Pessimism, pessimism everywhere, I tell you!

Sometimes, you just have to rise to an author’s bait. I’m just pondering a couple of books espousing optimism: Mark Stevenson’s Optimist’s Tour of the Future (of which more anon), just out, and Matt Ridley’s polemical Rational Optimist, published last year.

The latter is fascinating, and its main thesis pretty persuasive – life has generally got better and better over the last 50,000 years, even as humanity has proliferated, and this is due largely to trade, especially trade in ideas. The more exchange of ideas there is, the more innovation happens, and the more exchange of ideas follows, in a virtuous circle accelerated by ever more refined division of labour. It is a bit one-dimensional as a thesis to explain the dynamic of all human history, but a trade book like this needs a Big Idea, and this one follows through well, and is smart and well-written as all Ridley’s books are.

The reason he advances this thesis is that it justifies a belief that things will go on getting better (there is more exchange, and more innovation capacity now than ever before). This idea also has a lot going for it. But in order to identify himself as the uber-optimist – the natural successor to Julian Simon – Ridley adopts a pretty wide definition of pessimists, which is pretty much all the rest of us. Thus:

“The bookshops are groaning under ziggurats of pessimism. The airwaves are crammed with doom. In my own adult lifetime, I have listened to implacable predictions of growing poverty, coming famines, expanding deserts, imminent plagues, impending water wars, inevitable oil exhaustion, mineral shortages, falling sperm counts, thinning ozone, acidifying rain, nuclear winters, mad-cow epidemics, Y2K computer bugs, killer bees, sex-change fish, global warming, ocean acidification, and even asteroid impacts that would presently bring this happy interlude to a terrible end. I cannot recall a time when one or other of these scares was not solemnly espoused by sober, distinguished and serious elites and hysterically echoed by the media…”

I think this is weak rhetorically (ooh, get those untrustworthy “elites”, and tut at the hysterical media) and the attempt to lump all these items into one categoery is unconvincing. As my lifetime overlaps with MR’s pretty well, lets see how my recollections run down here, off the top of my head:

Predictions of growing poverty – not sure who this refers to: Limits to Growth and Ehrlich’s Population Bomb would qualify I suppose, but they come up later so that might be double counting.

Coming famines – an unequivocal direct hit. There were truly dire predictions, and they were dead wrong. We also now understand the causes of famine much better.

Expanding deserts – well, I think they have expanded in some parts of the world, if not as drastically as some foresaw. Soil degradation is certainly a problem in many farming regions (but see famine).

Imminent plagues – there has been a fascination with the possibility of a new pandemic, which given the mark of past diseases on world history does not seem that surprising. Then again, there were plenty of, with hindsight, over-optimistic predictions in the decades after World War 2 of the end of infectious disease. Antibiotic resistance is real, and there are some newly-emerging and re-emerging diseases. Laurie Garrett and Richard Preston did hype up the prospect for mega-outbreaks, but there are real public health concerns about epidemic spread in a globalised world which it would be unwise to ignore.

Impending water wars – my perception of both books and media reporting on this topic is that it may lean toward alarm but is fairly balanced. When I have researched it myself, a little, I soon found as many people who argue that water shortages tend to induce co-operation as often as conflicts as those maintaining that water will be the new oil.

Inevitable oil exhaustion – well, it is inevitable (unless there really is oil in the deep hot biosphere which I am inclined to discount). When, of course, is open to discussion. And there is plenty of dispute with those who are convinced that peak oil is imminent, and plenty of reporting of the sceptics, I think.

Mineral shortages – OK, another famous case where past predictions have been proven wrong, and a fairly basic case of not understanding the economics of extraction and substitution. Shortages make it worth recovering the hard to get stuff, and looking harder for alternatives (see also peak oil). But this is hardly news. The story has been told innumerable times with exactly the moral I just summarised.

Falling sperm counts – this was not exactly a prediction of doom, in my view, more a concern founded on some quite good results which indicated that sperm counts were actually falling. Not far enough to produce infertility, but an odd finding, to be sure. It ties in with the sex-change fish, and the notion that some chemicals in wide use are endocrine disruptors. That wasn’t a crazy, or doom-mongering tale, in my reading, more an issue worth highlighting so we could do something about it if we needed to.

Thinning ozone – this was an actual problem, which is now most often (I’d say) used as an example which gives cause for optimism. When it was identified, and the evidence established to most people’s satisfaction, there was international agreement on measures to nip it in the bud. Were the people who argued that if no action was taken things would get worse silly pessimists? Not sure why that categorisation fits.

Acid rain – this is a complicated one, but the little I know makes me incline to accept Ridley’s view that the problem, and its consequences (forest destruction) were overblown.

Nuclear winters – this strikes me as a particularly daft inclusion on a list of unwarranted doom scenarios. Obviously it was not simply the product of a pessimistic temperament to fear a major nuclear war in the years from, say, 1950-1990. The wonder, if anything, is that the fear has abated to such an extent. Nuclear winter was an added ingredient, which was based on evidence and modelling which left scope for argument. But discussing the hitherto neglected short and medium-term atmospheric effects of nuclear war still seems prudent, does it not?

Mad-cow epidemics – not sure why these are plural. But there surely was a new, completely unexpected disease, whose biology was apparently unprecedented and is still imperfectly understood. Once its transfer to humans was established, there was enormous uncertainty about the incubation time before symptoms appeared. So while there were widely varying scenarios, a mass outbreak of new variant CJD was not an impossibility by any means. The fact that it did not happen may well just be dumb luck.

Y2K computer bugs – a particularly interesting case, to my mind. Probably a special case, too, as it chimed with Millennial fears. And remarkable, too, I think because it has been so little discussed since. Did we avoid IT meltdown because the problem was always exaggerated by money-grubbing software consultants, or because of all the fixes which were put in place before the date of doom?  I dunno, but the whole thing says something about our collective unease about dependence on complex systems, which is a bit more interesting than the simple “pessimism” on the Rational Optimist’s charge sheet.

killer bees – don’t recall them (assuming this doen’t mean bees dying off…)

sex-change fish – see falling sperm counts

global warming – well, the big one, and too big to start in on here, except to say that it is not just a prediction: global warming is clearly happening. And while it is not a harbinger of imminent doom, it will go on for quite a while whatever we do and could still turn out to be the one thing which makes the prediction made in the several editions of The Limits to Growth – of a major downturn in economy and ecology around the middle of this century – somewhere near correct. I don’t personally think that is likely, but the consequences in the second half of the century remain radically uncertain and fearing they will be severe does not make one a chronic pessimist, I my view.

Asteroid impacts – these got lots of attention because of our fascination with the death of the dinosaurs, which it emerged was (probably, at least partly) due to a big hit. It did then seem worth looking into how many near earth objects big enough to do real damage there are. Suggesting that they could do real damage was part of the case for getting the relevant surveys funded, and that also seems to me a good thing. Turns out there probably aren’t any posing a large risk any time soon, but that is good to know and again seems to produce an optimistic twist to the story in most current tellings.

I haven’t looked anything up to verify these recollections, and there may well be things in the detail which need correction. But this expansion of Ridley’s list does at least convince me that he has pulled together very different things under one much too simple heading – one classic technique, in other words, for building a straw man argument.




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3 Comments on “Pessimism, pessimism everywhere, I tell you!”

  1. Adam Nieman Says:

    There’s optimism (a positive attitude towards the future) and there’s wishful thinking (a cognitive error) which is often mistaken for optimism. Ridely’s litany of others’ pessimism looks more like the latter, though I haven’t read the book.
    For many of the the problems on his list, solutions came only because the threat was taken seriously – in precisely the way he derides. The Green Revolution, the Montreal Protocol, treaties on acid rain, etc. were serious responses to the perception of serious threats, not inevitable developments.

    Many self-declared optimists remind me of a story I read about a novice journalist assisting a senior colleague in covering an election. He was being rather casual in the way he collected the results until the senior journalist scolded him for his lack of professionalism. “What does it matter?” the novice asked, “the results will be in the paper tomorrow anyway.” He hadn’t realised that results don’t just get into the paper on their own. Someone like him has to write them down and put them in the paper. Many threats to society are similar – they only go away because somebody has risen to the challenge of dealing with them.

    Even if it were inevitable that solutions will always be found to threats facing society (as they have in Ridley’s lifetime) it doesn’t reduce their status as threats.

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