Saturday, January 1, 2011

2011: Pessimists in the Shadows

[First posted in 2009, this is my apparently now-traditional New Year's Day repost. Enjoy, fellow stupid optimists! -- Wesley M.]

As usual, James Lileks not only manages to post more regularly these last few weeks than I have but also to hit on something I've been thinking myself:

At a party tonight I had an odd, fleeting thought: India is moving troops to the Pakistan border to match their counterpart’s actions; there are earthquakes under Yellowstone which probably won’t trigger the caldera and blot the sun with a mantle of Satan's dandruff but you never know; Israel is engaged in a major operation against Cynthia McKinney, and most of the domestic news is horrible economic stats—people are buying less jewelry!—or tales of shameless corruption about a governor with a large amount of black hay on his head. Yet here we are, crowded in the kitchen, laughing and talking and watching the kids run around, clinking our glasses and urging the new year to Bring It On. We’re a resilient people.

Or, we’re just not paying attention.
True, my wife and I have spent a relatively quiet holiday season at home this year rather than clinking glasses with relatives and friends, but I know what he means. And I know that earlier in my life, I would have fallen into the we're just not paying attention camp.

It's a dark place, that camp, where nothing breaks through the clouds covering the future of the country (and the world), but it does have a certain appeal. Like being able to consider yourself smarter and more perceptive than all those annoying optimists, with their even-more-annoying comments about how we've gotten through worse before and it's really not as bad as all that today. Not to mention being able to feel more emotionally resilient, because you have the cojones to look the acne-scarred face of our bleak future straight in its bloodshot eyes.

It's all spinning out of control and going to hell, after all! Why can't those optimists just open their happy-ending eyes and see?!

They need us, damn it, we would think with pride. Because we're going to save the optimists from themselves.

Of course, over the last decade in particular, I've gone from being an utter pessimist to an unrepentant optimist. Maybe it's just getting older, or having seen the Cold War end and the Soviet Union fall, or finally picking up on all the small signs of hope I never gave enough credit to before, whether it's people half my age who already understand the lessons I took another 20 years of life to learn or editing peer-reviewed environmental study after peer-reviewed environmental study that have convinced me we are not facing imminent global catastrophe but are, in fact, making real progress. Not that I want to move to China and eat fish out of the Yangtze River, mind you, but I've lost my patience with Ten Years Left To Save The Planet! That kind of doomsday pessimism once gave me an emotional thrill like some weird sort of scientific bungee-jumping, but these days, heights just make me nervous.

My wife has had a parallel experience, which we discovered not long ago while watching the "Charlton Heston Apocalyptic Trilogy": Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man, and Soylent Green. I think it was during Soylent Green that we realized we had both grown up on doomsayers, whether the Club of Rome and Paul Ehrlich or films that predicted the end of the world at somewhere around 10 years ago. And that not only had this totally colored our view of the world when we were growing up, it had created a filter that we'd carried through into our adult lives.

Of course, James Lileks hit on this once as well, and summed it up better than I could:
I am not susceptible to disaster scenarios. I do not believe we have ten years to prevent the inevitable collapse of civilization. As long as I can remember I have been fed end-times scenarios—death by ice, death by fire, death by famine, death by smothering from heaps of clambering humans scrabbling for purchase on an overpopulated world, death by full-scale nuclear exchange, death by unstoppable global AIDS, death by a two-degree rise in temperatures, death by radon, death by alar, death by inadvertent Audi acceleration, death by juju. Doesn’t mean we won’t die of juju. But somehow we survive. The only thing I take away is a vague wistful wonder what it would be like to live in an era when things were generally so bad that the futurists spent their time assuring us it would be better. Say what you will about the past, but at least they had a future. All I've ever had, according to the experts, is a grim narrow window of heedless ignorant bliss followed by a dystopian irradiated world characterized by scarcity, mutation, and quite possibly intelligent chimps. You have no future. Oh, and don’t smoke!


I’m a stupid optimist. Either the vehicle that takes me to the boneyard will get six miles per gallon of processed dinosaur, or it will run for ninety days on a milliliter of Sea-Monkey urine. Either way, all in all, we’ll make it.
Count me in with the stupid optimists. I expect great things in 2009, even with all the bad things I'm sure will also happen. And if 2009 disappoints me, I'll expect still greater things out of 2010, or 2011, or 2012.

Because even with all the problems we have today—and I'm not saying that we don't have problems—things are better than they were 20 years ago. And 20 years ago, I wouldn't have been able to bring myself to say that, though I can today. That alone tells me something.

It tells me that the pessimists need us, damn it, as I now think with pride. And that we're going to save the pessimists from themselves.