The perils of pessimism – and optimism

The perils of pessimism – and optimism

by Martin Livermore
article from Thursday 11, January, 2018

BEING of a naturally optimistic disposition, I’ve often thought that the environmentalist movement has a deep streak of pessimism running through it. At the extreme, the world view is one of our species – and our species alone – being both outside Nature and with a negative impact on all other forms of life. Of course, most environmentalists don’t take nearly such a black and white position, but many still see humankind’s impact with a negative halo.

Over the Christmas period, I came across two articles that cast some light on why pessimism seems so prevalent. Why things might not be as bad as we think covers the findings of an Ipsos-Mori report called the Perils of Perception. This found that a significant majority of respondents from 38 countries thought that the murder rate had not fallen, that deaths from terrorism hadn’t fallen – both of which run counter to the evidence – and that the rate of teenage pregnancies is much higher than the reality.

According to the article, this is because our brains handle bad news differently from good news. In essence, we are predisposed to believe the worst, because this enhances our chances of survival in a dangerous world. We may think that the relentless stream of bad news in the media causes our pessimism, but in reality newspapers are just reinforcing our natural feelings. Indeed, attempts to focus primarily on good news have always been a commercial failure, it seems.

The sub-heading of the second article, The Power of Negative Thinking, is pessimists fare better than people with sunnier dispositions. For natural optimists, that is in itself a dispiriting prospect, but there is certainly some food for thought. One argument is that taking too positive an outlook on life makes us complacent and overconfident. One example quoted is that those who underestimate their risk of heart disease are more likely to show early signs of it. We can certainly see the same tendency in smokers, many of whom will be aware of mortality statistics but think it won’t apply to them.

The benefits of pessimism apparently go further than this, though. Optimists are more likely to suffer disappointment, while a study in Germany showed that those who were less optimistic about their futures were less likely to become disabled or die prematurely. The suggestion is that a strategy of ‘defensive pessimism’ is good for us.

Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. I would argue that both blind optimism and constant pessimism are equally bad and that realism should be the order of the day. Perhaps because I see my glass as half full, I see no contradiction between having an optimistic outlook on life while relying on evidence which may lead us to be negative about particular issues.

Part of the problem is that much change is seen as inherently negative. This is one of the reasons why every generation tends to see society going to the dogs as standards of education, behaviour, speech and pretty much everything else decline. In fact, what many people see as decline is simply a move away from the norms they are accustomed to. The value judgement is in the eye of the beholder.

Concern for the environment is to a significant extent a reaction to the impacts we humans have on landscapes and other species. It is surely good that we are concerned, but finding a point of balance and rationalising it is incredibly difficult. First, we have to accept that the emergence of farming and settled communities has had a major effect on the environment in many countries. Before this, much of northern Europe was densely wooded and would have had much less diverse ecosystems.

These changes over the millennia we see as largely positive, since they have created the landscapes we know and cherish today. We may worry about declining numbers of farmland bird species but, without humans, most of them would not be in the region at all. More broadly, our well-meaning attempts at conservation may be good for species in decline, but we may have created the ecological niche in which they thrived in the first place.

For example, farming provided habitat for ground nesting skylarks and partridges, while red kites flourished in the Middle Ages at least in part because they scavenged in the filthy urban streets. Flower meadows became established on suitable areas where the grass was kept cropped by livestock. The balance of species we consider ‘natural’ is one which we ourselves have played a large role in creating.

A rule of thumb seems to be, quite understandably, that we take the environment we grow up in as the norm, although our perceptions are also influenced by the memories of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations. During our lifetimes, we experience great changes; the ‘good’ we tend to accept and take for granted, while the ‘bad’ we worry about.

In fact, nothing is purely black and white. Information Technology has transformed our lives and the way we do business and has brought enormous benefits, but the downsides of what has become known as social media are also all too apparent. Things such as this make some people hark back to simpler times, but the reality of life in earlier generations was a lot harder than we sometimes realise.

The big environmental issue of the early 21st Century is, of course, climate change, and it’s here that our predisposition to believe bad news is particularly apparent. Despite the large amount of common ground between ‘warmists’ and ‘sceptics’, the lack of constructive debate and knee jerk dismissal of criticism is a sign of deeply entrenched pessimism.

The projections of computer simulations, based on a partial understanding of chaotic weather systems, are believed more than some of the perfectly credible questioning about the sense of attempting radical reductions in carbon dioxide emissions with inadequate technology. Past arguments about the need for societies to adapt to changes in climate – as they have had to during recorded history – are largely ignored.

There is little point in trying to change human nature, but that shouldn’t stop people pointing to hard evidence and alternative views. It may not be sensible to have Always Look on the Bright Side of Life as our theme tune, but neither should we be too ready to believe the worst.

In the meantime, I wish you all a happy, healthy and prosperous 2018.

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