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The Rush To Urgent Optimism

Updated: Jul 27, 2020

This week, the renown environmentalist David Attenborough told people at the spring meeting of the International Monetary Fund in Washington D.C. that, based on current trends, parts of the world would soon become uninhabitable and populations would be forced to move. He went on to say,

“I find it hard to exaggerate the peril. We are supporting and subsidising the very things that are damaging our planet. The natural world is so delicate. It needs all the protection it can get... The opportunity won’t last for ever. Unless we act on the Paris climate change agreement we are going to be in real trouble.”

The strategy for making a better future is grounded in optimism. Unless we believe that the future can be better, we are unlikely to step forward and take responsibility for making it so.

Paul Romer, the distinguished academic and most recent winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, is optimistic about fighting climate change. His work posits that human ingenuity enables us to extract ever more (economic and social) value from a limited amount of resources. He writes that we make progress because of the things that people do, and hence we should encourage people to do more of the things that generate endogenous progress and discourage them from doing the things that result in negative externalities, such as carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels. A practical insight from his theory is that there are two very different types of optimism: complacent and conditional.

“Complacent optimism is the feeling of a child waiting for presents. Conditional optimism is the feeling of a child who is thinking about building a treehouse. ‘If I get some wood and nails and persuade some other kids to help do the work, we can end up with something really cool.'”

I prefer the word ‘possibilist’ over a conditional optimist. There is an urgent need for more possibilists – individuals who not only have hope but are willing to take collective action in making the shift from optimism to progress.

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