The Pessimism of 2019

I was born in 1960, but I had siblings 10 years older than me.  So by the time I was old enough to read, I was surrounded by many 10-year old children’s books bought on their behalf, and was an avid reader.  I was particularly interested in science, and the science books written around 1960 were extremely optimistic.  They were written by people who could remember using outhouses and refrigerators cooled by huge blocks of ice.  We were barely starting to have regular commercial flights across the Atlantic.  The improvement in the world that these authors had seen in their lifetimes had been enormous.  And they were very confident that we would have permanent colonies on the moon, if not Mars, by the year 2000.

The period around 1960 was just a very, very optimistic time.

The seventies were another matter.  There was a war in the middle east in 1973 and the US and Europe supported Israel, and the Gulf States retaliated by cutting off our oil supply.  This was followed by an energy panic lasting for years.  I remember reading, around 1973/74, that the world had 30 years of oil left, and 20 years of natural gas.  The media was full of stories about how we were running out of oil, how important it was that we conserve energy and somehow adapt our whole infrastructure to other sources of power.

In 1976, a lecturer came to my high school, and his thesis was that the 1970’s were a very pessimistic time.  One fact that he brought up was that the human race had more years of proven oil reserves available than at any previous time.  The lecture hall was silent.  That didn’t make sense.  It did not compute.  The media had been screaming at us that we were running out of oil for years.

He turned out to be right.  We were generations away from running out of oil.  The press was completely wrong.  The media had malfunctioned.

You’d think some intrepid reporters might have actually done their frigging jobs and spoken with people in the oil industry to find out what was going on.  But most of the press at that time leaned left, and to the left, the oil industry was a pariah, not to be engaged with in a civil conversation.

So the media followed fashion rather than fact, and society was completely misinformed about what was considered one of the most pressing issues of the time.  We should all remember that.  There’s no reason it can’t happen again, or that it’s not happening now.

It wasn’t just oil.  Pessimism was everywhere.  Post-Watergate, Americans tended to believe that everything was corrupt.  Movies about the future tended to be dystopias like “Soylent Green” or “Planet of the Apes”.  The popular movie “Capricorn One” speculated that the whole space program had been a fraud.

I remember an interesting intellectual at that time pointed out that the late seventies was a time when public debate was much more interested in problems than solutions.

2019 is an extremely pessimistic time in the United States, to put it mildly.

It is important to remember that the media currently has a very pessimistic bias.  Reporters nowadays are absolutely miserable.  The Internet has broken the business model of most publications, which are laying off reporters left and right.  The ones who can find work at all are barely hanging on.  So we’re all being informed by miserable people whose prospects are turning out to be much worse than they had been expecting a few years ago.

Cable TV, the Internet, and social media have provided diverse forums for a variety of conversations to take place.  Different forums have different, wildly conflicting ideas about what the boundaries of acceptable discourse are, which ideas are reasonable, and which one are beyond the pale.  People have coalesced into tribes talking in different forums.

A huge amount of social media content is outrage of one tribe at what the craziest people in the other tribe are saying or doing, which is all very negative.  Very, very little constructive communication between tribes is going on.  Both tribes believe very deeply that the prospects for American society are dismal and it’s all the other tribe’s fault.  So the only consensus is that everything’s going to hell.

I have mixed feelings about Democratic Socialists.  On the one hand, they are proposing a lot of ideas that they think will improve things, so at least they’re being positive in that way.  At the same time, most of what they are proposing is completely politically infeasible, and in an attempt to motivate the public to accept their ideas, they try very hard to convince everybody that the status quo is horrible and unsustainable, so they, too, feed into the atmosphere of negativity.

Things are, in many ways, much better than they used to be.

  • As the human race has learned from a wide variety of social experiments around the globe, including the discrediting of the Marxist economic model, we’ve gotten better at running countries, and this has led to prosperity in the third world increasing faster than nearly anyone was hoping for.
  • Violent crime in the United States, which was a terrible problem in the 1970’s, has been reaching new lows.
  • Today, we’re concerned about left-wingers in the Antifa beating up very small numbers of people with their fists, while in 1971 we had radical leftists exploding more than a bomb per day in this country.
  • 50 years ago it was widely believed that within a few decades, every country in the world would be struggling terribly with overpopulation, and governments were going to have to forcibly prevent people from reproducing too much.  The problem just went away by itself in most places with only China, and to a much more limited extent, India resorting to that draconian measure.
  • When I was in college 40 years ago, checking facts meant a time-consuming trip the library, and even then it wasn’t clear that they were going to be easy to find.  My peer group believed, and passed around, a lot of highly inaccurate “facts” that they got from each other by word of mouth.  That still goes on, but, now, we all have access to the Internet and with it, access to highly reliable sources of information for very little effort if we’re at all interested in them.

What is the most constructive response?

  • Make sure that you are sampling information from both tribes.
  • Be skeptical of whether stories that are just one tribe getting mad at the other are worth your time.
  • Try to avoid getting angry.  Anger can be addicting and it’s counter productive to really understanding what’s going on.  Social media seems to be designed to get everybody angry.  Don’t fall for it.
  • Don’t focus on the dumbest or craziest voices.  Focus on the smartest, calmest, most reasonable and constructive speakers.
  • The presence of problems is not necessarily a reason to be pessimistic or depressed. Try to get excited about solving them.

1 Comment

  1. rwoz says:

    This was a really interesting write-up you did, Bill. Interesting nuggets of perspective.

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