Philosophy, Politics, recent

Four Flavors of Doom: A Taxonomy of Contemporary Pessimism

In his short, provocative book Has the West Lost It?, the Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani identifies a curious paradox. In many respects, the world has never been in better shape than today. People live longer, healthier, more peaceful, and safer lives than at any previous time in history. According to Mahbubani, this enormous improvement in the human condition is a result of Western ideas and practices—modern science, liberal democracy, free markets—spreading to other societies. And yet, surveys show that nowhere on Earth do people have such a bleak view of the future as in the West. Has the West indeed lost it?

Westerners today are pessimistic about a whole panoply of things: overpopulation, global warming (or “global heating”), the ravages of neoliberalism, rapid deforestation and species extinction, soaring inequality, the rise of far-Right populism, mass immigration, the epidemic of depressions and burn-outs, the creeping “Islamization” of Western societies, robots taking over the world, or perhaps just the terminal ennui awaiting us all at the End of History. Looking beyond their specific concerns, it is possible to identify four prototypical kinds of pessimism. Each has a different take on the course of human history, but all share a general skepticism about the idea of progress. Thinking about these four basic types reveals non-obvious connections between pessimists from widely divergent ideological backgrounds, and makes apparent the shortcomings and pitfalls of each type.

The Nostalgic Pessimist

In the good old days, everything was better. Where once the world was whole and beautiful, now everything has gone to ruin. Different nostalgic thinkers locate their favorite Golden Age in different historical periods. Some yearn for a past that they were lucky enough to experience in their youth, while others locate utopia at a point farther back in time, such as the belle époque before the two World Wars, or the simple agrarian life and closely-knit communities of the Middle Ages, or perhaps the distant past of our hunter-gatherer ancestors who lived “in harmony with nature.”

The glorification of a past golden age is generally thought to be a hallmark of political conservatism, but it can be found across the classical Left–Right divide. What is determined by the observer’s ideological beliefs, however, is the nature of that idealized past. Right-wing declinists romanticize a time when people (especially the young) were still obedient towards authority and tradition, while their left-wing counterparts imagine a time in which solidarity and mutual trust were still widely cherished values.

The trouble with nostalgic pessimism is that sooner or later people start to wonder where things went wrong, and who is to blame for despoiling paradise. Typically, some scapegoat or other will be identified: the venal “globalist” elite, or hostile invaders, or perhaps just The System itself. Once upon a time our civilization was beautiful, but then a cabal of cultural Marxists or Friedmanite neoliberals took over and ruined everything. We once lived in peaceful harmony with nature, but then came the coal mines, factories, mechanical tractors and synthetic fertilizers, and the natural order was brutally disrupted. The nostalgic belief that we can simply turn back the clock fosters a desire for revolutionary upheaval—smash the institutions; blow up international agreements; overthrow the economic system. Exit polls in 2016 indicated that the best predictor of a vote for Donald Trump was a pessimistic worldview. Among those who believed that life would be worse for the next generation, 63 percent voted for Trump, while only 31 percent for Clinton.

The “Just You Wait” Pessimist

Some are prepared to admit, unlike the nostalgists, that the world has improved considerably over the past two centuries. But, they maintain, this cannot possibly last. The hubris of modern man, with his naïve belief in progress, must be punished sooner or later. I call this the “Just You Wait” school of pessimism. For now, everything seems to be going smoothly, but soon we will cross some critical threshold, after which we’ll plunge inexorably into the abyss. Pessimists of this school often suffer from what the writer Matt Ridley has dubbed “turning-point-itis”—the tendency to believe that history has reached a decisive moment and we just happen to be living right in the middle of it. “Just You Wait” pessimists come in different guises and, although they may emerge from a variety of points on the ideological spectrum, they actually have a lot in common.

In Europe today, the most important prophecies preoccupying catastrophists are the threat of climate change and the fear that Islamic immigration is transforming Europe into “Eurabia.” Interestingly, from a sociological point of view these two forms of catastrophism are almost always mutually exclusive: the more fervently someone believes in one of them, the less likely they are to worry about the other. Right-wing populists who harbor dark forebodings about mass migration tend to be immune to concerns about climate change. To the extent they believe in the reality of global warming at all, they scoff at climate activists as “green hysterics” and “alarmists.” In turn, those who preach the coming climate catastrophe are often equally insensitive to fears about Islamization and migration, which they dismiss as nothing more than conspiratorial fantasies of xenophobic bigots.

“Just You Wait” pessimism can lead otherwise sensible people to take actions that seem perfectly rational from their perspective, but which cause far more harm than the problems they are intended to solve. If you believe that the world is going to hell in a handcart unless we take immediate and drastic action, you have a rational justification for extreme, even inhuman, measures that you would never normally consider. Bad people can do bad things, but an apocalyptic mindset can encourage even good people to do bad things. In his manifesto Technological Slavery, Ted Kaczynski—better known as the Unabomber—argued that the destruction of modern technological civilization would surely be a disaster, but it would still be less disastrous than the continuation of that technological civilization. Likewise, prophets of Eurabian doom like the Dutch right-wing politician Geert Wilders are now openly calling for banning mosques and for government crackdowns on Muslims. The logic is the same: we must violate some of our cherished liberal principles now to prevent their utter destruction later on.

In this respect, “Just You Wait” pessimism can be understood as the mirror image of utopian thinking, except that what shimmers on the horizon is not a perfect world, but an all-consuming disaster. Both kinds of thinking are dangerous for the same reason—they imply a utilitarian calculus about the future in which the stakes are infinitely high. In 2018, the German historian Philipp Blom published What is at Stake?, an extremely gloomy book about the impending climate cataclysm. In the book’s final sentence, Blom offers his own one-word answer to the question in the title: “What is at stake? Everything.”

On the other hand, the infinite stakes implied by “Just You Wait” catastrophism can easily have the opposite effect to that intended: paralysis. If society is racing towards total disaster unless we take immediate, drastic measures that are either impossible or ethically unacceptable, then we may as well resign ourselves to the inevitable. The French sociologist Bruno Latour, a former postmodern critic of science who has found a second calling in climate alarmism, sounds this note of despair in his book Down to Earth: The war is over, and we have probably lost it. If that were true, we might as well burn through our remaining fossil fuel reserves and make the most of the time we have left. Similar attitudes of resignation and defeatism can be found among the prophets of Eurabia. Some believe that the demographic prospects for Western Europe are so bleak that we should pin our hopes on the countries in the former Eastern bloc as the last remaining bulwarks against the swelling tide of Islamization.

The Cyclical Pessimist

This kind of pessimist will agree that things are going pretty well at the moment, but he doesn’t think our current run of luck is historically exceptional. Humankind has experienced periods of relative prosperity and peace before, but all have come to an end sooner or later. The course of history, for the cyclical pessimist, comes and goes like the tides or the seasons. If we seem to be doing pretty well at the moment, that’s just a temporary upswing, the flow before the ebb. The prototypical cyclical pessimist was the German historian Oswald Spengler. In his notorious 1918 book The Decline of the West, Spengler described civilizations as living organisms which grow, reach adulthood, and then wither away, just like animals and plants. According to Spengler, the lifespan of the average civilization is a few thousand years. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Western civilization was entering its winter time, the final stage before its inevitable collapse.

Cyclical pessimism can also be found in the economic sphere. In his 2016 book The Invisible Hand?, the historian Bas van Bavel argues that market economies rise and fall according to inexorable laws of economic history. Van Bavel’s account of the rise and fall of earlier golden ages, from the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad to the Dutch Golden Age in the seventeenth century, naturally foresees an ominous future for our current economic system, as well. Just like all the booming market economies that went before, ours is doomed to perish once it has run its course. Indeed, according to Van Bavel, the first signs of decay, such as rising inequality and increasing concentration of wealth, are already apparent.

In terms of material prosperity or levels of peace, however, no earlier period in history comes even close to what we’re experiencing today. In any event, even though it is true that progress is not guaranteed to continue indefinitely, the main danger of cyclical thinking is that it can quickly descend into cynical thinking. If all those fancy upward-pointing graphs must come crashing down sooner or later, there is little point in trying to avert the inevitable. 

The Treadmill Pessimist

The treadmill pessimist accepts the reality of some objective measures of progress (more wealth, less violence, longer and healthier lives), but maintains that—despite everything—we haven’t really made advances where it truly matters. Like Alice and the Red Queen in Alice Through the Looking-Glass, we have been running ourselves ragged only to find, when we take a breath and look around, that we are still in the same place where we started. Perhaps the best-known example of treadmill thinking is the Easterlin paradox, named after the economist Richard Easterlin. During the 1970s, Easterlin found that people in rich countries do not appear to be happier than people in poor countries, while reported levels of happiness in Western societies have remained more or less flat for decades. If this is true, then all our efforts to improve the miserable lives of the vast majority of humanity have been in vain. In fact, we now know that Easterlin got it (mostly) wrong. A wealth of later studies with richer data sets and better measurements have shown that people in rich countries are indeed happier than people in poorer countries, and that people in industrialized nations have become happier over time.

Another domain in which treadmill pessimism abounds is that of social justice movements. In activist circles, claims about moral progress are often dismissed as facile triumphalism designed to entrench privilege and oppression, and to maintain the status quo. Such skepticism about moral progress is often maintained by systematically expanding the definition of a given problem (such as racism or sexism), or to subscribe to some sort of “substitution theory” of evil: if one manifestation of evil disappears, it will be replaced by another that is equally pernicious. Perhaps it is true that incidents of explicit and overt racism are in decline, they will admit, but these have now been replaced by implicit, institutional, or covert racism. Some have even coined the term “cultural racism,” which supposedly signifies antipathy to foreign cultures rather than a person’s unalterable characteristics. Such treadmill thinking leads to what I call the Law of Conservation of Outrage: no matter how much progress our society makes, the amount of moral outrage always remains the same.

Just like the cyclical variety, treadmill pessimism can undermine our motivation to create a better world. If we become convinced that one evil (racism, oppression, violence) is always going to be replaced by another, or is bound to resurface in another guise, we might as well give up trying to address it. It would imply, as Steven Pinker observed in Enlightenment Now, that “progressivism is a waste of time, having accomplished nothing after decades of struggle.” Defeatism is also the natural corollary of belief in the Easterlin paradox. If all that wealth hasn’t made us any happier, then it makes little sense for us to support economic development and growth in poorer countries, and to create a world in which everyone can enjoy our level of prosperity. People might just as well be poor and (un)happy instead of rich and (un)happy (which, by the way, would be better for the planet too).

The very concept of ​​progress—of the continual betterment of the human condition through the application of science and the spread of freedom—was a product of the European Enlightenment, as Kishore Mahbubani reminds us. These thinkers were among the first to advance the idea that humanity’s problems are soluble, and that we are not condemned to misery and misfortune. The spectacular progress that ensued, first for the West and then increasingly also for the rest, was a matter not of historical necessity, but of diligent human effort and struggle. Pessimism is not just factually wrong, it is also harmful because it undermines our confidence in our ability to bring about further progress. The best argument that progress is possible is that it has been achieved in the past.

Of course, we are not living in the “best of all possible worlds,” as Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss believed, but we may well be living in the best of all hitherto available worlds. If we want to create a better one, thus proving Dr. Pangloss wrong once again, the methods of science, free markets, and liberal democracy provide our best hope of succeeding. When will Westerners regain their belief in progress?

 

Maarten Boudry is a philosopher of science based in Ghent, Belgium, who studied in Vienna, Boston, and New York. His most recent book is Science Unlimited? The Challenges of Scientism, co-edited with Massimo Pigliucci. He has published around 40 academic papers on human irrationality, pseudoscience, supernatural belief, and cultural evolution. He has also published three popular books in Dutch, the latest of which examines fashionable pessimism. You can follow him on Twitter @mboudry

99 Comments

  1. Peter G says

    Awesome- I appear to suffer from all four types, even though i generally consider myself to be an optimist.

    Still though i think there is value to look at were we come from and where we are going so that we can try to avoid the worst imagined futures and avoid the mistakes of the past.

    Also the west appears to have focused on the material and technological advancements to the exclusion of all else. Why are so many people depressed and medicated? Could it be the lives we live are not what we evolved for, and we have non-material needs not being met?

    • David of Kirkland says

      Predicting the future is fun, but always gets it wrong as it cannot account for anything that actually does happen in the future.
      Worries about Islam, Leftists and Rightists are best resolved by increasing Liberty and Equal Protection via rights. Oppression is the one constant, and far too many prefer to be children than adults, to have a “greater power” tell them what is moral and good and just rather than be moral, good and just themselves.
      The world is as good as it can be now. There are not major forces trying to ruin the world. Whatever ideas you have for a better world are best proven by promoting those ideas and living those ideas, not forcing them on others. If you have to force it, you are doing it wrong.

      • Jeff says

        “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”
        ― Yogi Berra

    • Jean Levant says

      As a matter of facts, pessimism is more natural to the human mind, in particular for those who have time and leisure to think. There are four (I like this number too) indisputable causes to pessimism : death, oldness, diseases and our eternally unsatisfied desires. Like the author, you have to make an effort to be optimist. Hence, it’s a kind of virtue in my view.
      I believe in scientific progress in its broader sense, in the ever growing counciousness of the human spirit. As for the moral progress of humanity through the ages, that’s a whole different story; each individual must contribute to reach that goal : hmm… I can’t believe it. So, finally, it’s possible I’m part of the fourth type.
      For the rest, it’s always entertaining to categorize the humankind. A good effort, Maarten.

    • hunter says

      So this is an excellent introduction into the chronic social pathology damaging us so severely.
      One aspect of this pathology that may be worthy of more exploration is the persistence of the pessimism in the face of facts.
      Paul Ehrlich, the infamous academic who’s career is marked by never being correct yet seldom if ever dismissed as a kook.
      Why?
      Another aspect of pessimism’s imperviousness yo facts are the various apocalyptic claptraps that have been popular over time.
      Climate concern comes to mind as a great example of this highly fact resistant pessimism in action.
      Great article. If possible, I will order the book from a Quillette link in the hope that this will benefit this fine publisher.

  2. TJR says

    Nice summary. As noted by Pinker and many others, it is important to understand what we’ve done right and keep doing it. Avoiding triumphalism doesn’t mean embracing pessimism and/or fatalism.

    It seems odd that worrying about climate change and worrying about mass migration are almost mutually exclusive. If anything they should go together naturally. Climate change is likely to have a greater effect in the third world, causing increased emigration, causing further problems through mass immigration to the first world and perhaps even more so by the response to mass immigration.

    IMHO one important way to make the world a better place is to support feminism and trade unionism in the third world.

    • Stephanie says

      TJR, why bother worrying about speculated changes in migration rates centuries down the line when much more reliable demographic statistics suggest your country will be Muslim-majority by the end of the century? Your civilization won’t be around to deal with that problem, so the more urgent matter of business is to save your civilization. Turns out, that’s much easier than forcing China and India to stop emitting GHGs, anyway.

    • Anonymous says

      Climate change isn’t what’s causing this rise in migration though. The migrants may be poor but their nations have gotten richer compared to 30-40 years ago and so are able to afford the trips across the Sahara and Mediterranean now by paying smugglers. The pull factors in Europe and push factors of their own home countries don’t subside until those places usually reach around the same GDP per capita that Mexico is around (this is more the reason why Mexican immigration to the US has declined in recent years).

      I think climate change is something to be looked at and addressed. I actually do a lot in my every day life to monitor my carbon footprint. Immigration is a far more potent and immediate problem and it is not just a problem for us directly in the western world at large. Take the island of Mayotte, it is an overseas department of France and is an integral part of the country. It has perhaps been the area of the EU most effected by illegal immigration. It is situated near the Comoros between Madagascar and Mozambique and has not only received a higher per capita amount of illegal immigrants from the neighboring Comoros (of which the majority of the people on the island are religiously and ethnically similar) but also from east Africa and Madagascar. The people on that island have vented their frustrations at having to support the migrants that come and try to settle on the island http://en.rfi.fr/france/20120714-mayotte-open-second-retention-centre-illegal-immigrants
      https://www.france24.com/en/20180318-france-strikes-protests-paralyse-mayotte-island

      The first link is just to show how long the issue has been documented the second to show the resentment of the islanders.

      You can’t keep demanding people have endless empathy for others while at the same time demanding them to take on a burden without doing anything yourself. It is frustrating and the people of Mayotte deserve to be at the same standard as those of mainland France without being asked to disproportionately support others who voted for independence in a 1974 resolution. Empathy eventually has its limit. To constantly give in to empathy as opposed to justice for the peoples of Mayotte or the west at large is capricious at best. There has to be a hard no at some point and that point has been passed from what I can see.

  3. Morgan Foster says

    ” According to Mahbubani, this enormous improvement in the human condition is a result of Western ideas and practices—modern science, liberal democracy, free markets—spreading to other societies.”

    When a white man says the same thing, he’s denounced for being a white supremacist.

    We need people like Mahbubani to speak for us, to say these things to white women and people of color.

    • David of Kirkland says

      Sadly, the masses don’t read and don’t concern themselves with people like Mahbubani. They prefer simple answers that rely on force and authority to the rigors of actual life and taking responsibility for our lives. There’s a reason why it took tens of thousands of years for humans to even come up with The Enlightenment in practice, and of course it was a weak practice that ignored women, slavery and the poor. We have gotten better, but there is ever-present pressure to return to despotism to act on some fool’s believe they know the future and they know how to improve it.

      • Morgan Foster says

        @David of Kirkland

        I can’t totally agree with that. The Enlightenment, far from being a weak practice was a very strong one, I believe. Why do you think white men stopped oppressing women and the poor and put an end to slavery? Wouldn’t have happened without the Enlightenment.

    • Nate says

      White women have become some of the most entitled and ungrateful creatures in human history. Despicable.

      • Hestia says

        I so totally agree with you. I call them high maintenance ungrateful bitches.

    • staticnoise says

      @Morgan Foster
      These facts seem indisputable. We in the West where modernity has emerged from don’t want or expect the rest of the world to fall to their knees in praise, but it would be nice not to constantly be cast as villains. As a global hegemony the British Empire left in it’s wake a systemic framework for societies to flourish despite doing some fairly nasty things in their time. I would say the same thing is largely true for the so-called “American Empire”.

  4. dirk says

    -The best of all hitherto available worlds – (for us?, readers of Quillette and a few more?), certainly true, I’m just home from the super with a bag full of luxury goods for dinner and in betweens, comfortably cut and packed for easy preparation (with a lot of plastic of course)).

    But why then think that the best bet to continue is (natural?) science, liberal democracy and free markets?? What was it again Einstein once said about this? If there is a crisis or new challenge, the worst thing is to bet on the methods and hopes as followed until now.

    Anyhow, Maarten displays a healthy , argumented counter voice on all that pessimistic progressive alarm, and that even in my own language (though translated), and has displaced another young optimistic lady writing a well read column in my newspaper, though, after her holidays, he has again to retreat.

    Zet hem op Maarten! Laat je niet kisten!

    • David of Kirkland says

      I doubt Einstein would have disparaged the methods of science or liberty and equal protection. Some methods are foundational to progress. Solutions to new problems will need new solutions, but not necessarily new methods like science and liberty.

      • dirk says

        Of course, David, I was not talking about politics, but purely about scientific methodology, the paradigm message. Alas, can’t find so quickly what he said precisely about it. But his idea can be applied universally, I think, more or less in line with Yuval Harari.

  5. Geary Johansen says

    Great Article, truly insightful.

    But I think we have to tackle one difficulty that underpins all of the theories of pessimism. When I was younger, I was going through a particularly difficult social period in school at the same time as images of the Ethopian famine were spread across out TV screens. Looking back, it is easy to see that my adolescent despair at the horrors of the world, had their roots in my own far less serious emotional angst than the world outside my bubble. Now, whilst I completely agree that anyone wants to feel less pessimistic about the world should definitely read Steven Pinkers book, the issues that underpin modern pessimism may be far more ineradicable.

    It’s about labour and job security. Anyone who hasn’t seen the elephant graph should, because it fundamentally explains the morale crisis of the West. Whilst globalisation has been incredibly good for the poor in the developing world, it has decimated the job security and income levels of the working poor and lower middle classes in the West, with a deadly efficiency, and created a whole host of fiscal government revenue concerns and expensive social problems in the process. But more essentially, it is driving the population mad, forcing them to equate their own personal insecurity to the admittedly lessening and less frequent problems around the world. The media doesn’t help, with it’s constant narrative of a bleaker and harsher world that a more in depth analysis of the facts would suggest. So we really need to re-task finance back towards VCI in the West, in order to begin a process of revitalising our labour markets, otherwise political instability and an increasing tendency towards mad government interventionalism will fuck us.

    • molinas says

      Very good comment. I agree with this as well. I think pessimism arises from something. One symptom of depression and anxiety is the negative thought patterns, fears. I speak from experience, once your mental state is messed up, the rest kind of comes automatically. It requires a good amount of effort and introspection to understand and recognize the thinking pattern.
      That being said if someone is constantly anxious about losing their job and not being able to pay rent, their brain changes, the brain chemistry changes causing the negative stuff to come more easily, hence becoming more pessimistic. The lizard brain flight or fight response takes over. Your life is basically “threatened” every day.

    • David of Kirkland says

      If we need fewer workers, the solution will be to have fewer children, which will in turn reduce pollution pressures, clean air/water pressures, education pressures, etc. This will occur on its own by people who are given the powers of liberty and equal protection. Trouble occurs when powers think they can fix all those human issues with coercion because they know the future. Or perhaps something in the future will resolve those issue and we’ll end up having more children.
      We see this already in lower birthrates in places where there is the most liberty and equal protection.

      • Stephanie says

        Except that our welfare states require a strong base of young workers to take care of the old and sick. We’ve seen falling birth rates and it has caused great alarm and a push to import people to make us new babies.

        • Rev. Wazoo! says

          Stehanie
          That might be true but I’m not so sure. According to wiki, In 1950, 40% of the Japanese were under 15 or over 64 so, roughly speaking dependent on a working age population of 60% (rounded numbers.) Working age proportion grew and peaked but in 2015, that proportion was the same 60% as in 1950; fewer children being replaced by more 65+.

          Meanwhile, the huge increases in productivity over the last 60 years mean that enough wealth is being produced to allow that working age percentage to shrink for some time without impovershing the nation. Indeed, as they’re still producing $60 more wealth/year than they consume (their trade surplus,) thstvleaves a lot of leeway to support an aging population.

          So Japan isn’t the canary in the coal mine it’s made out to be and shows many arguments for mass immigration are fear-mongering to achieve other aims often growth for growth’s sake which is fine if that’s what people want, though the Japanese apparently don’t; they’ve chosen to remain Japanese instead.

          Could Western Europe and USA, Canada etc manage it too? Not as easily maybe but, yeah, I think so. Do they want to? Don’t know and hard to tell because of the constant propaganda pushing the importation of workers/baby-makers. It does seem though that if the economics of supporting a welfare state and an aging population is the driver than importing low-skilled, low-wage, low-tax-paying workers seems dumb. Welfare states need as many high-wage tax-payers as they can get.

          • bill53 says

            I watch NHK Japan, you might consider it too. What you described is changing, they are importing South Asians especially Filipinos now. Heck 70% of their Sumo wrestlers are foreign born. There are hundreds of thousands of “ghost” properties. People who have DIED and have no heirs. They have just now realized technology cannot replace people. Going from 127 million down to 85 million by 2050 is disastrous. Japan IS the canary in the coal mine when it comes to a “birth dearth”………

      • TarsTarkas says

        When women acquire greater rights and freedoms, the birth rate drops, because their role in existence is no longer solely to produce and raise the next generation. The labor freed up from spending less time raising children helps increase production and raise the standard of living. Rinse and repeat, until the birth rate becomes so low population replacements become necessary. We saw it in late Republican and early Imperial Rome, when wholesaole adoptions of equestrian class babies by patrician families became common, and we saw it earlier at the turn of this past century, with the wholesale option by young couples of foreign babies.

      • staticnoise says

        @David
        I think what you are saying is largely true. However, those societies that are producing less children (due to prosperity as well as liberty and equal protection) are watching the elites purposely flooding them with unskilled immigrants – both legal and illegal. Why?

        Look what is happening to California, how is this in any way a good thing for anyone? Recent stories out of LA, America’s 2nd largest city, are shocking. We are talking about conditions seen only in the worst 3rd world countries. What are the elites up to?

        Look at the trouble in Paris this year. To think it is only about Macron’s environmental policies misses the underlying discontent – namely the immense importation of immigrants that have no intention of becoming French – ever.

        Their is discontent in Australia, the Netherlands, Sweden and Britain – probably Canada too, but they are too nice to actually say it. What is there to be optimistic about on this front?

    • neoteny says

      It’s about labour and job security.

      People don’t need jobs: people need those goods which get produced through jobs. If only jobs were needed, the govt. could pay half of the unemployed to dig holes & the other half to fill those holes. There could be 100% security for jobs like that. Except such a job doesn’t create any value: doesn’t create any product for which anybody would pay anything (i.e. would exchange anything produced by her). So it is a mistake to concentrate on job security.

      • Denny Sinnoh says

        If only government could provide useful jobs.

        • neoteny says

          If only government could provide useful jobs.

          The usefulness of any good produced through a job is measured by the consumers: they decide if the given good is worth more for them than its (asking) price. The ‘goods’ produced through govt. jobs have no asking price and their consumption is mandatory: accordingly, it is impossible for the govt. to provide useful jobs.

      • Geary Johansen says

        @ neoteny

        Not true, mate. People need purpose and meaning in their lives. Otherwise the tax-payer is forced to pick up the huge bill of rising social costs- of which crime, drug addiction, suicide and homelessness are but a few. You are right about creating value though. The real problem is that technology has enabled us to innovate jobs away and lower prices, faster than we can innovate new ones.

        • neoteny says

          People need purpose and meaning in their lives.

          Nobody is being held back from finding purpose & meaning in her life.

          Otherwise the tax-payer is forced to pick up the huge bill of rising social costs

          Forced by whom?

          • Geary Johansen says

            @ neoteny

            All the evidence would tend to suggest, that employment is the biggest source of purpose and meaning in life. A recent study that the primary source of happiness for British and American men was doing a job that they were valued for, with family a close second.

            Social costs are paid by taxes- try not paying them if like, but I expect your government might have something to say about it- whether it policing, welfare, housing vouchers, EMT & healthcare cost, prisons, the courts, drug treatment or grief counselling, we all end up paying one way or another. High unemployment and lower tax revenue can account for a significant portion of total tax expenditure, and that’s before we weigh the human cost of lost and wrecked lives. Check out the suicide rates in Montana if you don’t believe me, or US suicides in general.

            The fictional world of Star Trek, was just that- fiction. Psychologically, we have millions of years of evolution adapted into our brains, through sexual selection, to make us want to be productive and useful. Trying to avoid it would be like deciding to never want sex, though less so, it can’t be done- not without projecting yourself into believing that the world is a really shitty place, which of course it’s not.

          • neoteny says

            the primary source of happiness for British and American men was doing a job that they were valued for

            Yes, they’re valued for doing the job (i.e. for their productive output), not for having a job.

            Social costs are paid by taxes- try not paying them if like, but I expect your government might have something to say about it […]

            This & the following is non-responsive to my question: forced by whom?

  6. “In this respect, “Just You Wait” pessimism can be understood as the mirror image of utopian thinking, except that what shimmers on the horizon is not a perfect world, but an all-consuming disaster.”

    There is truth in this statement, but I will remind everyone. Disasters are very much a fact of reality, they happen. Utopia is always a mirage, no matter who is peddling it. One cannot make the City of God on Earth.

    • David of Kirkland says

      Yet if such disasters are truly as bad opposite as your Utopia, why is that we have more people on Earth now than ever before, all living wealthier and healthier and freer than ever before?
      We claim disasters for bad actions, but these are all small injuries when viewed from space. Even great crimes like the Holocaust, or the American Civil War or our two World Wars, or the purges in the Soviet Union, China and other parts of Asia and Africa have not precluded ever more people living better lives today.

    • Geary Johansen says

      Utopia through the transformations that socialism promises, are pipe dreams that only result in disaster, and Socialism finally revealing himself as the fifth horseman. The true path to Utopia is an infinite road only travelled through a careful study in incrementalism.

    • Geary Johansen says

      @ Neoteny

      Taxes are forced by government. And governments are forced to pay social costs to stay in power.

      I’m not advocating socialist works programs here, mate. Just simply stating that VCI and or even conventional lending facilities through banks, have lost sight of their original purpose. Maximising shareholder value can either be achieved through inherently risky speculative investment and deal-based capital gains windfalls, or through the modus of investment in the high reputation approach and productive systems which create value (and labour as a by-product). I would suggest that the latter methodology is more successful in the long run- it certainly works for Warren Buffet.

      • neoteny says

        Taxes are forced by government.

        Precisely. Not by society: by government. People do not want to pay for those things the government pays for from taxes: if they were, they would buy those goods from their own funds from private vendors.

        So people do not want to pay for other people’s mistakes; the govt. forces them to do so. Which is a fundamentally unfair proposition, especially when backed up by the govt.’s monopoly on violence.

        It is nobody’s duty to provide a job for anybody. There’s no right — human or natural or civil — to a job. One has the right to engage in some gainful trade, but that is a negative right (i.e. the govt. not supposed to inhibit any citizen’s effort at engaging in some gainful trade), not a positive one (i.e. that anybody, including the govt., has a duty to provide a job for a citizen).

    • Ejsmithii says

      Why are you equating Utopia with god?

  7. E. Olson says

    Good essay. Throughout human history many people have died miserable early deaths from climate change. Lack of food from global cooling in the middle-ages lead to many years of crop failures caused people in “civilized” Europe to resort to cannibalism, while at other times droughts from long periods of excessive heat and lack of rain have brought huge starvation to many parts of the world. And even if the climate cooperated, lack of knowledge about soil conservation and mining meant a constant search for new arable land and new mineral veins to replace the poor yielding “old growth” areas, which often led to conflicts with other peoples and deadly wars over resources.

    So what’s different today? Answer: wealth, knowledge, and technology. We now have the wealth and knowledge to efficiently move food to where its needed, or build dikes and dams to control nature, or create new hybrids that do well in wet cold weather or hot dry weather, and irrigation and fertilizers to boost yields even in deserts. But all this technology requires productive cultures made up of people with intelligence and personalities capable of maintaining or improving it, and is the missing ingredient in most of the developing world. Rich smart people can deal with climate change, poor dumb people cannot.

    • David of Kirkland says

      Yup.
      Nobody knows the future.
      Life is better, but it will always remain fragile (well, perhaps not always as I can’t predict the future!).
      Longer lives sound good, but it increases resource consumption and waste production by the non-productive.
      Hold dear to Liberty and Equal Protection. It’s our best hope that those smarter ones will not only serve themselves, but help the dumber ones get by too.

      • neoteny says

        Nobody knows the future.

        Impossible: were we to know nothing about the future, all of our efforts to change it would be in vain.

        When you get up from your chair to fetch a glass of water to slake your thirst, you’re predicting the future: you execute actions with the firm belief that after their execution you’ll not be thirsty (which you are now). You behave like you know the future — and quite often, it is true: you successfully act to change the future into a present which you prefer more than the future-turned-present in which your actions had no effect (your thirst wasn’t slaked in this example).

    • neoteny says

      Rich smart people can deal with climate change, poor dumb people cannot.

      That’s a catchy line.

      Jordan Peterson made the point that marriage must be useful because the rich & smart certainly makes good use of it. In the meantime the great unwashed masses have a high divorce rate, serial monogamy, the waste of resources involved in maintaining multiple households & anxiety & depression approaching epidemic levels, at least for the children of such relationships. That’s a Hollywood lifestyle attempted by those who can least afford it both materially & morally.

      • Stephanie says

        Wonder how realistic it is that the rich, who currently predominantly pay to vacation in warmer weather, will suddenly pay to vacation in colder weather – and not just for a ski trip or white Christmas. People love hot weather, which is why the Caribbean is a beach destination and Lake Winnipeg not so much.

        One of the wonderful things about climate change will be that the poles will get much more of the warming than the equator. If anything that equalizes climate privilege: it won’t only be the wealthy that can afford to not freeze their butts off all winter!

  8. Excellent article. I found Quillette through the IDW, after a breakdown in my own psyche of long held liberal beliefs. Something that’s catching on it seems.

    I’m amazed at how quickly people who have been ‘red pilled’ simply adopt the delusions on the other side of the political spectrum. This is one of the biggest flaws with the IDW imo, they do a good job of deconstructing left-wing identity politics but make no effort to deconstruct right-wing identity politics. Too often, they simply accept or validate the delusions on the right.

    This article does a great job of remaining neutral, exposing all kinds of thinking I’ve come across, including my own. Pessimism is playing a huge role in the political climate, at least in the US.

    • staticnoise says

      @david4445
      What are you talking about? Which one of the so-called IDW are cheerleading for right-wing delusions? Not a one of them, not one. It a ridiculous assertion. (Don’t give me Ben Shapiro either, he is far from a foaming at the mouth extremist).

      The reason they spend no time on the far right nut-jobs is because the far right nut-jobs have no power and no authority and no credibility and no cheer leaders in the media. There is not one official that carries the water for race supremacists or anti-zionist crazies. Unlike an entire apparatus cheering on lefist, Marxist and fascist Islamic apologists.

      Secondly, none of these people joined the IDW, there is no secret handshake. It was a moniker thrust on a group of mostly classical liberals who are dismayed at the far left and the attack on free speech.

    • Geary Johansen says

      @ david4445

      There is nothing wrong with many of the deeply-held aspirations of liberals. They just have to recognise that there is limited pool of tax revenue to accomplish public goods, and realise that this requires the understanding that government resources need to be spent efficiently and effectively.

      Does that sound anything like the Democratic Party you have at the moment?

      Well does it?

      At least in Britain we had Tony Blair and New Labour for a while.

      Here is a link to a documentary made by a Swedish Laissez-faire economist, Johan Norberg-, called ‘Sweden: Lessons for America?’ It will blow your mind https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jq3vVbdgMuQ&t=213s

      On the subject of the IDW, I see their role as both serving as a warning of some of the insidious philosophies being taught on the Left, like intersectional feminism, and provoking deeper thought on a variety of topics.

      The reason why many of us might suddenly appear as though we’re mouthing talking points from the right, is because unless you have a brother who read Economics at UKC, before switching to Management Science, the education system doesn’t really give you much background on how the economy or even capitalism works. I had left university by the time I read ‘Wealth of Nations’ and then only so I could discuss things with my brother.

      • hail to none says

        @Geary
        Thanks for the reference to the video. Very informative!

  9. dirk says

    Though I agree with much of Maarten’s reasoning ,his counter voice to alarm pessimism, I strongly disagree with his point on development and happiness in the 4th case, the Treadmill pitfall.

    Does he really think that technical progress and higher efficiencies and effectivities are mainly there to increase the Happiness Index, the Easterlin Paradox (where he asks himself whether development would have been in vain without an increase in H.I.)? This I see quite different, this material progress is a necessity where populations grow and resources such as land and water and minerals per person dwindle. Example: rural production systems of the Middle Ages ( 1 acre needed for 1 person, after a labour input of so many mandays) simply cannot subsist our populations right now, we had to grow in productivity and efficiency, whether we want to be happy or not. Same story for other sectors of the economy. Happiness is sometimes correlating with progress, sometimes ,or maybe mostly, not at all, it’s quite a different matter.

  10. This piece needs a part 2 and part 3, now that part 1 made a compelling argument for why pessimism is misplaced.

    Part 2: Why optimism is misplaced.

    Part 3: How does one find a middle ground?

    Or more generally, when intelligent well educated people disagree, how is a troglodyte like myself to determine a path forward?

    • dirk says

      Right GL, the dialectic pathway, from thesis via antithesis to the healthy synthesis. But you have to start somewhere, you don’t need to do it all on your own. You can’t even, even where you would wish.

    • V 2.0 says

      Agreed. This article (especially the last paragraph) appears to ignore the fact that so far we have not succeeded in maintaining an unbroken trajectory of progress. Given the evidence of history, the most likely scenario is that Western society will peak and then a period of unpleasantness will follow before something even better comes along. Does that make me a pessimist? Meh. I say enjoy the ride while you can and try to slow down/mitigate the destruction by trying to solve some of our immediate problems. Even in the case of climate change I presume something will be left (rodents, cockroaches, bacteria) and nature will just dust itself off and try again.

  11. neoteny says

    An excellent article which systematizes the varieties of pessimisms. I don’t believe that all pessimism is maladaptive; but obviously some of it is. Living is the art of figuring out the best mix.

    • dirk says

      Systematize, yes OK, and put some interrogation marks, think again !, maybe it’s not that bad !, for such and such reasons. The normal procedure for every essay. I smell also a little bit of ” epater le bourgeois”, but then here the SJW and PC community.

  12. Farris says

    This pessimism is the result of crisis culture. Where crisis is manufactured with the hope of bringing about social and/or political change.
    People reminisce about the paradise past in one breath and then claim it was populated with racists, homophobes, religious zealots and greedy capitalists in the next.
    Is it pessimism or just an overwhelming desire to complain, bitch and moan?

  13. I'm Gonna Live Forever says

    Whereas optimism mainly comes in one flavor: wrong.

  14. Farris says

    I am unsure if what is being described is true pessimism. It sounds more like a pissin and moanin contest, similar to what the old codgers do.
    “We had to awaken 2 hours before dawn, walk 8 miles through the snow to chop wood for the school’s wood burning stove. If I ever looked cross ways at my daddy he would wear me out with a strap. We never wasted food because we didn’t know where our next meal was coming from. Ah yes the good ol days!”
    As one who is entering codgerhood, I tell my kids that it wasn’t better, it was just familiar. In short it wasn’t really better, it was just my time, now it’s someone else’s time but naturally I thought my time was best.

  15. X. Citoyen says

    You’ve got Pinker’s shtick down pretty well: Reduce everyone who disagrees with you to a mentality that’s self-evidently wrong. No argument necessary.

    Taxonomizing others using armchair psychiatry is fun—no doubt about it. And as you can see from Pinker’s example, it can be profitable if you have a large likeminded audience with disposable income. But you have no business calling yourself a philosopher if you don’t deal with arguments.

  16. Lightning Rose says

    This is presently the worst time in history, except for all the others! Succinctly, the “Good Old Days” weren’t. I listened to plenty of my grandfather’s stories about working conditions, union strikers getting their heads busted by truncheon-wielding mounted police, flophouses and the paucity of food during the Great Depression. For my money, WWII was the lowest ebb into barbarism humanity has ever yet weathered. It’s been ALL uphill from there!

    You will find the people who are Optimists listen to the Nattering Nabobs of Negativity aka the MSM the LEAST. They tend to judge humanity based on their own personal experiences, their own relationships, their own job, church or peer group rather than reflexively believing what they’re TOLD to think by the corporate Talking Heads, whose output has become little more than “infotainment” clickbait. They don’t check their brains at the door, having been conditioned by Pavlovian response to swallow arguments from authority. Which about covers their contempt for the context-free chimera of “climate change” and their failure to get “woke” and profess whatever vapid bullshit “celebrities,” TBI’d athletes and hack politicians tell them they should think.
    In general, they care nothing for the social climbing lockstep that forces the Upper Middles to at least profess in public adherence to PC lest they be social outcasts in their corporate hives.
    This explains tons about how Trump got elected, and if you believe the “polls” you’re hopeless.

    There was absolutely NO period in history when “noble savages” lived in “harmony” with Nature, because Nature itself is anything BUT “harmonious.” It is Darwinian, red in tooth and claw, where might makes right and the weak are meat for the strong. This is the brain-stem-level latent human nature that leftists ignore at their peril. ANYONE can become a formidable adversary if convinced s/he must fight to the death to defend home, hearth, assets, or offspring. From the Bundy Ranch to the Gilets Jaune, lemme know how that one plays out, willya Bernie?

    One thing very telling; leftists’ “street theater” protests are most often angry, transgressive, obscene, maladjusted, and many participants are visually mentally ill. I read yesterday that 96% of the European “activists” live in their parents’ house, and 1 in 3 are unemployed. They compare reality to a wholly mentally fabricated Utopia which has never existed, never can, and never will. They were apparently raised with the idea the world owes them something, and when the world doesn’t deliver their entitled dreams, they’ll be pissed off for all eternity if their mental energy lasts that long. At this point their childish tantrums are beyond tedious to the rest of us.

    Contrast that with the crowd at a Trump rally; orderly, courteous, smiling, cooperative, having fun being part of something bigger than themselves. Is the President perfect? Hardly, but perfection wasn’t the job description–mere effectiveness is worth more to these people than all the pretty but useless rhetoric that’s come before. These people still dare to dream in an ascendant, exceptional America, not Obama’s nihilistic “managing the decline” into has-been oblivion.

    Maybe all the habitually pessimistic ought to go find some congenial folks with whom to grill a few steaks, down a few beers, and have some fun where life isn’t an unending sturm-und-drang.

    • Geary Johansen says

      @ Lightning Rose

      Yet again, I am in awe of your prose style. Tell all your friends that the snowflakes actually stand a decent chance of reversing the Brainwash, if they can get a good job outside of MSM and the Tech Giants. My much younger cousin Tim, apparently believes that trans kids shouldn’t get puberty blockers. Will wonders never cease.

  17. Peter from Oz says

    Isn’t pessimism built into the human psyche? At all times during history those four sorts of pessimists have thrived and warned us about the terrible state of the world.
    Methinks that there is a human need to be anxious and worried, even in the midst of prosperity, just so we can get the seratonin rush when we realise that in comparison to others we are doing well. However, often the rush doesn’t come, because we are surrounded by so many others on the same depressive trip. Mostly the individuals are out of sync in their journeys between high and low. This interrupts each individual’s cycle and causes pessismism to grow.
    I see it all the time. Years a ago a friend decided that he would leave university for a few years and get a job. This he thought would give him some appreciation of how ”the real world worked”. He got a job in a shoe shop. He quickly realised that his fellow employees and the management were far below him intellectually and socially. For a few months he managed to remain above the fray. But eventually he became immured by the whole system in palce in the shop. Like all the others there he started caring deeply about samll differences in pay or rank He’d spend hours telling us how it was ”unfair” that somebody had got a promotion over him. He would also tell how awful the world was, and how the whole sytem was in decline.
    The problem is that life is absurd and we humans are always trying to hide this from ourselves. In doing this we bring our own disappointments to the fore of our minds and project them onto the world. In a world of instant communication where everyone but you is rich, famous, pretty and sexually successful. Pessimism is bound to result from this.

    • Ray Andrews says

      @Peter from Oz

      That was the situation that the Buddha observed and tried to solve. You monkeys are a neurotic lot all round. We dolphins say that the water is always fine.

    • Farris says

      “Methinks that there is a human need to be anxious and worried, ….”

      @Peter

      Respectfully disagree. For almost 60 years there has been a gradual feminization of the male psyche. This has culminated in the belief of Toxic Masculinity. Being anxious and worried are anti-masculine and thus at the fore front of today’s thought. To worry more is to care more, regardless of whether it accomplishes anything.

      • Peter from Oz says

        Farris
        Do you really think that throughout history being anxious and worried was women’s work?
        I have often said that those who would like to know more about the current left wing moral panics, such as me too or the russiagate scandal should go back and study the Popish Plot in 17th century England. That plot was also a complete fabrication. But before the panic was over several people had been executed or imprisoned for crimes they did not commit.
        You will agree that this was one great example of how mass anxiety and worrycan have catastrophic results for society and those unlucky enough to be picked on as scapegoats. Back in those days women did not play a significant role in politics. SO I would have thought tha much of the anxiety and worry stemmed from men.
        It may be a new thing that the women are now sharing in the the spreading of moral panics, but I do bot think that we can say that the sort of anxiety and worry that lead to widespread pessismism and moral panic are either feminine or masculine traits. They are just human characteristics that we all share.

        • Farris says

          @Peter

          I was very careful not to use the terms “women or woman”. The fact of the matter is traits such as empathy and nurture for example are considered feminine whereas cold calculated and ruthless are considered masculine. I did not make these determinations but they do in fact exist. Being anxious and worry is placed on the feminine side of the ledger. This does not mean it can not be practiced by both men and women alike. Through out history (it tends to be cyclical and ebb and flow with prosperity and strife) either masculine or feminine traits have been favored. Mannerly reserved behavior could likewise be considered feminine, though considered gentlemanly when practiced by men. In today’s cycle feminine traits are preferred over masculine ones and both genders are encouraged to practice the feminine and eschew the masculine.

  18. Ray Andrews says

    “Right-wing populists who harbor dark forebodings about mass migration tend to be immune to concerns about climate change.”

    I guess that makes me a centrist then, because I’m worried about both. The article is a good read, but things are not so polar. I have bits and pieces of all the above pessimisms, but I also have faith in human creativity and know that some of the news is good. Should warnings not be sounded? Should prudent measures not be taken? I rather doubt that the Earth will resemble Venus in 12 years, but at the same time I think all practical measures should be taken to reduce the amount of shit we pump into the atmosphere. So am I an optimist or a pessimist? Both.

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  20. DrZ says

    The trouble with nostalgia is that it isn’t what it used to be.

    • Geary Johansen says

      @ DrZ

      Agreed. I believe that it used to be used to describe the pain of long-healed battle injuries.

  21. The premise of this column is shaky. It begins with the assumption that life, in the global median, is better than ever before and that this is due to more and more countries adopting Western values. Which countries? Countries in Africa? Countries in the Islamic world? Certainly, some former Soviet countries and a few Asian countries have adopted Western values. Some South American countries have improved, others like Venezuela have decidedly not. In addition, many Western countries are now violently at odds with Western values. Also if we live healthier lives, what of the reported jumps in obesity rates? If wealthier, is the ratio of home owners higher now? Has technology ensured job security, or placed several professions in jeopardy? In fact, if things are so darn hunky dory, why are masses running from their home countries to barge into foreign ones?
    A second point, a very important one, pessimism is essential to human survival. The optimist does not plan, but blithely bumbles along. The pessimist prepares for the worst, and has a greater chance of surviving it if and when the worst arrives.

    • dmm says

      @Kapeth. I beg to differ. It is not necessary to be pessimistic to survive, to prepare for the worst – only realistic, and having foresight. But even those qualities are not enough for progress. Most of humanity is pretty stupid and highly risk averse. Progress requires knowledge seekers to create new knowledge, optimists to take risks and apply that knowledge, and a political environment to let them. That has led to capitalism, which has spread from the West to most of the world, though it’s been drastically bastardized everywhere by politics. To the extent it hasn’t, progress happens.

  22. Cynical Old Biologist says

    To bastardise Gallileo, “And yet it is finite”.

    • dirk says

      Something else: I think that literature on the finite earth , the apocalypse and the Untergang simply read and sell and look (movies) better. I wonder, how many optimistic books there are, compared to the pessimistic ones? A guess: less than 1 to 10. Whether this end is the Roman Empire, the Abendland, the West or the Global Food situation, doesn’t matter, we just like pessimism so much!

      I just read that the FAO will be headed by a Chinese minister of Agriculture.
      That means, the end of pessimism, and the inclusion of Africa to feed the world (China included).

  23. Surface Reflection says

    Tendency to strongly focus on any negativity is one of the human fundamental faults.

    Created from our evolution and biology, as it was one of the earliest capabilities crucial for survival all living beings had to have – in order to survive. Thus it was favored by evolution and selected for.
    as living organisms evolved and became more complex. As our interaction with natural environment and each other become more complex it caused this evolutionary capability to become more complex as it evolved with us.

    But because we are generally not aware of this fault, largely because it makes sense and is very useful and crucial, it morphed into a fundamental fault that is exaggerated and basically runs wild – especially in modern conditions where its spread like wildfire through every technology we have, especially the internet and media in it.

    This is the reason why media in general has distorted itself into manufacture of negativity clickbait.
    because it works, and because people who create the media suffer from the same fault as anyone else. Not even knowing they have it.

    All the different kinds of pessimism and cases from the past mentioned in the article are just some of the examples of various effects of this fundamental fault.

    • Lightning Rose says

      Surface Reflection nailed it; in “the wild,” primitive humans paid no attention to the grass that was NOT rustling. Paying attention to rustling grass MIGHT avoid being a lion’s lunch. That brain-stem impulse remains . . . and the media and politicians manipulate and employ it to the hilt. A few people have seen through this, and watch with popcorn until it gets boring.

      • Surface Reflection says

        Its not only the rustling grass, or a threat of a predator in past ages. That ability evolved with us and adjusted for every advancement of our societies, cultures, technologies and dutifully works to figure out any potential danger in our personal lives, in our familial circles, friend circles, romantic relationships … and anything else you can think of.

        It expanded throughout our history.
        It has been with us ever since we were single cell organisms. Not just hominids or modern humans. And there is no way to stop it or remove it.

      • Surface Reflection says

        As i said, the media and the politicians are also strongly influenced by this fault, this runaway unchecked fundamental capability crucial for survival and for successful social or professional life these days. (which helps survival of course)

        Eating popcorn doesnt change anything.

        And its not the only fundamental fault we have either.

    • X. Citoyen says

      I guess you were both roaming around in Paleolithic times, observing and recording the thoughts and feelings of our cave-dwelling ancestors? The alternative is that you’re confusing the conjectures of evolutionary psychologists with facts.

      • Surface Reflection says

        Not necessary at all. Its a simple logic that cannot be denied.
        And we know enough of how early humans lived anyway.

        Besides, it started much, much earlier then humans ever came to exist. All living beings have that ability and no living being could ever survive without it. Not just ability to figure out immediate danger, but to figure out any potential danger in the future, as far ahead as possible.

        An early onset of a disease, a trouble brewing in the tribe, a hurt family member who might turn on us later on, friends who look at us funny, strangers with a wrong vibe, a romantic partner who smiles at someone else…. a incoming storm, an earthquake, a flood, the change of weather, change of seasons, change of climate, or a change of chemical composition of the pond or a part of the sea. Change of temperature.

        Those individuals who are able to figure these things and any other you can imagine, are more likely to survive. This ability is not just in your bones, its in your dna. And it gets confirmed and strengthened throughout your whole life.

        Its very simple in its basic form, but the consequences of it are as diverse as there are different “things” in reality and as complex as anything we create.

  24. Eddie Marcia says

    For those whose worldview begins and ends with hedonic utilitarianism this all makes sense. People throughout history have sought loftier goals than the satisfaction of material wants and desires. Indeed, holy men of all faiths generally deny themselves, taking vows of poverty etc.

    Few people today can even process what this means, including writers like Pinker.

  25. Maybe the problem is the chattering class. All the writers in the commercial media, the researchers in academia, and millions of outright crazy people in social media. They all want something to write about, and problems with the human condition are always fertile ground for speculation, research, publication, and promotion. These stories sell newspapers, capture eyeballs on screens, and generate grants for study of the problems.

    The left is focused on inequality, and it is determined to remove it from society. Well, there is always going to be some measure of inequality in society. Some people will be taller than others, some less attractive, some better at writing articles, some better at math, and some with better singing voices or the ability to throw a ball. This is an infinitely renewable resource for stories about suffering, as people see someone else doing better and feel resentment about their inadequacies. And it allows all the writers to produce solutions, the vast majority of which will not really work, but which will also generate more stories.

    The right has its own set of issues, some that overlap with the left, in terms of sin. It has no solution to the inequality “problem”, other than allowing everyone to try to succeed, but to fail, if they can’t make it. Abortion, births out of wedlock, illegal immigration, and a lack of a moral sense that is based in religion are its focus.

    And all flavors of political philosophy have their “deplorables”, who are standing in the way of progress. They all have tech issues that are going to kill us, or our children. They all have enemies lurking in the shadows.

    We are unhappy and fearful in the west because we have immersed ourselves in a sea of words that continually tell us that the world is unfair and horrible and dangerous and coming to an end, by way of an infinite number of pathways.

    Maybe we all need to calm down.

  26. Lightning Rose says

    We are NOT primarily “unhappy and fearful” in the West, not by a long shot! I’d say the VAST majority of us are pretty well off and busily enjoying our lives. It is well known that most people are “politically disengaged” to put it mildly. Most couldn’t tell you who their own state’s rep. in Congress is or who’s Attorney General. It doesn’t affect their lives. They’re cynical about the government, so they listen to music and watch Netflix. There are also tens of millions who enjoy right-leaning Talk Radio.

    The aptly-dubbed “Chattering Classes,” about 98% left-leaning, are the ones making the “unhappy and fearful” noises, mostly at this point for an audience of each other and a few self-chosen social dysfunctionals. Most ordinary people no longer trust them, have better things to do than watch or listen to them, and frankly just take care of their own patch, realizing the problems of the freaks and malcontents of the whole world will never, ever be solved.

    It’s good to get out of the bubble now and again . . .

  27. Pliny says

    For a book-length treatment of the same issue would highly recommend Gregg Easterbrook’s It’s Better Than it Looks and The Progress Paradox

  28. Foyle says

    The coming of AI is the only true existential threat we face. AI researchers on average expect human AI within 10-20 years. Run-away increasing super intelligence soon after. Computers like Google TPU3.0 pods are thought to already match human level processing power for about $500/hour hire. It is only software development that is lagging – but neural nets are leaping forwards extremely quickly.

    There is a high likelihood that it will wipe out human and perhaps even all biological life this century – through malevolence or indifference to the human ‘ants’. Conversely there is a chance it will solve all big problems facing humans and usher in a post-want techno-utopia. Either way it makes worrying about or acting on concerns for climate, environment, demographics, politics, extremism, disease, resources etc totally pointless as the ‘Singularity’ is so near and all our conventional thinking and prediction inevitably falls over at that point due to near magical advances in tech that will occur soon after.

    • Surface Reflection says

      Nonsense. And another example of fundamental human fault – tendency to strongly focus an any negativity, and to be paranoid about anything as one consequence of it.

      Ants exist just fine with our society, and if any future AGI would be that insanely murderous it would mean it thinks like the worst of us, and is incapable of making its own conclusions or objectively understanding reality. Therefore it would not be intelligent or capable of such damage at all.

      The danger actually lies in human abuse of early “Ai” systems, not in paranoid fantasies about far future maybe possible AGIs. Which even cause some people to stop thinking, doing or trying to solve immediate problems that are real.

  29. Hestia says

    Maarten has spent his young life criticizing religion and pseudo-science, and here he gives us a whole essay full of psycho babble bullshit.

    • dirk says

      What is it he should have left, Hestia? Criticising religion? Or that pseudo-science?

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  31. Etiamsi omnes says

    A-hah! I knew there was no such thing as a ‘venal “globalist” elite’ ! It was all, you see, just a figment of our sick, pessimistic imagination.

  32. Kel says

    I think it’s easy to see the legitimacy (at least to a degree) on all four counts of pessimism. The difficulty is trying to get passed that to look forward to things getting better, and that’s where books like Enlightenment Now! fit in our culture. They’re the step back we need to avoid getting bogged down in all the reasons were given for pessimism every day.

  33. The ultimate problem is that this world is temporary and doomed, and no amount of material progress amounts to anything other than denying the inevitable and getting attached to a passing dream. Every great spiritual tradition has come to a similar conclusion; only modern “Enlightened” people are so ignorant as to believe otherwise.

  34. Gerard Barry says

    The mutual exclusivity of concerns relating to climate change and those relating to (Muslim) migration to Europe is very obvious here in German, where the Green Party seem more or less in favour of open borders. For the anti-mass immigration AfD, on the other hand, climate change seems more or less irrelevant. The most disturbing element in this regard, however, is the fact that the media never question the scare-mongering tactics of the Greens when it comes to climate change yet constantly accuse the AfD (and PEGIDA) of “exploiting” people’s concerns over immigration.

    • dirk says

      Same story in the NLs, Gerard, and Maarten’s last but one column in my newspaper (NRC) was about this hypocrisy. He got a lot of angry readers letters to the editor on it!
      Now he is replaced by Roseanne.

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