Pessimism is free but facts are sacred

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed – and hence clamorous to be led to safety – by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary. H. L. Mencken

 Don’t ever become a pessimist, Ira; a pessimist is correct oftener than an optimist, but an optimist has more fun–and neither can stop the march of events. Robert A. Heinlein

We all agree that pessimism is a mark of superior intellect. John Kenneth Galbraith

On what principle is it, that when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us? Thomas Babington Macaulay attacking Colloquies on the Progress and Prospects of Society by England’s Poet Laureate Robert Southey.

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Listening to Matt Ridley’s latest book The Rational Optimist got me thinking about my position on where I see myself on the optimist/pessimist continuum. This theme often comes up in many of my posts. I have attacked the self-help movement. I also take a dim view of those who try to build utopias. When I hear left-wingers say another world is possible, I want to run for cover. Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Kim Il Yung, Fidel Castro and Pol Pot certainly created different worlds but they are not ones I would want to live in. But I have a more optimistic side. I have railed against the cultural pessimists who see the see world dumbing down and the English language in permanent decline.

Pessimism is of course not confined to one ideology. Conservatives have traditionally been pessimistic about human nature – Edmund Burke and Roger Scruton both reflect this philosophy. Recently the conservative columnist John Derbyshire came out with a book called We Are Doomed, in which he lamented how recent conservatism had become prone to wishful thinking. Pessimism is also de rigueur among left-wing intellectuals. Not only is the world a terrible place, but it’s getting worse and worse. The cause is capitalism. And finally I have to mention the environmental movement which is now the greatest source of doom-mongering.

Pessimism sells; bookshops are full of the jeremiads of authors telling us how bad the world is and how we are fast approaching some point of no return:  Bring on the Apocalypse, Our Final Century, The End of Nature, The Age of Absurdity: Why Modern Life Makes it Hard to be Happy and The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World? This is just a miniscule sample of what you can find on the Amazon website. At least sometimes we get humour as in the BBC series Grumpy Old Men or that rant about modern life Is it Just Me or is Everything Shit?

The classic example is Paul Ehrlich. In my post about bad predictions I included the quote by Paul Ehrlich from his best-selling book, The Population Bomb

The battle to feed humanity is over. In the course of the 1970s, the world will experience starvation of tragic proportions – hundreds of millions of people will starve to death.

Mr Ehrlich certainly has form. Here are a few other gems I found on the internet:

I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000. (1969) 

Before 1985, mankind will enter a genuine age of scarcity . . . in which the accessible supplies of many key minerals will be facing depletion. (1976)

By 1985 enough millions will have died to reduce the earth’s population to some acceptable level, like 1.5 billion people. (1969)

By 1980 the United States would see its life expectancy drop to 42 because of pesticides, and by 1999 its population would drop to 22.6 million. (1969)

In retrospect, Ehrlich feels that The Population Bomb was “way too optimistic- but he has definitely learned something from his previous work. One would have hoped that it would be some intellectual modesty. Alas that is not the case. But he has learned not to put a date on his predictions. You would also imagine that his credibility would be in tatters. But the opposite appears to be true with a bizarre reverse-Cassandra effect coming into play. If you know the story of Troy, you will remember that the mythical Cassandra spoke the truth but was not believed. These modern day prophets of doom repeatedly get things wrong and yet they are revered for their wisdom.

A different kind of pessimist is John Gray. I don’t mean the author of the book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. I am referring to the former Thatcherite and a retired Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics. who has his own line in misanthropy . I don’t normally quote leftie Terry Eagleton but I wish I had written this. It’s from a review of Gray’s book Straw Dogs:

His book is so remorselessly, monotonously negative that even nihilism implies too much hope. Nihilism for Gray suggests the world needs to be redeemed from meaninglessness, a claim he regards as meaningless. Instead, we must just accept that progress is a myth, freedom a fantasy, selfhood a delusion, morality a kind of sickness, justice a mere matter of custom and illusion our natural condition. Technology cannot be controlled, and human beings are entirely helpless. Political tyrannies will be the norm for the future, if we have any future at all. It isn’t the best motivation for getting out of bed.

Both optimism and pessimism have their place. I do like to read John Gray; it is intellectually bracing. I also feel we could have done with a bit of pessimism during the recent financial crisis. The aforementioned Mr. Ridley was non-executive chairman of Northern Rock from 2004 to 2007. But this idea that the only respectable intellectual posture is to postulate unmitigated doom and gloom is utter nonsense; I see no intellectual superiority in peddling this misery. I totally agree with Ridley’s criticism of the tendency of environmentalists to extrapolate from the present state of society – the current means of production etc and project it into the future. This completely fails to take into account how with invention and innovation we can change the rules of the game Agriculture’s Green revolution was such a phenomenon. I don’t think that we are going to be living in a land of milk and honey but I think that we will see. I do recognise the role of failure. In the end all empires and systems do tend to collapse. We will see more economic crises. Looking after the environment is a complicated endeavour. But progress is possible. The rise of the Asian economies is a clear example. There is nothing inevitable about what these modern day Cassandras are warning us about.

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One Response to Pessimism is free but facts are sacred

  1. Alberto says:

    I think that yoy mix Kim Jong-Il with Kim Il-Sung into one Kim Il-Yung.

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