On optimism

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It’s easy to be pessimistic about the environment. Just look around. I’m sure almost everyone who cares about nature has seem someplace special to them go under pavement or at the very least watched the cancer-like growth of urban sprawl. Fifty years ago Aldo Leopold wrote, “one of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” It’s truer now than ever. In the face of overwhelming evidence, anyone would be justified in being pessimistic about the state of the world. Hell, despondence would be a pretty reasonable response.

So for a long time I was extremely negative about the state of the planet. I could recite chapter and verse on species extinctions, global warming, pollution, you name it. I was a font of bad news, and the only positive future that I could envision was one where humanity finally drives itself extinct, leaving behind a few bits of nature to start over.

In my dark period there was, however, something that amazed me: if you read the writings of the foremost conservationists of today, you won’t see a hint of pessimism. None. E.O. Wilson, Jane Goodall, Paul and Anne Ehrlich, David Brower, many environmentalists I’ve spoken with all are resolutely optimistic. And I don’t mean optimistic in the Polyanna sense of Bjorn Lonborg or Gregg Easterbrook, living in a sugarcoated fantasyland. Wilson and the others are brilliant people, well educated, and certainly knowledgeable about the state of the world. Yet they somehow manage to stay hopeful despite the fact that our planet’s health suggests a terminal illness. From my dark corner, I marveled at the ability of these people to be so positive, and I wondered how I could tap into whatever drives their hopes, to no avail. My best guess was that some people were simply born positive thinkers while I wasn’t so lucky.

Just recently though, I think I’ve finally figured it out. The trigger for me was working on the Kerry campaign this fall, my first-ever political campaign. I volunteered in Arizona, and throughout the campaign the news was discouraging: poll results were against us, and the campaign first pulled their advertising and then their staff. But throughout it all, I remained uncharacteristically optimistic about our chances. Every time bad news came, I just added more hours of volunteering each week. Nothing got me down. And so I realized this: optimism doesn’t come from some internal source. Optimism comes from works. It’s not that Wilson or Goodall or the others are innately positive or in denial about the state of the world. The thing that makes these people optimistic is that they work. They act on their beliefs and try to make the world a better place. They have a vision for the world, and they try to effect it. And this makes them hopeful because they can see the good that has come from their own words and actions and the possibilities for improvement.

Looking back, I see my negativity about the environment in a new light. I did a lot of environmental activism as a college student, and I don’t ever recall feeling pessimistic at that time. Whenever we encountered a setback, I just resolved to work harder. Pessimism didn’t set in until after college when I dropped out of the activist world for several years. And the problem is that idleness and pessimism are self-reinforcing. If уouтАЩre negative about the future, you’ll be less inclined to try to change it. And by not working, you don’t have any tools with which to chip away at pessimism. The hardest thing is to make that jump from passivity and pessimism to work, but I really don’t think that it takes much to break the cycle. Even simple actions like blogging, joining an environmental group, or recycling can start to build that sense of optimism that comes with work. And like idleness and pessimism, optimism and work are self-reinforcing, too. With action comes hope, and with hope comes the impetus for further action.

Suffice to say, IтАЩve put my pessimism behind me, and IтАЩm feeling more optimistic now. Of course weтАЩve lost a lot. And weтАЩll probably lose more before humanity reaches some kind of truce with nature. But this isnтАЩt reason to be depressed. We just have to stand our ground and fight even harder for what is left. What else is there to do?



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