Home Case Studies Sustainability The Book Shelf: Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist (2010)

The Book Shelf: Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist (2010)

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Ridley proposes that these high-exchange communities will spring up when no one person had all the answers and when each member of a community depended on others for wisdom, technological expertise. Cumulative learning and active exchange, in other words, requires specialization:

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. Innovation changes the world but only because it aids the elaboration of the division of labour and encourages the division of time.” (Ridley, p. 46)

Cumulative learning, exchange and specialization not only generates innovation — these forces also lead to improvement in the human condition: “The more human beings diversified as consumers and specialised as producers, and the more they then exchanged, the better off they have been, are and will be.” (Ridley, p. 7)

We are reminded of the fundamental analysis done many years ago by the pioneering sociologist, Emil Durkheim, who wrote extensively about “the division of labor” noting that specialization and the reliance on other people for specific goods and services, as well as wisdom (collective learning) creates solidarity in a community. We are dependent on others (Ridley, p. 29). It is interesting to note that human being have more oxytocin running through their body then any other organization–and oxytocin is a chemical that is specifically aligned with the desire to bond and affiliate with other members of one’s species. As Ridley has noted, human beings should acknowledge that they are guided by a “declaration of Interdependence.” (p. 32) As George Lodge (the senate candidate and son of Henry Cabot Lodge) noted more than a decade ago, human societies are most likely to thrive if there is a balance between individual rights (declaration of independence) and collective responsibility (declaration of interdependence).

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