The Rational Optimist

The Rational OptimistThe winter months provide me with time to read. If I could, I would curl up in front of a wood fire and read non-stop for four months. Unfortunately, family, job, snow-shoveling and cross country skiing interfere with my reading time.

One book I enjoyed was The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley. This book has received quite diverse response from reviewers. For example, David Papineau writes in The Observer (June 13, 2010) “Ridley’s arguments are unlikely to convince everyone. Some people will continue to insist that everything is going to the dogs whatever evidence they are shown. But this book does present a challenge to those pessimists who are prepared to be rational.” John Gray writes in The New Statesman (August 2, 2010) “The best evidence against Ridley’s claim that ideas evolve is the existence of this book, which reproduces some of the most pernicious myths of social Darwinism…For Ridley, rationality has nothing to do with checking that his beliefs are true. If awkward facts crop up, he ignores them. China is one such fact; another is climate change.”

Despite the reviews, I try to look for interesting theories or passages in every book I read. One such concept is the idea that trade, the exchange of goods and services, is at the root of progress and prosperity. Exchange leads to division of labour or specialization. Specialization encourages innovation. Ridley observes that this process is continuous and limitless. Innovation encourages further innovation. Each new generation builds upon the achievements of the generations that came before. In the same way, Ridley argues that ideas generate new ideas. With global communication, this process is expanding at an ever more rapid pace. “The wonderful thing about knowledge is that it is genuinely limitless.” (p.276)

I like to think that the camp community works in exactly this way. I have spent twenty-six summers at Nominingue, including five years as director. Camp Nominingue belongs to both the ACQ (Association des camps du Québec) and the OCA (Ontario Camps Association). Within each of these organizations there are between 100 and over 300 camps. Once a year, each of these camp associations holds their directors’ conference. It is a chance to meet, to learn, to reminisce and to improve. Although I do not know every director, the support network within the camp community is incredible. When I have a question, I have numerous people who are willing to listen, offer advice or share their own experiences in a similar situation.

Last fall, a group of OCA camp directors met at the Nottawasaga Inn, led by Jane McCutcheon of Think Muskoka. Jane, an ex-camp director now working as a consultant, shared her thoughts regarding the challenges facing camps today. Jeff Bradshaw, director of Camp Wenonah, shared some of his marketing genius with the group. The central theme that Jane and Jeff presented was that camps “must adapt to the needs and demands of our clients! This is the new reality.” Beyond the ideas generated at the meetings were the informal discussions that took place throughout the day. I discussed with Lisa Wilson of Camp Oconto and Matt Bernardo of Camp Wabikon about the management of the kitchen. Over the last year, I have picked the brains of Leon Muszynski of Camp Arowhon and Mike Sladden of Camp Pathfinder regarding their tripping programs. I have discussed with Dave Graham of Camp Kandalore regarding the approach he takes in recruiting international campers. I also regularly speak with Jeff Brown of Camp Otterdale on a wide variety of topics.

This spring, the ACQ organized a meeting of Anglophone members to discuss our perspective and any concerns that English camps might have within the Association. The meeting enabled many of these camp directors to connect for a first time. Since that meeting, I have discussed with Don Sedgwick of Sans Souci Riding Centre issues of common interest or concern. Whether it is discussing new ecological ventures, staffing issues or transportation, Sean Day of YMCA Camp Kanawana is always available. Jacqui Raill of Camp Ouareau has been an inestimable resource in working with the association or in referring me to the best contact.

The input of all these directors has helped me put order to my thoughts. It has put my issues into a larger perspective and sometimes challenged me to re-think my plans. The camp community is an incredibly supportive environment. Camp directors, for the most part, are willing to share their struggles and strengths, and they certainly contribute to the spread of ideas. Matt Ridley speaks about the power of ideas, of how when ideas meet, new and better ideas emerge. In this respect, the camp community definitely conforms!”