Dan Stroot

Pessimists sound smart. Optimists change the world.

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2 min read

Our hardest problems don't have known solutions today — that’s why they’re the hardest ones. The nature of problem-solving is we are aware of problems long before we are aware of their solutions. There will always be a frontier of problems we don’t yet know how to solve.

Optimism often requires believing in unknown, unspecified future breakthroughs — which seems fanciful and naive. If you very soberly, wisely, prudently stick to the known and the proven, you will necessarily sound pessimistic.

Fears of Peak Oil and other resource shortages follow this pattern. Predictions of shortages are typically based on “proven reserves.” If I know the current global oil reserves, and the current rate of extraction I can speculate when the earth will run out. It sounds smart and reasonable. Right?

Yet, we are saved from shortage by the unproven and unknown reserves, and the new technologies that make them profitable to extract. Or, when certain resources really do run out, we are saved economically by new technologies that use different resources: Haber-Bosch saved us from the guano shortage; kerosene saved the sperm whales from extinction; plastic saved the elephants by replacing ivory. Hopefully, sustainable alternatives will replace oil.

Technologies run on a natural S-curve, just like oil fields. Focusing on established sectors and proven fields (sure things) naturally leads to pessimism because they will naturally plateau. But when some breakthrough insight creates an entirely new field, it opens an entire new orchard of low-hanging fruit to pick. To be an optimist, you have to believe that at least some current wild-eyed speculation will come true.

How can such optimism be justified? Not based on unknown, speculative future technologies — but on the basis of philosophical premises about the nature of humans and of progress. You must see progress as driven fundamentally by human choice and effort — that is, by human agency.

Yet the constant negativity from the news media and in our feeds alerts the ancient parts of our brains and especially triggers our fears. That leads to a feeling of helplessness, and a lack of agency.

The pessimistic view is that progress is a matter of luck. If the progress of the last few centuries was a random windfall, then pessimism is logical: our luck is bound to run out. How could we get that lucky again?

To expect economic growth is to believe in future technologies not yet invented. To expect very long-term growth is to believe in science fiction. Luckily, I love science fiction, and if progress is a primarily matter of human agency, then whether it continues is up to us. That's awesome!

Onstage at TED2012 (over eleven years ago!), Peter Diamandis makes the case for optimism. I found this to be very inspirational. Maybe you will also:


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