Have you heard of the New Optimists? Or at least enjoyed Hans Rosling’s legendary TED talk? A few days ago, they were the topic of a Guardian Long Read podcast, entitled “Is the world really better than ever?” (available in text and audio). I’d recommend the half-an-hour read/listen to anyone interested in activism and politics. In his report on this trendy ideology, Oliver Burkeman summarises the concept in the following way:
One group of increasingly prominent commentators has seemed uniquely immune to the gloom. In December, in an article headlined “Never forget that we live in the best of times”, the Times columnist Philip Collins provided an end-of-year summary of reasons to be cheerful: during 2016, he noted, the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty had fallen below 10% for the first time; global carbon emissions from fossil fuels had failed to rise for the third year running; the death penalty had been ruled illegal in more than half of all countries – and giant pandas had been removed from the endangered species list.
(…) A seemingly infinite supply of blog posts, opinion columns, books and TV talking heads compete to tell us how to feel about the news. Most of this opinionising focuses less on stacking up hard facts in favour of an argument than it does on declaring what attitude you ought to adopt: the typical take invites you to conclude, say, that Donald Trump is a fascist, or that he isn’t, or that BBC presenters are overpaid, or that your yoga practice is an instance of cultural appropriation. (…) The New Optimists promise something different: a way to feel about the state of the world based on the way it really is.
You’ve heard this before, at the dinner table or during a heated political debate with your colleagues. “Did you know that X has actually decreased in the last 50 years?” “You need to realise that Y is actually much better now than it used to be!” The don’t-worry-be-happy moment of discussions on social, political or economic issues. It’s all getting better, so stop being such a pessimist, realise how lucky you are, and let the world progress towards universal happiness!
Thankfully, Burkeman calls into question the idea that blind optimism is a reasonable response to poverty, nationalism or climate change. I’d like to expand on two aspects that he doesn’t quite mention and that explain why, now as ever before, our world needs pessimism.
You can’t put suffering in a spreadsheet
The common thing you’ll find in all endeavours of the New Optimists is data. Stats. Graphs. Lots of them. And they are presented as the Gospel, made of hard, cold facts. And in many ways, that’s a problem. Using data is my daily work, so don’t expect some grandiloquent tirade on why it’s bad and we shouldn’t trust it. But as precise as your data is, presenting it as the best possible depiction of “the world the way it really is” is deceptive, because human suffering rarely shows up in data.
Your data will tell you that unlike a century ago, almost everyone in Western Europe is now living in a house with running water and electricity. It will tell you that things are so-much-better, and to look on the bright side of society. It won’t tell you about a small, but very real minority of citizens who live on the pavement, in bushes, or under bridges. Or if it tells you about them, it’ll be again with numbers: how many they are (less than before!) or how much help they get (more than ever!). But no graph will show that every one of them is going through absolute hell, and feels completely abandoned.
When a New Optimist says that “there are now about 120 democracies among the world’s 193 countries, up from just 40 in 1972”, you should hear that in 73 countries in the world, billions of citizens cannot choose their leaders and cannot express themselves without fear of repression. When a New Optimist boasts that “global carbon emissions from fossil fuels have failed to rise for the third year running”, you should read that after 30 years of warnings from thousands of scientists, millions of people in the world are nonetheless expecting their land to become barren, or their native island to disappear forever.
The data is the same; its interpretation is different. When we hear that things are fine, let’s remember that for all the times where 99% of people are doing great, there’s that 1% who are desperate for help.
The world is better than ever, because people have made it so
But the argument most overlooked by Burkeman lies elsewhere. In the words of all New Optimists, you can feel the same unsettling idea, lurking in the background: “the world is getting better”. No one is making it better; it is simply getting better. The invisible hand of natural progress is doing its work so that one day, we all live free of oppression and despair. That’s the real danger of New Optimism. Not so much the truth of it, but what people convey when they invoke it: if the world is getting better by itself, that means there’s no need to protest. Or write essays. Or talk about politics at all, for that matter.
But in reality, those 80 countries are now labelled as democratic because in each of them, groups of people gathered to organise and protest, sometimes for decades before achieving anything. In reality, what has caused the flattening of the carbon emission curve in the last 3 years was the efforts of thousands of activists to make governments and companies understand that they needed to act. Whether it’s the French Revolution, American civil rights, women’s suffrage or same-sex marriage, none of it happened because of a natural tendency of mankind to evolve towards Good. It’s because some people, conscious of what was left to achieve, decided to write, speak or march to say that some things were still going awfully wrong.
If all of them were to listen to the New Optimists and stop their efforts, the world would quickly stop its course towards progress. It would stagnate at best, and possibly get much worse, very fast. So next time an Optimist tells us about the tremendous state of the world, let us rejoice for a few seconds; and then go back to whatever we think is worth fighting for. Let’s be those New Pessimists who not only trust that the world will get better, but contribute to make it so.