Pessimism: It’s Easier and More Natural

Think of “Pessimism” as the default state for “experts” and “know it alls”

our innate tendency to be pessimistic but also want to be certain about the future means that “the gloom-mongers have it easy,” as author Dan Gardner argues in his book, Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Are Next to Worthless, and You Can Do Better. He continues on to note of the techno-doomsday pundits:

Their predictions are supported by our intuitive pessimism, so they feel right to us. And that conclusion is bolstered by our attraction to certainty. As strange as it sounds, we want to believe the expert predicting a dark future is exactly right, because knowing that the future will be dark is less tormenting than suspecting it. Certainty is always preferable to uncertainty, even when what’s certain is disaster. (p. 140-1)

When confronted with new or revolutionary technologies, the first group instinct of many humans is to predict doom and disaster. Until recently, doom and apocalypse were built into our religions. As the relevance of religion has declined, entire industries and ideologies of doom have grown up in media, academia, government, and nongovernmental and inter-governmental “non-profit” groups.

Cynical interests often take advantage of innate doom fears for their own profit:

For years, Russia has taken advantage of the western doom industry to promote fears of fracking — one of the technologies that has helped hold oil prices lower than the Russian oligarchy wishes. By working through western media along with western faux environmental doomer groups, the effect of the propaganda is multiplied. It is no surprise that Russia is attempting to build its own fracking expertise at warp speed.

China’s recent posturing over “climate change” follows the same pattern. Cynically promoting the multi-$trillion transfer of wealth from the advanced world to the third world, China has no real intention of cutting back its use of coal and other hydrocarbons. But China would like to get in on some of the booty while the getting is good. China is smart enough to know that the cost of fighting “climate change” is far worse than the cost of “climate change” itself. But playing the western world of doomers for chumps is not difficult, and holds the potential for several big payoffs.

In his 2007 book, Prophecies of Doom and Scenarios of Progress, Paul Dragos Aligicia, a colleague of mine at the Mercatus Center, documented many of these industrial era “prophecies of doom” and described how this “doomsday ideology” was powerfully critiqued by a handful of scholars — most notably Herman Kahn and Julian Simon. Aligicia explains that Kahn and Simon argued for, “the alternative paradigm, the pro-growth intellectual tradition that rejected the prophecies of doom and called for realism and pragmatism in dealing with the challenge of the future.”

Kahn and Simon were pragmatic optimists or what author Matt Ridley calls “rational optimists.” They were bullish about the future and the prospects for humanity, but they were not naive regarding the many economic and scosial challenges associated with technological change. Like Kahn and Simon, we should embrace the amazing technological changes at work in today’s information age but with a healthy dose of humility and appreciation for the disruptive impact and pace of that change.

But the rational optimists never get as much attention as the critics and catastrophists. “For 200 years pessimists have had all the headlines even though optimists have far more often been right,” observes Ridley. “Arch-pessimists are feted, showered with honors and rarely challenged, let alone confronted with their past mistakes.” __ TechLiberation

Pessimism seems more natural for most people who are either old enough to feel or anticipate their own physical decline, or for those who have been indoctrinated into pessimism through schools, religion, pop culture, or personal acquaintance.

It is easier to assume the pessimistic stance for cynical journalists who wish to appear sophisticated, for professors who wish to appear world-weary and wise to their gullible students, for religious clerics who wish to whip their congregations into a frenzy of faith, and for bullshit sessions of youth who know nothing but the regurgitant pablum they have been fed.

In the real world, new resources are being discovered at the same time as new technologies are making old resources easier to tap. Increasingly the emphasis of new technologies is moving away from “more and more” to “doing more with less.”

This “turning the bend” of technological emphasis is something that doomers missed somehow, perhaps through ideological blindness or through sheer instinctive bullheaded pessimism.

Pessimism certainly is a form of blindness for many of its modern adherents. It has penetrated so deeply across human cultures that it is both deeply traditional and “the radical chic” all at the same time.

But as Al Fin has long said: “The natural result of cynicism for the intelligent mind is to finally reach the point where it is cynical about cynicism itself.”

Doomerism is used as a type of talisman, to diminish the importance of real, lesser difficulties. It is wielded as a superstitious charm by the religious and the irreligious alike, to banish uncertainty. Facing “utter destruction” with our heads held high, we are bolstered and undaunted by real world problems, no matter how they may be eating away at our substance.

If bad things happen, well, at least we predicted that bad things would happen, so we must be pretty smart. And if in spite of everything, good things happen — well, just you wait!

Unfortunately, wallowing in doom does not make us better at solving our problems. And that is really what we need to be learning how to do.

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