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Cover photo taken by me at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, WA.
Optimists are often called naive.
The pessimists are, for some reason, considered being thoughtful intellectuals.
But are they?
Actually, it turns out that it is the pessimists that are naive.
Being pessimistic about humanity’s future is foolish. When someone says they think society has its worst days ahead and soon will go under, you should laugh out loud. That view has been debunked repeatedly throughout human history, and the risk of that happening is actually decreasing – but still it’s getting repeated.
Why is it naive to be pessimistic?
To show why it’s laughable to be pessimistic about our future, we need to go back in time about a hundred thousand years.
Up until then humanity’s progress had been really slow. I mean really slow. So slow that it is almost impossible for us to comprehend. Every major innovation took hundreds of thousands of years. That means that virtually no human being ever experienced any innovation. Their life was precisely the same when they were born, as when they died.
Humans back then could not speak. They had no clothes. Almost no tools. Life was tough and very dangerous. A minor mistake or a little bit of bad luck could cost you your life.
In humanity’s beginning it was rational to be pessimistic
Then it was rational to be a pessimist. Tomorrow was most likely not going to be better than today, and it could definitely be worse.
But something happened around this time in human history that changed this.
It is essential to understand what, because this change still affects us and is the core reason it is now rational to be optimistic about the future.
Humanity changed a hundred thousand years ago
What happened was that the pace of innovation accelerated. Compared to today it was still mind-numbingly slow, but innovations now came just a few thousand years apart instead of hundreds of thousands.
This happened because of population density. For a while people lived close enough together so knowledge - ideas - could spread between groups of humans.
For the first time knowledge started to accumulate.
That is the reason the pace of innovation keeps accelerating. We continuously build new knowledge on top of old knowledge. And that knowledge gives us better ways to spread ideas, to share knowledge. And on it goes.
Two breakthroughs combined pushed humanity forward
A perfect example is the technology of printing books and the implementation of democracy a few hundred years ago. Those two breakthroughs combined shifted humanity into a new gear.
At the time human life was still “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” as Thomas Hobbes put it in 1651. But since then we have more than doubled our lifespans, dramatically decreased poverty and increased wealth. Especially in the last few decades.
Two major breakthroughs – again
In the 1990s, the world went through a democratic revolution when the Soviet block keeled over and at the same time we started connecting all human knowledge in one giant digital brain, the internet. And with the smartphone, billions of people carry that knowledge with them 24/7.
And now, with a strong track record for a hundred thousand years and remarkable progress in the last decades, the pessimists think humanity will do a 180 and go under? That is just ludicrous.
But what about the problems?
But don’t we have considerable problems in front of us? Yes, but they are smaller than ever before - and we know how to solve them all.
Let me repeat that: We know how to solve all of humanity’s problems.
Even climate change. We know what needs to be done, and millions of people are working on those solutions. Progress is too slow, but the pace is picking up, and we are going to solve it.
A better future is likely, but not a given
A promising future is very likely for humanity, but of course it’s not a certainty. It could go wrong. There are existential risks, like nuclear war or accelerating global warming.
I think it’s here that the pessimists make their cardinal error. Just because things could turn much worse, it doesn’t mean it will. But they believe it will happen, just because it could happen.
That approach defies all logic. We’ve seen substantial progress for humanity because we have cracked the code. We know how to improve our lives, we know how to protect the planet so we don’t undermine ourselves. Sometimes we are frustratingly slow and surprisingly idiotic, but overall we are moving in the right direction.
A better chance of a bright future than ever before
Fact-based optimists realizes all this. They see the problems and the risks, but understand that the likelihood of a beautiful future is bigger now than ever before. That is rational, not naive.
Thinking a hundred thousand years of progress will end for no apparent reason is the naive view.
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