Pessimism and Progress

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I’m reading a book called The Rational Optimist. I haven’t finished it yet so I don’t know if it acknowledges certain flaws in its basic argument, but here’s what it essentially says: the fastest, most effective change and advancement of civilizations have always had bitter critics who see it as a sign of decline, yet over the past two hundred years we’ve continued to expand the economy, population, and life expectancy. What this book is saying is that critics/cynics/pessimists have always been wrong.

It’s obviously not black and white like that and the author, Matt Ridley, acknowledges a few examples of hiccups and downsides here and there. But the biggest flaw I’ve found in his argument, as much truth as there is in the potential for continuous improvement, is that past cynicisms and predictions of dismal outcomes were simply proven wrong when they didn’t come true. He’s ignoring the purpose of these commentaries: without certain change, there may be dire consequences.

Many of these pessimistic works of public dialogue have influenced the direction towards a wiser path. I would imagine most people who foresee the downfall of society on its current track are trying to prevent it from actually happening – these are warnings, not curses. Optimists with great faith in human progress who use past advancement as an argument to not intervene tend to ignore the influence of calls for intervention, whether that was ever effected through centralized efforts or not.

The book looks through the Industrial Revolution in 19th century Britain, and compares it to modern day growing behemoths like China and India. Factory work in cities is better than subsistence farming for both the Victorian English proletariat and today’s Chinese populous, and since the dismal environmental predictions made in the 1800s about the future of the British landscape didn’t come true as prosperity reached a level where preservation became affordable, the same will happen in China. As products made in China become more in demand with growing pocket funds across the globalized world, the wages and living standards of Chinese workers will improve and they will resemble today’s wealthier nations. These are generous assumptions, given the population differences and the accessibility of foreign labour that will keep the direction of the race to the bottom rather than the top.

What so many pessimistic forecasts are trying to do is sway the path of development onto a different and better track than the growing pains smaller Western societies went through. It’s certainly unfair to say, now that the West is rich, that the means by which we got here were morally wrong and other countries shouldn’t use them. It’s up to the developing nations to see that for themselves, and gain an advantage by improving the sustainability of their methods and a healthier culture towards humanity and our planet.

There are better ways of creating and spreading wealth, of improving the quality of life for more people, but the West that’s wealthy and powerful right now sees them as wrong. This is not just what we see in other parts of the world, but here, in countries like Canada, in Our Home and Native Land. The Idle No More movement, which is mostly weighted in environmental issues and rights over the care and preservation of land, is an attempt to divert the direction of economic development along a healthier path. But mainstream Canada – white, colonizer Canada – reacts to this as a blow to prosperity, as a criticism of the direction we see as being the key to improving our individual homes and cars and bank accounts. But throw an idea for change in there, resist the status quo, and you are halting all progress. There is a lacking perspective on how these cynicisms and warnings effect changes along the way. If this movement succeeds, and Canada takes more care of its land in the process of economic activity, it’s about time we recognize that it was the nay-sayers who changed things. If boo-hoo pessimists or angry marginalized populations didn’t say anything, do you really think we’d still turn out okay?

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