De rationele optimist (2010)

De rationele optimist, Matt Ridley (2010)

Een ander geluid

Het is goed dat er een boek met een ander geluid verschijnt. Een ander geluid omdat het, zoals de titel al aangeeft, een optimistisch geluid is over de economie, het milieu, de aarde en de mensheid. De 21e eeuw wordt gewoon weer een betere eeuw om in te leven voor de mens. En zoals dat bij een controversieel boek als dit hoort zijn er ook lieden die tegen de inhoud van dit boek ten strijde trekken. De auteur staat bekend als een ‘right-winger’ die voor vrije marktwerking is en huiverig staat ten opzichte van overheidsbemoeienis. Het werkt niet echt mee voor de geloofwaardigheid van het boek dat de auteur als bewindspersoon betrokken is geweest bij het noodlottige faillissement van de Britse Northern-Rock bank enkele jaren terug. Niet sterk ook dat de auteur in dit boek niet meer aandacht schenkt aan deze wrange samenloop van omstandigheden.

Specialisatie en uitwisseling

Maar ik wil me niet overgeven aan het pessimisme wat zo ‘en vogue’ is, ik wil naar de inhoud van het boek. De kernvraag van het boek is waar onze rijkdom en onze welvaart vandaan komen. Ridley is van huis uit bioloog maar hier speelt hij de economisch historicus. Ridley gaat in zijn redenering terug naar oereconoom Adam Smith. Het geheim van de mens is dat hij zijn tijd wonderlijk kan vermenigvuldigen. Dat doet de mens door de truc van de arbeidsverdeling. Als iedereen doet waar hij heel goed in is (zich specialiseert) dan levert dat enorme tijdwinst op. Maar je kunt alleen maar heel veel dezelfde dingen maken als je die dingen kunt ruilen tegen andere dingen die weer door iemand anders in grote hoeveelheden zijn aangemaakt. Specialisatie en uitwisseling (handel, ruil) gaan dus altijd hand in hand. Ergens rond 100.000 jaar geleden is de mensheid met deze truc gestart. De ‘take-off’ was mogelijk omdat er voor het eerst voldoende omvang, concentratie en geografische dichtheid was om specialisatie en handel mogelijk te maken. Wat ook nodig is voor handel is vertrouwen in vreemden, vertrouwen dat in de generaties langzaam is opgebouwd en bij dieren op deze manier blijkbaar nooit is ontstaan. Dit fenomeen van specialisatie en uitwisseling zorgt voor een immer stijgende lijn van meer welvaart en een hoger welzijn. Historisch is regelmatig sprake geweest van een (tijdelijke of lokale) terugval maar die is altijd te herleiden tot natuurlijk rampen of de opkomst van plunderende bestuurders en priesters. Zo simpel is het boek eigenlijk: handel zorgt voor een betere wereld, overheid en geloof zorgen soms voor een tijdelijke vertraging.

Ja maar …

Dan de tegenwerpingen. Vroeger was het toch beter? Onzin, we zijn er voortdurend op vooruit gegaan. De kwaliteit van leven is verbeterd, er zijn meer mensen op aarde, de levensverwachting is voortdurend gestegen. Natuurlijk zijn de rijken rijker geworden, maar de armen hebben het nog beter gedaan. Het percentage dat in absolute armoede leeft is de laatste 50 jaar met meer dan de helft afgenomen, de armoede is in deze laatste 50 jaar verder teruggedrongen dan in de 500 jaar daarvoor. Maar dan is het toch zo dat we er helemaal niet gelukkiger door zijn geworden? Ook onzin, rijke mensen zijn gelukkiger dan arme mensen, vele onderzoeken tonen aan dat er een belangrijke positieve correlatie is tussen economische groei en subjectief welzijn. Het is dus geitewollen hippie-praat dat we terug moeten naar de basis, naar meer zelfvoorziening, want dat betekent onherroepelijk een weg terug. Zelfvoorziening is armoede, specialisatie is rijkdom.

Wereldbevolking 9 miljard

Hoe zit het dan met de wereldbevolking en de voeding daarvan? De vroege landbouw gebruikte negen maal zoveel land per hoofd van de bevolking als de huidige landbouw (waardoor destijds de uitstoot van CO2 per hoofd veel hoger was). Door de introductie van fossiele brandstoffen en de kunstmest die daarmee werd gemaakt is sinds 1900 de wereldbevolking met 400% toegenomen, de hoeveelheid akkerland met 30%, de gemiddelde opbrengst daarvan met 400% en de totale oogst met 600%. De hoofdelijke productie is met 50% toegenomen. Dit is goed nieuws dankzij de fossiele brandstoffen. Het aantal mensen dat er jaarlijks bijkomt op aarde is sinds einde jaren tachtig gedaald. Het geboortecijfer daalt als de inwoners van een land gezonder, rijker, beter opgeleid, meer verstedelijkt en meer geemancipeerd zijn. De verwachting is nu dat de wereldbevolking een piek bereikt van circa 9 mrd inwoners in 2075 en daarna gaat dalen. Het gaat om een transitie van hoge vruchtbaarheid en hoge mortaliteit naar lage vruchtbaarheid en lage mortaliteit. De conclusie van de auteur is dat door de toenemende efficientie van landbouw en irrigatiemethoden de wereld in 2050 9 mrd bewoners kan voeden die dan beter te eten hebben bij gebruik van minder grondoppervlakte dan nu het geval is, waardoor per saldo grond aan de natuur terug kan worden gegeven.

Energie en CO2

Hoe zit het dan met de eindigheid van fossiele grondstoffen? Lang voordat olie, steenkool en gas opraken, zal men alternatieven vinden. Windmolens gaan het niet worden, ze vereisen 5 tot 10 keer zoveel beton en staal per watt als kerncentrales nog los van de benodigde infrastructuur van kabels etc. Biobrandstof is helemaal crazy, hierdoor wordt kostbare landbouwgrond verkwist en gaat de prijs van voedsel omhoog. Het gaat om een combinatie van (verbeterde, tijdelijke) kernenergie, zonne-energie en in water groeiende algen dan wel oplossingen waar nog niemand aan heeft gedacht. Kortom: het energievraagstuk wordt gewoon opgelost. Maar hoe zit het dan met klimaatverandering en de uitstoot van broeikasgassen? Ook hier geldt dat de toegenomen rijkdom de oplossing zal bieden, er is door de toenemende welvaart geld voor extra bescherming, redding en verzekering. Maar los daarvan zullen er nieuwe weinig kooldioxide genererende technologieen komen.

Uitwisseling van ideeen

Innovatie is dus het sleutelwoord. Het gaat steeds om onvoorziene nieuwe combinaties. Het gaat om de wet van de toenemende meeropbrengsten van de combinatie of uitwisseling van ideeen. Het zal niet verbazen dat dit geen pleidooi is voor meer wetenschap of meer overheid en sturing. De wetenschap is vaak de dochter van de technologie en niet andersom. De wetenschap verklaart vaak achteraf de empirische bevindingen van technologische knutselaars. Wel van belang is voldoende aanbod van durfkapitaal. Stelling van de auteur is dat ondanks wetenschap en overheid een positieve rol kunnen spelen bij innovatie, dat de drijvende kracht de uitwisseling van kennis en ideeen is. Je kunt kennis weggeven zonder het te verliezen. Pas als de uitwisseling van ideeen stopt en de kennisgroei stagneert hebben we echt een probleem. Het stenen tijdperk eindigde niet door een gebrek aan steen, het fossiele tijdperk zal niet eindigen door een gebrek aan fossielen.

Evaluatie

Wat moeten we hier nu van vinden? Is het naief en gevaarlijk optimisme? Zijn het doelredeneringen met gemasseerde feiten die het moeten onderbouwen? Het beste van beide werelden (pessimistisch en optimistisch) is in mijn ogen het volgende. Zo kan het niet doorgaan, dat is duidelijk (dat is het pessimisme). Maar aan de andere kant: zo zal het ook niet doorgaan, als prijzen stijgen door toenemende schaarste en de wal het schip keert, zullen onvermijdelijke innovaties volgen (dat is het optimisme). De geschiedenis tot op heden stelt de auteur in het gelijk en ik geloof inderdaad dat de mensheid een collectieve probleemoplossende machine is geworden


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