Pessimists sound smart. Optimists make money.
–Nat Friedman (quoted by Patrick)

I’ve realized a new reason why pessimism sounds smart: optimism often requires believing in unknown, unspecified future breakthroughs—which seems fanciful and naive. If you very soberly, wisely, prudently stick to the known and the proven, you will necessarily be pessimistic.

No proven resources or technologies can sustain economic growth. The status quo will plateau. To expect growth is to believe in future technologies. To expect very long-term growth is to believe in science fiction.

No known solutions can solve our hardest problems—that’s why they’re the hardest ones. And by the nature of problem-solving, we are aware of many problems before we are aware of their solutions. So there will always be a frontier of problems we don’t yet know how to solve.

Fears of Peak Oil and other resource shortages follow this pattern. Predictions of shortages are typically based on “proven reserves.” We are saved from shortage by the unproven and even the unknown reserves, and the new technologies that make them profitable to extract. Or, when certain resources really do run out, we are saved economically by new technologies that use different resources: Haber-Bosch saved us from the guano shortage; kerosene saved the sperm whales from extinction; plastic saved the elephants by replacing ivory.

In just the same way, it can seem that we’re running out of ideas—that all our technologies and industries are plateauing. Technologies do run a natural S-curve, just like oil fields. But when some breakthrough insight creates an entirely new field, it opens an entire new orchard of low-hanging fruit to pick. Focusing only on established sectors and proven fields thus naturally leads to pessimism. To be an optimist, you have to believe that at least some current wild-eyed speculation will come true.

Why is this style of pessimism repeatedly wrong? How can this optimism be justified? Not on the basis of specific future technologies—which, again, are unproven—but on the basis of philosophical premises about the nature of humans and of progress. The possibility of sustained progress is a consequence of the view of humans as “universal explainers” (cf. David Deutsch), and of progress as driven fundamentally by human choice and effort—that is, by human agency.

The opposite view is that progress is a matter of luck. If the progress of the last few centuries was a random windfall, then pessimism is logical: our luck is bound to run out. How could we get that lucky again? If the next century is an average one, it will see little progress.

But if progress is a primarily matter of agency, then whether it continues is up to us.


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In his 2013 book, “Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better,” Clive Thompson noted that “dystopian predictions are easy to generate” and “doomsaying is emotionally self-protective: if you complain that today’s technology is wrecking the culture, you can tell yourself you’re a gimlet-eyed critic who isn’t hoodwinked by high-tech trends and silly, popular activities like social networking. You seem like someone who has a richer, deeper appreciation for the past and who stands above the triviality of today’s life.” (p. 283)

I think that really nails it. 

One reason I hear for pessimism is not merely Clive Thompson's point that dystopian scenarios are easy to imagine, but that we've already created dystopias. It's NOT merely imagination. We've already dropped atomic weapons, created murderous totalitarian governments, and starved millions of people to death through blithe mismanagement. As proof of concept such things have already happened, they could be scaled, and if they happen again, they will be bigger and badder. It's hard for most people to imagine unknown future good things that outweigh "knowable" future horrors.

P.S. can I get a deep dive on whether the 20th century is rightly called "the bloodiest century"? It seems obviously so. But I would like to see the data sliced several different ways.

"But if progress is a primarily matter of agency, then whether it continues is up to us."

It isn't so easy. The problem is it is not up to individual agency, but the cumulative dynamic equilibrium of 8 billion people along with a healthy dose of luck and contingency. I strongly agree that we saw unprecedented amounts of progress over the past two centuries, but there is no guarantee it will continue. 

That said, there are things we can do to increase the likelihood of progress. These include better understanding how progress works, and by spreading out our bets so that all our eggs aren’t in one or two baskets. 

Good point about optimism. However, the examples used in the article show an underlying use of this mental mindset and dogma: stay productive and efficient (more than others do); use this highly effective mental mindset to generate more wealth, which in turn will trigger sustained economic growth. Well, the only criticism  - and I do my best to keep it as constructive as possible - lies precisely in the paradoxical pessimism that a green, conscientious and socially aware mind will feel after reading the article. Do we really intend to use optimism as a tool to exploit our planet even more? Or to increase economic inequality by playing zero-sum games?

In a nutshell, my humble opinion is that we should use optimism in order to think of "progress" in a slightly different way. And if you think I'm naive, well, at least I'm being an optimist.

[+][comment deleted]2y 1