Matt Ridley is the author of ten books, including most recently, with co-author Alina Chan, Viral: The Search For the Origin of Covid-19. In his third appearance on the podcast (previous appearances: July 7, 2020, and January 4, 2022), Ridley talks about Britain’s energy crisis, why it must begin drilling for gas, the increasing evidence that the Covid pandemic was started by a lab leak, why China’s vaccines haven’t been effective, birds, birdwatching, and why the growing prosperity in Africa gives him hope. (Recorded on November 2, 2022.)
Robert Bryce 0:04
Hi, everyone, welcome to the power hungry Podcast. I’m Robert Bryce. In this podcast we talk about energy, power, innovation and politics. And I’m well proud to welcome back to the power hungry podcast first third appearance. That’s right, number three, my friend Matt Ridley. Matt, welcome back,
Matt Ridley 0:20
Rob, but it’s great to see you again.
Robert Bryce 0:22
So there is much to discuss. The new paperback edition of viral is out. The British political scene looks more like Italy than than Italy. You’ve written a piece in the spectator about birds, I want to talk about China. But first, you know, guests on this podcast introduce themselves. So if you don’t mind, introduce yourself. Imagine you’ve arrived somewhere you don’t know anyone and you have 60 seconds go.
Matt Ridley 0:52
I’m Matt Ridley. I’m a biologist and author. And more recently, I spent nine years as a member of the House of Lords. I retired from that to spend more time writing and on other ventures. I live in the Northeast of England. And I’m particularly interested in science topics, but also energy and environment issues.
Robert Bryce 1:12
Good. Well, let’s talk about energy for the moment because this is the topic of the of the day Today’s November 2, I published a piece this morning in the hill. The headline was Rishi Sunak. ‘s anti fracking gift to Putin. What the hell? I mean, I don’t know. I don’t know any other way to put it but just like that, that the Brits if you’re going to have energy security, you need natural gas, your gas production is declining rapidly. you’re importing more and more. And yet, here’s a Tory leader reversing Liz truss, another Tory leader, she repealed the ban on hydraulic fracturing, which has been in place since 2019. One of the first things Sunak did when he got to be Prime Minister was to reimpose the ban. What Tell me, please explain why this makes any sense. Because if that makes any sense to me,
Matt Ridley 2:00
well, even if the majority of MPs think it would be sensible to exploit the incredible reserves of shale gas Britain has got he’s got 50 years of shale gas, even at conservative estimates, right in very rich deposits richer than the Pennsylvania the Marcellus. Yeah, most of us, that’s the one. Even if the majority of Tory MPs think it would be a good idea to do it, there’s two or three, or maybe a few more than that, who’ve been spooked by the anti shale gas campaigns in their own constituencies. And so it’s a very clear example of, you know, the majority moderates aren’t interested in the topic, the minority extremists are. And they’ve been spooked because Friends of the Earth in particular has been campaigning vociferous ly for 10 years against this technology, demonizing it in the most ridiculously exaggerated terms, was even, you know, told off by government regulators for lying, but still kept doing so. And it managed to scare some people in some of these constituents. We haven’t really been able to test whether or not people would if they saw some local rewards, you know, cheaper energy prices, or even cash rewards, would welcome it. I mean, I went to see one of the experimental test sites in the north of England in Lancashire, a few years ago, before it was shut down. And the they were, you know, there were about six protesters outside, none of them had local accents. You know, they came from the south. There was no evidence that there’s a great groundswell of opinion against this. And as you say, it just doesn’t fit with the knowledge we’ve all got the gas is going to be a huge part of our energy system for decades, under the most optimistic decarbonisation scenarios, in fact, of course, as America has proved, it’s a quick way to decarbonize to replace coal with gas, we largely did that in the 90s, when we had a lot of gas coming out the North Sea. But we’re gonna have to consider going back to coal this winter, just to keep the lights on. And if we had pressed ahead with shale gas extraction five years ago, we would be not only producing enough to keep us going, we’d be doing we’d be keeping the price down dramatically. And we could have the option of selling it at these very high prices to others in Europe, so we could be exporting profitably. So it’s complete madness. It’s a real shame because Rishi Sunak is a very admirable and impressive individual. But he has been captured by the lunatics on this issue. And we will regret it as a country and we’ll you know, the poorest people will pay for it.
Robert Bryce 4:50
captured by the lunatics we’ll hear the quick numbers. You know these is probably better than i But Britain consumes about 7.4 Bill In cubic feet a day, you’re only producing 3.1. That’s 3.1. Today and 2000, you’re producing over 10 BCF a day you’re self sufficient exporting. But that was most all of that was from the North Sea. And to amplify your point. I know some Texas oil and gas guys who are very familiar with a rock, they say that in some cases, the gas in place is double the quantity of what’s in the Marcellus right that the amount of gas in the shale in Britain is super high quality called a beautiful rock, which
Matt Ridley 5:31
there are questions about whether it’s too badly faulted or other things but, you know, if it was, the opponents go around saying, look, it won’t work in this country. So we’d better ban it. Well, that’s not even logical. You know, if it won’t work, nobody’s gonna do it. Right. And people aren’t foolish, but you
Robert Bryce 5:50
have to drive but you have to try. And that’s the part that to me is just so remarkable. And this is playing into now, Russia, Will Russia be exporting gas to Europe or in sizable? We don’t know, but they have to you have to try and yet the by reimposing the ban from a Tory government, right? This is not the this is the Labour Party. This isn’t the left. So you know, I’m wondering even thinking will if Okay, so say they reverse course yet again? Well, what oil and gas investor what what capitalists would say, Oh, well, I’ll sure I’ll take the political risk, because now you have the both labour and the Tory party saying we’re not interested. I mean, is it fenced off the possibility of ever doing drilling on Jordan in Britain?
Matt Ridley 6:32
Right, well, labour is currently the favorite to win the next election. So no investor, and that’s in at the end of 2024. Probably, or at least before then. So no investor is gonna say, right, I gotta come piling in before then. So in that sense, maybe the, you know, they’ve got a point, there’s no point in even opening up in over the next two years, because people are spooked by the thought of a Labour government. So they had to outbid labour on it. But you know, the Russian angle is really creepy here. You know, it is not a myth that the Russians are against shale gas in the West, they are on record as saying so again, and again. And again. I mean, Vladimir Putin went out of his way, personally, to say that black stuff comes out of the taps in Pennsylvania because of fracking. Right? That is not true. It’s bonkers. But why would he even bother doing that? The head of one of the Gazprom subsidiaries was quoted as saying we intend to destroy the fracking industry. We see it as a threat. You know, I mean, there’s no doubt about this. There’s significant evidence from several sources of Russian money finding its way into the anti shale gas demonstrations. And you can see why, because they really, really wanted Europe, including Britain to be on the hook for Russian gas, then they would have us by the
Robert Bryce 7:54
short, short hairs, I think as but you know, I cited there I linked to your writing on this in my piece in The Hill and the and borrowed your, your reporting on it, that it was in 2014. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who was then the Secretary General of NATO, former Prime Minister of Denmark said Russia as part of their sophisticated information and disinformation operations engaged actively with so called NGOs, working against shale gas to maintain European dependence on imported gas then in 2016, the Belgian think tank, the Wilfred Martin Center for European Studies, this was the part that was interesting to me, because when I started, you’re there linked to your reporting on this 82 million euros, the Russian government spent to fund NGOs, whose job is to persuade EU governments to stop shale gas exploration.
Matt Ridley 8:44
I mean, I went back to the Wilfried Martens center this year and check that number. Do you still stand by that number? Because it’s a very important piece of evidence. And nobody else seemed to pick up on it. It was buried in a big report back and said, you know, can you really stand that number up? And they said, Yes, absolutely. We had good evidence to support that. At the time, you know, it was a few years ago that they made the claim. But so I’m afraid you know, there is no doubt that the UK is in serious trouble on its energy policy, expensive energy, very unreliable energy, may not have enough energy this winter. And a big part of it is campaigns to prevent us exploiting our own resources. It’s not just gas, we got tons of coal, we’ve got more oil in the North Sea, etc. But there’s a huge campaign against fossil fuels. It’s not against emissions anymore. It’s just against fossil fuels full stop.
Robert Bryce 9:39
Well, and this is happening, the part that to me is so unfortunate. And you mentioned it before is the regressive effect of all of this. You’re now the UK has the dubious distinction of having the highest electricity prices in Europe. I mean, 60s 60 euro cents per kilowatt hour. I mean, this is it’s crazy town. I mean, this was the distinction that the Germans had for years and now you’ve you’ve your government, look like Italy and your electric prices look like Germany. Congratulations, really?
Matt Ridley 10:06
I think residential prices last time I checked weren’t the highest in Europe, the commercial ones were but that might have changed. Okay. Okay. But, you know, that’s important commercial electricity prices are incredibly important. You know, why would you start a manufacturing business or even a, you know, share trading business you need lights and heat for that too. If you’re paying the highest electricity prices in Europe?
Robert Bryce 10:32
Yeah, it’s it’s, it’s just incredible. Well, let’s talk about viral because there has been a lot going on with in on the COVID front, and we talked about it on your last appearance on the podcast and I have marked up the new epilogue in the paperback which I just downloaded. But let’s start with this because your your co author Alina chan on October 28 published a preprint of a paper on on the wildlife origins of COVID. The title is evidence for a proximal origin of SARS cov. Two in the wildlife trade is lacking. That’s the title. Here’s what she said. International efforts have failed to identify a proximal animal source or a direct precursor of SARS cov SARS cov. Two, no se two like viruses have been found in the wildlife trade supply to Wuhan or in bats in Hubei province. Virus tracking experts in Wuhan have not been able to find the types of evidence for a natural origin that were so quickly obtained in the case of the 2003 SARS outbreak. Under these circumstances where the definitive evidence has yet to be found, and investigations have been hindered, it would be premature to declare the origin of the pandemic solved, or to claim that the scientific evidence for a natural spillover origin at the Hunan seafood market is overwhelming. What she’s saying here is similar to what you wrote in the in the in the final, the newly updated paperback, do you agree with that? Her assessment there?
Matt Ridley 12:00
Very much. So the point she’s making there is that we would need much better evidence to say that it came from the market. In the case of SARS, we didn’t accept that it came out of a market until we had infected animals on sale in the market with a virus that was 99% the same. And that’s usually what you find in these cases, in the case of Nipah, virus, etc, etc, you very quickly find the animal source, and you find that it’s very much the same virus. We’ve never found that in this case. Now, there are plenty of people out there saying, Oh, yes, but here’s some other circumstantial evidence suggesting that the market was an epicenter, therefore, it must have started in the market. No, I’m sorry, it’s not good enough that we need an infected animal. If the Chinese had one, they’d be delighted to produce one, you know, and the fact is they couldn’t, and they didn’t. So and by the way, the pangolins were a red herring, it turns out and it was a Lena who found that up. What was slightly shocking about that paper she’s written is that she’s submitted it to several journals. And it’s always turned down. And the latest refusal came with Anonymous peer reviewers comments from one peer reviewer saying it’s an excellent paper it should be published. And the other peer review papers saying, This is rubbish. This is nonsense. It’s been disproved. She’s a profiteer, because she wrote a commercial book, you know, etc, etc. A lot of you know, personal ad hominem stuff in this peer review, which has no place in such a review, and is, of course, anonymous. And she She’s published a little bit of those reviews, she’s not allowed to publish the whole of them. But so I’m being very careful what I you know, what I quote from but basically, that’s the gist of the the bits She’s published. And what’s happening here is a clear case of gatekeeping. A bunch of people in virology have decided that they want this to have been a an example of a zoonosis in a market, for whatever reason. And they are determined to keep anybody from publishing things in the scientific literature that challenge that. And then they turn around and they’ve been doing this in recent weeks, and say, well see you can’t be right, because you haven’t got anything published in the scientific literature. This is a very clever, circular argument that they make. So it’s really quite shocking. I mean, I am an enormous fan of science. I’ve spent my whole Korea championing and celebrating the achievements of science. I don’t think there’s any greater human activity. I put it ahead of art, poetry, music, love everything. I think it’s fantastic that we’ve discovered what we have about the universe evolution, genetics, all these wonderful things, but to have this beautiful philosophy of science, tainted in this way, by people using the institutions and mechanisms of science to A push an agenda is really very shocking to me. And it has been a series a process of tremendous disillusionment. I mean, that said, there’s stuff emerging just this week. And last, which is important in this debate, not not definitive, but it is important. And we can talk about that, perhaps. And it’s pointing in the other direction. It’s pointing towards the laboratory origin.
Robert Bryce 15:27
Well, it’s interesting, you beat me to the punch there, because that, from what I’m reading, and you’re the expert here, I’m not but having read your book, and the book is called viral. The search for the origin of COVID-19 it was tremendous book, I mean, it like it reads like a detective novel, and congratulations on a bastion fan. But follow up on that this idea of what’s happened in the last few weeks, I’ve read a Llinas. Report, and but what do you bring that bring us up to speed on what’s what you found in the last few weeks at support the lab leak theory?
Matt Ridley 16:00
Okay, well, a very quick background, what we knew when we wrote the first edition of the book was that there was an awful lot of covering up going on of the links to the bats that had been collecting in the wild, and whose viruses they’d been sequencing and manipulating
Robert Bryce 16:13
data, in particular, from, in particular from Laos, right, the cave in Laos,
Matt Ridley 16:17
and Laos, some from your nan. And so you know, so it was, it was still possible at that stage, that what we’re dealing with is, well, it could be from the market. Of course, we’ve never ruled that out. But it also could be an A viral, a virologist going into the field and getting infected in the field while collecting a mouse, sorry, about and then, or coming back into the lab and getting infected that so it could have been an entirely natural virus that was that it infected a scientist. Then a document dropped in September 2021, as a result of a leak, which showed that there had been a deliberate plan among a number of virologists in the US, and Wuhan, okay to insert a thing called a hearing cleavage site into a SARS like virus if they ever found one. Now, this is what’s made that the virus particularly dangerous what caused the pandemic because it enables the virus to be more infectious, and in more tissues in the body. Now, that was interesting, because this is the only sabi ko virus ever found with a fearing cleavage site in it. And so that sets alarm bells ringing, how did it get this, it’s quite a big chunk of DNA of RNA. No other virus, even the closest relatives in bats do not have it. And the more Subiaco viruses we look at, the more difficult it comes to explain how this virus got one. It’s no advantage in the bat, it’s only advantageous in human cells. So that that set us down a different path, which is to take seriously the possibility that not only had someone got infected in the lab, but that they had got infected with a man with a with a virus that had been manipulated that had been genetically altered. Now, what then happened just about 10 days ago, was an analysis of the genome of the virus, which showed a rather interesting pattern. And again, I repeat, it’s not definitive, but it is certainly suggestive. If you were going to make what’s called an infectious clone of a virus, that’s a DNA copy of an RNA virus, basically. And this is something that the Wuhan Institute of virology had been doing with SARS like viruses for a number of years, then you would chop it up into about seven or eight segments. And you would do so by because the 30,000 base pair genome is a big genome you you just can’t get, you can’t grow that virus in the lab that way. So you’ve got it, you’ve got to break it up into pieces, copy them into DNA, and then stitch them back together. And to do that, you have what’s called sticky ends, things that cutting places that are recognized by particular enzymes that cut the in the right place, those cutting places are all going to be different, and you want them evenly spaced. And you want and so what what the the analysis shows is that unlike all other SARS, like viruses, this one is a real outlier in just how regularly spaced it’s cutting sequences are not only that they’re all different, which is what you’d expect. And not only that they’re all silent. And what that I mean by that, I mean, their differences from related viruses do not change the proteins made from those particular genes. So that’s again, something that you would be careful to do. So. That pattern seems to me intriguing, and suggests that what we might be looking at is an experimental Chimera virus generated in the lab sometime in 2019. To test on animal cells, and humanized mice, sorry, human cells and humanized mice. Now, the other thing that’s happened in the last week is a report from the Senate. Health Committee, health education, labor, and cotton are what the P stands for. And that is a piece of work that’s been going on for more than a year, involving a lot of researchers, including particularly experts in Chinese language and procedures. And it’s been analyzing a lot of things. But one of the things it analyzed was the evidence that there was a crisis in that laboratory in November 2019. That involved senior authorities coming from Beijing to address the issue, including messages from as far as we can make an Shi Jing ping. Now, all of this suggests that there was something something went horribly wrong in the lab, and it definitely related to biosafety. And there’s a lot of talk about, we’ve open if we if you open Pandora’s Box, etc. Now, the Chinese authorities echoed by some American journalist, by the way, have shot back and said, Oh, you’ve got the tense wrong in one of the translations they were talking about the past, not the present. Right? How big a difference does that make very little. So you know, that the response has been really rather weak to this. But whatever the situation, we know that there was a crisis of confidence in biosafety in the Wuhan Institute of virology, in November of 2019. And, in at the same time, the Senate HELP Committee report also found something else which I’m kicking myself for not having noticed myself not having looked into. And that is that the Chinese produced a vaccine very quickly in 2020 2022, SARS cov. Two wasn’t a very effective vaccine, but they did produce a vaccine. In the paper, describing the production of that vaccine, they allude to a series of animal experiments to test the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. Right, if you play out how long those animal tests would have taken, there’s no way they could have started in January, they must have started in November or thereabouts. And more Intriguingly, still, which again, I did know, the lead author on that paper was dead by the time it was published in the spring of 2020. So you know, maybe not of COVID. But who knows, you know, these are just adding to a huge number of clues, that there was something going on relating to the Wuhan Institute of virology in the autumn of 2019. Which looks like it involved a biosafety issue, which were and where we know they were manipulating viruses, sequencing viruses, and the closest relative of this virus was found in their own freezer, which they didn’t admit at first. It had been collected six years before, but it had only been sequenced the year before in 2018. So they got it out of the freezer, and we’re working on it just before the outbreak. Now, that virus can’t be the whole story, because it’s not similar enough overall. But it’s very similar for most of its genome, it’s just in one part of the spike gene where it differs. So that’s consistent with them taking that virus as a backbone, and swapping in a part of a spike gene from another virus and making a few other changes as well to make it easier to grow in the laboratory and so on. So all of this points to the real possibility that it is not a coincidence that the pandemic began in the city with the largest Corona SARS like Coronavirus research program in the world by a mile.
Robert Bryce 24:17
Wow. And I mean, wow, the timeline that you lay out there is what is so incriminating to that they would be working that they would come up with a virus just a few months later. Whereas the Maderna virus, the mRNA vaccine virus, I’m sorry, the Maderna mRNA vaccine that only came months later right after the virus had been sequenced and that that data was published. But the Chinese were already working on a vaccine and had one in theory in hand by January of 2020. Then,
Matt Ridley 24:53
right and Katherine Eban of Vanity Fair has been working with pro publica on a story about this Senate Thought she checked this with a number of vaccine experts. And I think two out of three of them said yes, you simply couldn’t do this in the time they’ve described, it has to have been a lot longer. The third wasn’t sure he thought it might be possible. So, you know, again, not definitive, not dispositive, not case closed by any means. But nor is the evidence that it started with somebody getting infected in the market. The evidence for that is simply that many of the early cases were associated with the market. But that’s not a great surprise, because in the early days, the Chinese authorities were saying, if you have pneumonia, and you’ve been to that market, then we need to check whether you’ve got southgobi, too, right. So
Robert Bryce 25:46
this was a huge and this was a huge market in the middle of a very populated city. And so, you know, there, that’s a coincidental issue. But let me you touch on the vaccine, and it’s one of the questions that is still in my head and has been for some time, why haven’t the Chinese been able to make a better vaccine? I mean, you know, there’s still parts of China that today are still under lockdown, and that it seems like this could be recurring in China, maybe for years to come? Because they still haven’t tapped haven’t broken the code here. Why haven’t this country very sophisticated in a whole lot of different ways? Why haven’t they been able to come up with a better vaccine?
Matt Ridley 26:22
Well, I would argue that the technology that has enabled us to come up with a vaccine in this case, is a Western technology. Still, that’s not true of most molecular biology techniques. But the messenger RNA technology in particular, which was used by Maderna, but also by bio Entech. And Pfizer is a brand new idea, developed in the west by a number of people. And that has very slowly been reaching the point where it can be put to practical use, and there is no real evidence of a Chinese strand to that work. So they’ve got to the West has a head start on that technology. And that was the quickest out of the blocks. The other technology, the one used by Oxford University, and AstraZeneca, is also a very novel technology. And these are all about producing protein vaccines, as opposed to virus vaccines. In other words, producing just one of the proteins from the outside of the of the virus, as a vaccines are not a living thing, or not a thing capable of reproduction, just a molecule. Whereas the traditional way of making vaccines is to take the whole virus, render it safe, render it non infectious, but still leave it capable of producing an immune reaction. And that technique has not worked at all well with this virus. And that’s on the whole the technique that the Chinese have been employing. I mean, I’m sure they’re trying lots of other things too. But there is a the that we uncovered some evidence of some pretty blatant examples of favoritism in the contracts awarded for testing for the virus in China. So three rather obscure companies in Shanghai got a monopoly on on developing tests for COVID. They all had connections to senior party members and that kind of thing. So I think, you know, the Xi Jinping regime, which is so unlike hujan toes and others does not tolerate private enterprise of any kind really, it’s basically a crony patronage system, and that doesn’t tend to produce the best results when you’re rushing to produce a new vaccine.
Robert Bryce 28:55
Well, I’m glad you mentioned who Jintao because I’ve watched the video of him being escorted out of the Party Congress meeting just a few days ago. And I’ve watched it several times because it’s operatic or you know, it’s almost like a movie scene, right? That there’s so much emotion that’s happening there where who Jintao is being incredulous that he’s being a you know, you can write the script of what that dialogue must have been like? And that he’s being told you’re out and then G Jinping is sitting there with this stone face, right, this kind of that and everyone in the crowd and that’s there, all the other Chinese leaders, they’re all dressed the same. They’re all have the same kind of blank expression. It’s truly remarkable. I’m sure you’ve watched that video. What did you think of
Matt Ridley 29:43
that? Yeah, well, it reminded me of, you know, scenes I thought I’d never see from the Soviet Union 50 years ago, you know, Kremlin scenes of identical suit men in identical suits. were blank faces, you know, but you knew that terrifying things were happening as a result of these people’s decisions. I don’t know enough about Chinese criminology to know exactly what was happening there. But as you say, it wasn’t exactly the British Parliament with everybody shouting.
Robert Bryce 30:22
This was not question time.
Matt Ridley 30:28
Dang called authoritarian dictatorship, which is what it is. And yet you hear people in the West, and you heard it a lot during the pandemic, saying that we need to be more like China. Haven’t they done a wonderful job of getting rid of COVID? While they turned out they hadn’t. And, you know, we picked up all this mandatory lockdown stuff from them. I think we’ve got to have a really hard think in the West, about whether we want to be copying authoritarian regimes. Because, you know, I sometimes challenge people being terribly rude about pushing Sunak or Joe Biden or whoever it might be. And you say, well go and get, say the same things about Xi Jinping. And of course, they never do in the West, you know, it’s just too easy to have a go at Democratic leaders. And because if you are sufficiently authoritarian, you get a free pass from a lot of the Western media. That’s pretty shocking to me.
Robert Bryce 31:28
Well, then there was one other, maybe you noticed this as well, that I’ve kind of obsessed about that video watched, I don’t know, 10 or 15 times, but there was one, one telling moment where the man who was who I don’t know who he was, but it was the left of who Jintao and you could see him wipe away a tear, right? It was just at the one point that he just like, he knew what was happening, and he knew his friend was being effectively deposed. And you know, whether he’s going to the Gulag, or what you think I believe that’s
Matt Ridley 31:55
who Jintao was predecessor, as he called Wen Jiabao, or something, I might have had that wrong. Do you want to check me?
Robert Bryce 32:03
I don’t know. But But what is? Well, let me ask you, then, just about China. Have you been there? Will you go back?
Matt Ridley 32:11
I’ve been there. I’ve been to Shanghai. I’ve been to Hong Kong numerous times, which counts as China nowadays. I loved it. I won’t go back. When we wrote our book, one of the first things that the publishers lawyer said to us was you realize you two are never going to China again. And I think I even have to be careful about countries with extradition treaties with China. You know, we what we’ve said in that book, we were very dispassionate. We just say here are the facts, see where they lead. But it would be enough to annoy the authorities enough to make my life difficult if I ever did go near China.
Robert Bryce 32:50
Yeah, I haven’t been and I have really wanted to get bed watching
Matt Ridley 32:53
and Tibet, like you would, I would
Robert Bryce 32:56
like to go we’re gonna come back to birds. Because I saw your recent piece in the spectator. But before we get to that, let’s talk about Alina Chan. I think the last time we spoke you had not met her in person. And then that you finally did. You had a remarkable relationship with her? Who I guess she’s what would be, what, 30 years younger than you are. You met over the internet. And then you collaborated on this really quite detailed and very important investigative effort. What was it like meeting her? Finally?
Matt Ridley 33:33
You use the word relationship. I just like to make it clear. She’s got a very nice husband.
Robert Bryce 33:37
Look you your colleagues. Okay. Yeah. So you’re married as well. So I’m not yes, yeah, go ahead.
Matt Ridley 33:45
Just in case anyone got the wrong end of the stick? It was it was it was a thrilling moment for me to meet Alena because we, as you say, we had been talking pretty well daily for about a year, right? We’ve been emailing frequently. We had started out not knowing each other at all. I made the pitch to her that she should jointly helped me write a book. We negotiated the book, we then did a couple of articles together, they weren’t very easy to do, because she was saying, no, no, no, we’ve got to be accurate. And I was saying, no, no, no, we’ve got to be entertaining, or whatever. So so it wasn’t always terribly easy to start with. But then when we got down into writing the book, it was wonderful to work with her. She’s extraordinarily intelligent. went to university at the age of three or something, you know. Knows pretty well, everything there is to know has a voracious appetite for reading into the detail of stuff, but he’s also a very fluent and eloquent as a communicator, she writes very well. So it wasn’t the case of me having to do all the verbal prose and her just doing the facts or anything like that. But there were there were aspects I focused on the raspex. She focused on. And we were the important thing is we challenged each other, you know, she would say, Look, you can’t put that in. And there’s no evidence for that. Nice idea. But it’s too speculative. And I would say, Well, you can’t put that in, because I happen to know enough about whatever it is biology of bats to know that that doesn’t make sense. You know, it’s a misleading argument or something. And so we kept each other honest, I think we disagree.
Robert Bryce 35:38
But yeah, have you ever co authored a book before?
Matt Ridley 35:41
I’d never co authored a book before. So it was a real stab in the dark for me, as well as for her. And then we met on the street outside the Madonna headquarters in MIT, Cambridge, Massachusetts. And, you know, she was and I said to her, Oh, my goodness, you’re three dimensional.
Robert Bryce 36:00
Well, I’m but I mean, it is
Matt Ridley 36:02
to the UK. And we did a bit of a book tour together. And we spent a week traveling around with, with her and her husband, so got to know her very well. And she’s a she’s an extraordinary person, very impressive person.
Robert Bryce 36:16
Well, I asked him to, you know, no insinuation here. But I mean, it is a very intimate deal to work on such a project for so long. And then but not really know this person. I mean, it’s quite an unusual, intellectual relationship in that regard.
Matt Ridley 36:32
It is a tribute to technology, isn’t it? Yes, yes. Yeah. You know, even five years ago, it would have been extremely difficult.
Robert Bryce 36:38
Right. And so you community get it on Zoom WhatsApp, you use the secure networks. You’ve mentioned that before, when you were when you were exchanging briefs, and
Matt Ridley 36:47
I told you how we communicated, I’d have to kill you. Okay.
Robert Bryce 36:50
Let’s not do that then. So what is this going to mean for supply chains? Now, in terms of the US, can you speak? You said you won’t go back to China. But what, what is this? Is this a permanent rupture of there’s been a lot of speculation lately, especially since this latest Chinese Communist Party Congress and Xi Jinping essentially making himself the new dictator for life. What does this mean? Can you reflect on what you think this means? Geopolitically? Is this is China isolating itself is that what does this mean for trade with China? For the future? Is this permanently going to change things? It’s not just COVID. Now, right? It’s other things around this, but it’s also Taiwan. It’s the South China Sea, these other points of conflict? And I’ll guess I’ll ask it this way. Peter, Zions new book, The end of the world is just the beginning. He’s very bearish on China. Right, particularly from a demographic standpoint, what’s your take on China and its role in the in the near term future.
Matt Ridley 37:52
I’m also bearish on China, I think, I think trying to run an economy on one man’s whim, which is what we’re doing, as a terrible track record, look at what Mao and Stalin did to their economies and Hitler, for that matter. So I’m pretty bearish, about China’s prospects. And I think you’re right that China is to some extent, isolating itself. Even before the pandemic, there was a push to be more self sufficient in the economy, to rely more on the Chinese consumer rather than exports. And to source more materials, and imports from within the country itself. I can’t remember the the name they have for it something like the double something anyway. So it’s not just that we are diversifying away from China as a source of materials, and technologies. They are also diversifying away from a dependence on the west for selling stuff. And as you know, a friend of mine used to put it, the relationship between the US and China is quite a good one, really, we give them pictures of American presidents and they give us lots of things we need. But just to take a small example, I was in Cambridge recently, I was talking to the bursar of a college. And he told me that they made a lot of their income to cover their costs in the summer, in the old days. By having summer schools based in the college when the students went there. The vast majority of the summer schools were for Chinese students. They now think that’s never going to come back. They’re diversifying away, having other events over the summer instead, etc. The connectivity of people between China and the West has collapsed in the last three years. And it’s come back in the West for us, but it’s not come back for them because of course they still have the zero COVID policy and if you go into or come out of China, you have to enter terrifically long and difficult isolation. So very few people are doing that. That said, we all thought that the world would never get back to normal after the pandemic and to a large extent it has. So I think one should never exaggerate these turning points in world history. You know, quite a lot of stuff will recover. The thing I’m most intrigued by, is what will happen when Chinese scientists start traveling to the west again, and attending conferences, because if some virologists are able to come out, and some Wuhan virologists in particular, then perhaps they can tell us a little bit more about what happened without getting into trouble themselves.
Robert Bryce 40:52
That brings to mind one of the other questions that I had. Is it possible we’ll never know? Is it possible we’ll never know where the virus you know exactly how this happened it because Elena’s latest paper, he says, well, we can’t prove that it was we can’t there’s no proof that there would this was wildlife trout transmitted from wildlife. Is it possible we’ll just never know.
Matt Ridley 41:15
Yes, it’s possible. But both Alina and I tend to answer that question by saying we think it’s unlikely we think we will know. It may take a long time. And our confidence is based partly on a very specific example, which is the story of the spread lofts anthrax incident in 1979. The Soviet Union had a bio warfare facility in Sverdlovsk now called a Catherine Berg and they were working on anthrax. And there was an accident and about 65 people died. Now at the time, they said it’s nothing to do with a pharmaceutical plant. It’s not a bio warfare plant. It wasn’t anthrax. They had food poisoning Shut up and go away. And the West believed, and they believed them because an international team went to spread loss and interviewed people led by a Nobel Prize winner, the American Matt Mendelsohn, and came away concluding that the Russians were right, that this wasn’t an anthrax incident, case closed. The Soviet Union then began to collapse. Some scientists from the sweat loss facility traveled to America and told us what had happened. And what had happened was they were working on anthrax, it was a by a wave offer facility, on the day in question that somebody took off a faulty filter left a note for the next shift to replace it. And the next shift didn’t see the note didn’t replace the filter, and a plume of anthrax was sent over the city, killing 65 people as I say, so it took, you know, the best part of a decade. But we did find out eventually what had happened in that case. Now in this case, we’re not dealing with 65 people dead we’re dealing with nearly 20 million people did. And it seems to me, unconscionable for the world to walk away, saying, we’re not sure what happened here. Better not to find out and all that kind of thing. I mean, imagine if 20 million people had died in an industrial accident, you know, a leak of toxic chemical in New York or something. A gas that had killed, you know that many people? We wouldn’t say look, we’ll probably never know how it happened. So best not to disturb international relations by asking. Let’s just have a little bit of a amnesty. Forget about it and move on. I’m sorry, that’s just not acceptable.
Robert Bryce 43:46
I agree. And it’s it does it well to use your British ism gobsmacking Rhett, where that there is some idea that oh, well, we’ll let’s just move on. No, no, I think you’re right. And I think that I mean, it’s clear that you and Alena have the bit in your teeth. I’m using Americanism here about you know, finding this out what of what really happened that this is too important to just ignore. But the question that pops into my head, is another pandemic inevitable, is are we is are we is this
Matt Ridley 44:15
purely depends on what happened in this case. Because, you know, if it turns out that it was a laboratory accident, in a sense, that’s good news, because we really can control for laboratory accidents in the future, we can say right, certain kinds of research should not be done. Other kinds of research, if they are done should be done much more carefully. Let’s have an international agreement on this, etc, etc. Whereas if it’s just a local Chinese vendor of bamboo rats, who stored them in a cave on his way to the market and the bat droppings fell on the bamboo rats and they got infected And then we are still playing Russian roulette with these stars like viruses and indeed other viruses in the wild. So one of the reasons that quite a lot of academic scientists are so resistant to the idea of a lab leak is not just because it’ll lead to much more regulation of labs, but also because they were all very much invested in the story, that it’s about human encroachment on wildlife habitats, you know that it’s because we’re invading the forest and disturbing the wildlife and eating the wildlife and so on, that this is happening. But there’s a couple of problems with that story. First is that Wuhan wasn’t a particular center of the wildlife trade. Nearly all of that wildlife eating obsession is in southern China in Guangzhou. And secondly, the areas where this virus lives naturally, or its closest relatives live naturally in your nan and Laos and surrounding areas, is reforesting. Not deforesting at an accelerating rate, there’s been a huge increase the amount of green vegetation in that area, basically, people have left their subsistence farms in these very rocky hills, where they couldn’t make a very good living and gone to work in cities. And so the old plantations of you know, bananas and tea and oranges and other things in these areas, rubber and other things have have largely become overgrown with forest, more habitat for bats, not less. And, you know, as we’re encroaching on bat habitat, well, 4000 years ago, we were called cavemen, you know, we lived inside caves where bats lived. So I think we’ve been coming into contact with bats for a long time. So the idea that something new about human contact with bots, is, I think, rather misleading.
Robert Bryce 46:53
Well, is it also as you say that no matter what pops in my head as well, the the academics don’t want at the Academy blamed for this right? They want to continue with their research as they have before there’s a lot of money at stake here, too. Is that are my Am I Am I off on that analysis?
Matt Ridley 47:08
Well, that is simply factually true. There’s a lot of money in virology research, a lot of it was going to organizations that were either collaborating with or directly funding the work in Wuhan, including the ego Health Alliance. So there is blame to go around here and not just in China. But I think it’s sort of more than that. It’s, it’s, it’s really, that quite a lot of the scientists wanted it to not be the lab, that colored their reasoning. It’s called motivated reasoning, it’s quite common, we probably all do it to some extent. And then they got found themselves out on a limb, making really outrageous statements about how they had dispositive evidence. And this was the only way it could have happened. Referring to the market, I still think there’s some of them. And once they’ve got out on that limb, it’s too difficult to climb back to the trunk of the tree. And I think what’s happening here is a is tainting the whole of science. That’s what really worries me, is there a wonderful, benevolent, generous, virtuous things happening in scientific labs all over the world. And there’s a bunch of people out there who say, you know, they’re trying to develop a vaccine to kill us. So Bill Gates has an agenda to undermine human flourishing, or whatever. And this just plays into their hands. If instead, they’d said right at the beginning, you know what the lab is a definite possibility, because that’s what we think in private. We haven’t said that in public. But we should now say it in public, the lab is definitely where it might have started, let’s demand transparency, because our colleagues in China shouldn’t have been doing certain experiments, if that turns out to be right. And we need to clean up our act, if they said that they’d have gotten a lot of credit from from the population as it is, they are now going to lend enormous ammunition to the anti vaxxers, the anti biotech people and so on. And, you know, I find myself on the same side here, as some people who I wouldn’t normally want to be on the same side, people who think all genetically modified crops should be banned and things like that. So it’s it. It’s it’s a very dispiriting picture in that sense.
Robert Bryce 49:34
Well, let’s follow up on that, because you just tweeted a couple of days ago about this report from the intercept, which that said that the Department of Homeland Security is going to, quote police disinformation and an end about inaccurate information on a wide range of topics, including I’m quoting from the intercept piece here the origins of COVID 19 pandemic and the efficacy of COVID 19 vaccines. This has been One of the things that’s troubled me around this whole business around, you know, what’s going to be allowed in the public sphere about what is considered information, misinformation, and how the Chinese government very actively tried to suppress information, right, that the risk that somehow the US adopts this kind of suppression of, of dissonant voices or people who are not hewing to the line about oh, well, it has to be from, you know, an animal leak, and it can’t possibly be a lab leak, or that the vaccines aren’t, you know, you know, all of this, right, that there it, it lends credence, I think we’re, you didn’t say this too, and conspiracy theories or just, you know, or fringe theories, but we need to have robust debate. And what I hear you saying is that this lack of candor, and now the DHS saying, Well, we’re gonna suppress things that we don’t like, well, this damn dangerous, I mean, then we then we become more like China. And that’s a real danger. I think my off here.
Matt Ridley 50:59
No, you’re exactly right. The Intercept story is very disturbing. It shows the tech industry in a very cozy relationship with the Department of Homeland Security, and other US agencies. Tremendous mission creep on the part of the US government here. Willing accommodation by the tech industry, and the tech industry effectively doing China’s bidding on this particular issue. Just to give you a very specific example, when we first got interested in this topic, and began researching it, we couldn’t use Facebook to communicate with anybody. Why, because Facebook actually banned any discussion of the laboratory leak possibility. It banned it, it’s simply censored. Anyone who said, Hang on a minute, I think this might have come out of a lab. And here’s some evidence. Twitter didn’t. And if if I hadn’t had Twitter, I would never have been able to do this book. And I think the same is true of a leader. Because it put us in touch with people like GTE Ray, the seeker as he was known, Francisco, the Ribera, in Spain, who were digging up the most extraordinarily important information about what the Wuhan Institute of virology was up to, and what it had published and what it hadn’t, and what it had to discovered and why it was going into certain places, and what is left out of publications, all of which, you know, I had to find out through Twitter, where a bunch of people that start with they call themselves drastic that then fell apart, they fell out with each other as such, people rightly should, you know, that’s the way the world works. Right. And, and so, you know,
Robert Bryce 52:51
it’s that open forum, they open,
Matt Ridley 52:53
whatever you feel like if they’ve managed to shut down this conversation on Twitter, too,
Robert Bryce 52:57
and was through was it through Twitter that you became acquainted with Alina Chen? Yes. No, see, that’s remarkable. I didn’t realize that. It didn’t realize that that was the case. But now that in looking back that that alternative form or that alternative platform, right, and now it’s going to be controlled by Elon Musk, you know, but how critical that has been in the discovery of all of this, that there was an open forum that wasn’t being suppressed. That allowed a free exchange of ideas when there was active a very, very active effort by the part of the Chinese to suppress the information. And yet, because you had an open channel, an open platform, it was able to allow for this investigation that has brought us closer not, we’re not there yet, but closer to some understanding of what really happened instead of the spin.
Matt Ridley 53:46
Yeah, well, you know, when I came across Alina, because of a paper that she and two colleagues wrote saying, We’ve examined the genome of this virus and we find it to be surprisingly well adapted to infecting human beings. From the start. It’s not shown the kind of clumsy period of trying to work out how to live inside this organism that SARS showed. That was a rather important paper, I thought rather an interesting one. So I got in touch with her the lead author, Xing, current member, secondly, but Shane is called and in British Columbia, and he put me in touch with Alina, who was really the moving force behind the paper. And she, at the time, had gone to the comms department of the Broad Institute and said, Look, I’ve written this preprint I think it’s important. I want to get it out there into the world straight away. But I also want to communicate with the world in a way that they’ll notice it. And they said, we’ll go on Twitter, and he said, Well, how do I do that? You know? It really was, as you say, an open channel. Now. A lot of the conversation on Twitter has deteriorated. You get A lot of abuse on both sides of the argument some people on as it were our side of the argument trying to keep open minds can also be over the top and aggressive and foolish and leaner and I very careful never to do that. But, you know, we’re perfectly fair to be critical, but I don’t think we should be abusive. But it’s even worse coming from the other side. I mean, some of the things that have been said about Alina, by people like Angela Rasmussen or Stewart Neela, just just nasty. And these are, you know, paid academic virologists, colleagues of hers in the scientific Academy. And it’s, it’s deteriorating, and it’s a pity because I’m a bit nostalgic for those early days in 2020, when what I could find on Twitter was an exchange of ideas with people saying, oh, yeah, that’s a good point. But have you thought about this, or no, that can’t be right. Because Because of this, you know, etc. That’s, you know, it’s wonderful that they have the chance of having that conversation in a scientific setting.
Robert Bryce 56:03
So now let’s talk if you don’t mind, Matt, and again, my guest is my friend Matt Ridley. You can find him at Matt ridley.co.uk. He’s also on Twitter, Matt w at Matt W. Ridley. So we’re both bird watchers, and I paused because I had a bobcat in my yard here just a moment ago, you wrote a piece that was in the spectator just in the last few days about bird flu. And you talked about the effect that bird flu is having that the avian influenza is hampered having having on particularly on Britain, seabirds, what’s going on there?
Matt Ridley 56:36
Yeah, it’s really rather worrying. And there’s been a particularly bad outbreak of bird flu in wild birds, as well as poultry in the UK and other parts of Europe, and indeed, North America. This year, it kind of started last winter with a lot of geese dying. And then it spread this summer to seabirds, and some of the mortality was truly horrific. There’s a wonderful island very close to here, just off shore with large colonies of turns. And there are about 2600 sandwich turns hatched on this island this spring. And every single one of them died of bird flu. Basically, there’s a rare bird. They’re called the Rosie eight turn, which is only 150 pairs in Britain, and they’re all on this island. And about half of the adult population seems to have died this year. So some pretty devastating
Robert Bryce 57:33
and that’s cat island right off Northumberland, you said
Matt Ridley 57:37
co Q UE t
Robert Bryce 57:39
exactly how do you pronounce it? Cook it, cook it? Yes.
Matt Ridley 57:45
And so I wanted to get to the bottom of why this is happening. Now. Bird flu has been around for a long time. But something has got much worse in recent years. And what seems to have happened is starting in 1996, the worst outbreaks in poultry in Asia, have a new and more virulent form of the flu. That then was largely brought under control. And there were relatively few human cases and it hasn’t been capable of getting sustained transmission among human beings. So there’s a certain amount of relaxation. Although if it did get going, it would be pretty unfunny. But what seems to be happening now is that instead of catching bird flu from poultry catching it from wild birds, it’s the other way around. This domestic strain is now being given by poultry to wild birds and is much more virulent in the in the conditions of a poultry farm. Obviously, there’s not much penalty in being virulent if you’re a virus, because it’s very easy to spread. So that you know virulent forms of the virus seem to have arisen, and they’ve spread to wild birds. So it’s mostly impacting birds that gather in very large flocks, like seabirds and shorebirds, seabirds in the breeding season shorebirds in winter, so it’d be interesting to see what happens this winter with geese and shorebirds and others. But what disturbed me was just how many species seemed to be able to get it. And there was a report from America something like 100 species have already been found dying of it in the United States. So it doesn’t and I just thought that’s a bit weird because, you know, you don’t think of, you know, myxomatosis, killing all mammals it kills rabbits, or yellow fever, killing all mammals. It kills people in monkeys, you know what I mean? So, it, it feels like there’s something a bit hard to explain here, which I don’t fully understand yet. And there are the do seem to be differences. Some birds do seem to be more able to survive it than others. But I don’t think it’s going to wipe out all All birds. I mean, that would be a complete nightmare. I suspect that we will see it gradually fade next year. It’s reached the eastern seaboard of the US this year, as far as I can make out, and is sort of pretty well on the west coast by now. And it looks like it’ll be in South America with the migrating birds this winter. But it’s a, you know, it’s an issue. It’s probably related to the enormous number of poultry we keep in pretty crowded conditions. All over the world in various places. But of course, the irony is that the, the more the more confined the birds are, the safer they might be. It’s the ones who are pre arranged and allowed to go out who can spread it more easily.
Robert Bryce 1:00:56
Well, I read that and I just thought, man, more bad news on the bird front because like you I’m an avid birdwatcher, and it follows on I read your piece. And there was a then there was a recent piece by the American bird conservancy who has done great work on wind energy and been very critical and out front on the absolutely terrible track record that the wind industry has in terms of particularly birds of prey and eagles in particular. But it’s called the state of the birds report, and I’ll quote it here it says it found that more than half of us bird species are declining and 70% of newly identified tipping point species have each lost 50% or more of their populations in the last 50 years, and are on track to lose another half in the next 50 years. If nothing changes. I mean, we just, you know, I’m an optimist, and I’m a Rational Optimist. I know you are as well. But damn, I, you know, in a world where they’re just chock full of bad news, I’m looking for something positive, and I’m trying to find it. And I’m not seeing it on the wildlife route at all. So anyway, just an observation. You mentioned that
Matt Ridley 1:02:00
I’m a little more optimistic, generally not on this bird flu issue. But on on on. I’ve seen the recovery of raptors, in particular, but also other birds following the banning of DDT in a pretty spectacular way in this country. So you know, when I was young, there were 60 peregrine falcon pairs left in the UK. I mean, there’s no 606,000, something like that. And they’re all over cities and so on. And it’s not a big deal to see a peregrine falcon, something similar with buzzards. And we’ve got red kites everywhere. That’s partly because of reintroductions. So,
Robert Bryce 1:02:39
and similar recovery in the US of the bald eagle and I had, well exactly
Matt Ridley 1:02:42
tacular recovery story. Preacher, Council of despair, you can turn these things around. Yeah, I’m particularly interested in a book called The curlew, which breeds on the British uplands, something like 25% of world population breeds in Britain. And it’s declined dramatically, particularly in southern England and away from the hills, but it’s doing really quite well in the hills. So how do we learn from that and learn the lessons and in there things like agricultural practices, but also predator control. It turns out that Badgers are destroying the nests, terrifying rate and things like that.
Robert Bryce 1:03:24
So what’s what’s the name of that Curlew? What is it which Curlew is it?
Matt Ridley 1:03:27
It’s a Eurasian Curlew. So there are eight species that curlier in the world, two of which have already gone extinct, rather terrifyingly, the Eskimo Curlew in North America, and the slender build curlier which bred in Kazakhstan and wintered in northern North Africa, and has now been seen for 20 years, so it’s probably extinct. But the other six species, some of them are really quite scarce. They are the largest shorebirds kill us. They’re the slowest breeding they don’t breed till they’re three years old. So they’re pretty vulnerable as it were two things that go wrong in the in the ecosystem, right? They’ve got this unbelievably beautiful haunting song, the Eurasian one, which just a sort of crescendo of bubbling noises that are extremely loud that you hear in the springtime here. You’ll have to come and listen, Robert, it’s wonderful.
Robert Bryce 1:04:21
Oh, I’d love to yeah, I’ve in my dotage. I’ve just become much more passionate about bird watching. And it’s funny, you know, I have this might be my Friday newsletter, and I send it out and I always have something about birds and I get as many responses about birds as I do anything I write about energy or power or the podcast. Oh, well, what, you know, a friend of mine, he lives I’ve been advising him on what binoculars to buy and you know, it’s just but it’s quite wonderful because I was introduced to birdwatching by other people and I met Roger Tory Peterson many years ago and interviewed him once and so really has changed the course of my life. So you’re working on another book? You said you had one in the It can you give us any hints on what that what that? And that would be book number 11? Is that right?
Matt Ridley 1:05:05
Well, it’s back to birds, actually. But I’m not gonna tell you any more than that.
Robert Bryce 1:05:09
Okay. All right. Have you set a deadline for yourself? Do you have a publisher? Any any of those details?
Matt Ridley 1:05:16
No. That’s why I’m not saying anything because it’s too early, I’ll probably change my mind and write something else. But I’m in the early stages of preparing to, to try and seek a contract to write a book that is partly about birds.
Robert Bryce 1:05:33
One question I had and Matt, we’ve met met a couple times, but your your, your member had been a member of the House of Lords, you you are appear your memory serves you now 64 year, a couple years older than I am. And yet you’re working from what I see really hard, what motivates you?
Matt Ridley 1:05:54
And well, I have an unbelievably hard working wife. She’s a professor of neuroscience, and she takes on more and more things and works every hour that God gave, so I’m shamed into it by her.
Unknown Speaker 1:06:08
And how long have you been married?
Matt Ridley 1:06:10
We’ve been married 33 years, next month. So a third of a century, which I’m very proud of.
Robert Bryce 1:06:18
And tell me your wife remind me of your wife’s name again, please.
Matt Ridley 1:06:21
She’s called Anya Hurlburt. And she’s a professor of neuroscience at Newcastle University. And so that’s that’s one reason, but I don’t think I do work terribly hard. I just write a few things. That’s all I do these days. The secret I find too happy life is to avoid getting on committees.
Robert Bryce 1:06:46
I like that. Well, so.
Matt Ridley 1:06:49
Somebody’s committees take minutes and waste hours.
Robert Bryce 1:06:53
Nice. Well, so one of the things when I think about what motivates you, because you’re, you’re prolific? And you are, you know, obviously very curious. I write from my late mother, right? When I think about it, well, who’s my audience? Right? When I when I try and formulate something on the page, what is the ear that I’m trying to think about? Who is the person that I write for? And I think about my mom, because she was not expert in energy or power. But I think, well, she’s my audience. And she was a great fan and encouraged me as a writer when I was a kid. Is there someone you think about when you write it for her to put it in proper English for whom do you write?
Matt Ridley 1:07:29
Well, I don’t think I do think like that. But I tell you, where I do notice is that every now and then, for some reason, it pops into my head, or it becomes clear to me that person X is reading my stuff. And then if you know, let’s say I’ve just drafted an article or something or a paragraph or a book or something, I then suddenly feel the need to go back and read that paragraph as if I was Person X, you know, whether it’s a relative or a colleague, or somebody I’ve never met, but you know, know about or something, you know. And so I do find that one can do that one can read it with the, from the point of view of someone else, and spot things that don’t work in your rows or whatever. So I think that’s the same kind of idea as you’re talking about.
Robert Bryce 1:08:22
And is there 17. But well, one of the things about language that I thought was really interesting, the guy who’s taught how do you learn a foreign language? Well, imagine you’re a character right about who’s in Colombia or Mexico, and you’re imagining you’re that person traveling, which I thought was kind of an interesting idea. But is that is there something specific there? You said Person X? I mean, is this a working class? Have you envisioned someone like that?
Matt Ridley 1:08:46
Well, I mean, it could be anybody. So you know, this afternoon, I might say, Well, hang on, Robert Bryce reads my stuff. How will rubber read this? You see what I mean? It’s it’s somebody specific in each case, but it’s a new person whose turn
Robert Bryce 1:09:02
so what are you reading now? Matt? A year in front of a big wall of books there. And, you know, I know you read voraciously, but what’s on your what’s on the top of your book pile?
Matt Ridley 1:09:11
I did read that voraciously. But I do listen voraciously. These days. I listen to audiobooks at night. I’m a bad sleeper, and I and I find they helped me get back to sleep. And of course, it’s quite difficult because you fall asleep halfway through a passage, but you can scoot back and catch up later. And I’m actually listening to a novel by Lionel Shriver at the moment, but I’ve been reading a book called The Empire of the Dragon by Ian Williams, who’s a journalist and it’s just about China. And it’s very, very well researched. He’s a journalist, and I’m finding that particularly interesting at the moment. So
Robert Bryce 1:09:49
it was called the fact that fire of the Dragon was at the time layer of the dragon. China’s new
Matt Ridley 1:09:54
Cold War is the subtitle.
Robert Bryce 1:09:57
Yeah, well, one thing that just popped in my head I had done You’re going on the podcast some time ago in his book. The new would have forgotten the name of it. But he has a good marvelous passage in their marvelous chapter and they’re specifically talking about China, about the South China Sea and the nine dash map that became the, you know, the map that there’s one cartographer that even traced this back to that one cartographer in the 1930s said this was Chinese waters, and therefore that became China’s claim on the South China Sea, which was to me one of the best parts of that whole book and it was really a remarkable bit of
Matt Ridley 1:10:31
it was really a surprise, or is that a later book?
Robert Bryce 1:10:34
No, it’s darn it here. Hold on. I’m gonna find out.
Yeah, it’s called the new map. The new map? Yeah, it Sisley, it’s Juergen his latest book.
Matt Ridley 1:10:49
It’s these days. It’s fantastic. Right? No, I
Robert Bryce 1:10:51
would read since you’re interested in China, I recommended this solely. There’s a lot of other good stuff in the book. But that chapter on the nine dash map is just so important, because it gives historical context for the South China Sea, and that the Spratlys in the rest of it, which, to me was never been I’d never seen anywhere else. So last question, and this is my guest is Matt Ridley. He’s at Matt W. Ridley, on Twitter and Matt really.co.uk. So my last question, Matt, you know, I’ve been on the podcast, you know what it is what gives you hope? You’ve written a book called The Rational Optimist. We had many hard things happening now. We talked about what’s going on in Britain, we’ve got, you know, the COVID is still with us all these years later. What gives you hope?
Matt Ridley 1:11:35
Well, the fact that nobody has ever been as well off as our generation, that extreme poverty is now well below 10% of the population is down from 50%. When I was born, that’s nobody’s ever lived through a change like that. It’s extraordinary. And particularly at the moment, I would say, Africa gives me hope. I spent two weeks in Kenya over Christmas enjoyed it very much. 10 years ago, when I read the Rational Optimist, 12 years ago, when I read the Rational Optimist, I put in a phrase which annoyingly a reviewer misinterpreted. I said, in a couple of occasions, even in Africa, things are going in the right direction. And he thought that was racist of me. But I wasn’t I was specifically referring to the fact that other people were saying, The One Thing Africa won’t be able to do is grow like Asia has, you know, there’s no hope of that. I quoted people specifically said that. So I was saying, No, you’re wrong. Even in Africa, we’re seeing improvements in living standards. So and that’s become spectacularly true since I read that book. So you know, 2010 is only 12 years ago, the conditions in Africa have improved dramatically in that time, decline of malaria, decline of HIV, rapid economic growth, decline of birth rate, you know, so the demography is getting easier to cope with, etc. It’s not all rosy, there’s horrible things going on in Africa. There’s enormous quantities of poverty, etc, etc. But I don’t think you would find anyone today who would say there is no hope for Africa. It can’t do what Asia did and become a middle income continent. I think everyone now agrees that it can and it will and it’s well on the way to doing so. That’s wonderful news because it’s it’s a huge continent with a lot of people on it
Robert Bryce 1:13:34
may not be the Dark Continent then for forever that the maybe light finally coming to Africa, which is great news. Well, Matt, it’s been a great hour more than an hour now. And I don’t want to make sure I don’t take too much of your time. You’ve been very kind with it and congratulations on the update. The new paperback version of viral is out. That book is called viral the search for the origin of COVID 19 is co author on that book is Alina Chan, who has a new preprint of a paper out called evidence for a proximal origin of SARS cov. Two and the wildlife trade is lacking. That is the title, which is interesting and puts in context some of the things that Matt and I have been talking about here. So Matt, thanks again for being on the power hungry podcast. I’ve been delighted,
Matt Ridley 1:14:16
Robert, it’s been a great pleasure. Thank you. And thanks
Robert Bryce 1:14:19
to all of you in podcast land tune in for the next episode of the power hungry podcast. It might be as good as this one we don’t know yet but make sure to tune in anyway. Thanks again. See you