Optimism isn't a naive faith in inevitable betterment, but a tenacious belief that the world can be made better—and that belief is at the root of all progress.
[Previous: Against doomism]
There are plenty of reasons to resist the call of doomism. Today, let’s flip that coin around and examine the other side. What reasons are there to be an optimist?
One can’t deny that optimism has taken a beating over the last few years. From climate change to COVID-19 to rising fascism, totalitarianism and war, the world has faced an unrelenting series of crises. Sometimes it seems as if there’s no path to a better future.
When I speak of optimism, I don’t mean it in the fuzzy-headed Panglossian sense which insists that everything will turn out for the best. (This is actually a religious position. It’s associated with Leibniz, who argued that a good God would create the best of all possible worlds. Therefore, if you believe in God, our world must be the best possible world, and any apparent evils are only steps toward a larger ultimate good.)
Instead, I’m speaking of optimism in the hopepunk sense: a battered but tenacious belief that the world can be made better. This kind of optimism doesn’t speak of inevitability, but of possibility. It says that the future is still in our hands, and that the fight is worthwhile even if victory isn’t guaranteed. It’s a call to action and a waving banner ralllying us to keep up the battle.
Pessimism is a poison
When I speak of pessimism, I’m not just talking about someone with a habitually gloomy demeanor. I’m speaking of pessimism as the sincere belief that the world is inevitably getting worse.
There are two different varieties of the pessimistic worldview. One is that human choices used to matter, but we chose poorly and now we’re past a tipping point where disaster is unstoppable. The other is that a bad outcome was predestined all along, that humanity never had a chance. Any progress we’ve made was just delaying the inevitable, and it’s only a matter of time before it all comes crashing down.
Either way, pessimism is a self-defeating position. We may not be able to win every battle or fix every problem, but we can win some. However, if you believe the world is spiraling downward and failure is certain, you’ll be discouraged from taking action, even when it would have made a difference.
Take Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. At the beginning of the war, international expert opinion held that Russian victory was inevitable. Some politicians went so far as to say that the best thing for Ukraine would be to surrender immediately, to spare its people suffering and death.
But instead, the Ukrainian people chose to fight back. President Zelenskyy stayed in besieged Kyiv, rejecting an American offer of evacuation, and rallied his people with a message of defiance. And as the war continued, Russia’s predicted victory failed to materialize. The Ukrainian military won one victory after another, first fighting the invaders to a standstill, then rolling back Russian gains made in the first days of combat.
Ukraine’s heroic resistance has galvanized the West, inspiring a renewed commitment to defending democracy. What’s more, it’s dramatically accelerated the effort to wean Europe off fossil fuels—not just weakening Putin, but making a giant leap forward in the fight against climate change. Would a pessimist have seen any of this coming?
The pessimistic mindset encourages destructive short-term thinking. If you believe you’re doomed to die early, you might as well give into mindless hedonism and consumerism: spend all your money on fleeting pleasures, drink and smoke freely, and eat a diet of delicious junk food. But if you’re wrong and you live to a ripe old age, you’ll spend your golden years in debt and in poor health.
Or, if you believe a crash is coming, you might build a survival bunker deep in the wilderness and stockpile canned goods and bullets. But this hyper-individualist, every-man-for-himself mindset discourages people from engaging in collective action—charitable giving and mutual aid, union organizing, political volunteering—which contributes to society’s fragmentation, and therefore makes a crash more likely to happen.
Both pessimism and Panglossian optimism deny the existence of human agency. They both claim that our choices don’t matter, that the future is set in stone and can’t be changed. Both worldviews, therefore, encourage people to give up and stop caring.
By contrast, hopepunk optimism teaches that caring is essential. If you believe that a better future is possible, you’ll be motivated to fight for it, to try to make that vision real. And optimism has a drawing power all its own. People are hungry for hope, and so they’re drawn to optimistic, visionary leaders—which makes those leaders more influential and thus more likely to succeed.
Of course, just because you’re willing to fight is no guarantee that you’ll win, but at least it gives you a chance. A pessimist concedes the battle before it starts.
Cynicism plays into the bad guys’ hands
Pessimism demoralizes us, making us cynical and apathetic. It discourages us from making the difference we can make. That’s why the powers that be love it when people think this way. They love it when the populace concludes that the currently existing hierarchies of wealth and power are immutable.
Kleptocrats and plutocrats benefit from the belief that massive inequality and widespread poverty is the natural order of things. It makes poor people conclude that their only hope is hustling to get rich themselves, and that organizing and collective action are a waste of time. It takes the wind out of efforts to pass fairer taxation and a stronger safety net.
Religious authorities benefit from the belief that the world is irredeemably corrupt. It bolsters their argument that turning to God is the only hope. It’s no coincidence that church membership swells in times of chaos and fear and dwindles in societies that enjoy peace and stability.
Autocrats and totalitarians benefit from the belief that democracy is a failed experiment, that people aren’t wise enough to govern themselves. If someone is going to seize power, they can argue that it might as well be them. It makes coups and stolen elections seem normal, rather than an outrage deserving protest.
Dreams graduate to reality
The great irony is that pessimists, who dismiss today’s optimists as naive and impractical dreamers, only live the lives they do because of the accumulated victories of past optimists. Every great change in society began as someone’s naive and impractical dream.
When the world was governed by hereditary monarchies and emperors, it must have seemed like foolish optimism to assert that democracy was possible, that one day the common people could govern themselves and choose their own leaders.
When every nation had its own established church that persecuted and tortured dissenters, it must have seemed like foolish optimism to assert that we could one day have freedom of conscience, that every person could decide for themselves what to believe. It must have seemed like outright madness to assert that atheism could be treated as an equally valid option.
When white male patriarchy was the rule of the home, the workplace and the government, it must have seemed like foolish optimism to assert that women and people of color could one day wield equal power: that they could choose who to marry and whether to have children; that they could work jobs of their choice for fair pay; that they could be presidents and prime ministers.
But these changes and others did happen. They began as idle dreams, but they graduated to possibilities, and finally won the day and became reality. None would have happened without the revolutionary power of optimism—without people who dared to imagine that the world could be different. We should be extremely grateful that the optimists of the past didn’t listen to the pessimists of the past who told them not to waste their effort.
Granted, many of our victories are only partial, and progress is under constant threat of being rolled back. But that isn’t a reason to give up. It’s a reminder to value what we have, to not take it for granted, and to fight to defend it when necessary.
Even when we can’t prevent disaster, our effort can make the difference between a bad outcome and a worse one. Distributing meals won’t solve hunger everywhere, but it means fewer families who go to bed hungry that night. It’s too late to completely stop climate change, but every solar panel installed or coal plant shut down will make it less destructive than it otherwise would have been.
Bearing all this history in mind, and remembering that partial progress is still progress, is a way to keep our spirits up when world events threaten to weigh them down. However, sometimes we need more than this. Coming up, I’ll make some suggestions on how to hold on to your optimism even when it’s hard.