Pessimism is easy. All you have to do is listen to 24-hour news channels on a regular basis. It doesn’t even matter which one – MSNBC does the job as well as Fox News. It is not the falsehoods or hyperbole – it is the relentless focus on bad news. What qualifies as bad depends on their political view but make no mistake: the world is a bad place and getting worse by the moment.
Being an optimist is a larger stretch. You have to weigh the balance of probabilities; you have to think about the things you learn. You are forced to consider the lessons of the past while projecting possibilities into the future.
Right now, we seem to be faced with global economic uncertainty, terrorism expanding into ever fresh areas, massive and expanding inequality, climate change threatening to flood Florida (and most other lowland areas of the world) while bringing on devastating storms and spreading droughts.
How can you possibly be optimistic in the face of that?
Fifty years ago the problems were different – much more solvable. There was the threat of nuclear destruction from competing super powers; lead and other heavy metals were poisoning entire generations, bio-accumulative organics were wiping out species, air pollution, ozone thinning, growing authoritarianism and massive poverty and starvation. All of those problems got worse before…
They got better.
While nuclear war is still a risk, most people are concerned with nuclear terrorism. The number of actual weapons is on the decline and there are better mechanisms (hardly perfect) for controlling their proliferation. Let me put it this way – if Iran had a nuclear program in the late 1960s they would have had nuclear weapons by the 1970s.
There are now more overweight people in the world than malnourished ones. Democracy continues to expand and with it comes expanded civil rights for women, minorities, and LBGT people. Is there push back? Certainly. But it is a rear-guard action. The reactionaries have mostly lost in most places – they just don’t know it yet. Are there still places where freedom doesn’t rain? You bet – but even those places feel the tide of history.
We’ve cleaned up most of the old pollution problems – imperfectly it is true – but there is life in the Thames River again and we’ve mostly removed lead from the human ecosystem.
Even poverty is on the decline through an expansion of regulated markets and the advantages of spreading technology.
All of these solutions bred new problems; some of the new problems – like climate change – were there all along but were overshadowed by the difficulties facing the world.
In fifty years, we may have solved these issues and be facing new dangers. Or we may all be dead – I almost certainly will be, but that’s an entirely different story. We are all doomed, after all.
And that’s ten minutes.