Rational Optimist: RDN’s still one

It’s not often a good ploy to whinge, and this isn’t exactly a moan. Well, only a bit of one. I want to stand up for my Life On a Modern Planet (1995) and Rich Is Beautiful (2005) as works of “rational optimism”.

I’m reviewing Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist: How prosperity evolves for the Social Affairs Unit web review. Here’s a quote from Ian McEwan on  the cover:

No other book has argued with such brilliance and historical breadth against the automatic pessimism that prevails.

In 1995 Manchester Univerity Press published my Life On a Modern Planet: A manifesto for progress. It’s a free download here. Here’s a quote from Christopher Patten on the cover:

This sharp and intelligent book shows North at the top of his form, arguing convincingly that concern about the future of our globe does not require you to be a modish ecopessimist. It comes like a sunburst of rational optimism and commonsense”.

For all sorts of reasons, not all of which I know, after lots of coverage and some mostly rather grudging reviews my book sold 2000 copies and has never been cited in any other work, including Matt Ridley’s. Ah well. I am determined to resist the Roger Lewis school of grumpiness.

Here’s a couple of further ironies.

(1) Matt Ridley’s book is published by Fourth Estate. Back in about 1992, that firm commissioned my Life On a Modern Planet but when they saw the final draft, they hated it and said that it wasn’t what they’d commissioned. (I am almost sure that they were plain wrong on that matter.) All the other publishers I took it to said it was OK, but the only people who’d be interested were greens, and they’d hate it. Finally, Richard Purslow of Manchester University Press (whom heaven preserve) was enthusiastic.

(2) I longed for someone to notice that LoMP was a wide-ranging account of why Western thought and practice was richly interesting and that green thinking was wrong not merely on the facts of prosperity and survival but on cultural, political and even spiritual well-being. Matt Ridley’s book is really the first to match (and even beat) it on those terms. Mind you, I think my 2005 Rich Is Beautiful is a trailblaizer on those wider fronts.


I'm always on the lookout for optimistic treatises in a pessimistic world, so I've downloaded it before you change your mind. Perhaps you should consider packaging it for the Amazon Kindle and charge $1.99 per copy?

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Publication date

20 June 2010