My golden rule when I’m interviewing someone is that their personality is much more important than their qualifications or experience. I might get excited to see that someone’s spent three years at the Savoy in London, only to discover that the Savoy spent three years trying to find ways of getting rid of them. A sunny disposition and the ability to smile readily is far more valuable than an impressively long CV.
And so, on Maundy Thursday, when the papers are full of doom and gloom, as they are every day, what is there to be cheerful about? The scientist Matt Ridley has put forward 17 good reasons, all of which made me smile. Here are the first eight, taken from Matt Ridley’s blog*:
1. We’re better off now
Compared with 50 years ago, when I was just four years old, the average human now earns nearly three times as much money (corrected for inflation), eats one third more calories, buries two thirds fewer children, and can expect to live one third longer. In fact, it’s hard to find any region of the world that’s worse off now than it was then, even though the global population has more than doubled over that period.
2. Urban living is a good thing
City dwellers take up less space, use less energy, and have less impact on natural ecosystems than country dwellers. The world’s cities now contain over half its people, but they occupy less than 3 percent of its land area. Urban growth may disgust environmentalists, but living in the country is not the best way to care for the earth. The best thing we can do for the planet is build more skyscrapers.
3. Poverty is nose-diving
The rich get richer, but the poor do even better. Between 1980 and 2000, the poor doubled their consumption. The Chinese are ten times richer and live about 25 years longer than they did 50 years ago. Nigerians are twice as rich and live nine more years. The percentage of the world’s people living in absolute poverty has dropped by over half. The United Nations estimates that poverty was reduced more in the past 50 years than in the previous 500.
4. The important stuff costs less
One reason we are richer, healthier, taller, cleverer, longer-lived, and freer than ever before is that the four most basic human needs-food, clothing, fuel, and shelter-have grown markedly cheaper. Take one example: In 1800, a candle providing one hour’s light cost six hours’ work. In the 1880s, the same light from a kerosene lamp took 15 minutes’ work to pay for. In 1950, it was eight seconds. Today, it’s half a second. In these terms, we are 43,200 times better off than in 1800.
5. The environment is better than you think
In the United States, rivers, lakes, seas, and air are getting cleaner all the time. A car today emits less pollution traveling at full speed than a parked car did from leaks in 1970.
6. Shopping fuels innovation
Even allowing for the many people who still live in abject poverty, our own generation has access to more calories, watts, horsepower, gigabytes, megahertz, square feet, air miles, food per acre, miles per gallon, and, of course, money than any who lived before us. This will continue as long as we use these things to make other things. The more we specialize and exchange, the better off we’ll be.
7. Global trade enriches our lives
By 9 a.m., I have shaved with an American razor, eaten bread made with French wheat and spread with New Zealand butter and Spanish marmalade, brewed tea from Sri Lanka, dressed in clothes made from Indian cotton and Australian wool, put on shoes of Chinese leather and Malaysian rubber, and read a newspaper printed on Finnish paper with Chinese ink. I have consumed minuscule fractions of the productive labor of hundreds of people. This is the magic of trade and specialization. Self-sufficiency is poverty.
8. More farm production = more wilderness
While world population has increased more than fourfold since 1900, other things have increased too: the area of crops by 30 percent, harvests by 600 percent. At the same time, more than two billion acres of “secondary” tropical forest are now regrowing since farmers left them to head for cities, and it is already rich in biodiversity. In fact, I will make an outrageous prediction: The world will feed itself to a higher and higher standard throughout this century without ploughing any new land.