Sure, optimism is a virtue. I guess.
But when does optimism fade into a complacent obliviousness that blinds us to just how bad things could get?
And things could get very bad. There are a number of ways to illustrate this point, but a few gloomy examples should suffice:
It’s very difficult, for example, to imagine a happy ending to the current standoff over Ukraine. We await Vladimir Putin’s responses to our responses to his demands, but it would require the most starry-eyed optimist to imagine that he will be satisfied.
If Putin invades Ukraine, turmoil and bloodshed will ensue. The United States will not be immune to their consequences. Whatever happens will probably be only the first battle of a larger war. And it’s deeply sobering to consider that the chief players in this dangerous confrontation have nuclear weapons.
What else could go very wrong?
There’s the pandemic. We may at last be seeing the far side of a plague that has killed nearly 6 million people. While COVID-19 has reminded us that our health — even our lives — are at the mercy of biology, it’s also reminded us that science works and that humankind has considerable capacity to fight back against diseases that, just a few decades ago, would have killed many more of us.
On the other hand, it’s disturbing to consider how badly we’ve responded to the pandemic in the United States. COVID-19 is a crisis that might have brought our nation together, but it’s had very much the opposite effect.
In fact, the staggering divisions that we’re currently experiencing weren’t caused by the pandemic, but it struck at just the wrong time to make things much worse. The path back to the place where traditional American democracy is possible isn’t at all clear, and COVID-19 has tested our commitment to that road. And this won’t be the last pandemic.
Finally, the ominous backdrop to all lesser calamities is climate change, the catastrophe that’s no longer waiting to happen. New alarms are sounded almost daily, each louder than the last.
Here’s a recent one: In the Jan. 17 issue of The New Yorker, Joshua Yaffa reports on the state of permafrost, the frozen soil that comprises about a quarter of the landmass of the Northern Hemisphere. As the climate warms, permafrost is melting and in the process releasing carbon into the atmosphere. Models indicate that permafrost contains 1 1/2 trillion tons of carbon, twice the amount already in the atmosphere.
There is no prospect that permafrost will ever refreeze, and thus a self-perpetuating, downward cycle is underway: as carbon is released, the atmosphere continues to warm and more carbon is released.
Sorry for the gloom. But it’s hard to imagine a greater mistake than to adopt oblivious optimism in the face of potential catastrophes such as these. Our biggest challenge is mustering the imagination sufficient to appreciate the magnitude of the disasters ahead of us.
Maybe fiction will help spur our imaginations. These melancholy thoughts happen to coincide with a reading of H.G. Wells’ 1897 science fiction classic “The War of the Worlds.” Martians have landed and, by means of a powerful heat-ray, they wreak havoc in the countryside as they approach London.
Panic ensues. Few passages in literature are as evocative of catastrophe and chaos as Wells’ description of the terrorized throngs fleeing London before the advancing Martians.
But Wells’ narrator is a philosopher. He ruminates on humanity’s failure to prepare itself for catastrophe. He imagines the now-extinct dodo bird addressing his dodo spouse complacently in his comfortable nest in Mauritius as “pitiless sailors” are landing on the beaches in search of something to eat.
“We will peck them to death tomorrow, my dear.”
Our unwillingness to imagine the potential catastrophes — especially climate change — that the future holds prevents us from responding to them in a meaningful way. At best, we are merely pecking around the edges of solutions.
However, unlike Wells’ extraterrestrial threats, our threats — and their potential solutions — are entirely homegrown.