THE PROBLEM WITH OPTIMISM

Published September 25, 2022
Illustration by Radia Durrani
Illustration by Radia Durrani

Optimism — or the idea that our inherent ability to overcome problems is greater than the chance our problems overcome us — is perhaps the most prevalent and indefatigable of all imaginative viruses to infect humans. It lies at the root of the greatest disasters in history and has seriously compromised humanity’s response to the global ecological catastrophe.

Optimists are generally willing to give human beings the benefit of the doubt or simply invent the doubt necessary to continue giving themselves and others like them a pass. The most diehard of this lot, no matter how bad things get, will remain true to the notion advanced by Professor Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide that we live “in the best of all possible worlds.”

What makes Pangloss remarkable is his ability to explain away all the terrible things that happen to Candide (the hero) as being somehow for the best. The more disasters befall Candide, the more elaborate Pangloss becomes in his rationalisations.

The sources of our optimism are many, but three, in particular, merit mention. The first of these is rooted in biology and the well-attested inability of our animal brains to react to difficulties unless they are immediate. Over millions of years, humans evolved to excel at responding to immediate dangers with a range of xenophobic and cooperative responses hardwired into them.

In a series of seven essays written in 2018 and 2019 and ranging across history, philosophy, science and literature, but published only recently in the e-book Downfall: Lessons For Our Final Century, historian Ilhan Niaz argues that modern civilisation, as it is presently understood, will likely end between 2030 and 2100. He marshals mounting evidence that the damage already done to the world is so great that a “crisis of habitability” is inevitable. Eos presents here, with due permission, one of the essays from the book...

Just think of how your mind focuses on any strange sound or how tribal we are in our social life with multiple layers of in-groups and out-groups requiring “us” to work together against “them”. At the same time, absent an immediate threat, humans focus on what is convenient or pleasing and ignore all else.

The second is rooted in our imagination and its effects on our ability to understand the causes of phenomena around us. As the exercise of reason requires effort and often produces unpleasant effects, human beings are vulnerable to any assertion of certainty. Historically, the easiest way to be sure about things is to imagine an explanation or attribute causes to supernatural forces and repeat it endlessly.

According to the 18th century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, the exercise of this imaginative faculty was an important binding force in early civilisations. The xenophobic and cooperative tendencies rooted in our biology found expression in what Vico called “poetic wisdom”, whereby cooperation on a large scale to placate or fight against the supernatural forces responsible for natural processes that often harmed humans emerged.

It also meant that humans who believed in a different set of deities could be identified as outsiders. But the greatest asset of poetic wisdom was its infinite elasticity in explaining human suffering and the many calamities that afflicted people at the individual and collective levels.

Religion, ideology, popular superstitions, dharma, karma, modern wellness tropes and a variety of other ideas brilliantly dissected by Francis Wheen in How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World help people stay hopeful. Statements that celebrate as a “miracle” the survival of one person out of scores or hundreds in an accident or rags-to-riches stories are classical instances of such thinking.

The third source of optimism is self-centeredness. Over the past 300 years, as traditional ideas have become less appealing, materialism and consumerism have provided secular means of helping us stay hopeful. Global elites are particularly fierce advocates of material optimism, while those who have succeeded enough in terms of conventional bourgeois standards also strongly identify with this type of thinking.

For the globalised classes, their privileges and prosperity encourage them to rationalise it as being a desirable outcome for all, with the promise held out that everyone could have a Swiss standard of living. So, while the world’s richest 75 million people contribute as much to global warming as the poorest 3.75 billion, the metropolitan optimist remains supremely confident in the ability of humans to turn the tables on the impending global catastrophe.

In this way, without having to change our ravenous behaviour, we will find a miraculous solution to our predicament, and this will remain, now and forever, the best of all possible worlds. Our optimism is built on the solid foundations of biology, ideology, and self-absorption. It is no surprise that optimistic thinking has produced disastrous consequences throughout history.

One does not have to go very far back to find instances of optimism leading to catastrophic miscalculations. The 20th century began with the drift to the First World War — a conflict that claimed 20 million lives directly and at least an additional 20-30 million lives indirectly. Amongst the most critical causes of the conflict was the idea that war would be won swiftly and cheaply, enabling an advantageous reset of the global pecking order. Every great power that entered the war was convinced that victory was one campaign away.

Hope for victory

Had the rulers of Europe been pessimists and sceptics, they would have been less likely to fall prey to militarist and nationalist fantasies. In spite of the enormous trauma endured by the participants in the First World War, most retained a resolutely optimistic outlook on the future. This optimism was the result of revolutions in Russia, Italy and Germany, which brought to power left-wing and right-wing utopians.

In the United States, the return of the country to isolationism represented the triumph of the hope that the world would sort itself out and that, even if it did not, the great oceans would protect the American homeland. In Britain and France, the nominal victors of the First World War, a pacifist fantasy took hold of public discourse — one that led to the appeasement of fascism while it was militarily weak.

This pacifism also led to demoralising concessions, once it became apparent that Germany had rearmed and was ready for a rematch. In Japan, the decline of European colonial empires and the return of the United States to isolation led to the articulation of an imperial vision for Asia, in which China would become Japan’s India, and the rest of the continent would thrive under Japanese tutelage. The bill for these various shades of optimistic thinking came due in the form of a global conflict that dwarfed the First World War and raged in China from 1931 to 1945 and in the rest of the world from 1939 to 1945, killing 60-70 million, and injuring or displacing many times that number.

“Men from shortsightedness frequently seek their own advantage in what is harmful to them: how much the more must they err in regard to others.” – Akbar the Great (Mughal Emperor, r. 1556-1605)

The trouble is that, until the Japanese bombs fell on Pearl Harbour, most Americans genuinely believed that they could wait out the World War. The appeasement governments of 1930s’ France and Britain did what their people thought was best. In spite of credible evidence pouring in that Hitler had zero interest in peace and was not a rational actor, the French and British (and later the Soviets) chose a policy of hope over reality.

Hitler and many in his circle were convinced that they stood at the threshold of a Thousand Year Reich to establish the German master race as the dominant world power. Lenin and his successors were equally firm in their belief that the communist utopia they were building in the Soviet Union would carry the world with it and that history was on their side.

The Japanese, debilitated by overdoses of nationalism and imperial ambition, also believed that they were destined to hold the future of half of humanity in their hands. While optimism fuelled by ideological or popular conviction led to the greatest disasters of the first half of the 20th century, the relative peace that descended on the world post-1945 led to the emergence of an even more lethal variant of optimism.

After 1945, elites and peoples of all ideologies, and at all developmental levels, embraced materialistic optimism. This is the idea that human life can only get better through the application of technology and economic growth. Soviet oligarchs, Maoist tyrants, social democrats, Keynesian economists, Third World nationalists, medieval fossil fuel monarchies and neoliberal shock therapists shared the unshakeable belief that getting rich was, and is, glorious.

Their disagreement was on the best way to organise a society to achieve that end. Should societies be forced to undergo a Maoist “Great Leap Forward”, or is it better to maintain a high investment-to-GDP ratio for a few decades, or is state ownership the key, or should the decisions be left to the “free” market, were the debates that raged within and between groups of growth cultists. But what was never really questioned was the logic of infinite growth.

The result was that, since 1945, all of the nations stopped waging the kind of total wars that had characterised the first half of the 20th century. Alternatively, they decided to wage total war upon our planet, in pursuit of the elixir of infinite growth and prosperity. With extraordinary and increasing intensity, all other life on Earth was subjected to an industrialised massacre. Ecology and climate-altering amounts of chemicals and compounds were poured into the land, sea and air to make way for a better life for more humans.

“Never has an expedition against them been more certain of success…” — Napoleon Bonaparte (French Emperor, r. 1804-1815, on the prospect of war with the Russian Empire)

War on nature

An aerial shot of a residential area in Dadu district of Sindh ravaged by the rains, caused by climate change
An aerial shot of a residential area in Dadu district of Sindh ravaged by the rains, caused by climate change

As evidence mounted in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s that the war on nature would lead to the collapse of the environmental and biological systems humans needed for their survival, our optimistic minds either refused to contemplate that dreadful probability or pinned hopes on technology delivering a solution.

Like the millions of people who thought the Nazis ought to be appeased, successive generations after 1945 thought that we would somehow muddle through and the worst-case scenarios would not materialise. Even when the awareness was there, the willingness to move quickly enough to avert catastrophe was insufficient.

At present, as we head into the third decade of what may be the final century for humans, the collapse of biodiversity is threatening to disrupt the agricultural cycle, global warming is rendering much of the current inhabited zone uninhabitable and, for every extinction rebellion activist, there are far more people swayed by populism, greed and identity politics.

One important factor that works to enhance the Pangloss effect is that, since the 1970s, life has gotten better for the top 1-10 percent of nearly every country’s population. What this means is that those people with the greatest agency and best opportunities have experienced a world that is getting better for them.

Naturally, they do not want this trend reversed, even when they understand, at an intellectual level, the terrible costs it has imposed on the 80 percent of the world’s population that has gotten relatively poorer since 1975 or the 60 percent that does not earn enough (about seven to eight dollars a day) to feed and clothe itself adequately, or around 93 percent that do not have a college or university degree.

The improvements that have taken place in reducing infant and maternal mortality or improving access to healthcare or education have almost nothing to do with the operation of the global economy and nearly everything to do with the ability of individual states to provide services and subsidise their citizens — both activities being constantly threatened by the austerity axe wielded by neoliberals and their apologists ensconced in international financial institutions and world markets.

In spite of having achieved sufficient world GDP per capita in 2000 (8,500 dollars) to provide every person with a dignified life without exceeding the natural carrying capacity of the world, the top 1-10 per cent have insisted on enriching themselves and outsourcing the costs of their plunder.

For instance, a country like Pakistan, which contributes a mere 0.8 per cent of the world’s GHG [Greenhouse Gases] emissions, is nonetheless ranked as the eighth most vulnerable to the effects of global warming. Or we can take India that barely has 22 cars per 1,000 people, compared to over 800 per 1,000 in the United States, which is facing prolonged heat waves and disruption of its agricultural cycle due, in part, to climate change.

This brings us to the darker, hubristic side of the Pangloss effect, as it relates to the global elites. For many in the West, the sense is that, even if a few billion peasants and slum dwellers in the Global South perish as a result of environmental collapse, the global metropolis will be able to employ its accumulated wealth and technology to continue to thrive behind hard borders.

They are prepared to make concessions to the public conscience, such as declaring environmental emergencies or promising to achieve net-zero GHG emissions by 2050, or, as the Shell CEO recently advised, encouraging people to eat seasonally.

But while these apparent victories are handed out to the environmental lobby, the United Kingdom, for instance, has cut subsidies for solar power, while British Petroleum continues to send out rigs to drill for oil and gas.

Third world globalists might actually live better than their first world equivalents... Consequently, they are just as vulnerable to the delusion that, when environmental collapse strikes, it will not affect them, or think that, if things get really bad, they can flee to the West.

Within developing countries, the spike in global inequality has benefited elites tremendously, and there is widespread contempt for the poor, reinforced by a variety of caste, communal and tribal identities. The “Globish” elite of the developing world feels closer to its metropolitan counterparts when it comes to seeing the great mass of the Asian, African and Latin American poor as surplus humans and the remaining resources of their homelands as means to get even richer often in cahoots with international capital.

Third world globalists might actually live better than their first world equivalents, with the former living in air-conditioned comfort in gated communities with a large underclass to provide them with lots of domestic help. Consequently, they are just as vulnerable to the delusion that, when environmental collapse strikes, it will not affect them, or think that, if things get really bad, they can flee to the West.

Rich get richer...

Unwilling to change their behaviour or even limit their enrichment, metropolitan and peripheral globalist elites have great faith in the human ability to find a technical solution to the multifaceted environmental crisis. Perhaps there will soon be plastic-eating microbes that will clean up our land and oceans; a massive cloning program to restore global biodiversity; carbon-capture technology to reverse global warming; a new global breadbasket will emerge in Siberia and the Arctic to keep humanity fed; AI [Artificial Intelligence] will save the day by making everything more efficient; humans will become an interplanetary species.

Of course, even a little logical thinking about any of these will reveal that they are untenable. Releasing vast quantities of plastic-eating microbes into our environment might well help contain waste, but the evolutionary trajectory of these organisms will be rapid and unpredictable. More importantly, the plastic industry is closely tied to the fossil fuel industry and, without ending mass consumption of plastics, the problem will likely get worse.

As for cloning, yes, it would make sense to save species this way, but for one basic biological problem. Clones would lack genetic diversity and be highly vulnerable to being wiped out by disease. Also, the rate at which plant and animal life are going extinct is so rapid that we have already lost hundreds of thousands of species. It is not clear whether enough could be saved to restore the ecosystem to health.

Carbon-capture is a pipe dream because the number of resources and energy it would take to reduce GHGs in the atmosphere and have negative emissions large enough to reverse global warming trends would be self-defeating. It is also probably too late, as vital tipping points have been crossed. For instance, the extent of Arctic summer ice melt is expected to reach by 2035, levels not anticipated till 2090.

The thawing of Siberia and the Arctic/Antarctic might well produce a new breadbasket but, if the same intensive farming techniques are applied, the soil will degrade within a few decades. There are also bacteria and viruses lurking in the melt against which humans have no immunity. Sending large numbers of people to settle in these regions is probably not the best idea, while the scramble for Arctic territory is likely to produce great power conflict.

For all our space cadets, there is the unfortunate fact that the Earth is now surrounded by debris, and that the carbon cost of spaceflight is so great that sending large numbers to other worlds is not feasible. Even if large numbers could be sent, what exactly would they do on the Moon or on Mars (the two likeliest destinations) that might help save humanity back on Earth?

Terraforming is possible (over centuries), at least in the case of Mars, but it would require massive investment from a dying Earth. And would it not make more sense to do what was needed to save the one planet in our solar system where the air is breathable, than squandering resources on trying to make another place more like Earth?

But the Pangloss effect is so powerful that nothing can deter the optimist from believing that the future is only going to be better. Optimists cannot seriously contemplate any reality in which their lives and convenience are no longer sustainable, nor can they accept that defeat is inevitable, unless we put aside our Pangloss lenses. Optimists, in practice, would rather condemn their children and the planet to an agonising demise while retaining the cheerful disposition made possible by their inability to study the abyss that lies before us.

Being unable to comprehend reality, optimists are less likely to actually do what is needed to survive. Modern optimists are in such complete thrall to the delusion of human power that they have almost universally succumbed to the power of human delusion. To save the planet and, incidentally, ourselves, humans, especially the rich and clever ones, need to stop being optimistic and embrace realism, scepticism, and pessimism.

Pessimism and its cousins — realism and scepticism — are often wrongly understood as negativism or cynicism. Many people who would consider themselves optimists, like economists who adhere to Nordhaus’s absurd analysis of the GDP impact of climate change, are in functional terms negative and cynical. This is so because they sell people a placebo and set everybody up for catastrophic failure.

In contrast, a pessimist would argue that we ought to comprehend our trajectory logically. If that analysis leads us to conclude that the trajectory is terminal, then realistically, we have two options. The first is to try to avert the outcome, and the other is to find a way to survive it if it is unavoidable.

Let’s illustrate this approach with some examples from history. During the 1930s, fascism was ascendant and, after the advent of Nazi rule in Germany, it appeared that a new and irresistible force in world affairs was emerging. The overwhelming majority of the British and French people wanted peace, and their political leaders shared this pious hope.

Hitler, as communicated by the French and British ambassadors to Berlin, was not interested in peace. He wanted war and was fanatically committed to Nazi ideology. In pursuit of ideological objectives, Hitler was prepared to show tactical flexibility, but the outcomes he sought were predetermined.

While governments in the United Kingdom and France tried to do business with Hitler, Winston Churchill, an out of favour old-timer, repeatedly warned that the Nazis were dead serious about their insane ideology and that they were not seeking accommodation but an advantageous strategic position from which to annihilate all opposition to their millennial utopian vision.

From Churchill’s perspective, every concession to Nazi Germany merely delayed an inevitable conflict to a point in the future where the Allies would be relatively weaker. Churchill was being pessimistic. He desperately wanted to save his country from a calamitous war with Nazi Germany and felt that this required reacting harshly to Hitler’s foreign policy while the Allies still held the military advantage.

For nearly six years, Churchill opposed public opinion, defied his party’s leadership, and incurred the wrath of the great and the good. By the time the rest of his country had woken up to the reality of a Nazi Empire, the war had begun on less favourable terms. Elevated in the midst of this crisis to the premiership, Churchill proved to be a ruthless warlord, utterly committed to the destruction of Nazi Germany.

Churchill’s essential strategic insight was that Hitler was ideologically driven and would be propelled by his worldview to relentlessly expand the conflict to hasten the achievement of the Nazi millennium. To his people, Churchill’s message was stark. Even if the United Kingdom fell to the Nazis, the war would continue, because a world dominated by Nazism was not one worth living in.

In other words, by the end of May 1940, Churchill resolved to risk the destruction of his homeland (even though the Nazis were prepared to cut a deal) in order to defeat a threat that, if allowed to prevail, would have turned the world into a nightmarish racial dystopia. It is to this heroic pessimism, more than anything else, that Churchill owes his place in history.

Pessimism as a solution

Two older instances of pessimism inducing rational thinking are of Metternich and Bismarck. The former wrestled with the old problem of Central Europe (i.e. Germany being either too weak or too strong for the peace of Europe) and devised the German Confederation — a union of Germanic principalities strong enough to deter attack but sufficiently decentralised to avoid being tempted into aggression.

After the rise of German nationalism proved too much for the loose structure of the Confederation to bear, Prussia, under Bismarck, ejected Austria from the organisation and united the rest of Germany into a single state. Once this unification was achieved, Bismarck changed tack and declared that Germany was content with the new map of Europe. He proceeded to reconcile Austria, befriend Russia, keep Britain neutral, and ensure France had no major allies with which to encircle the new Central European giant.

For Bismarck, an overly aggressive foreign policy would lead to the rapid encirclement of Germany and risk plunging it into a war on multiple fronts. After Bismarck’s exit in 1890, a new generation of optimistic German leaders, who were supremely confident in their nation’s newfound success, abandoned the policy of restraint and gradual accumulation of strength through development and embarked upon a global policy aimed at securing their country’s place amongst the three global empires (Britain, France, and Russia).

The result was as Bismarck feared. By 1894, France and Russia became allies, followed a decade later by France and Britain and, by 1907, Germany had succeeded in driving all three empires into an anti-German alliance.

In some respects, the world is confronting a situation similar to a century ago, with China as the emerging superpower. Under Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, China focused on its internal development and became a development success story by rejecting neoliberal ideas and focusing on using its state-regulated economy to gain a competitive advantage over Western rivals, while investing heavily in improving the lives of its people through governance and welfare spending and eschewing foreign entanglements.

Since 2013, however, China has been headed in a more assertive direction and threatening the United States’ hegemony in East Asia. This is, in part, a consequence of greater optimism and confidence arising from unprecedented material prosperity and rising nationalistic sentiment. China’s current premier, Xi Jinping, is breaking with Deng Xiaoping’s institutional legacy by doing away with term limits, building a cult of personality, and elevating his thought as part of the constitution.

What these and many other instances, such as Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, can teach us is that wise leaders try to grasp reality while unwise ones disregard it, often with catastrophic consequences. The trouble is that optimistic rulers, who are normally incapable of wise decision-making, resonate better with people who, in turn, are basically guided by regard for their own convenience.

It was perhaps for this reason that Voltaire, a great advocate of the Enlightenment and a leader of the forces of the empire of reason against traditionalism and conventional mindlessness, felt deeply pessimistic in concluding his universal history: “As nature has placed in the heart of man interest, pride and all the passions, it is no wonder that, during a period of about six centuries, we meet with almost a continual succession of crimes and disasters. If we go back to earlier ages, we shall find them no better. Custom has ordered it so that evil has everywhere operated in a different manner.”

In other words, Pangloss nearly always wins, and the real interests of humanity nearly always lose. This is worth bearing in mind as we examine the geopolitics of a post-apocalyptic world.

Excerpted from the chapter ‘The Pangloss Effect: Why Optimism is Lethal’ in the author’s book Downfall: Lessons For Our Final Century, recently published by the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research

The author is a tenured professor in the Department of History at the Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 25th, 2022

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