RE: Taking on the Cult of Pessimism

Blog, Climate, Ben Eisen

David, Thanks for your column and for this follow-up. You’re correct in describing an “instinctive and compulsive pessimism” that prevents a lot of people from acknowleding evidence that the world is becoming a better place to live.  Currently, that pessimism is largely manifested in fears about the global warming phenomenon. When I wrote a piece showing the evidence that Canada’s natural environment is improving in most areas, a huge part of the response was along the lines of “yeah, well enjoy your last sip of clean water before global warming kills us.” From what I’ve seen, a decent chunk of the response to your column struck a similar tone. The argument I see repeatedly is that despite advances in other areas, carbon dioxide emissions will still destroy the planet so none of this so called ‘progress’ really matters in the long run. Although responses to optimistic descriptions of our trajectory focus on global warming today, they may focus on something else in ten years – but there will still be widespread incredulity towards optimism even in the face of overwhelming evidence because the AGW panic is largely a manifestation of the “compulsive pessimism” you describe . Underlying this pessimism is an inchoate sense that our society’s unprecedented levels of production and consumption  must be doing something harmful – it’s just a question of figuring out what that “something” is. I think this largely explains why so many people are so quick to believe the most terrifying accounts of the likely impacts of global warming – and why so many were so quick to believe the scariest stories about a manmade ice age when those were in vogue 35 years ago. In some instances it was the very same people. David Frum put it better than I can in his amazing book How We Got Here: The 70s. “…it was less important to the new apocalyptics to know which catastrophe was going to ravage the world than to agree that some catastrophe was sure to do so.” This feeling of impending doom and a vague sense that our large-scale production and consumption must be destructive in the long run is deep-seated and hysteria over AGW strikes me as one current manifestation of it.  None of this is to say that AGW doesn’t pose a real threat to the well-being of our species- it does. It is to say that the fixation on this particular issue to the point of being dismissive of other indicators of human progress is borne out of a powerful but amorphous sense that what we as a society are doing must be somehow destructive. For people of that mindset, no amount of data will convince them that mankind’s lot is improving- even though it manifestly is.