“If someone is a pessimist before the age of 50, he or she knows too much and if someone is an optimist after that, this person knows too little” said Mark Twain. Of course, there are also realists, but in my view these are almost always people who do not yet realize, or insufficiently realize, that they are pessimists. But regardless, the essence and summary of this article is that the world needs pessimists now more than ever! [part 1 of 3].
Trilogy [1 of 3]: future of humanity – for optimists, pessimists and realists
Pandemics and other major crisis such as climate change and biodiversity loss, are everyone’s business. But it is hard to see the positive in immense major challenges and risks to our health and even believe in them. Optimists especially struggle in these times, though they draw a glimmer of hope from the solidarity and humanity that echoes on every balcony. Pessimists have it easier in turbulent times and, as realists, point to the deeper causes of the crisis. They are not fooled by the daily news, which is sensational, exceptional and above all negative. For them, it is not about what is happening today, but about what is happening every day. Yesterday, last week, last year. And what this means for tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, next week and the years to come. Pessimists therefore also understand the causes of a crisis better, from a historical perspective and also think more about the impact on our lives in the near and distant future. While optimists dream of better times and urge people not to despair, pessimists think critically and, however boldly, paint a confrontational picture of what the world could look like after the crisis. They are not truly hopeful, of course, but they want it very much.
In a series of three blog entries, I attempt to paint a picture of the future of mankind, humanity and our humanity. From both sides; the perspective of optimists and pessimists. With the hope and also the goal that not everyone can just recognize themselves in their own beliefs and prejudices, but above all to get more understanding and attention for the perspective of the other.
Three blog entries, for optimists, pessimists and realists. From the here and now; the corona crisis – which has turned our world completely upside down. And that’s kind of crazy.
How deadly is the corona crisis anyway?
The corona crisis, of course it is terrible! Thousands of people are dying every day in the Netherlands from this flu. According to the Volkskrant of March 23, most of them are old men (two-thirds are over 80) most of whom (9 out of 10) were already seriously ill.
Once, the famous Canadian physician Sir William Osler (1849-1919) called pneumonia “old men’s best friend” because, according to him, it leads to a painless death. Pneumonia is indeed a common cause of death among the elderly, and according to Rotterdam-based medical ethicist Erwin Kompanje, it does not matter what causes the respiratory infection, as it is often the final disease that causes the elderly to die. According to Kompanje, “this aspect is currently omitted when ranting about the many deaths that are recorded daily due to corona. Suddenly, every covid-19 death is one too many, whereas previously we never saw or heard of it with thousands of flu deaths.”
So flattened, grim and also true, one might say that the new corona disease, for the time being, joins the ranks of non-descript pathogens that almost only cause the very oldest to die. It is not yet entirely clear how the virus compares to seasonal flu (last winter: 2,900 extra deaths). But that corona mainly kills the elderly is certain. The average age of the people who died in the Netherlands was 82. And according to the RIVM inventory, two-thirds of all the dead were over 80. Younger than 60, on the other hand, counts only one deceased so far. In the Volkskrant of March 23, epidemiologist Patricia Bruijning of the UMC Utrecht recognizes the pattern: “telling is the finding that in the Netherlands three quarters of the deceased have not even been in intensive care.” By now, that’s even about four-fifths, the figures show. “That does indicate that these are people in the last phase of their lives, of whom it was apparently said: we don’t think it makes any sense to put this person in intensive care.” Which is not to say, by the way, that the people dying are exclusively old people. “The outbreak has not been going on for very long, so it may well be that young people are still being treated and will eventually die. We see this more often: young people are treated for longer,” Bruijning said in the Volkskrant.
Reality is not news
But let’s also put the development and figures in a broader perspective. Even before the corona crisis, over 400 people died every day in the Netherlands. With an average age of almost 80 years, seventeen years longer than in 1950. Worldwide, a child under the age of five dies of starvation every 3 seconds, over 10 million a year. Almost a billion people (more than 1 in 10) do not have enough to eat and suffer physically and mentally every day. Meanwhile, in the Netherlands and Europe, we throw away more than 50% of the food and more people ‘at home’ die from obesity every year than from hunger elsewhere. We don’t see this on the news; because it happens every day, for years. Inequality and poverty is also not news because it is there every day. It is no longer an event that is exceptional. Climate change and loss of biodiversity is also hardly in the news, despite the terrible consequences in the near future. It is, in fact, happening every day. It is creeping and slow and is not yet sensational and exceptional. Do we still think so now.
Globally, a child under the age of five dies of starvation every 3 seconds; over 10 million a year….
So it will be with corona and the next pandemic. And also with the recession that will leave its mark on our lives and the news throughout 2020 and very likely long after. And that offers the pessimist great hope and an optimistic view of the future. Because it is inevitable that we are going to pay more attention to what is truly happening every day. We are going to better understand the impact on our lives and what we need to change in our behavior. To avoid repeating the greatest pandemic for humanity; namely, falling back into old patterns and habits that pose great risks to our planet, our health and our well-being.
Of course, the magnitude of the corona epidemic is incalculable and a human tragedy. It has turned our lives upside down and we have to temporarily work from home. We meet and speak to each other via Zoom or Skype. This, by the way, turns out to be more effective and disciplined than in the former workplace at the office. People listen better, let others finish, stick more closely to the process and are more focused on the result. Funny, thinks the pessimist, why don’t we always do it this way, while the optimist longs for the warmth of his colleagues and ‘gossip at the coffee machine’.
The world needs pessimists now more than ever
Before considering a vision of the future of humanity, human beings, and our humanity, it is important to first point out the difference between an optimist and pessimist. Why? Well for the simple reason that they both probably have opposite views of our future. And mainly because people are generally expected to view the world optimistically in turbulent times. Ask a random person on the street whether he is an optimist or a pessimist and usually you will get the answer that of course one is an optimist. Or that we would like to be optimistic. Because does anyone want to be stigmatized as a pessimist now, does anyone?
So the question immediately arises: what is actually wrong with pessimists and their pessimism?
So should there always be a spark of hope and why? Because most people struggle with sad messages and circumstances? Does the lack of hope make our lives inherently uninviting? That’s a terrible shame, isn’t it? Because deep sadness and absence of hope are just as beautiful and important as the ecstasy of joy and endless hope. Sadness should not always be sought to be tempered. Sadness is legitimate and true and we should not immediately fight it with therapy. Nor should we let our pessimism be corrupted by the boundless naiveté of optimism. According to American political philosopher Joshua Dienstag, a pessimist has a much more open-minded and free relationship to the future than an optimist. “By renouncing hope and prediction, we make room for a concern that is neither self-defeating nor self-pitying. By preventing every moment of our lives from making us hostages to the future, we create a true and heartfelt responsibility to ourselves and others.”
See, now that makes me terribly optimistic!
We should be much more optimistic about pessimism, because it offers much more the freedom of moments…
Professor René ten Bos, former thinker of the nation and professor of philosophy of management sciences at Radboud University, sees optimism as nothing more than veiled slavery. “Because it constantly makes us the enemy of all those moments in our lives that apparently don’t quite meet our expectations.” Pessimism actually frees these moments from their bondage to a better future. In doing so, it also makes real freedom possible: the pessimist is much freer in his thinking than an optimist. According to Dienstag, “Only when we expect nothing of the future are we free to let that future come as it really is and not as a disappointment or crisis. Optimism is not only a form of slavery of our expectations, but also a pathological fear of disappointment. Those who live this way, as a slave to time and their own expectations, just keep feeding and feeding that fear.”
As a pessimist, I actually want quite a lot. For example, more inclusiveness and especially a more fair society. A curbing of the loss of biodiversity. An end to the destruction of our planet. And that all companies just pay tax on their profits. Or even better: that the tax is at least doubled on dividends, assets and CO2 emissions. Isn’t that what everyone wants?
We should absolutely not confuse a pessimist who expects nothing with a nihilist. A pessimist expects nothing, while a nihilist wants nothing. As a pessimist, I want quite a lot: a more sustainable world, in which people and planet are not made subservient to our economy. A more inclusive and above all fair society, in which all companies simply pay profit and dividend taxes. I would very much like to see our world leaders tackle the ten biggest risks that threaten our prosperity and well-being. And they are crystal clear in the Global Risk Report 2020 of the World Economic Forum. René ten Bos sincerely hopes that we will succeed in quickly halting the rampant extinction of species. He very much wants this to happen, but does not expect it. If we watch the NOS broadcast of a tiger quintuplet in northeastern China, then that appeals to us, but it simultaneously makes the pessimist realize how sad the future of the Siberian tiger is. Every effort is made to keep them alive as a species, but in the wild this beautiful mammal is extinct. Only by being hopeless can you still enjoy moments.
Realists are people who do not realize they are pessimists
There is also a group of people who call themselves realists, but they are rarely optimists. They are usually pessimists who realize that you have to look beyond what you think to see or hear. Beyond the daily news, which rarely shows what is essentially going on; what is happening every day and is therefore often more misleading than fake news.
Example? Why does the eight o’clock news always close with tomorrow’s weather forecast instead of “what does the climate change of the day after tomorrow look like and what will this mean for our prosperity next year and for the rest of our lives…..?
During extremely boring talk shows on TV and radio, which mainly compete for ratings and advertising revenue, repetitive news that meets the five important and fundamental shortcomings of news dominates. Namely, it is: sensational, exceptional, negative and it is almost always about current events. Something that can also be found in niche magazines such as Story, Privé, Panorama, Elsevier… Added together, these magazines have fewer subscribers than the Dutch Angling Association has members. Something that also applies to the number of members of the largest political party in the Netherlands.
The daily news and trinkets in the aforementioned magazines do not make what they write into real news or a true story. Something you immediately want to share with your neighbors or shout from the rooftops.
Do a check yourself and ask yourself why the news is now reporting every day that dozens of people have died again from corona and that the counter now stands at 213 (March 24, 2020). Do the 23,000 refugees in Camp Moria on Lesbos now also have to stay at home? And if so, in which home? It is not news because it is not current, it happens every day and is therefore not (anymore) exceptional. In a few weeks this will also apply to all the news about Corona.
Bizarre isn’t it?
Why doesn’t the eight o’clock news close each day with “What will the climate change of the day after tomorrow look like and what will it mean for our prosperity and well-being…..?
Rarely, then, is news about what happens every day and what this means in all its veracity for humanity. The world and thought process of optimists fits in seamlessly with this. They see in the actuality of the crisis only their beliefs and positivity confirmed; namely, that apparently we can be human and together after all. But pessimists have a better idea of what is happening every day. They realize with sufficient historical awareness that after a crisis, humanity almost always falls back into familiar habits. And into patterns that almost always caused the crisis. And also the next one. Therefore, there is nothing wrong with pessimists and the world needs them much more in turbulent times of crisis than the naive optimists who preach hope and will mostly reap disappointment and fear.
Hope springs eternal, certainly. But hope without pessimism does not make most people sufficiently resilient. Hope is a poor shelter for harsh times, when Mother Earth teaches us the lesson in a highly effective and intelligent way: “I can do without man, but mankind cannot do without me.” Sure, we may continue to hope, but we should not cling to it. Listen more often and more emphatically to pessimists, because they often interpret the future better than optimists, because they look back more than they look forward.
Historical marker: choice between national isolation and global solidarity
Both the corona crisis and the oncoming recession that is an inevitable consequence of it are global problems. They can only be solved through global cooperation. And then with the understanding that this will only succeed if we work together and, above all, work together in radical interdependency. To combat a global crisis, we must first share all available information and knowledge about the crisis and its causes. This requires a spirit of trust in and awareness of the nature and origin of our common problems.
In the days and years ahead, each of us must choose to trust scientific data and health care experts over unfounded conspiracy theories and self-righteous politicians and celebrities.
In the economic sphere, too, global cooperation is now literally vital. Any world leader and country that ignores the global nature of the crises will reap an increase in problems and crisis.
A global plan of action is needed and fast. Countries now need to negotiate a global travel agreement that will allow scientists, doctors, journalists, politicians and business people to continue to cross borders, provided they are screened in the same way around the world. For only then will any country admit them and be open to necessary aid that is needed and effective. Unfortunately, this is happening too little and a collective paralysis is playing tricks on us globally because there are too few leaders with character on the scene. Why have the G7 leaders only met once in emergency session, via video call! That’s insane, isn’t it? Not surprisingly, this has not yet resulted in a concrete plan of action. Each country is operating on its own postage stamp and figuring out the best solution for itself.
According to Yuval Harari [Financial Times of March 20], the time has come for humanity to choose between the path of division and polarization and the path of global solidarity. It is clear where the populists’ first path will take us: prolonging the crisis and waiting until the next one. On balance: escalation of problems and structural decline.
The second path is the route to real progress. A world we all long for and which we can visualize ourselves. And, above all, must create ourselves and with each other. But what does that world look like? Is there a substantial difference between the vision and desires of optimists and pessimists?
That will become clear in the coming days in the triptych, “Future of Humanity: for Optimists and Pessimists.