Tundi’s Take: In Praise of Pessimism

MEAM

By Tundi Agardy, Contributing Editor, MEAM. Email: tundiagardy [at] earthlink.net

Unlike some other pessimists perhaps, I’d like to think I’m open to looking at the world in a new light, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting this issue of MEAM to find reasons to shed my pessimism and adopt a brighter attitude. But in advance of any eureka moment that transforms me from Chicken Little to Pollyanna, I’ll speculate on why pessimism may not only be good, but wholly necessary.

A recent article by Kate Sweeney and Michael Dooley entitled “The surprising upsides of worry” spurred a lot of debate on mass and social media, coming as it did after years of therapist advice that worrying compromises our immune systems and creates undue stress. These two psychologists found two benefits of having repetitive negative thoughts (i.e., worrying). First, worrying is motivational, highlighting in our minds that action must be taken to prevent the undesirable outcomes we worry about. Constructive worry focuses on obstacles that need to be overcome, thereby enhancing the effectiveness of our actions. Second, worrying can help us prepare emotionally for undesirable outcomes, and this emotional buffer helps us to move forward and take action. So it’s an even greater benefit than what Pulitzer Prize-winning political commentator George Will described: “The nice part about being a pessimist is that you are constantly being either proven right or pleasantly surprised.” Apparently there is something tangibly positive about being negative.

Since I am not a psychologist, I may be incorrectly conflating a tendency to worry with pessimism. Perhaps the difference between worrying as constructive repetitive thought that serves a purpose and all-out pessimism is that when excessive worrying leads us to a logical conclusion that all will be awful, it may compel us to believe that things are so bad that it is not worth worrying about it any longer. That is the opposite of being constructive, of identifying barriers and then overcoming them, of taking direct action to avoid unpleasant outcomes and imagined dark scenarios. But maybe before leading us to the point of giving up, pessimism can reach a threshold that incites dramatic collective action. Impending disaster or cataclysmic events may well wake up everyone enough to punctuate the stasis of business as usual, and foment revolutionary change.

Is disaster needed for positive change in ocean governance?

I would suggest that we actually do need to worry to the point of pessimism to achieve the political change and effective governance needed for true EBM. Not complacent pessimism, but the action-oriented variety. Why? It goes without saying that the political and economic conditions in much of the world, including but not only in the US, are cause for concern. The gap between rich and poor is growing, sowing the seeds for future conflict, and increased pressures on natural resources have caused ecological imbalances that threaten to undermine future planetary productivity. Environmental deregulation, abandonment of international treaties for cooperation, and the escalating climate change crisis require a revolution to prevent making this planet inhospitable to human life. And this may mean trying something radically new, as opposed to trying to get back on course – something that many optimists believe will undoubtedly happen eventually.

In a recent radio story I heard about floating cities of the future, the founder of the Seasteading Institute, Patri Friedman, is reported to have said that governance doesn't get better over time as quickly as other forms of technology because the normal dictates of evolution don’t hold. He claimed that governance neither varies by chance nor undergoes natural or social selection except through revolution and war. Thus we might think of the appearance of radically progressive and effective governance as coming from something less like slow and steady evolution and more like Stephen Jay Gould’s punctuated equilibrium, improving significantly mostly as a result of disaster (war, conflict, cataclysmic events). Apparently what doesn't kill us not only makes us physiologically stronger, but socially and politically stronger too.

History provides examples at national and international scales. In the US the collective pessimistic mood about pollution and illegal dumping (captured dramatically in the infamous American Indian-shedding-a-tear-on-the-side-of-the-trash-strewn-highway Public Service Announcement of 1971) resulted in some of the strongest ecosystem-based management (EBM) legislation we have today such as the Clean Water Act of 1972. The worldwide low morale and exhaustion that was caused by World War II resulted in some of history’s strongest multilateral institutions: the Marshall Plan for reconstruction of Europe, the Bretton Woods Agreement that led to the formation of the World Bank, etc. These pieces of legislation and international agreements were dramatic, disruptive forces for good that were born out of evil (and the recognition of that evil by wide swaths of society).

Therefore, while we may continue making progress on the EBM front with small scale models of good governance – community-managed MPAs and public-private partnerships for conservation and sustainable use for example – the really big changes that are needed may only be possible if precipitated by disaster (see this recent opinion piece by Michael Webster, executive director of the Coral Reef Alliance, on why the US’ exit from the Paris climate agreement gives him hope for coral reefs.) And pessimism may actually be more adaptive than merely making us take action when disaster strikes – it may increase our evolutionary fitness by catalyzing revolutionary disruption before the real disaster hits. So if today’s spreading collective pessimism leads to a global governance reset, we might all become optimistic about the future at last.

Comments

Great article, Tundi, thank you for it!

I´m frankly tired of seeing the millionaire NGOs´ lobby for "optimism" while in countries like my homeland Brazil environmentalists are being slaughtered by the dozens, and each and every attempt by local, long-struggling NGOs to protest, denounce and change things get thwarted by these very same BINGOs touting their own rosy plans, press releases and "agreements" with bureaucrats as solutions for our own nation´s environmental catastrophes. 

We need massive input from academics who are fortunate enough to have funding for their research, yes, and also big money from Northern NGOs to implement good, actual on-the-ground conservation projects (especially Truly Protected Areas, not the usual fish-it-all-you-want-if-you-pretend-you´re-"traditional"  fake), but without the "pessimism", stomping and ranting of local activists in the developing world, nothing is ever going to change for real.

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