Saturday, November 12, 2016

The healing power of optimism

Recent events can leave one pessimistic about the future of our world and the merits of its humans. Climate change is running amok. Deforestation abounds. Invasive species destroy native communities. Terrorists cause unprecedented fear and suffering. Racist, misogynistic, serial liars are elected to the most powerful positions. Indeed, talking to young people makes clear that they often think the world is spiraling into Hell and taking humanity with it. Biodiversity is destroyed. Our kids have no future. Humans are on the path to extinction. In this miasma of pessimism, it is perhaps useful for us old timers to bring a bit of personal historical perspective.

When I was growing up, nuclear war was the specter hanging over all our heads.

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Many people – including all my friends – were almost sure that we were all going to die in a ball of flame or frozen in the subsequent nuclear winter. Bunkers were constructed. Supplies were stockpiled. Fear shaped nearly all aspects of life. Now, the fear is mostly gone. 

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Another werewolf of my childhood was smog.

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Take Los Angeles as an microcosm. Smog was so bad that people were told not to go outdoors much of the year. Crops withered. People died of lung problems. Then clean air legislation led to emission control devices, particularly the catalytic converter. Now, smog alerts are much less common.

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Then came the ozone layer depletion. 

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CFCs and other pollutants were causing it to shrink, increasing the bombardment of the world’s DNA with damaging UV radiation. We were all going to need umbrellas all day long. But then regulation banned CFCs and the ozone layer stabilized to the point that it is no longer a paramount concern.

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And don’t forget DDT (solved by legislation), acid rain (reduced through emission controls), mercury poisoning (reduced through awareness), eutrophication (reduced through waste processing), George W. Bush (followed by Obama), Stephen Harper (followed by Trudeau), and so on. Sure, some of these problems still exist, especially in the developing world, but they are nowhere near the front of our consciousness and concerns anymore because – to a point – we have learned how to deal with them and have taken steps to reduce them.




Now we have deforestation, climate change, terrorism, Brexit, and – of course – Trump. Just like nuclear war, smog, ozone depletion, DDT, acid rain, and the rest of it, these problems can make it seem like the end of the world is just around the corner. I would submit, however, that these problems will be solved (or at least reduced) through human ingenuity, legislation, and social change. It won’t be instant, it won’t be everywhere (e.g., smog and eutrophication are still huge problems in the developing world), and it won’t be complete. But – just like seemingly unsolvable problems of the past – today’s problems are also solvable.

As today’s problems fade (some of them – most notably climate change – very slowly), new problems will emerge. Those problems will cause pessimism in the future’s youth. But those of us old timers who have seen unsolvable problems emerge and then be solved will be more sanguine about things – optimistic even. Of course, this optimism is no cause for complacency or inaction - in fact, just the opposite. The key is for all of us scientists, citizens, and humans to do what we can to improve the state of the planet and our society.

I expect this post to engender many thoughts and opinions about how I am glossing over how horrible the state of the world is – and will become. Rest assured, I fully acknowledge that yesterday's problems are not entirely (or maybe even mostly) gone and that today’s problems are huge – and will remain so into the future. My point is simply that a personal historical perspective from us old timers can perhaps bring some healing by promoting optimism. That optimism will then hopefully stimulate action than helps to solve the problems. Yes we can.

4 comments:

  1. I wish I had your optimism. The thread that runs through the examples you give – averting the danger of nuclear war, of smog, of ozone layer depletion, of DDT, of acid rain, of mercury poisoning, of eutrophication – would seem to be good governance. Effective legislation, international treaties, public policy based on sound science. But that is precisely what we are now witnessing the breakdown of. It is not at all clear that good governance will be available to solve the problems of the future. On climate change, notably, we now appear to be moving backwards, with Trump's choice of Myron Ebell to head the transition at the EPA. Presumably the pendulum will swing back at some point, as you point out that it did with the swing from Bush to Obama and from Harper to Trudeau. But it is not at all clear that we have the time to spare to wait for that swing back toward rationality. I forget which of us is older, Andrew :->, but there's the perspective of another old-timer.

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  2. I think being optimistic about our ability to make the future better is the good way to make progress toward making the future better.

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  3. I guess I think being realistic, not optimistic, is the best way to effectively confront reality and effectively influence it. But that's an old, old debate! :->

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  4. Jan 30 - after the Executive Orders started rolling in: I am becoming considerably less optimistic.

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