Self-sufficiency is poverty – argues Matt Ridley

“The cumulative accretion of knowledge by specialists that allows us each to consume more and more different things by each producing fewer and fewer is, I submit, the central story of humanity”. ~ Matt Ridley 


I’m only through with the first chapter into Matt Ridley’s ‘The Rational Optimist’. Anyone would wait to finish the book and do a proper review; I can’t help it though, but jot down here some quick insights from his arguments that have sent me mind-boggled, before they vanish. The rules change when you are reading Matt Ridley!


Ridley begins by making a case that “we are wealthier, healthier, happier, kinder, cleaner, more peaceful, more equal and longer-lived than any previous generation. Thanks to the unique human habits of exchange and specialization, our species has found innovative solutions to every obstacle it has faced so far”.

He introduces the concept of “when ideas have sex” making a case that all this human progress has happened because of ‘cross-pollination’ of the human ingenuity. He argues that the big brains and imitation and language are not necessarily the explanation of our prosperity and progress. “ Neanderthals had all these: big brains, probably complex languages, lots of technology. But they never burst out of their niche. It is my contention that in looking inside our heads, we would be looking in the wrong place to explain this extraordinary capacity for change in species. It was not something that happened within a brain. It was something that happened between brains. It was a collective phenomenon”.

He continues to make a case of “a better today: the unprecedented present” bringing out simple, everyday but rather intriguing scenarios like how cheap artificial light has become today. “An hour today earns you 300 days’ worth of reading light; an hour of work in 1800 earned you ten minutes of reading time” if you are on average wage. Time, he continues to argue, “that is the key. Forget about dollars, cowrie shells or gold. The true measure of something’s worth is the hours it takes to acquire it. If you have to acquire it yourself, it usually takes longer than if you get it ready-made by other people. And if you can get it made efficiently by others, then you can afford more of it. As light became cheaper, so people used more of it”.

“This is what prosperity is: the increase in the amount of goods or services you can earn with the same amount of work”.

IMG_6947An antelope in Murchison Falls NP, Uganda. 

“Self-sufficiency is not the route to prosperity”, Ridley states, imploring the reader to “imagine you are a deer” or in my case an antelope. “You have essentially four things to do during the day: sleep, eat, avoid being eaten, and socialize. There is no real need to do much else”. He further implores you to “now imagine you are a human being. Even if you count only the basic things, you have rather more than four things to do; sleep, eat, cook, dress, keep house, travel, wash, shop, work… the list is virtually endless”. He argues that the deer should therefore have more free time than human beings, “yet it is people, not deer, who find time to read, write, invent, sing and surf the net”. It comes from exchange and specialization and from the resulting division of labour. “A deer must gather its own food. A human being gets somebody else to do it for him, while he or she is doing something for them – and both win time that way”.

Have you ever thought about the fact that you are much more richer than Louis XIV? The Sun King had dinner every night alone, he chose from forty dishes, served on gold and silver plate. It took a staggering 498 people putting in so many hours each to prepare each meal. He was rich because he had many servants at his disposal. But imagine an average urban resident in your local town today, for a tiny fraction of his daily wage, he or she can walk into the nearby bistro with the best chefs in town and he will be served at less than 15 minutes’ notice with a sumptuous meal made with myriads of ingredients sourced from every corner of the world (rice from Pakistan, spices from India, potatoes from Kisoro, cheese from Holland, nakati from Luwero, et cetera) all handled in the process by millions of people. You may have no chefs but you are possibly richer than Louis XIV because of the power of specialization and exchange!

“In truth,” Ridley argues, “far from being unsustainable, the interdependency of the world through trade is the very thing that makes modern life as sustainable as it is. Suppose your local laptop manufacturer tells you that he already has three orders and then he is off on his holiday so he cannot make one for you now. You will have to wait. Or suppose your local wheat farmer tells you that last year’s rains means that he will have to cut his flour delivery in half this year. You will go hungry. Instead, you benefit from a global laptop and wheat market in which somebody somewhere has something to sell you so there are rarely shortages, only modest price fluctuations”.

I think about my mother and grand mother so deeply as I write this and as I continue to turn pages of Matt Ridley’s book. They have spent most of their entire lives growing food, bearing and raising children, tending to their homesteads, eating, sleeping and socializing. Whereas they are living a rather longer, abundant, and possibly much fulfilled lives, they have not had the luxury of time to do other extra things; you and I are able to do today.


Follow more thoughts and conversations on twitter @Wa_Mpiira



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