With the ongoing global SARS-COV-2 pandemic, Russia's illegal and brutal invasion of Ukraine, a year of high inflation, climate change, food insecurity, and supply chain risks and tensions between China and the West over Taiwan, it is little wonder we're worried about our prospects in 2023. For an entire year, headlines ran hot with a nearly uninterrupted feed of doom-mongering, and it worked. IPSOS surveyed more than 24,000 people across 36 countries on their outlook for 2023[1], and quite unsurprisingly, it wasn't great. The percentage of those surveyed who indicated, "I am optimistic that next year will be a better year than this year," fell from 77% in 2021 to 65% in 2022, while the percentage who indicated in agreement with the statement "The global economy will be stronger next year than it was this year dropped from 61% to 26% over the same period. Within the same survey group, half expected major stock markets to crash in 2023, 48% thought nuclear weapons would be used in conflict, and 22% thought it likely that an asteroid would hit the planet within the coming 12 months. 

Just three days after these results went live, Hannah Ritchie wrote of how "Young people feel like they have no future due to climate change."[2] In the op-ed, Hannah referenced an international study published in The Lancet Planetary Health[3], which surveyed 10 000 children and young people (aged 16–25 years) in ten countries (Australia, Brazil, Finland, France, India, Nigeria, Philippines, Portugal, the UK, and the USA; 1000 participants per country); and found that 59% of those surveyed indicating they were "extremely worried" about climate change, and "45% of respondents said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life and functioning." These two surveys are a limited evidence sampling of how pervasive the apocalypse culture has become over the last three years. From headline banners of "turmoil," "failure," "massacre," and "war" from Foreign Policy to headlines from the Guardian asking, "Should I have children? Weighing parenthood amid the climate crisis[4]," the current mediascape is hyper-saturated with a dragline catch of everything wrong with civilization.

The culture of optimism reached peak darkness through the height of the pandemic, but clearly, there's much work to be done to move the needle on the current zeitgeist of unrelenting pessimism.

Excerpt: Foreign Policy, December 27th, 2022                                                                                                                 

The media has capitalized writ large on the last three years of the SARS-COV-2 pandemic, economic, logistics, and military turmoil to churn out a near-endless feed of doom-bait. It is hard, however, to fully blame them; in a supply and demand-driven economy, the media is serving up exactly what our negativity bias is requesting, namely a continuous stream of negative click-bait. And while it's a trope to reiterate that "if it bleeds, it leads," seemingly little has been done to address an economically viable medium for media that bridges the gap between doom-bait and a platform of panacea. 

Over the last decade, a number of media platforms have spawned to provide an alternative to the doom, from local good news stories to examples of global progress; websites from Freethink to The Progress Network. have fought valiantly in the war to cut the One Ring of doom-bait from the hand of established media. Overcoming the pessimistic inertia of the larger media landscape has, however, been thus far extremely challenging, even for well-funded progress-centric start-ups. When the average person encounters a platform pitching exclusively optimistic content, their defenses are automatically activated in a very primal and involuntarily instinctive manner, "how dare they fail to see the world is awful," "clearly, they're out of touch with the struggles of people like me," "I just lost a family member, job, my life savings, how could they be so insensitive." 

Whether the optimists like it or not, overt optimism and even the factful truth activate an instinctively suspicious and repulsive reaction in the human brain. We somehow read "How child mortality fell from 40% to 3.7% in 200 years,"[5] and find our knee-jerk reaction is to say in our head, "yes, maybe in rich countries," automatically rejecting in advance the fact that child mortality has improved across the globe, even for the worlds poorest families. The fact is that "Child mortality is lower today in China, India, Egypt, Algeria, and Libya than it was in the U.S., UK, or France in 1950."[5]

The solution, to quote Hans Rosling in Factfullness, "is not to balance out all the negative news with more positive news. That would just risk creating a self-deceiving, comforting, misleading bias in the other direction. It would be as helpful as balancing too much sugar with too much salt. It would make things more exciting, but maybe even less healthy."[6] 

But rather to see the world Factfully, through the lens of "The world is awful. The world is much better. The world can be much better."[7] Or better still, from the perspective first coined by American Environmental Geographer Ruth Defries, "Ratchet, Hatchet, Pivot[8]" in her book "The Big Ratchet: How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis."[9] 

"The process goes something like this. It starts with a hungry person in search of the easiest and quickest way to get a meal. At some point, a way to manipulate nature emerges, perhaps when someone tames an edible plant or devises a way to spread scarce nutrients so crops can grow. Maybe the twist of nature is intentional, or perhaps someone stumbles upon some random good fortune. 

With more food to go around, the success ratchets up the number of our species, and people expand into new places. Inevitably, any innovation reaches its limit, creating demands it cannot satisfy, generating too much pollution, or creating some other unforeseen obstacle. Once again, specters of not enough food to go around appear, and prospects look grim. The hatchet falls. Then a new pivot, a new way to use nature’s endowments, emerges. The ratchet turns again, providing more and more people with food, committing civilization to keeping the growing number of people fed. 

At some point there’s an even bigger hurdle, perhaps from the sheer number of people or from disease, drought, or some other calamity. Ratchet, hatchet, pivot; ratchet, hatchet, pivot. In every cycle, the stakes get higher, as our species expands in numbers and in the extent of its reach across the world. In every cycle, new obstacles emerge. And in every cycle, millennium after millennium, humanity as a whole has muddled through."[9]

For thousands of years, our progress as a species has been defined by these three major forces, the "ratchet," e.g., innovation-fueled growth, progress, and improved living standards; the "hatchet," e.g., the unintended consequences of innovation and technology, and the crisis of the natural environment and human condition, and finally the "pivot," our ability as a species to literally pivot, to innovate and change our culture, our technology, and our systems to subvert of overcome adversity — circling back to the next ratchet up of progress, growth and living standards. I would argue that humans, having lived with "Ratchet, Hatchet, Pivot" for millennia, can intuitively understand and digest arguments and positions put forward in the format. "The world is awful. The world is much better. The world can be much"[7] is more relatable and inoffensive in a manner that isn't possible with the traditional good news media approach and is more constructive and productive than the long-established doom-bait media.

"The world is awful. The world is much better. The world can be much" — Max Roser

Building out an all-progress-all-the-time platform is possible, but typically, they are operated at a loss with, under a not-for-profit model, and rely heavily upon, or even exclusively, on the philanthropic contributions of optimistically sympathetic donors. Many optimistic and progress-centric news sites and YouTube channels suffer low, and high cost per engagement. 

The unfortunate but unavoidable reality of the human conditions is that doom sells in the very same manner as sex sells, and overcoming our proclivity to fall for doom-bait takes a degree of practice and commitment which is beyond the ability or inclination of many. At the end of the day, building to optimistic and progress-centric content platform requires staff, servers, and a hundred other expensive operating costs, which raise the cost per engagement or limit the quality and amount of content available.

The Global Zeitgeist of Progress in 2023 is Broken; this One Media Trick Could Help

One solution may be to build an optimistic and progress-centric content platform, one capable of not only breaking even but being profitable while also driving progress. A new website based on the Ratchet, Hatchet, Pivot concept. A news platform like the Atlantic or Vox; that splits the content it puts forward into rough thirds,  ratchets, hatchets, and pivots. Op-eds and news of progress forward, challenges and setbacks, and innovation toward overcoming hatchets and building a better future. What has gone right and why, what is going wrong and why, and what can be done to overcome the problems facing humanity? Building out a Ratchet, Hatchet, Pivot concept-centric website aside, another solution that can be built into existing news media platforms would be to embrace Ratchet, Hatchet, Pivot content creation theory, both in the spread of positions put forward across the site, and also as writers individually within each piece of work. 

 

What has gone right and why, what is going wrong and why, and what can be done to overcome the problems facing humanity?

When we write about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we might better serve others by narrating our position through this perspective, giving readers and viewers a more factfull and comprehensive view of subjects from politics to climate change. When we frame the big challenges of civilization through the lens of Ratchet, Hatchet, Pivot, we remove the propensity for content consumers to become stuck in a doom-scrolling boot-loop and reduce the likelihood of them experiencing a sense of fatalistic paralysis on the future of humanity and their place within it. This methodology, I would propose, would not reduce link clicks, nor would it reduce the amount of time each user spends engaged with a particular platform; it might even increase session length. 

I would argue that we have a moral imperative to address the hyper-abundance of doom-bait content and publish and curate work that inspires people to build a better future. It's possible to build and or operate a media platform without resorting to doom-mongering; it's profitable, it's the right thing to do, and it will help break the bonds of despair facing the next generation.

As we transition through the end of 2022 and into 2023, it's time we stopped preemptively giving up on civilization and got back to viewing challenges and problems as "yet to be overcome" rather than as impossible or unlikely to fix filters to further human progress.

 

  1. ^

    Global predictions for 2023, IPSOS, December 15th, 2022 

  2. ^

    Young people feel like they have no future due to climate change; we need to change the narrative, Hannah Ritchie, Sustainability by numbers, December 18th, 2022

  3. ^

    The Lancet Planetary Health, Climate anxiety in children and young people and their beliefs about government responses to climate change: a global survey, Published: December 2021 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/S2542-5196(21)00278-3

  4. ^

    Should I have children? Weighing parenthood amid the climate crisis, The Guardian, Megan Mayhew Bergman, November 13th, 2021

  5. ^

    How child mortality fell from 40% to 3.7% in 200 years, Tony Morley, Big Think, June 25th, 2022.

  6. ^

    Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About The World - And Why Things Are Better Than You Think, Hans Rosling · Ola Rosling · Anna Rosling Rönnlund, c2018

  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^

    The Big Ratchet: How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis, Ruth DeFries, c2014, ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0465044979

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5 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 7:11 AM
New Comment

I enjoyed your piece, Tony.

I hadn't heard of the "Ratchet, Hatchet, Pivot" before. I really like it for intra-ecosystem communication.

I also love these questions: "What has gone right and why, what is going wrong and why, and what can be done to overcome the problems facing humanity?"

You can swap humanity for "my life," "my family," "my community," "my country," etc for a universally useful exercise. 

On a separate note, your piece resonated because something I'm trying to interrogate for myself is also what you seem to be thinking about: what is the role of media in advancing progress?

I have a sneaking suspicion that part of the reason why most optimistic media usually(?) doesn't do well is because it's not tied to a particular theory of change.

I imagine most people wondering: "Cool, I'm glad to know that this cool invention is being built. But what exactly does this have to do with me?"

I suspect that media that feels like media that supports the growth a movement with clear and exciting goals could get traction.

I've seen some progress-adjacent YouTube channels do really well roughly targeting a niche of people who want to electrify their house, so they like to be up to date on new energy / storage inventions.

And I predict that I would love to follow media covering the journey of a group trying to get some progress-related legislation passed.

Movement media.

I'm not sure there's room for general purpose optimistic, progress-oriented media beyond the current players right now. But I could be wrong! 

What do you think?

Thank you kindly for your warm response; most welcome indeed. I think one of the grand challenges for media is that we're physically and chemically wired with an innate negativity bias, part of the inescapable condition of being human. Thus anything that smacks of untempered optimism activates our biochemical red flag system. 

The current media, however, has exploited this doom-bait hack to maximum effect, supersaturating content with the triggers that fire our negativity response and keep us wondering whether we have enough pasta to survive the first few weeks of a general nuclear exchange. It's addictive, and while it keeps us entertained, it doesn't help us make better choices about the future. On a slight side tangent, one quick way to estimate whether the content is education or entertainment is to ask whether it helps you make choices about the future. 

Regards your comment, 

"I'm not sure there's room for general purpose optimistic, progress-oriented media beyond the current players right now. But I could be wrong!"

I would say that I think there's still enormous room for improvement and innovation. As I've said many times, we're at the bottom of the s-curve for innovation in progress studies, not the top. What we think of as established progress media platforms are just in their infancy, and the best is yet to come. I think it would be incredible to build out a "Pivot" concept website that works off this theory, and I suspect it would do well, although I could always be wrong. It will be fascinating to see the progress studies movement climb the tech tree of content communications, and I'm really thankful I'm a tiny part of it. 

Thanks again for your comment. 

Interesting thought about the market here. It seems though that the Atlantic and Vox have a pretty good bead on that. Between Derek Thompson etc. and Kelsey Piper etc. I think one thing we can do is augment their efforts and contribute to those already established and successful platforms, as well as Works in Progress.

I am not aware of the financial situation of any of these outlets, but I don't see a market hole for another one. This might be good advice though for other current operations like Warp News.

Agree, building a new platform from the ground up would be an expensive and difficult undertaking. But I'd argue that established operations, like Big Think, Free Think, Human Progress, Warp, Progress Network etc, already have established brands and modes of communication. I think in a perfect world, a Big Think, Free Think like website would be the perfect platform as a template for a stand alone site. It's even got a perfect name, "Pivot."

I'm not sure what the best answer is, but that's why I wanted to write about it, to continue the conversation.

Do we want to have media that contributes to a better future?   Do we want to fuel content grounded in reason, logic, and common sense?

Focus on nuclear weapons.   

There is no other factor within human control that can so quickly and so decisively end our hopes for a better future.  The vast majority of other subjects being discussed in "constructive journalism" are really mostly a dangerous distraction from that which will decide our future.

Happily, we seem to be emerging from climate change denial, and now pretty much the entire population is alert to this danger, and receptive to plans to address this challenge.  Unhappily, nuclear weapons denial disease remains rampant, pervasive, and durable, even at the very highest levels of our society.

This claim will now be disputed in following comments.  The debate may be interesting for a few days, but then it will become boring, and we'll drop right back in to nuclear weapons denial, and sweep it back under the rug so as to return our focus to sexier topics like AI.  And this is the mechanism by which the brighter future you dream of will be destroyed.

Given the pervasive nature of nuclear weapons denial, every mention of these weapons in any media is an act of constructive activism.  It's not necessary to agree with any particular point of view.   Just say the words "nuclear weapons" where ever you can, and you're making a constructive contribution.

https://www.tannytalk.com/s/nukes