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Optimism is a Political Act

This article was written by Alex Steffen in March 2008. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

I've written before about my belief that in times like these, optimism is a powerful political act. As I put it in the book,

Optimism is a political act.

Entrenched interests use despair, confusion and apathy to prevent change. They encourage modes of thinking which lead us to believe that problems are insolvable, that nothing we do can matter, that the issue is too complex to present even the opportunity for change. It is a long-standing political art to sow the seeds of mistrust between those you would rule over: as Machiavelli said, tyrants do not care if they are hated, so long as those under them do not love one another. Cynicism is often seen as a rebellious attitude in Western popular culture, but, in reality, cynicism in average people is the attitude exactly most likely to conform to the desires of the powerful – cynicism is obedience.

Optimism, by contrast, especially optimism which is neither foolish nor silent, can be revolutionary. Where no one believes in a better future, despair is a logical choice, and people in despair almost never change anything. Where no one believes a better solution is possible, those benefiting from the continuation of a problem are safe. Where no one believes in the possibility of action, apathy becomes an insurmountable obstacle to reform. But introduce intelligent reasons for believing that action is possible, that better solutions are available, and that a better future can be built, and you unleash the power of people to act out of their highest principles. Shared belief in a better future is the strongest glue there is: it creates the opportunity for us to love one another, and love is an explosive force in politics.

Great movements for social change always begin with statements of great optimism.

Recently, though, I've been getting asked a lot how it's possible to remain optimistic when the news is so bad, and progress on problems like climate change or global poverty seems hopeless slow. These questions started me thinking about why the tone of coverage and debate about the big issues we face is so unrelentingly grim.

Some of that darkness comes, undoubtedly, from legitimate despair: from solastalgia about the loss of the natural world or from compassion for the horrible suffering of the millions whom our global economy has left behind. Some of it is the cynicism of disappointed idealists, folks who've seen so much of the underside of human nature that they've abandoned hope. Some is the narrative lure of collapse.

But I've come more and more to think that the particular dynamic we see in today's media and political debates, in both North America and Europe, springs also from politics. That its political nature goes largely unrecognized, even by some of that politics' fiercest partisans, may be merely a matter unexamined assumptions.

Here's what I see that politics being:

1) An explicit statement that we are incapable of actually solving the planet's most pressing problems, and that to consider doing so is "unrealistic."

2) A mostly unstated assumption that the reason embracing bold solutions is unrealistic is because those solutions involve unbearable costs.

3) A rarely voiced belief that "realism" ought best to be defined as "in the interests of those doing well today," and that "unbearable costs" ought best to be defined as "any meaningful change in circumstances whatsoever."

4) A widely practiced stance that, therefore, expressions of concern and extremely modest, almost symbolic, small steps and half measures are the appropriate course of action.

Though often combined with the politics of fear, this political stance might better be thought of as "the politics of impossibility." (It's as if Eeyore were running the public debate.)

Consider, instead, the politics of optimism:

1) That realism ought best to be defined as "within our capacity" and "necessary."

2) That we have the capacity to create and deploy solutions to the world's biggest problems, and the magnitude of the consequences of failure (both for ourselves and generations to come) demands that we act immediately.

3) That it is possible to act in such a way that the prospects of most people on the planet are improved. While certain costs will be incurred, the returns on those investments will be quite attractive, not only in ecological stability, international security and human well-being, but in terms of plain old economic prosperity. These solutions will make the future better than the present for the almost everyone, and greatly improve the lots of our children and grandchildren.

4) Therefore, defining our win scenarios, imagining the kind of future we want to create, describing the solutions that will make building that future possible, and publicly committing ourselves to success are the appropriate course of action.

Nothing about the politics of optimism needs to be naive. We can understand that people are fallible, mostly self-motivated and sometimes even mistaken about what's in their own best interests. We can stress the importance of informed decision-making, demand rigor and note uncertainty. We can recognize the massive differentials in power and wealth in our society and be clear-headed about the difficulty of opposing those whose power and wealth is tied to planetary destruction. We can anticipate setbacks and failures, disappointments and betrayals. We can expect corruption and demand transparency. We can freely admit the profound difficulty of the work yet to be done, even the possibility of total failure.

We can freely acknowledge the tremendous struggle ahead of us, and yet choose to remain decidedly optimistic, and to work from a fundamental belief in the possibilities of the future. When we do that, we liberate ourselves from some of the burden of despair and powerlessness we've all been saddled with at the dawn of the 21st Century.

But when we do it in public -- when we stand up and refuse to accept the idea that failure is preordained and action is unrealistic -- we strike right down to the heart of the political conflict we really face: the conflict between our party of the future and their party of the past.

I'm more and more convinced that incrementalism in the absence of committed vision almost always serves the politics of impossibility. Paradoxically, a lot of old school activism does as well. The impossibility lobby is entirely OK with Greenpeace or whoever doing direct action to highlight the latest dire predictions about the ruin of the Earth, because they've mostly moved on from debating reality to defining response. They're OK with people thinking the crisis is downright apocalyptic, so long as those same people don't think there's really anything we can do differently.

That's why our best hope lies in a fighting optimism, an optimism that's willing to confront the impossibility lobby and its messengers and make very clear that a feeble, halting response is not the rational or responsible response, but a corrupt and morally bankrupt response.

Every time we explain how a better future might be built, we redraw the boundaries of the possible. We show that the realm of choice available to us is actually quite large, and even includes paths that might, for instance, harm the interests of rich old guys who own big chunks of coal companies or the petrochemical industry but improve the prospects of pretty much everyone else.

We need to accelerate innovation and magnify vision. We need to school ourselves in the possible, share ideas, imagine outcomes, weigh options. We need to figure out how best to transform the systems we've built. I definitely don't have the answers personally, but Worldchanging aims to be a useful tool for people undertaking that exploration.

Ultimately, though, we need something more than better answers. We need millions of people who are willing to teach the teachable, comfort the disheartened and confront the scoundrels. We need to take our politics public and take on the whole culture of cynical defeatism. On some days, I think we need an optimism uprising.

The Politics of Optimism is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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I really liked this article. Have you possibly considered doing something to help promote these kinds of views...over what seems to be the norm as far as our current situation is concerned? It seems like the loudest voices, and the ones most willing to shout and drown all of the others out, are the ones that never have anything to say except that we're all more or less doomed, or are willing to present their own virulently exclusionary and unexamined views as to what they want to do.

Posted by: HW on 3 Oct 08

But optimism must be based on reality rather than utopian wishes: what those who promote cynicism do is to hide our struggle. News and deepening understanding of how and where we resist and rebel is the basis of determination to win and confidence that we will – which can be called optimism.

Posted by: V on 4 Oct 08

My compliments on this beautiful article. In reaction on HW: I try to start small by spreading optimism about everyday life stuff and giving people around me realistic and practical means of changing things for the better. Even a thing like investing a (very) small amount of money in a small business in Africa (see for example, can make people really enthusiastic and gives them hope. Through little things like this, I've seen people go from "it's no use" to "let's do more" in no time. And that's what gives me real hope :-)

Posted by: Saskia on 17 Oct 08



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