The Politics of Optimism

**From the archives. This piece was originally published on on March 25th, 2008.**

I've written before about my belief that in times like these, optimism is a powerful political act. As I put it in the book,

Optimism is a political act.

Entrenched interests use despair, confusion and apathy to prevent change. They encourage modes of thinking which lead us to believe that problems are insolvable, that nothing we do can matter, that the issue is too complex to present even the opportunity for change. It is a long-standing political art to sow the seeds of mistrust between those you would rule over: as Machiavelli said, tyrants do not care if they are hated, so long as those under them do not love one another. Cynicism is often seen as a rebellious attitude in Western popular culture, but, in reality, cynicism in average people is the attitude exactly most likely to conform to the desires of the powerful – cynicism is obedience.

Optimism, by contrast, especially optimism which is neither foolish nor silent, can be revolutionary. Where no one believes in a better future, despair is a logical choice, and people in despair almost never change anything. Where no one believes a better solution is possible, those benefiting from the continuation of a problem are safe. Where no one believes in the possibility of action, apathy becomes an insurmountable obstacle to reform. But introduce intelligent reasons for believing that action is possible, that better solutions are available, and that a better future can be built, and you unleash the power of people to act out of their highest principles. Shared belief in a better future is the strongest glue there is: it creates the opportunity for us to love one another, and love is an explosive force in politics.

Great movements for social change always begin with statements of great optimism.

Recently, though, I've been getting asked a lot how it's possible to remain optimistic when the news is so bad, and progress on problems like climate change or global poverty seems hopeless slow. These questions started me thinking about why the tone of coverage and debate about the big issues we face is so unrelentingly grim.

hope-241086_640.jpgSome of that darkness comes, undoubtedly, from legitimate despair: from solastalgia about the loss of the natural world or from compassion for the horrible suffering of the millions whom our global economy has left behind. Some of it is the cynicism of disappointed idealists, folks who've seen so much of the underside of human nature that they've abandoned hope. Some is the narrative lure of collapse.

But I've come more and more to think that the particular dynamic we see in today's media and political debates, in both North America and Europe, springs also from politics. That its political nature goes largely unrecognized, even by some of that politics' fiercest partisans, may be merely a matter unexamined assumptions.

Here's what I see that politics being:

1) An explicit statement that we are incapable of actually solving the planet's most pressing problems, and that to consider doing so is "unrealistic."

2) A mostly unstated assumption that the reason embracing bold solutions is unrealistic is because those solutions involve unbearable costs.

3) A rarely voiced belief that "realism" ought best to be defined as "in the interests of those doing well today," and that "unbearable costs" ought best to be defined as "any meaningful change in circumstances whatsoever."

4) A widely practiced stance that, therefore, expressions of concern and extremely modest, almost symbolic, small steps and half measures are the appropriate course of action.

Though often combined with the politics of fear, this political stance might better be thought of as "the politics of impossibility." (It's as if Eeyore were running the public debate.)

Consider, instead, the politics of optimism:

1) That realism ought best to be defined as "within our capacity" and "necessary."

2) That we have the capacity to create and deploy solutions to the world's biggest problems, and the magnitude of the consequences of failure (both for ourselves and generations to come) demands that we act immediately.

3) That it is possible to act in such a way that the prospects of most people on the planet are improved. While certain costs will be incurred, the returns on those investments will be quite attractive, not only in ecological stability, international security and human well-being, but in terms of plain old economic prosperity. These solutions will make the future better than the present for the almost everyone, and greatly improve the lots of our children and grandchildren.

4) Therefore, defining our win scenarios, imagining the kind of future we want to create, describing the solutions that will make building that future possible, and publicly committing ourselves to success are the appropriate course of action.

Nothing about the politics of optimism needs to be naive. We can understand that people are fallible, mostly self-motivated and sometimes even mistaken about what's in their own best interests. We can stress the importance of informed decision-making, demand rigor and note uncertainty. We can recognize the massive differentials in power and wealth in our society and be clear-headed about the difficulty of opposing those whose power and wealth is tied to planetary destruction. We can anticipate setbacks and failures, disappointments and betrayals. We can expect corruption and demand transparency. We can freely admit the profound difficulty of the work yet to be done, even the possibility of total failure.

We can freely acknowledge the tremendous struggle ahead of us, and yet choose to remain decidedly optimistic, and to work from a fundamental belief in the possibilities of the future. When we do that, we liberate ourselves from some of the burden of despair and powerlessness we've all been saddled with at the dawn of the 21st Century.

But when we do it in public -- when we stand up and refuse to accept the idea that failure is preordained and action is unrealistic -- we strike right down to the heart of the political conflict we really face: the conflict between our party of the future and their party of the past.

I'm more and more convinced that incrementalism in the absence of committed vision almost always serves the politics of impossibility. Paradoxically, a lot of old school activism does as well. The impossibility lobby is entirely okay with Greenpeace or whoever doing direct action to highlight the latest dire predictions about the ruin of the Earth, because they've mostly moved on from debating reality to defining response. They're okay with people thinking the crisis is downright apocalyptic, so long as those same people don't think there's really anything we can do differently.

That's why our best hope lies in a fighting optimism, an optimism that's willing to confront the impossibility lobby and its messengers and make very clear that a feeble, halting response is not the rational or responsible response, but a corrupt and morally bankrupt response.

Every time we explain how a better future might be built, we redraw the boundaries of the possible. We show that the realm of choice available to us is actually quite large, and even includes paths that might, for instance, harm the interests of rich old guys who own big chunks of coal companies or the petrochemical industry but improve the prospects of pretty much everyone else.

We need to accelerate innovation and magnify vision. We need to school ourselves in the possible, share ideas, imagine outcomes, weigh options. We need to figure out how best to transform the systems we've built. I definitely don't have the answers personally, but Worldchanging aims to be a useful tool for people undertaking that exploration.

Ultimately, though, we need something more than better answers. We need millions of people who are willing to teach the teachable, comfort the disheartened and confront the scoundrels. We need to take our politics public and take on the whole culture of cynical defeatism. On some days, I think we need an optimism uprising.



It is really important that anyone who has a dim view of the near future (as I often do) but despises the entrenched short-term power interests that make this dim view that much more realistic (as I always do), realizes that pessimism can play right into the hands of those short-term interests.

However, I think it's also important to acknowledge how optimism can also play straight into their hands. Unthinking optimism ("it'll all work out in the end") is as much an excuse for inaction as unthinking pessimism ("we're all doomed"). The more I look at our culture, the less I can decide whether we're in manic denial of harsh realities or neurotically wallowing in despair. Really, the thread that binds both aspects to myopic vested interests is the "unthinking" bit. An opiated bubble of denial paralyzes as much as a depressed withdrawal from pain magnified by imagination past the point of tolerability. You've obviously got no truck with either; I just think "optimism" as a catch-all banner needs to be qualified more.

Posted by: Gyrus on 26 Mar 08

Any suggestions for how we might name or describe that eyes-open optimism?

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 26 Mar 08

Hi, Alex:

Although there are many Buddhist sects and practices, one commonly held idea among them is that compassion makes it possible to see clearly with an open heart and to be present for and with others no matter the circumstances. Maybe that's a kind of "eyes-open optimism."

The awakening of compassion is said to make people less self-centered and more focused on using their kindness and intelligence to assist others. Is it appropriate to ask how we might awaken compassion in response to the issues you describe?

Posted by: Sanjay Khanna on 26 Mar 08

Though I think your theory of optimism serves well as some kind of political ontology, how we consider ourselves as political beings, and as a rhetorical strategy for recruitment, I was put off by your disregard for greenpeace and the tradition of direct action.

There can be no change with out holding incumbent interests accountable. We can not force structural change in society without effecting the bottom line of the unwanted institutions. Media campaigns (as negative advertising) and direct action (as effecting the baseline operations of an institution, like with a sit-in) force malfeasant powers that be to change there ways or lose market share or raise operational costs or both. These tactics are tried and true from the labor movement to greenpeace's own work in exposing environmental ills.

And here I see a crucial problem with your thoughts, optimism, outside the field of rhetoric, is not a tactic or a strategy for bringing change.

So I humbly ask how can we turn optimism into action?

(to note, i do not use the term rhetoric pejoratively, rather it is one of the crucial interconnected elements of progressive social movements like action, recruitment, democracy and several others)

Posted by: chr15 on 26 Mar 08

I am cautiously optimistic because a large portion of the positive energy in this world - entrepreneurs, activists, educators, and other change agents - is turning its focus to climate change and sustainability. These forces are naturally optimistic, and they demand to understand and are determined to act. It will take more time - the process from awareness to understanding to action comes with a multitude of ups and downs - before the forces of optimism overcome the status quo, but it will happen.

Posted by: Kent Ragen on 26 Mar 08

Alex, thanks for posting this. I've long believed that in a cynical, hardened world, keeping one's optimism alive is a radical act.

You lay out our failing thought patterns very clearly. Some friends and I are starting a website in order to evolve those old obsolete thoughts into new and useful ones.

We are called The Sunny Way ( and we're launching next week with articles about how we can and must change our thoughts, loads of personal experiments, and profiles of folks on the front lines of building the clean, just, and vibrant future we all want.

Worldchanging has been instrumental to my development as a human who cares about this world, and I hope The Sunny Way can pass that eye-opening vision on to others. I envision us as a sister site, focused on the emotional and personal aspects of the worldchanging project. I hope WC readers will check us out and let us know what you think of what we're doing.

"Any suggestions for how we might name or describe that eyes-open optimism?

Posted by: Alex Steffen on March 26, 2008 11:21 AM"

Radical, practical optimism is what I like to call it.

Posted by: Madge on 27 Mar 08

your emphasis on optimism is well taken, but i think your more important point is about redefining realism.

We are not optimists, we are not idealists; we are realists whose reality has not yet come into being.

Posted by: justus on 27 Mar 08

Any suggestions for how we might name or describe that eyes-open optimism?

Perhaps by doing the work, which one wouldn't do without the eyes-open optimism. It takes eyes open to see the need for such work, and optimism to undertake a task of centuries.

Posted by: David Foley on 27 Mar 08

i guess i think of it as pragmatism. strictly, the word comes from greek, "relating to fact," but it gets a bad rap for sounding cowardly, visionless, when, by this dictionary, it's "dealing with things sensibly and realistically in a way that is based on practical rather than theoretical considerations" -- we've got things backwards, depending on yesterday's inventions and assumptions to answer today's problems. the pragmatic approach is creativity, here, because you do want to "deal with things" and your theory here is the BAU. "practical" is learning to love your inner mother of invention.

Posted by: hapa on 27 Mar 08

Alex – I wholeheartedly agree. I think that science + technology also has a role in this. As we have recently seen, peer-reviewed research + our best scientists can also (sometimes unknowingly) be step-children for entrenched corporate/governmental interests. So I would advocate a similar ‘politics of optimism’ be followed by our scientists. As Jeremy Faludi says in one of his recent articles: “…we need 100 more green chemists like Dr. Michael Braungart”. I would add that we need more of the politics of optimism and abundance that Michael and others espouse. For instance the very name of Dr. Braungart’s German company EPEA - Environmental Protection Encourage Agency; is a spoof in that optimistic direction.
Now where are the teachers? I would like to see a World Changing web section on the redesign education area. Thanks.

Posted by: Fred Klammt on 28 Mar 08

Optimism, I know a little about this subject. I once prayed to have an optimistic, hopeful, outlook on life. The prayer was answered in that I had to endure trials that lead to despair and despondency and break through those states, with help from a deep abiding faith.

When the two d's threaten to return I remember that they were largely illusion, that these states came from within me. That I have failed to remember the source of my strength.

We cannot know the future, and we can change how we deal with the present. So when something presses me down and robs me of hope I act to change what imprisons my heart.

I was blessed to find my way through and this is the answer to chr15 question "So I humbly ask how can we turn optimism into action?" It is acting that turns our outlook toward optimism.


Posted by: standingfirm on 29 Mar 08

Linked to from Flu Wiki.

Posted by: lugon on 29 Mar 08

How does the WC motto of "We're inheriting a broken future" fit in with the politics of optimism?

Posted by: Michael E on 30 Mar 08

I was excited to see your cogent analysis of the politics of cynacism. I've been dismayed by so much negativity in the commentary. I've been frightened it's generating self-fulfilling prophecies. Although facing up to the reality of our situation is a necessary first step,at the same time, spurred by the normal responses of fear and anger, we can consolidate an inner commitment. Rage can energize. Fear can focus. It's our commitment that counts. What do we love?
Realism is seeing the difficulty and choosing a response. Making a plan. Realism is what we can do. Embracing the direness of the situation and stubbornly choosing positive thought and action. Faith, determination, having heart, gratitude, awe, humor, even joy is available always.
There are solutions. We can turn poverty into abundance and alienation into belonging. We know how. We can sequester the carbon in the atmosphere by rapidly building soils all over the planet with keylining, a subsoiler plow technique that traps rainfall and allows crops and pastures to root deeper each year hugely increasing soil micro-organism life. And fertility. It's a positive feedback loop that can counteract the negative ones accelerating climate change. This is just one example. Another is we can grow biomass on marginal lands or in constructed waste-digesting wetlands and make our own alchohol fuel on a decentralised, community-building basis, and ignore nasty, polluting petroleum.
I agree realism can have a new basis other than the status quo.
The kind of optimism you are talking about is stubborn. It can embrace a hopeless situation and have faith anyway. Why not?

Posted by: Susan Butler on 31 Mar 08

Great piece, Alex. Spot on. I have written about a movement whereby the world is transformed into 6.4 billion romantic idealists.

Check out:

As always, you're much more focused.

Posted by: David on 3 Apr 08

Alex, this is so important. Together with your other article on neighborliness it points the way to the psychological and spiritual technologies that are needed to complement the green technologies. Learned optimism is a science unto itself. Self-awareness (stepping aside from one's own strategies for coping to hold the whole with warm compassion) is being taught everywhere - in meditation and self reflection. The dialog movement is growing and expertise in helping groups of people discover answers that none could find themselves. Can we see reasons for grounded optimism in these soft technologies - that we as activists are actually maturing. Without sound technologies for remaking our world so we can live within the limits of the earth's resources in creativity and peace, pure optimism isn't enough. I'm glad you are pointing in both directions.

Posted by: vicki on 12 Apr 08