Are We Entering an Age of Increased Optimism?

By Glenn Ashton · 23 Apr 2015

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“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places - and there are so many - where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory." - Howard Zinn

We live in tough times, often adrift in despondency. Given the scale of the challenges we confront - climate change, overpopulation, inequality and economic uncertainty compounded by the modern plagues of debt and overwork - it is a daily miracle we are able to extract ourselves from our beds.

In spite of these realities I note a growing tendency toward increased optimism, manifesting at many levels - global, national and local. Perhaps my sense of a more empathetic zeitgeist only manifests in the circles I move in, perhaps it is imaginary. But the signals are pretty widespread.

People tend more to optimism than despair. Our survival depends on the dominance of optimism over depressed hopelessness. Imagine primitive man simply giving up, overwhelmed by the risks of wild animals, disease and apparently arbitrary events. Humanity would not have survived without a positive attitude. Optimism serves an important role as a talisman, an internal petition to manifest the intentions of the better side of our nature.

However, optimism does not automatically, magically banish negativity from our personal or collective psyches. Instead it enriches and fortifies our uncertain existence. The modern world is a challenging, dangerous and opaque place, especially so in South Africa with massive inequality, underlain by fragile social contracts, witnessed in the recent resurgence of xenophobia and continued racial intolerance.

Wilkinson and Pickett’s 2009 book “The Spirit Level” explains how increased equality in turn improves the welfare of all sectors of society, from the rich to the poor. It reveals in detail how inequality impacts on our mental and physical health, on the security, education, welfare and opportunity of everyone, even the wealthy. A fully realised life enables people to assume responsibility for their lot and fortifies our survival against the vicissitudes of life.

It is interesting to see how electronic fora reveal the loudest, most disconnected complaints emanate from the well-heeled, reinforcing the adage that wealth does not equate to happiness. Perhaps it is just that when one is down, everything else looks like up.

The past two decades have delivered the fruits of the fall of the Berlin wall, détente between east and west, Perestroika, the rise of China as counterweight to the USA and the Mandela legacy. These events individually and cumulatively provide significant reasons for hope.

The domination of capitalism over the bogeyman of centralised communism has failed to deliver Fukuyama’s end of history. Instead, the Achilles heel of the present economic reality is the accumulation of wealth by a shrinking elite, who shamelessly exploit people, institutions and our ecological foundations, further worsening inequality, undermining the social contract.
For instance Chinese wealth has boomed, but not without huge increases in pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and Dickensian work conditions. This too provides a poor model for global development. But it is interesting how increased inequality and stress on global ecosystems have opened up new horizons of possibility.

For instance a profound, global citizen activist movement has emerged. Academics have immersed themselves in real politics – as in Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece. These shifts have spilled beyond traditional avenues like trade unions, into a vast range of cross-cutting groups which make cogent linkages between issues like climate change and social inequity.

Globally, the middle class is increasingly squeezed by the corporate-political nexus. The new plutocracy has imposed the double whammy of austerity depleted services and tax hikes to pay off the governmental 2008 bailout of the global financial system. Consequently middle classes have begun to identify more closely with the poor than with the rich, their historically aspirational class. As the saying goes, most are only a pay check away from homelessness.

In order to assert positive relevance, movements like Occupy have enabled globalised civil activism. Shifting beyond simple volunteerism, local levels food hubs and welfare networks are growing, complementing individual purpose and providing succour. The point is that people would not enter into these social movements if they did not enhance our self-belief. The cynical counterpoint is that the alternative is too awful to contemplate.

Electronic media has played a powerful role in spreading these beneficial shifts against authoritarianism. The legitimacy of oppressive regimes are questioned by an emerging discourse of hope, from the Bolivarian renaissance in the Americas, to challenges to middle eastern oligopolies and shifts away from traditional leadership patterns from Africa to East Asia.

Conversely it would be irresponsible and naïve to approach these challenges blinkered by over-optimism. Besides electronic surveillance, exposed by heroes like Assange, Manning and Snowden, opposition to the global status quo is not risk-free, from both reputational as well as real-time threats against those who provide meaningful counter-narratives and strategies.

The triumvirate of corporations, trade blocs and the captured political elite epitomise the new feudalism. Yet todays workers are better informed than ever. Our young people are unafraid to ask why we do not live in a better, cleaner, more equal world and why we do not work harder to achieve it.

The psychologist Mary Pipher wrote in her book “The Green Boat” about how these environmental and social challenges serve to unite us. She shows how practically grappling with serious threats to our collective welfare builds unlikely alliances and lead to far more cohesive and more resilient social structures than the conventions of suburbanised social isolation. Social cohesion also serves to undermine the tropes and soundbites of hopeless futility transmitted by the mainstream corporate media. “Resistance is futile” is increasingly displaced by “yes, we can.”

Perhaps one way is to aspire to the principles of Burning Man, built on inclusion, a cashless economy and radical social engagement. These principles are also pursued through cashless community exchange systems, inner city co-operatives, soup meetings that provide start-up funding for innovative programmes, removing community values from being subordinate to conventional financial constraints.

The more ecologically and socially engaged we become, the more networked we are, the more we regain our connectedness, the more we discover the true purpose of our lives. This leads inevitably toward greater optimism. Through engagement we create a self-perpetuating virtuous cycle that enhances self-actualisation, -realisation and -belief.

Similar patterns can be found in communities that have managed to overcome xenophobia in South Africa. Masiphumilele in southern Cape Town, where xenophobic madness welled up in 2008, has now embraced and accepted its international community, forging a stronger, better resourced community.

These local movements often feed into larger global movements, such as those which deal with environmental risks, like, Greenpeace or Sea Shepherd, or those building new inclusive political and economic models like Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece.

But in order to succeed we first need to grasp optimism as a point of departure. To do otherwise is to diminish our potential to manifest the boundless possibilities on this incredible planet, filled with amazing people. On the other hand, resignation to cynicism and social distrust automatically closes down the potential space created by positive optimism, resigning us to a dull, repetitive, depressing reality. Surely life is meant to be far sweeter and more fulfilling than that?

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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