Are you a pessimistic optimist or a cheerful pessimist?

Things have never been better.

Everything sucks!

Stories like these have become frequent in the media. I first started noticing them around 2017–18 when I came across Steven Pinker, and heard one of his podcasts. It must have been because 2018 is the year Enlightenment Now was published. In the book, Pinker trots out chart after chart, to passionately argue that life has never been better for the vast majority of the world across metrics like health, wealth, education, violence, and quality of life.

But when you talk to people around you and listen to commentators online, it feels like things have never been worse. This feeling of deep-rooted malaise and disenchantment is widespread around the world, especially in advanced economies.

Vibes aren’t local anymore. Thanks to the internet, they travel. You can feel the sense of stuckness in developing countries like India too. Despite all the progress humanity has made, a lot of people think everything sucks. No amount of data, or fancy charts seems to make a difference.

I’ve been reading articles on optimism vs. pessimism with some interest since 2018. A couple of years ago, it also dawned on me that thinking about optimism and pessimism is essential because I work in finance, an industry that enables trillions of bets on both of these world views.

I assumed and even fancied myself as a pessimist to some extent, but then I realized that the way I was investing was as an optimist. I hadn’t thought about this hard enough. It was just lazy thinking and self-deception.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking more about the duel between optimism and pessimism over the last few years, and I was planning to write something about it. As an aside, Duel of Fates by John Williams is one of my all-time favorite soundtracks.

This is by no means a complete post; it’s more of a messy pre-first draft or a forever draft. I’ve been trying to read various perspectives on this, so I’ll keep updating the post at regular intervals. Over the last couple of months, I’ve been seeing hopeful charts of human progress on some key dimensions that are key to forestalling the end of the world, and that was another trigger for writing this post.

Ok, back to the question at hand.

Is the wordl getting better, or is it going to shit?

Before that, it’s helpful to understand the origins of the terms optimism and pessimism:

This longstanding philosophical debate is where we get the terms ‘optimism’ and ‘pessimism’, which are so much used, and perhaps overused, in our modern culture. ‘Optimism’ was the phrase coined by the Jesuits for philosophers such as Leibniz, with his notion that we live in ‘the best of all possible worlds’ (for surely, if God could have created a better one, he would have done so). ‘Pessimism’ followed not long afterwards to denote philosophers such as Voltaire, whose novel Candide (1759) ridiculed Leibnizian optimism by contrasting it with the many evils in the world. ‘If this is the best of all possible worlds,’ Voltaire’s hero asks, ‘what on earth are the others like?’ — Look on the dark side (archive)

It’s all sunshine and roses

In the 1600s, the great English philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote:

Life is nasty, brutish, and short.

Optimists argue that this was the case for much of humanity. Humans lived miserable lives filled with poverty, hunger, ignorance, scarcity, and outright brutality. Then the scientific revolution, which started around the 1500s, picked up pace and led to the industrial revolution in the 1700s. We learned how to tame nature, and so began a great era of progress across health, food security, literacy, politics, and much more.

The optimists point out that humanity has never been better off based on most measures like life expectancypovertyhungerchild laborchild mortalityliteracyinequalityslaveryhuman rightssame-sex marriagewomen’s rights, the spread of democracyscientific progresstechnological advancesozone-depleting emissions, the growth of renewable energyviolenceaccess to clean cooking fuelaccess to knowledge, and more.

Here’s how economic historian Joel Mokyr, who’s written several books on growth and progress, puts it:

Much of the world, I should say not all, is vastly richer today than at any point in history. Even the people who are at the bottom of the ladder today, people who are relatively poor in Western Europe or even the United States, are enjoying a living standard that is much higher in almost every dimension than the popes and emperors of the past. We are living longer, we have lower infant mortality, we are taller, stronger, healthier, we eat better, we enjoy ourselves more, and we have more access to information. All of this has emerged in the last 200 or 250 years as the result of developments that began with the Industrial Revolution.

So what I tell my students is that I compare modern economic history with the history of evolution. I tell them that for millions and millions of years, species came and went, and the world remained more or less the same. Then one day, fairly recently, Homo sapiens came around and changed the rules of the game. From then on, everything was different.

The other analogy, somewhat more prosaic, is to compare economic history to a hockey stick. It has a very long shaft with very little growth, and then all of a sudden it bends upwards very sharply and stays at that trajectory. As far as growth is concerned, we haven’t seen anything yet.

Here’s the economist, Deirdre McCloskey (archive), who’s written several classics on how the world became prosperous:

Yet all the worries from Malthus to Piketty, from 1798 to the present, share an underlying pessimism, whether from imperfection in the capital market or from the behavioral inadequacies of the individual consumer or from the Laws of Motion of a Capitalist Economy —this in the face of the largest enrichment per person that humans have ever witnessed.

During such a pretty good history 1800 to the present, the economic pessimists on the left have nonetheless been subject to nightmares of terrible, terrible faults. Admittedly, such pessimism sells. For reasons I have never understood, people like to hear that the world is going to hell, and become huffy and scornful when some idiotic optimist intrudes on their pleasure.

Yet pessimism has consistently been a poor guide to the modern economic world. We are gigantically richer in body and spirit than we were two centuries ago. In the next half century—if we do not kill the goose that laid the golden eggs by implementing leftwing schemes of planning and redistribution or rightwing schemes of imperialism and warfare, as we did on all counts 1914-1989, following the advice of the the clerisy that markets and democracy are terribly faulted—we can expect the entire world to match Sweden or France.

Matt Ridley is an ardent defender of progress and innovation, and he has written several best-selling books, including The Rational Optimist. He, along with Johan Norberg and David Runciman, participated in an Intelligence Squared debate on optimism vs. pessimism.

Optimism isn’t based on personality or character. I can be as gloomy as anyone, particularly at 3 in the morning, but it’s based on the data. Because when I was growing up, I believed the pessimists and I never heard the optimists. When I was a student, the population explosion was unstoppable, famine was inevitable, pesticides were going to shorten our lives, acid rain was going to destroy forests in the north, rain forests were going to disappear, the desert was advancing, the ozone layer was collapsing, nuclear weapons were going to get us, my sperm count was falling, and at the end of the year 1999, the computers couldn’t cope with a number, civilization was going to collapse.

And I just began to notice after a while that these things weren’t happening, and that extraordinary improvements in, for example, health were happening all around the world. Child mortality down by 2/3 in my lifetime – that’s the biggest measure of misery I can think of. AIDS, everybody thought it was going to go on getting worse and worse, instead of which it’s getting better at the moment. Malaria mortality down by 60% in this century alone, in the last 15 years. These are unbelievable achievements, and they’re continuing.

Here’s Swedish historian Johan Norberg, another defender of classical liberal values:

If you go back to the awful 20th century politically, almost anything that could go wrong did go wrong in the world. We had the Great Depression, we had two world wars, we had Nazism, fascism, communism, the Iron Curtain. It was awful. And yet, if you look at human living standards at the end of those awful 100 years, we have never seen as much progress as we did during those years.

We increased life expectancy from 30 years to almost 70 years. Chronic undernourishment declined from 50% to almost 10% around the world. Extreme poverty declined from around 80% around the world to… soon it’s down to 10%. So it seems, and that’s no comfort for all those who were killed in those wars, all everybody who were oppressed and all those things, but it seems to say that there’s something in human nature that we just continue, whatever happens.

Optimists say that pessimists don’t have an appreciation for history and are stupid for not recognizing how far we’ve come. They contend that by focusing only on the negatives, they are discouraging and demoralizing hopeful people who are working to make things better. Optimists also point to history and say that when push comes to shove, we always rally together to solve problems.

They argue that optimism is necessary for solving problems. Here’s Zachary Karabell, author and founder of The Progress Network:

I believe that a societal belief in its collective capacity to solve problems is, in and of itself, a needed ingredient in effectively solving those problems. So, fatalistic societies, pessimistic societies, societies that essentially feel it’s all going to get worse, as well as individuals – I would posit, I can’t prove this, we don’t get to replay the tape – have a much harder time galvanizing collective energies to solve needed issues, in part because, look, if you really believe that the world is on the verge of kind of pseudo-planetary extinction because of climate change, as well as political extinction because of the political climate, and that that’s a likely outcome, and that the future is going to be worse, that does rationally, on an individual and national level, lead to a kind of a “beggar thy neighbor” tendency.

Welcome to hell on earth!

The pessimists argue that the optimists are Pollyannas who are selectively picking measures that suit their narratives and ignoring reality. They say that across most measures, the optimists trot out zoomed-out charts, and things have been steadily getting worse if you zoom in.

Some realists, like Daniel Schmachtenberger, also argue that when you consider the cost of this so-called “progress”—from the genocide of numerous indigenous tribes like Native Americans to slavery, colonization, and the wholesale extinction of species due to human activity—is picking a few charts that show lines going up compared to a Hobbesian world really progress?

They point out that the brief moment of peace we had after the end of the Cold War, thanks to the unipolar world dominated by the United States, was a mirage, and the rules-based international liberal order is all but dead (archive).

The point is that things that are degrading, like climate changeunprecedented extinction of speciesloss of biodiversitywater scarcityantibiotic resistanceair pollutionplastic pollution, rising povertyrising indebtedness in poor countriesinequalitydeclining life expectancy in rich countries, the rise of autocraciesrising natural disasters, a rising number of wars and conflicts, the threat of AI-driven automation, rising digital harms, the opioid crisis, the migration crisis, and more.

In October 2023, famed venture capitalist Andreessen Horowitz published an unapologetic techno-optimist manifesto (archive), in which he unleashed an uncontrolled ejaculation of unrestrained technological progress. In the post, he also listed out the enemies of progress:

We have enemies.

Our enemies are not bad people – but rather bad ideas.

Our present society has been subjected to a mass demoralization campaign for six decades – against technology and against life – under varying names like “existential risk”, “sustainability”, “ESG”, “Sustainable Development Goals”, “social responsibility”, “stakeholder capitalism”, “Precautionary Principle”, “trust and safety”, “tech ethics”, “risk management”, “de-growth”, “the limits of growth”.

In response, entrepreneur Jag Bhalla and editor-in-chief of the Current Affairs magazine Nathan J. Robinson published a fiery riposte (archive):

Many economists and market optimists like Andreessen now sanction a similar “scientific cruelty.” Like Pangloss, today’s pro-market pundits in effect preach that present material suffering is just part of the grand plan on the road to a bright future. It’s a seductive message to the contemporary equivalents of Voltaire’s smug upbeat aristocrats.

Like Leibniz, today’s Optimists urge the continuation of staggeringly unjust but self-serving systems. Their equivalent of a “best-of-all-possible outcomes” is  the “rational” resource allocations of the great Invisible Hand. The economy is seen as a mathematical optimization scheme, which operates with qualities tantamount to omniscience and quasi-omnipotence. Indeed, that’s precisely how Andreessen speaks of it, repeating the idea that no human has sufficient information to question the Invisible Hand judgements. 

But this notion of Market Providence is, of course, riddled with deep anti-poor biases. To the market gods, your ability to avoid material suffering, never mind aspire to happiness, should be granted strictly in accordance with your demonstrated market virtues, expressed solely in cold hard cash. That’s the core doctrine of trickle-down market theology. But as the Federal Reserve’s own Jeremy Rudd wrote: “the primary role of mainstream economics … is to provide an apologetics for a criminally oppressive, unsustainable, and unjust social order.” 

Pessimists argue that an overemphasis on positives can lead to complacency and a certain blindness to the monumental challenges that humanity is facing. They also argue that a degree of pessimism is necessary to focus on the problems that beset us.

They point out that this complacency in humanity is what led to the “metacrisis” and the “polycrisis.”

If we look at all of the environmental issues, all the exponential tech issues, all of the fragilities of our global supply chains, and the escalation pathways to war at scale where the post-World War II system is breaking down for a bunch of reasons, we can get into… Collectively, we can kind of call that the metacrisis. And the metacrisis is not one particular catastrophic risk, it’s looking at all of them, because to make it through, you have to prevent all of them. To fail, you only have to have one of them happen.

So we really have to take that holistically, and then to think deeper about it is to say, “Man, is this really like a thousand different issues that are all separate, that we have to think about individually? Or do they all have certain underlying patterns in common, where if we think about those patterns, address those, it would address everything else? Is there some way in which these are all symptoms of underlying issues?”

And obviously, your audience will be very sympathetic to the idea that coordination failures are underneath all of these. Part of why we have the environmental issues is because it’s very hard to have any country decide to tax carbon if any other country doesn’t, because it’s going to hurt their economy and hurt them geopolitically. And to make an international agreement where everyone takes international enforcement, that is really hard to do. That’s a coordination failure. It’s like a giant prisoner’s dilemma, a multi-polar prisoner’s dilemma, a multi-agent prisoner’s dilemma, which is all a multi-polar trap. — Daniel Schmachtenberger

Here’s how Adam Tooze, who’s done more to popularize the term “polycrisis” than anyone else, defines it:

A problem becomes a crisis when it challenges our ability to cope and thus threatens our identity. In the polycrisis the shocks are disparate, but they interact so that the whole is even more overwhelming than the sum of the parts. At times one feels as if one is losing one’s sense of reality.

So, who’s right?

As obvious as it may seem, both optimists and pessimists are right. I liked social philosopher Daniel Schmachtenberger’s framing:

Totally, yeah. Okay, I didn’t answer your initial question and started to go off in another direction around the techno-optimist or techno-pessimist perspective. Nobody wants to go back to a pre-technology time where Novocaine didn’t exist, and you still needed dental work, right? There are lots of things about technology that we like, but all technology also corresponds with externalities—harms across environmental supply chains, social dynamics, or whatever it is.

So, is the world getting better from technology, like Pinker and Rosling and others would say, or is it getting worse, as many environmentalists and organizations like Stanford Humane Technology would say? It’s getting better and worse at the same time on different metrics. It’s getting better on the metrics that we’re measuring and optimizing for, particularly those associated with capital, and it’s getting worse on all the other metrics.

Even the most unabashed optimists admit that some things are bad, even though they do so in a hand-wavy manner. If you were to press even the more hard-core cynics, they’d agree that some things are indeed good.

So why do these debates play out?

It’s partly due to the lack of nuance and talking past each other. Also, the fact that both optimism and pessimism are pejoratives in a lot of cases doesn’t help. People who think the future can be better are called idiots because they are supposedly too stupid to see all the ills of the world. On the other hand, the people who think everything sucks are idiots because they don’t have the ability to appreciate all that’s good.

A lot of these debates involve people talking past each other rather than to each other. I’ve realized that optimism and pessimism exist on a spectrum. It’s perfectly possible for an optimist to be hopeful about a better tomorrow and acknowledge all the ills of the world, just like it is possible for a pessimist not to give in to fatalism despite the unending horrors of the world.

There’s also the fact that we are hard-wired to think in binary terms, while very little in life is black and white. It’s just an endless spectrum of grayness. But grappling with this takes a lot of effort, which is not worth it for most people when default templates for thinking are easily available on demand. There’s also an element of status because ideological posturing is one of the easiest ways to gain it.

Who actually examines the science in detail, looks at the methodology, the models, the sources of funding, and the biases to make sense of it themselves? Instead, people often just defer to the authority that is most associated with their in-group. — Daniel Schmachtenberger

So do things suck?

This is a hard one, but here’s how I think about it.

Life is hard

The problem with talking in terms of aggregates and large numbers is that we lose sight of the fact that we are talking about human beings. All the upward-sloping charts of human progress won’t do any good to a person who’s hungry, homeless, or unemployed. It reminds me of a quote that was misattributed to Josef Stalin:

The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.

For the vast majority of people, even in advanced countries, things really suck. For all the paeans to progress, many people have been left behind and are suffering. The poorest countries are suffering the ravages (archive) of climate change due to the actions of the richest countries.

Talk to a former factory worker in Missouri who lost his job due to the China shock or an unemployed youth in Uttar Pradesh; all the charts of the benefits of globalization (archive) or increasing life expectancy in the world won’t do them any good.

The vast majority of people on the planet today belong to a class known as the “precariat,” characterized by precarious working conditions. They couldn’t care less about the virtues of free trade, globalization, and enlightenment values. Progress has left people behind, and they are angry.

Progress is also not a neutral force. It can be the result of deliberate political and distributional choices that lead to winners and losers. There’s only so much hopium that the losers are willing to take before they revolt.

As the pessimists rightly point out, the world is backsliding on several key indicators that have an immediate impact on the quality of life, like poverty, safety, food security, employment, and perhaps most importantly, planetary catastrophe. When your employment situation is precarious and the next meal isn’t assured, optimism is a little difficult.

Generation doomed

Looking more broadly, entire generations have a reason not to be cheerful. Pessimism may not be the answer, but when the fog of gloom is thick, it’s not easy to see the light. Author Mara van der Lugt captured the feeling of hopelessness of entire generations evocatively in her brilliant article:

It is all too easy to miss the fact that this generation – the first to grow up in a world where a climate emergency is not just on the horizon, but a stark reality – is haunted by a real sense of losing the future, as all the things they have been told give life meaning are rendered either pointless or problematic. Things like: studyget a good jobsettle down – but what jobs are still certain? Where will it be safe to settle down?

As Greta Thunberg said in Parliament Square in London in 2018: ‘And why should I be studying for a future that soon will be no more, when no one is doing anything whatsoever to save that future?’ Things like: start a family – but if there is no future for one’s children, is it still OK to procreate? Even more trivial things, like developing oneself by travelling, are no longer straightforward: for how important is self-development when weighed against the carbon cost of modern travel?

Local optimism, global pessimism

While it might not seem so, we’re wildly optimistic creatures (archive), and research shows that we consistently overestimate positive things and underestimate negative things. But the peculiar thing is that even though we tend to be wildly optimistic about our personal lives, we can be pessimistic about the world.

You might expect optimism to erode under the tide of news about violent conflicts, high unemployment, tornadoes and floods and all the threats and failures that shape human life. Collectively we can grow pessimistic – about the direction of our country or the ability of our leaders to improve education and reduce crime. But private optimism, about our personal future, remains incredibly resilient. A survey conducted in 2007 found that while 70% thought families in general were less successful than in their parents’ day, 76% of respondents were optimistic about the future of their own family. — Tali Sharot (archive)

Several surveys around the world have found this pattern of individual optimism and collective pessimism.

Negativity sticks

There’s an asymmetry in how we process negative and positive information. We tend to overweight negative information compared to positive information. This makes sense when you consider it through an evolutionary lens. Negative events are more likely to kill us than positive events, so we pay more attention to negative things.

The media accentuates this behavior in us with a steady supply of negative news. If it bleeds, it leads. It has long been a reliable model for news companies to attract eyeballs. This constant drumbeat of negativity distorts our view (archive) of the world.

I love this chart

“I’ve suffered a great many catastrophes in my life. Most of them never happened.” ―Mark Twain


Another thing I’ve been thinking about a lot over the past year is that there seems to be a widespread feeling of a lack of meaning and disconnection among people. I don’t know why. People seem increasingly adrift, which could be a side effect of modernity, digital technologies, consumerism, a lack of spirituality, a disconnection from nature, or a culture that overemphasizes hyper-rationality and individualism. They seem like kites with their strings cut off.

Self-alienation can turn into nihilism and apathy, which are corrosive. If people start thinking, “Nothing matters, so why bother?” then that’s a societal problem.

Yearning for the past

As I was writing this post, I came across this stunning image on Twitter. It’s from a Washington Post article that summarizes results from a YouGov survey asking Americans when times were worst.

Across most measures, Americans feel that the current time is the worst of all times. That isn’t surprising because several surveys (archive) have found the same (archive). Across the world, people think that the past is better than the present, even though, by most measures, life in the present is better.


In the 1600s, a Swiss medical student named Johannes Hofer noticed a curious affliction among Swiss soldiers, students, and household servants. They all had a profound and debilitating yearning for their homeland.

He associated physical symptoms like weeping, melancholia, insomnia, and anxiety with this affliction. In 1688, he coined the term “nostalgia (archive),” a combination of the Greek word “nostos,” meaning returning to one’s native land, and “algos,” meaning pain or suffering. The definition of nostalgia evolved with time and medical advancements.

Decades of research show that nostalgia plays an important role in grounding our existence. As time passes, we tend to edit out negative memories and retain positive ones. We reinforce these positive memories through recollection. These positive memories serve as a point of reference as we navigate the uncertain present. Since we are hardwired to hate uncertainty, nostalgic recollections give us a sense of certainty and stability.

The growth-promoting influence of nostalgia might be most critical in the blackest periods of our lives. In the cesspool of Auschwitz, the Jewish psychiatrist Viktor Frankl continually called up memories of his wife to remind himself, despite his present hell, of the persistence of fulfilling human relationships. It was these detours into happier times, and the positive emotions that went with them, that steeled Frankl through deprivation, slave labour and typhus epidemics.

The existential triumph that Frankl recounts in his memoir Man’s Search for Meaning (1946) – his ability to live meaningfully, even thrive, under the worst possible conditions – was tethered to his skill at invoking joyful episodes from his past:

In a position of utter desolation, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way … in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfilment.

— The bittersweet madeleine (archive)

In prosperous Western countries, nostalgia for the past may be the result of mismatches between reference points. If kids hear parents talk about how good their childhood was, they compare it to the dismal state of the present and yearn for a golden past that never existed.

Another reason is that we like to feel safe. So if your life is tumultuous, you reach back to your edited memories of a time when everything was alright.

Now, it goes without saying that the current generation has had it rough. They’ve grown up in a time with rolling economic shocks, heightened effects of climate change, and a media environment that overemphasizes the negatives. When you live in such a milieu, it’s not unreasonable to yearn for a safe past. Moreover, you don’t need real memories of a safe past; your brain can construct an imaginary past (archive by piecing together disparate memories and events.

Another reason for nostalgia is that our home plays an important role in grounding our lives. Home is the safe space from which you venture out to brave the hostile world, as well as the place to which you return when you feel defeated. It’s our sanctuary. If your home is threatened, you lose your footing and feel unmoored in life. It’s one of the worst things that could happen to a person.

While the wave of nostalgia in the developed world may seem strange given that people there enjoy relatively more prosperous lives than those in the developing world, in developing, low-income, and poor countries, nostalgia is justified. Poor and developing countries have contributed the least to climate change but are suffering the most (archive).

Despite all the progress, more people are losing (archive) their homes than ever before, and many more are at risk.


There’s even a new word called “solastalgia” to describe the feeling of losing one’s home due to climate change:

Solastalgia (/ˌsɒləˈstældʒə/) is a neologism, formed by the combination of the Latin words sōlācium (comfort) and the Greek root -algia (pain, suffering, grief), that describes a form of emotional or existential distress caused by environmental change.

Blessed are those in the advanced world, for hell is not there:

The neologism also offered a useful means of describing and studying how the impacts of climate change reach beyond tangible, physical, and economic damages. A team of social scientists identified feelings of solastalgia among people from rural northern Ghana, a region devastated by climate change–related drought and crop failure. A collaboration of environmental scientists and public-health researchers observed solastalgia in communities affected by hurricanes and oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico.

A Los Angeles physician named David Eisenman stumbled across the idea of solastalgia when interviewing survivors of the 2011 Wallow Fire, the largest wildfire on record in Arizona. Over and over, he heard them express “the sense that they were grieving [for the landscape] like for a loved one.” He and his team found that the more uneasy they felt about the landscape itself, the more at risk they were for other kinds of psychological distress. — The Era of Climate Change Has Created a New Emotion (archive)

Thanks to the pessimists

I’m sure you would’ve seen quotes like these:

“Pessimists are usually right and optimists are usually wrong but all the great changes have been accomplished by optimists.” ―Thomas Friedman

“Pessimism just sounds smarter and more plausible than optimism. Tell someone that everything will be great and they’re likely to either shrug you off or offer a skeptical eye. Tell someone they’re in danger and you have their undivided attention.” ―Morgan Housel

Optimists tend to be successful and pessimists tend to be right.

Pessimists sound smart. Optimists make money.

Pessimists have a terrible reputation.

Based on a cursory reading of such pithy quotes, it’s easy to think that pessimism is useless. I certainly used to think so. But the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that pessimists get a bad rep. Of course, it goes without saying that, just like optimism, pessimism exists on a spectrum, and no two people mean the same thing.

So let’s go with the dictionary definition of a pessimist:

a person who tends to see the worst aspect of things or believe that the worst will happen.

Again, it’s easy to think that a person who sees the worst in everything would not only be insufferable but also useless. After all, what purpose could a person who always sees the worst in everything serve?

Well, it seems plausible to me that the pessimists have contributed to at least some of the successes achieved by optimists. After all, if everyone was cheerful and saw the world with rose-tinted glasses, how would anyone recognize the problems?

I think pessimists serve a valuable social purpose by forcing people to focus on the problems. Without them constantly screaming at people about all the ills in the world, would progress immaculately manifest on its own? I think not.

Now, it goes without saying that pessimism taken too far is annoying and useless. But a reasonable degree of pessimism, to me, feels like fuel that powers optimism.

Professor Mara van der Lugt again:

Hopeful pessimism breaks through the rusted dichotomy of optimism vs pessimism. It is this attitude, this perspective that is exemplified in Thunberg and other figures who by their example give an affirmative answer to the question posed by Paul Kingsnorth: ‘Is it possible to see the future as dark and darkening further; to reject false hope and desperate pseudo-optimism without collapsing into despair?’

The thing to avoid is not so much pessimism, but hopelessness or fatalism or giving up. Even despair need not be completely avoided, since it too can energise and encourage us to strive for change, but we should avoid the kind of despair that causes us to collapse. These things are not the same as pessimism, which is simply the assumption of a dark view of the present as well as the future and does not imply the loss of courage or insistence to strive for better: on the contrary, often these are the very gifts that pessimism can bestow.

Are there really pessimists and optimists?

In writing this post, shoehorning people into either a pessimist or optimist camp feels reductive and pointless to me. I don’t think there exists a person who’s 100% optimist or pessimist. When you probe people, I’m 100% sure you’ll discover they hold nuanced and complicated beliefs about progress and regress.

In an age where in-group and out-group (archive) dynamics have been supercharged thanks to social media, the optimism vs. pessimism debate feels like an unhelpful derivative of this.

This entire optimism vs. pessimism also feels like semantic acrobatics and mental masturbation to me.

What do I mean by that? This dawned on me when I read this awesome post (archive) by the amazing Corey Doctorow:

It may seem like optimism is the opposite of pessimism, but at their core, optimists and pessimists share this belief in the irrelevance of human action to the future. Optimists think that things will get better no matter what they do, pessimists think things will get worse no matter what they do — but they both agree that what they do doesn’t matter.

An optimist decides not to equip the Titanic with lifeboats because it is unsinkable. A pessimist doesn’t bother to swim when the ship sinks and is lost at sea.

To be hopeful is to tread water because so long as you haven’t gone to the bottom, rescue is still possible. It’s not a sure thing, and you might have to try something else if you can figure out another tactic, but everyone who gave up sank, and everyone who was fished out the sea kept treading water.

Hope is the necessary, but insufficient, precondition for survival.

Now, how many people use the word “hope” when they talk about optimism, and vice versa?

Labels are useful heuristics for understanding and navigating the world. They are useful aids when you have to quickly communicate complex ideas. As helpful as labels can be in some areas, they seem dangerous in debates like this when we are talking about existential issues.

I think though that the reality is, anybody who thinks that human beings are not capable at any given moment, and human societies are not capable at any given moment, of colossally going off the rails in ways that are either foolish or massively destructive, is missing something essential about either human history or human nature.

So I take as an axiom that in any given moment, everything could fall apart in ways that are rapid, breathtakingly destructive, and will be looked back on, assuming there will be people to look back on it, as one of those “Oh my God, how did that happen?” moments. Which is why we’re constantly looking at July of 1914, and we’re constantly trying to find the seeds of destruction in past examples where that happened and transpose them to today and think about, “Okay, is this similar?”

But you know, if you do too much of that, you also miss the fact that history is, in fact, a litany of things that went wrong more than it’s a litany of things that went right. Because things going wrong create drama. You know, Tolstoy said, “There are no novels about a happy family.” Why? Because there’s no story in a happy family. There’s no drama, there’s no tragedy, there’s no change. So, you know, we can overdo that, and we can overdo it in the present.

Hope or despair?

The world neither needs blind optimists nor dour pessimists. The equanimity to appreciate the challenges we face and the ability to hope that we can change things are what the world needs. There has to be balance in everything.

What we need is the Aristotelian golden mean of hope and despair:

Furthermore, every ethical virtue is a condition intermediate (a “golden mean” as it is popularly known) between two other states, one involving excess, and the other deficiency (1106a26–b28). In this respect, Aristotle says, the virtues are no different from technical skills: every skilled worker knows how to avoid excess and deficiency, and is in a condition intermediate between two extremes.

The courageous person, for example, judges that some dangers are worth facing and others not, and experiences fear to a degree that is appropriate to his circumstances. He lies between the coward, who flees every danger and experiences excessive fear, and the rash person, who judges every danger worth facing and experiences little or no fear. Aristotle holds that this same topography applies to every ethical virtue: all are located on a map that places the virtues between states of excess and deficiency.

Here’s something the Amazing British Philosopher Kate Soper said in an interview (archive):

“Well, the most immediate impetus was a deep concern over the degradation of the environment and the emergence of global warming as a key source of the crisis in conjunction with a sense that much of the discourse was overly doom-laden. There was too much emphasis on climate change as a threat to the continuation of a given form of life, and too much attention paid to the destruction of nature – which of course, is ongoing and central to what’s happening – but I felt there was too little being said and written about our own role in this. 

“So, there were two main drivers of my arguments around what becomes what I call “Alternative Hedonism.” One was a sense that people are going to be more persuaded to change their ways if they conceive it as being in their own self-interest to do so. This probably means pointing out some of the gratifications of changing their ways of living, rather than constantly reminding them of the destruction caused by their current modes of consumption.

The other driver was that we needed to pay more attention to ourselves as accountable agents for what was going wrong, to shift the attention away from what was happening in nature, to worry less about our alienation from nature and more about the patterns of consumption creating that alienation. Those are the two main drivers in my more recent work.

As an aside, this article by her is one of my all time favorites. I urge you to read it.

Is there any good news?

One of the reasons I started writing this article is because I came across a few optimistic charts on Twitter. For example, this was a recent chart I saw that shows that 30% of the world’s energy now comes from renewables.

We are more closer to peak emissions than ever.

We find there is a 70% chance that emissions start falling in 2024 if current clean technology growth trends continue and some progress is made to cut non-CO2 emissions. This would make 2023 the year of peak emissions – meeting the IPCC deadline.

It doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods, but there’s a glimmer of a glimmer of hope.

It’s good that this pace is at least not accelerating, but the plateau implies a world that will continue to get warmer. To halt rising temperatures, humans will have to stop emitting greenhouse gases, zeroing their net output, and even start withdrawing the carbon previously emitted. The world thus needs another drastic downward turn in its emissions trajectory to limit climate change. “I wouldn’t get out any balloons or fireworks over flattening emissions,” Lazarus said. — Vox

Less kids are dying than ever

The emissions of major pollutants seem to have peaked.

China is dumping electric vehicles and solar panels around the world.

Chinese solar module exports

A weak domestic economy, changing consumption patterns, and overcapacity, among other factors, are pushing China to dump its manufacturing surplus wherever it can. While this is leading to trade tensions, it’s speeding up the green transition.

It’s not all good news.

Poor countries are spending more of their revenues on interest payments than ever. That means lower spending on health, education, green energy, and other critical areas.

Weaker currencies also push up public debt. About 40 percent of public debt is external in sub-Saharan Africa and over 60 percent of that debt is in US dollars for most countries. Since the beginning of the pandemic, exchange rate depreciations have contributed to the region’s rise in public debt by about 10 percentage points of GDP on average by end-2022, holding all else equal. Growth and inflation (which reduces the real value of existing debts) helped to contain the public debt increase to about 6 percent of GDP during the same period.— IMF

A region of tears:

If you start with the Global Humanitarian Overview for 2024, the answer, for most of us, is not hard to find. The on-going humanitarian crises in Afghanistan, Syria and Myanmar are huge. Central America and Haiti should garner far more attention. But by far the largest and most underreported region of crises is the belt that stretches from the Democratic Republic of Congo, to the North East by way of Burundi, Chad, Sudan and South Sudan, into Northern Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia and across the Red Sea to Yemen.

At the end of 2023, around 110 million people were thought to be in need of humanitarian assistance across this mega-region. If you include the Democratic Republic of Congo, which adjoins East Africa, the total of people in need comes to 136 million, or 37 percent of all the people in the world in need of humanitarian relief. — Chartbook by Adam Tooze

What do you think?