Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Optimism vs. realism regarding the future

The TIME magazine of 15 January, 2018, titled ‘The Optimists’, is edited by Bill Gates, one of the two richest individuals on the planet – this alone already (at least partly) explains his optimism, which is understandably not necessarily shared with people in positions of less economic power. Reading it is an object lesson in perceptions of the world based on what one might call ‘blinkeredness’. Why? It is simply that someone like Gates is more likely to be optimistic because economics, seen through the eyes of enormously successful people, and technological developments projected along a trajectory of no resistance, are likely to engender in one a sense of optimism regarding the future. Change the perspective, and one is sure to get something more pessimistic, or, less oppositionally, realistic.

But what if one studiously ignored the huge – some might say insurmountable – problems and challenges that face the world even as I write? And here I do not only include the peculiarly American problems that I wrote about in my last post (see ), although many of the problems the world is facing are connected with some or other aspect of American activities, such as those emanating from their foreign policy, or their immigration policy under Trump. Then it is indeed possible to be optimistic, but unrealistically so.

Hence, for those who are not TIME readers, let me first give you a smattering of the optimistic fare that Gates dishes up in this TIME edition, starting with his introductory guest editorial, “The Good News”(p. 2): “Reading the news today does not exactly leave you feeling optimistic. Hurricanes in the Americas. Horrific mass shootings. Global tensions over nuclear arms, crisis in Mayanmar, bloody civil wars in Syria and Yemen…But these events – as awful as they are – have happened in the context of a bigger, positive trend. On the whole, the world is getting better”.

Gates then goes on to enumerate statistics to back up his claim, showing that, since 1990, many more children worldwide now survive their 5th birthday, that far fewer people live in poverty today than before 1990, that the number of countries with laws against being gay have dropped dramatically, that women are at last gaining political power, and so on. He also acknowledges that much remains to be done, and that (p. 2) “Being an optimist doesn’t mean you ignore tragedy and injustice. It means you’re inspired to look for people making progress on these fronts, and to help spread that progress more widely”.

So far you cannot really fault Gates’s reasoning – if his statistics are correct, there certainly appears to be a noticeable trend towards global improvements in several areas, and one should indeed further contribute to such positive changes where possible. That is, unless you offset his claims against Ian Bremmer’s article in the same issue (p. 8), titled “The global order is coming apart, and liberal democracy is under threat. Welcome to 2018”, where Bremmer lists ten serious threats to democracy, including institutions being eroded worldwide, as well as a “cold war” developing in information technology, and gaining momentum. This already casts some doubt on Gates’s optimism.

Dan Harris’s piece, “Meditation can help in the era of angry politics” (p. 15), may also cast some doubt on Gates’s unadulterated optimism, but none of these possibly pessimism-inducing articles concerns the main gripe I have against it. It is this: All the ‘optimists’, or contributors to the relevant section of the TIME special edition focus on things that CAN be addressed by humans, admittedly without guarantee of success. BUT I have looked through all the contributions, and NOT one of them – not even Steven Pinker, the famous Harvard psychologist – addresses that which arguably exceeds human deliberations and ensuing actions.

For example, Pinker (p. 28-29) dwells on the psychological reasons for the fact that one tends to notice bad or upsetting news, which induces pessimism and distress, despite most things really going well most of the time, which makes one take the latter for granted. And Trevor Noah (p. 23), writing about Millennials, emphasises that the latter – among whom he counts himself – believe that they can “make a change, partly because of the information and the tools they possess”, again affirming my impression that the foregrounding of optimism has to do with the narrow focus on the field of human behaviour and action, and not on what lies outside of it (at least regarding direct, short-term effects of human actions).

Warren Buffet’s contribution (p. 20-22) nicely leads into what I believe they neglect egregiously. Buffet writes: “I have good news. First, most American children are going to live far better than their parents did. Second, large gains in the living standards of Americans will continue for many generations to come.” He ameliorates this unbelievable (and unfounded) optimism somewhat towards the end of his article, where he admits that the market system, first introduced to the world by America in 1776, which has brought with it immeasurable wealth for some people (what he omits saying is that this concerns mainly the so-called 1%, of which he is a member), “has also left many people hopelessly behind” (an understatement). At the same time he looks forward to the time when the market system “can both deliver riches to many and a decent life to all” (note the discrepancy between ‘many’ and ‘all’, which is inseparable from market capitalism!).

The part that registers the blinkered view of the contributors to this edition of TIME in paradigmatic fashion is what I quoted first from Buffet – the “I have good news”, etc., part. Who, except someone who is completely biased in favour of human economics in their perception of the world, could POSSIBLY prognosticate so confidently about people’s supposed better future living conditions (a bias which all the contributors seem to suffer from to some or other degree)? Have NONE of these people, Bill Gates included, ever heard of species extinction, ocean acidification, soil erosion, egregious rainforest depletion, plastic pollution and destruction of marine life, and – most conspicuous, because most reported on – global warming, which is, even as I write, causing the rapid melting of huge chunks of Antarctica and the Arctic? Where are their heads? In the proverbial sand?

I must suppose – because all these contributors are ‘educated’ people – that at least some of them have read Naomi Klein’s incontrovertible, courageous book, This Changes Everything; Capitalism vs. the Climate, or James Lovelock’s irrefutable The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning. If I am right about this, why do they not consider it, and factor in the fact that, as Lovelock (probably the world’s best-known climatologist) explicitly points out, the planet takes about 100 years to respond to SIGNIFICANT changes in human behaviour (such as the kind of fuels we use), and that therefore it is virtually impossible to prevent average global temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Centigrade (or more) in a few decades’ time? In fact, Lovelock warns that there is NO window for humanity to stop the catastrophic changes in store for us; we are, he believes, on a ‘slippery slope’ and we ARE going to ‘fall’, with billions of people probably facing death because of lack of water, extreme storms, etc. (see ). He does add that geo-engineering (like successfully burying carbon) may hold out some promise, though. Most people would see this as pessimism; I believe it is realism.

Does this sound like something that the ‘optimists’ in Gates’s edition of TIME should have considered? I should think so, don’t you?! Then one has not even challenged him and his contributors on social issues that they believe can be resolved, but some of which seem to resist resolution, such as the spate of school killings, and the opioid epidemic, both in America (see To anyone who knows that such social pathologies are always, without exception, a manifestation of fundamental, structural socio-economic dysfunctions, these come as no surprise. But people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are evidently blind to these underlying causes.

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