Recession Ridley: The Irrational Optimist


Matt Ridley, has written a book called, "The Rational Optimist: how prosperity evolves".  In the book, the Eton and Oxford educated Ridley, argues that the world is getting better and better, it has been doing so for hundreds of years, and will continue to do so. Nothing stands in the way of his argument, not even global climate change, which he dismisses in his book as one of the "two great pessimisms of today".

Ridley attacks the "parasitic bureaucracy", which stifles free enterprise and excoriates public regulation and governments for, among other sins, bailing out big corporations. If only the market is left to its own devices, he insists, and not stymied by regulations, the outcome will be wonderful for everybody.

But who is this Matt Ridley you might ask?     

He is the ex-head of Northern Rock.

According to the British parliament's Treasury select committee as chairman of the Northern Rock bank, Recession Ridley was responsible, for a "high-risk, reckless business strategy". Northern Rock was able to pursue this strategy as a result of a "substantial failure of regulation". The wonderful outcome of this experiment was the first run on a British bank since 1878, and a £27 billion government bail-out. This bail-out will be paid, in the main, by working people and consumers in tax hikes and cuts in pay and public services. Sounds all too familiar for an Irish audience doesn't it?

While Ridley does not deny human-created climate change, his book repeats the misconceptions of climate denialist propaganda in minimising the threat.  He repeats the crudest pieces of denialist propaganda, which anyone with a genuine interest or understanding of the science knows are incorrect: critique of the "hockey stick" graph, polar bear populations are actually rising, the 70s ice-age myth and the Medieval Warming Period etc – all get an airing. The book is repeatedly factually incorrect and is purposefully misleading on the science.

His failure to see the significance of historical changes in ocean acidity is another case in point, and he comes across as someone who is simply blind to facts that do not fit his ideological framework. He dismisses global climate change because it would seem to imply it is a by-product of capitalism and the market.
Then again, with Ridley's part in one of the biggest market failures in the history of the UK, it is perhaps understandable that he would disagree with the Stern Report's description of climate change as the greatest market failure in human history.

This free-market fundamentalist belief system means he is opposed to public subsidies and research for renewable power sources and fuels. From page 343, " compared with most renewable[s] ... [coal mining and oil drilling] footprints are surprisingly small for the energy yield.” 

Thankfully, other writers have gone through the glaring errors within the book in detail (see references [1], [2], [3] ).  The article with New Scientist's group of experts ( in [3] ) is particularly interesting because in a usual denier strategy he cherry picks studies to support and those to argue against, and does so again in his letter reply in this week's New Scientist.

Ridley's "rational optimist" style is wearily reminiscent of that other "serial mistake-maker", the "skeptical environmentalist"  Bjorn Lomborg, not to mention our very own Richard Tol of the ESRI.   

As the author of "The Lomborg Deception" Howard Friel points out, [4] Ridley fails to address the problem of rising greenhouse gas emissions if the market and the energy system is left to itself;

"Currently, the CO2 concentration in the Earth’s atmosphere is about 390 parts-per-million (ppm), and it’s rising by about 2 ppm per year. What if, with little to no governmental intervention at the national and global levels to reduce CO2 emissions, the current CO2 concentration rises to 490 ppm by 2060 or 510 ppm by 2070? What is Ridley’s response? Not only does he have no such response, he ignores the problem, which was described in detail when a group of nine scientists, led by James Hansen, issued an important paper in 2008. The scientists wrote:
If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm…. If the present overshoot of this target CO2 [of 350 ppm] is not brief, there is a possibility of seeding irreversible catastrophic effects." "

Basically, instead of referencing the bulk of peer-reviewed scientific literature which would have the unfortunate consequence of largely disagreeing with the conclusions he draws in his book, he ignores these, instead cherrypicking and using such sources as Lomborg, Watts, Lindzen, the Cato Institute etc.

Yet despite these errors and misrepresentations, the man's banking past, or the book being published in concert with weak regulation making BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster possible,  – Ridley's book is largely receiving an uncritical reception and is rattling its way around the echo-chambers of the right-wing media and filtering healthily through to the mainstream media.

We are not out-of-bounds here in Ireland. Given Pat Kenny's form as a climate change denier [5], and his show as a platform for same, it is likely he will have Ridley on the show. In fact, there is no need to wonder in bated breath..... Kenny has already had Ridley on in June. Ridley visited Ireland recently for a lecture/book launch, and dropped into the studio to pontificate. [6]

Kenny did not quibble one bit with his guest's irrational market gospel, which was typical of his interviews with Plimer, Bellamy et al. Not that Kenny is unusual in RTE – one could be forgiven for thinking RTE only supports an environmental argument if it is used as a coat of greenwash for an extension of corporate power.

What makes this even more curious is that the aristocratic Ridley (he is the son and heir of Viscount Ridley of Blagdon Hall), has a doctorate in zoology and is the author of some best-selling books on evolution and genetics.  However, it could be said these books verge on a social darwinist line on the subject. Could it be that this somehow syncs with his free-market outlook elsewhere? It is certainly strange that this "Darwinian fundamentalism" [7] now chimes with an almost creationist line in other areas, particularly when it comes to making an easy profit through foisting the cost of economic and environmental externalities onto others.

WORDS: Eric Hayes



two recent articles from George Monbiot
Ridleyed With Errors
The Man Who Wants To Northern Rock The Planet

The Rational Optimist: Matt Ridley’s regurgitation of denialist propaganda

from 'Mike' from 'watchingthedeniers' blog
The Rational Optimist Part 2:more regurgitated denialist propaganda from Matt Ridley

Experts review a section of Matt Ridley's book  –  New Scientist

Serial Mistake-Makers on Climate Change (Part I): On Matt Ridley and Bjorn Lomborg
by Howard Friel author of "The Lomborg Deception"

Serial Mistake-Makers on Climate Change (Part II): On Matt Ridley and Bjorn Lomborg

Pat Kenny's Climate Change Denial

The Pat Kenny Fundamentalist Show

Balancing' the Climate Consensus - Part 1
An interview with John Gibbons, formerly of the Irish Times

John The Apostle Walks The Plank


Darwinian Fundamentalism by Stephen Jay Gould

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