the cows that drink from the brook. Toothache tortures the mother. The stew is grey and gristly yet meat is a rare change from gruel; there is no fruit or salad in this season. It is eaten with a wooden spoon from a wooden bowl. Candles cost too much, so firelight is all there is to see by. Nobody in the family has ever sen a play, painted a picture or heard a piano. School is a few years of dull Latin taught by a bigoted martinet at the vicarage. Father visited the city once, but the travel cost him a week’s wages and the others have never travelled more than fifteen miles from home. Each daughter owns two wool dresses, two linen shirts and one pair of shoes. Father’s jacket cost him a month’s wages but is now infested with lice. The children sleep two to a bed on straw mattresses on the floor. As for the bird outside the window, tomorrow it will be trapped and eaten by the boy”