The Case for Optimism: 6 reasons

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Derek Thompson’s “Everything’s terrible but I’m fine” Atlantic piece (link here) certainly seemed to catch a moment. Doomism, and bleak/nihilistic outlooks have been a growing theme for a while (forever, some might say), but objectively in 2022 there IS a lot of bad sh*t in the world to get down about.

Jon Clifton, head of pollster Gallup explained in the Economist that their research shows a happiness crisis over the last 15 years, with happiness inequality being as serious as income inequality, poverty and loneliness are among the main reasons. Other writers have pointed out that we are genetically wired to be unsatified, paranoid even. As the example goes our happy, contented ancestors sat back and were shortly thereafter eaten by lions. A bit of worry a bit of paranoia goes a long way toward survival and reproduction which is what we are programmed for.

Just give me memes, give me jokes …

Starting a fortnightly markets newsletter at the beginning of the year I thought I’d drop a few lines about market moves, make a few snarky wisecracks, share a meme or two and poke a little harmless fun at classic market prognosticators and famous talking heads, easy right?

A few months later and war has driven millions from their homes and left tens of thousands dead, and a cost of living crisis like none we’ve seen for a generation has left people choosing between food or heating their house, and record numbers using foodbanks. It’s got much harder than I thought to make those lighthearted jokes! What can one really say at a time like that?

Added to that we’re still early in the process of emerging from a global pandemic that has cost millions of lives and just slowly starting to recognise the trauma this has inflicted on individuals as well as health services. We look forward and see a natural world depleted, broken and threatened by climate change. We look into the present and see self-serving, short-termist leaders and declining civil institutions.

It’s not a lighthearted environment by any means! WE NEED JOKES PEOPLE! But hey, I promised you a piece on optimism … bear with me here – it’s coming!

For sure it’s a trying time and I don’t fault anyone for being dejected, afraid or angry. And yes, I know I’m speaking from a position of privilege and can’t possibly understand the realities of millions of people in worse situations.

But here’s my core point: feelings of gloom and doom can easily lead to helplessness, yet with a bit of context and thought it is possible to reframe these narratives a little and take a little optimism forward which helps us continue taking actions to improve things bit by bit.

Six reasons to be optimistic

  1. Progress: poverty, life expectancy, literacy, freedom The Hans Rosling perspective

If you haven’t read Factfulness, the brilliant book by the late Hans Rosling then you need to. There’s so much knowledge to be gained through its 270+ pages but the quick summary is that by a range of objective measures, the arc of human progress has bent upward over recent centuries to a staggering degree. Looking at extreme poverty, life expectancy, disease eradication, infant mortality these have all vastly improved over recent decades. The good news happens gradually though and doesn’t always get reported.

Our World in Data is a fantastic resource for this sort of stuff (as well as loads of other carefully maintained databases).

Now I know you probably **kind of** know this already, but honestly, there’s nothing like systematically walking through the true scale of it, for example:

Over just the time period of Queen Elizabeth II’s time on the throne (70 years) life expectancy at birth in the UK has increased by 12 years. Children born today expect to enjoy a 20% longer life than their grandparents.

During my lifetime the proportion of the global population living on less than key thresholds of $3.20 or $1.90 per day has fallen substantially: from almost half to one in ten (or one in five).

This is certainly a cause for generalised optimism about progress over the long-term, not to be confused with an excuse for laissez-faire passiveness in the present and handwaving away problems on the promise of as-yet-unknown future solutions.

2. On climate specifically, there is progress.

Several things can be true at the same time: Yes things could get bad, yes there has been progress, yes some of the worst outcomes look likely to be avoided, yes we need to do far more far quicker – climate expert Zeke Hausfather has put this really well (twitter thread here).

It’s easy just to get focused on bad trajectories – and yes for sure they are bad, 3 degrees or even 2 degrees of warming are looking like pretty dire outcomes but not recognising the progress that’s been made in steering away from some of the truly apocalyptic scenarios (eg 6 degrees) only gives half the picture.

the chart below essentially compares the “pre-Paris” trajectory (pink) vs various interpretations of what post-Paris policies and scenarios might play out.

One of the reasons for the progress, and a good example of it is the steep decline in the price of renewable energy over the last 10 years

Source: JP Morgan Guide to the Markets May 2022

A lot of this is technological and an optimism about the power of future technological solutions (“techno-optimism”) is often cited as a reason for optimism in itself. Don’t disagree with this but it really can be a double-edged sword as it can mutate into inaction in the present moment, and even resistance to implementing today’s solutions if future technology-driven solutions will just come along to save us.

Technology is great, but doesn’t always evolve the way you think. As Peter Thiel famously said: “we thought we were getting flying taxis, instead we got 140 characters”.

3. Human nature is actually better than you think

In the duelling worldviews of two of the pre-eminent philosophers; Hobbes and Rouseau, it’s often Hobbes’ reductitve and underlyingly selfish view of human nature that is presented as the realistic view to the lofty yet naive conception of Rousseau. But evidence doesn’t bear that out.

I read an excellent book by Rutger Bregman – human kind , a hopeful history. Gavin Lewis recommended it on our podcast ages ago). Rutger does a deep dive on the contrasting philosophies of Thomas Hobbes (humans act fundamentally in self interest , and need ruling over through civil institutions) and Rousseau (humans are social creatures , default to co-operation and trust: survival of the friendliest  ) .

And before you think this is abstract philosophy stuff , a lot of modern corporate structure comes from a Hobbesian view of the world (think: hierarchy , reporting lines , management , timesheets and billable hours ). Hobbes is often thought of as the more realist view of human natured but the book challenges that perception, re-framing a lot of what we think we know and asking whether maybe Rousseau’s ideas are closer to reality.

When the chips are down, we’re social creatures. Think of some of what went on during the depths of covid lockdowns, we – in the main – pulled together.

Why does it matter? Because we often become the stories we tell. Our expectations of others become a self fulfilling prophecy. Of course people can and will be selfish. But an irredeemably selfish view on human nature is only half thr picture.

Here’s a great podcast with the author, listen on web | apple

4. Individual voices can make a difference

One of the many perks of today’s world is the access to media coverage that all of us potentially have to create a platform for ourselves and get our message out. Yes, traditional figures like Prime Ministers and Presidents have a lot of airtime like they always have , but now they are joined by individuals and activists who are able to broadcast their message far and wide, like Jack Monroe or Greta Thunberg. You’ve also got already-famous individuals choosing to use their personal platforms to futher social and community goals that matter to them, think: Marcus Rashford or Gary Lineker.

Even just picking up your phone and following these people can provide the sort of messages we all need to hear and push us toward the better actions we aspire to.

5. Community & collectives are the future

At the individual level you can feel too small to matter but the National or regional level can feel too large to make any difference. Enter the community level.

Community based projects are being re-discovered after decades of neglect and offer an energising and practical way forward. I’m thinking of everything from Parkrun (a free volunteer-led project that creates enormous health and wellbeing value in the UK as well as globally – honestly I challenge you to participate in a parkrun and not feel better about the world) as well as locally-orchestrated campaigns and projects for childrens’ playgrounds (like this one, in my local area) or this in London. Further afield communities are pionnering forms of sustainable land use, vertical farming and community collectives in Germany are taking back ownership of their energy generation from the centralised era of fossil fuels. Council rewilding in the UK is becoming a big thing.

6. We’re at a turning point for new thinking – there are great new ideas whose time has come

Plenty of orthodox economic and policy thinking is getting challenged/torn down or is on the table for real change. Mainstream economists like Diane Coyle are talking about the limitations of GDP as a measure of progress and the need to put values and ethics back into economics to make it suitable for a sustainable world. The ideas of sustainability econonists like Kate Raworth‘s donut economics, or the thinking of Naomi Klein are gaining traction. Mainstream business school professors like Alex Edmans are re-writing some of the core texts of business thinking with an emphasis on responsible business. Leaders of the words largest businesses or largest asset managers like Paul Polman and Larry Fink are recognising the need to serve broader stakeholders and the concept of a company’s social responsibility and license to operate.

Yes you can often point to the inadequacy of government thinking and response, and that does matter, but like so much here focusing only on that misses a bigger picture of a broader theory of change that doesn’t depend solely on governments to tell us everything about what to do.

Final thought – Horses for courses – definite vs indefinite optimism (know which you need)

Optimism actually comes in various shades writes the excellent Noah Smith (link here) in a putback to Derek Thompson’s article. You need different types at different times. Sometimes it’s the generalised sunny “hey things will be better” energy of the Reagan era, other times it’s the super-focused wartime type focus of the US Roosevelt admin. either way you might need a different sort at a different moment or depending on what role you’re in/what you’ve been focused on to date so this is worth understanding.

So, yes there’s a sh*tstorm of bad stuff in 2022, and plenty of it is really bad, far worse than many of us could understand. But choosing optimisim, selecting its flavour, finding your leaders and community, recognising progress where it exists and zomming out to see the bigger picture are all useful things we can do.

And memes. Memes are always good.

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