The Politics of Optimism
Alex Steffen

The prevailing view within environmental circles is, just like Alex says, to demonstrate Optimism and Hope. This display of Optimism has become an art form. I recall the preface to the Limits to Growth urging action because we have just 10 years to act. That language has barely changed. Forty years later we still tend to exhort: “Hurry along everyone we’ve got 10 years to act”.

My take on unchecked Optimism versus Negativity (which can be Reality) is to recognise that both types of message tend to have a dampening effect on people taking action. First and foremost, the majority of people don’t want their comfort zone to be disturbed too much and so tend to read into messages anything that allows them to remain passive consumers.

Optimistic message send this subliminal signal: “Well, it looks like everything will be ok, there’s no need for me to do anything.”

Negative message send this subliminal signal: “Well, it looks like there‘s not much point me doing anything.”

Those signals aren’t absolute. Depending on who they are and their personal circumstances some individuals will respond to scare messages, some to satiating messages. When I speak to any audience the first thing I do is try to understand that audience so that I can get the balance right for maximum effect.

We also have to be a little wary of self delusion. Selling an Optimism that is pumped up may help us to reach for the stars, but it can also lead us into denial of reality. One of the vital jobs that all of us is to do is to learn how to transition society to a totally new space — not try to keep the unsustainable juggernaut on the rails at all costs.

Unbridled optimism has led many to believe, what they want to believe — that we can have our cake and eat it too. Turn off coal, turn on solar and, bingo!, let’s keep hurtling along the growth / consumer pathway ignoring that the core of the human predicament hasn’t really been addressed at all.

Going back to the top, I think this essay is good but add a caution that ebullient Optimism can be a trap too unless it is thoroughly grounded and strategic in approach.