There is a world in which the Newtown massacre, the Boston Marathon bombing and the collapse of the Bangladesh garment factory last month never happened. This is a world without war, famine or genocide, without car accidents or teenage pregnancy or even burnt toast, and though it might seem improbable to you, it’s real. It exists in the minds of the eternally optimistic.
Contrast this with the other world — the one that was supposed to end with the Mayan apocalypse in 2012 but has now been set on fate’s backburner for a few more years. This is the world choked by industrial smog and Gulf Coast oil spills, the world perverted and dehumanized by stem cell research and reality TV, the world that will either eat itself alive from overpopulation and disease or be obliterated by a stray asteroid the size of Venezuela. You may have guessed by now, but in case you haven’t — this is the world as seen by the pessimistic.
These realities are as vivid as they are juxtaposed, and chances are good that reading this, you’ll find yourself favoring one over the other. As humans we have the nasty tendency of organizing things in binary, whether it’s American/un-American, white/colored, Democrat/Republican or believer/nonbeliever. We pick a side and stick to it, and the same applies for positive and negative worldviews.
But if you see the world through rose-colored glasses, you’re missing most of the details. Newtown did happen, automatic weapons exist, and we’re now confronted with the challenge of regulating them. You may see, hear and speak no evil, but that doesn’t change the fact that Adam Lanza gunned down 20 first-graders on an elementary school campus last winter.
The same goes for the paranoid, the Scrooges and the doomsayers. The world is full of problems, but we’re no better off ignoring them than we are inventing more. Global warming is a serious issue, but we stand to gain nothing from deeming it invincible or unchangeable.
Pessimism and optimism are two very different lenses through which we view the world, but each is disarming in its own way. While an optimist tends to believe that nothing needs to be done, a pessimist believes that nothing can be done. The outlooks may differ, but the outcome is the same. Nothing is done, and we remain entrenched and reassured in our respective worldviews.
That’s where pragmatism comes in. Whereas a pessimist sees the glass half-empty and an optimist sees the glass half-full, a pragmatist simply observes the glass and its contents and determines its maximum utility. Moral judgments are cut neatly out of the evaluation. The situation is neither good nor bad; the situation just is.
This method becomes particularly useful when the glass in question is actually a seafloor oil deposit, and the “water” in the glass is the amount of extractable crude oil. That amount might not be ideal for our long-term energy goals, but it’s also far from nonexistent. Crude oil might not be the cleanest form of energy for the environment, but it’s available and heavily marketable.
Pros and cons like these exist for virtually every economic, political and social dilemma we face today. Unfortunately, they require a fair amount of reasoning to be brought to light and are often discarded in favor of snap judgments. It’s simply easier to write things off as wholly good or wholly bad than to grapple with the various shades of gray in between.
We’ve become so caught up in glossing over the details that we’ve forgotten something fundamental: a problem is defined by the presence of a solution. We might not be able to see that solution now — we might not see it 10 or 20 years from now — but it’s there, and solutions are meant to be found.
It’s useless to think otherwise. While we’re all entitled to our respective opinions, there is no productive value in the belief that humanity is headed for a cliff on a runaway train. The same goes for plugging our ears with wax and tying ourselves to the mast. Ship, train, plane or blimp — whatever comparative vessel you prefer, if we don’t do something, it’s going to crash.
As human beings, I don’t think our vast capacity for complex reasoning should be reduced to the variability of a light switch. We possess a resourcefulness that’s propelled us through thousands of years of evolution to the top of the food chain, from stone wheels and clubs to Bugattis and AK-47s. To squander that potential now is to accept a self-fulfilling prophecy.
More than global warming, cosmic disasters or even nuclear war, the greatest threat to humanity is its own unique brand of voluntary ignorance.
Mark Strong: embrace pragmatism, save the world.
A version of this article appeared on page 16 of the May 9, 2013 print edition of the Nexus.
Views expressed on the Opinion page do not necessarily reflect those of the Daily Nexus or UCSB. Opinions are submitted primarily by students.