Optimism vs pessimism: er, no thanks (part 1)

While on the subject of reviews (see last post), a few thoughts which developed slowly from one I wrote about that other book with optimism in the title, Mark Stevenson’s Optimist’s Tour of the Future. I was fairly positive about the book, and even about the idea of cultivating an optimistic attitude – not always my temperamental inclination.

I’m still pondering some of the recent discussion of optimism though. It goes slowly as I mainly want to resist the implication that optimism vs. pessimism is a particularly useful way to discuss ideas about the future. I’m definitely with Bruce Sterling there – in terms of what will actually happen, optimism versus pessimism is beside the point. The future will be more history –  a mixture of good and bad, like the past. Lets turn up the gain a little. The future will most likely be a mixture of the amazing and inspiring and unspeakably dreadful, like the past.

Other reasons for not wanting to sign up to the idea that everyone is too damn pessimistic now, and we ought to do something about it:

1) I’m not sure what difference it makes. Is there any definite connection between being optimistic and trying to do stuff to make the future better than it might otherwise be?  One can imagine (and occasionally meet) optimists,  call them witless, who just think things will probably be OK and they can ignore any potential problems. On the other hand, taking those problems terribly seriously can lead to action of a kind. I suppose the author of the Transition Towns Handbook, whose take on the future could not be more different from Matt Ridley’s, is a kind of optimist, though I don’t personally find his vision of the future either optimistic – or, for that matter, remotely plausible.

2) As indicated above, the optimism/pessimism frame is a poor way of illuminating real issues. Look at the analysis in Mike Hulme’s Why We Disagree About Climate Change, for example. That is a more thoughtful, more wide-ranging  and, I think, a wiser book than The Rational Optimist.

3) Obsessing about pessimism is culture bound – while there may be a fixation on gloom and doom in some quarters just now in the developed world, I have a strong impression that it is a minority view globally. Reports from China and India, for starters, suggest that in countries where life has got demonstrably better recently for many millions of people there is plenty of support for the idea that it can go on improving.

4) Obsessing about pessimism also tends to generate bad history, ignoring the fact that the opposites always co-exist. Indeed the optimistic tradition – from, say Francis Bacon, through Condorcet up to Herman Kahn – is well known. And it is, on the face of it, shared by most public leaders, at least in their public utterances. All politicians, all the time, more or less, assume that economic growth is the way of the future (assuming that that itself is optimistic…). For confirmation, see any newspaper reporting on the current state of the economy.

All that said, you have to admit that there is a fair bit of pessimistic sentiment around in the countries whose mediasphere I sample (as a monoglot Englishman). And some people seem very attached to their pessimism, to the extent that they treat any suggestion it might not be warranted with scorn or sarcasm. Not sure why that is. As I’ve said before, we’re not looking nuclear megadeath in the face week after week any more (are we?). Things may well get a bit worse for a lot of people, and – as ever – turn out terribly for some. And the slope of the curve does seem crucial, so that even a slowing of growth throws some people into a panic. Then again, I don’t get why the idea that material standards might decline is always seen as such bad news, either. Is it a by-product of capitalism’s own incessant self-advertisement, generating a conviction that a faltering growth machine means the end of all good things?  But  lots of the pessimists are also social critics of the sort who believe we’re all more unhappy than ever or even, like the reliably ridiculous Oliver James, that we’re all sub-clinically depressed by “affluenza”.

More to say on all this, but long enough for a single post, so I’ll save for part 2.

Pessimism, pessimism everywhere, I tell you! (unreliablefutures.wordpress.com)

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One Comment on “Optimism vs pessimism: er, no thanks (part 1)”


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Cheryl Morgan, jon turney. jon turney said: Optimism vs pessimism: er, no thanks (part 1) http://wp.me/p9nh6-8w […]


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