Optimists and Pessimists See the Limits of Our Future


Both optimism and pessimism abound among people’s expectations for the future.  Yesterday I spoke with a friend who is very optimistic about the future.  “With our best agricultural techniques we will be able to feed up to 10 billion people by 2050.” he said.  Considering the current amount of fossil fuel required to produce current food yields, at a time when we are already stretching mightily to bring in ever more expensive and risky supplies of fossil fuels, I have my doubts.  On the other hand, I find myself waxing pessimistic when I speak with people who are still totally ignoring the population explosion and related energy and pollution crises as major risks to humanity and life on the planet, and I realize that they – the deniers, the disconnected, and the ignorant – may be in the majority.  Even my optimistic friend admits that he expects a massive reduction in population sometime during this century, he but stops short of using the word “deaths”.  In the end, aren’t we most likely to see something in between the two extremes though the road will still be rocky?

Pessimists I know point out the vast population of “deniers” as well as the even-larger population of the ignorant and clueless.  Corporate interests have long fought to avoid or block any policy changes that would negatively impact their profits.  Some have purposefully funded interest groups and pseudo-news organizations that try to minimize public awareness and acceptance of the enormous problems of overpopulation, dwindling energy supplies, and the effects of pollution and natural and human-caused climate change.  The less educated among the population easily fall prey to misinformation, especially when presented in an emotionally charged and misleading way. 

Corporations, especially certain media corporations, sell emotional messages of optimism.  The emotional message, also, is blended into existing memes created for the express purpose of manipulating the understanding and opinions of members of the public.  Those memes are not too hard to spot as they usually have emotionally-charged and inherently misleading labels like “Obamacare”.  It is hard to see the resulting cultural understandings as optimistic, but many people are swayed by conspiracy theories and distorted or simply wrong information into a denial of climate change, the effects of pollution, or even the possibility that there are too many humans already living on the planet.  This creates a blind optimism that we can carry on living as we do indefinitely even though everything we know suggests our lives will change radically in the next few decades whether we approve of the changes or not, and that a large proportion of the changes will affect our lives negatively.

Optimists, on the other hand, believe we can invent our way out of our problems, level off population growth, and continue our rapid progress as a species.  I, being inherently an optimist, would like to believe the inventions and changes we need can be achieved in time to avoid a precipitous decline in our standard of living combined with ever-larger disasters brought on or exacerbated by our exploding population.  The news and my encounters with people who have been systematically misled, or who otherwise don’t understand or want to understand what is going on, frequently temper my optimism.  There are a lot more people in the US who, for a variety of reasons, deny or fail to understand the facts.

Relatively recent inventions are having a positive effect.  The internet is connecting more people every day and enabling greater and more efficient collaborations that could lead to cheaper and less ecologically-damaging sources of energy, for example.  I speak with more and more people who accept that A) the world is going to change whether we are a causal factor or not, B) while our influence seems small, it is large if we each take responsibility to do what we can, and C) we need to do what we can to protect our kids and grandkids from our mistakes, whether they are caused by intentional but misguided acts or by our own ignorance or negligence.

Conservation, economic aid, and family planning assistance to developing countries buy us time while we all “get our acts together”.  As educational and economic standards of living rise in developing countries population growth declines, more ecologically responsible policies and practices are adopted, and political stability becomes more possible.  Beyond personal conservation efforts, for example, it is possible to very inexpensively communicate with government and corporate representatives regarding our concerns for the future.  Elected officials in particular will listen because they need individual votes – corporate money can’t buy that, and can only inundate us with advertising, for the most part.  That’s one of the good things about our democratic republic – the vote still counts.  Please be sure to always vote, know who you’re voting for, and tell your elected representatives why you are voting for them and what you want them to do to ensure a better future for all of us.

As always, I appreciate any comments.  — Tim

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One response to “Optimists and Pessimists See the Limits of Our Future

  1. I struggle with this optimism/realism balance as I see it. Without realism, one is simply in denial, but without optimism one would just give up.

    I like your discussion of the importance of democracy in this arena. Peoples’ lack of perceived power (and therefore responsibility) is a very important factor here.

    http://www.optimisticengineer.wordpress.com

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