Why the optimism?

In the face of all the catastrophe thinking and story-telling, why the optimism of thrivability?

This optimism is not blind idealism or the search for some dreamy utopia. A thrivable world will exist (and has existed) in a strange balance and tension where there is more health and generativity than illness and destruction. That does not mean there is not destruction. Old orders must fall, become the compost of new life, and cycle through. Ideas get refined and transcended. A thrivable world is not static. It is not the end of suffering or the birth of a hedonistic paradise. Instead, think of a garden or better yet a meadow.

So, let’s be pragmatic. What is the basis for being optimistic about thriving given stories of catastrophe and crisis. I will merely mention these – you can find more easily by digging deeper on any of it. This is the big picture overview. Also, it is not comprehensive. I offer here only a half dozen examples of why optimism is warranted.

  • communication – never before has communication been so possible – over distances, between languages, across cultures, etc. Information can flow. There is talk of a global brain (although at times that brain may seem primitive and dumbly focused on sex, superficiality, or bad news). It still remains – never before have we had such access to each other. (nods to Deanna Zandt)
  • cognitive surplus – never before have so many had so much liesure time. Not saying we are effective with it, but the possibility of people contributing their time, wisdom, and resources has never been greater. (nods to Clay Shirky)

Yeah, you heard those before….but it is working? What about people who are dying!

  • hearts break as we read of children dying, but what is the trajectory? UNICEF says:
  1. “Research and experience show that six million of the almost 11 million children who die each year could be saved by low-tech, evidence-based, cost-effective measures such as vaccines, antibiotics, micronutrient supplementation, insecticide-treated bed nets and improved family care and breastfeeding practices.”
  2. “While global immunization rates have risen from less than 20 per cent in the 1970s to about 74 per cent in 2002, millions of children must still be reached.”
  3. “In its sixty years of existence, UNICEF has seen a fifty per cent reduction in under-five mortality between 1960 and 2002.”
  • Peace on the rise. I know it seems like the opposite. But let’s look at some charts to see what the numbers tell.
    via systemicpeace.org

    via systemicpeace.org

    We can see from figure 8 that the conflicts that do exist produce more refugees and exist in poorer states and thus require more humanitarian relief. However, note, “The end of the Cold War, marked by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, had an equally dramatic effect on the general level of armed conflict in the global system.” A couple key points:

  1. “Separate research indicates that the increasing level of societal war results from the protractedness of societal wars during this period and not from a substantial increase in the numbers of new wars.”
  2. “At the peak in 1992, nearly thirty percent of the countries in the world were experiencing some form of major political violence. This percentage of the world’s independent states (with total population greater than 500,000 in 2008) has dropped by nearly one-half since the peak, registering at slightly more than 15% with major episodes of political violence in 2008.”
  3. “There has been substantial improvement in general resilience in the global system since 1995.”
  4. “Global gains are observed for seven of the eight fragility indicators; only “economic legitimacy” shows no improvement, indicating that there has been no substantive shift away from primary commodities production toward manufactured goods in the world’s more fragile states.”

There are a few counter-trends to be wary of (see end of page)

Okay, so kids are more likely to live (but we can keep improving that) and there is a downward trend in warfare/armed conflict. We can communicate better and have more time to make the world better (or be entertained or both). But what about the environment?

Let’s try wikipedia this time:

In 1999, the United States EPA replaced the Pollution Standards Index (PSI) with the Air Quality Index (AQI) to incorporate new PM2.5 and Ozone standards.

The effects of these laws have been very positive. In the United States between 1970 and 2006, citizens enjoyed the following reductions in annual pollution emissions:[48]

  • carbon monoxide emissions fell from 197 million tons to 89 million tons
  • nitrogen oxide emissions fell from 27 million tons to 19 million tons
  • sulfur dioxide emissions fell from 31 million tons to 15 million tons
  • particulate emissions fell by 80%
  • lead emissions fell by more than 98%

Please don’t take this to mean that we are done. We are not. AND, when was the last time you heard that we had made progress?

So we have been making some progress, and actually there are some positive trends. Now let’s add in a few juicy additions:

  • Purposeful or meaningful life pursuits are on the rise, in fact there is a convergence. Millenials – in general – prefer purposeful work and play, GenX is interested too, and the Boomers who made money so they could have a meaningful life later – well, that later is arriving. What happens when you have multiple-generations with a growing interest in living on purpose, with intention, and therefore being conscious about doing more good in the world?
  • Social entrepreneurship (probably in part as a result of the previous) is on the rise – a very hot trend with many subsets and variations in making money by or for doing good. Let’s call corporate social responsibility one of those variations.
  • A paradigm shift in leadership and collaboration is underway. Beginning a few decades ago with the birth of servant leadership, and reinforced by books like “Outliers” (which shows the supporting factors that go into supposedly independent genius)… now we have open source, crowdsourcing, and so much more. How we think about working together is changing. And that change makes more successful collaboration possible.
  • Green technology. Some of us find it so incredibly sexy. And sometimes it really is. Sometimes it is wishful thinking or innovation many years from implementation. However, I can count 4 wind farms on my 120 mile journey to see my family. I sense some potential black swan like shifts if some clean green energy or technology comes to market… whether that algae that eats pollution or cars run on the biofuel made by your food waste… I have hope that something out of the bright green movement is going to come to fruition in a way that changes the world dramatically.
  • I’ll close my brief list with metrics… we have been improving our metrics (and our intelligence in how those metrics can be used to tell different stories). The better our metrics – and the better we are at realizing what to measure, the tighter and more useful our feedback loops become. From using social network analysis to map out which congresspeople are being lobbied by what organizations (and who is paying them)… to stats on child mortality, the environment, and energy consumption and creation – we know more about our world than ever before. And that empowers us to do more about it.

These are just a few of the things that make me optimistic in the face of catastrophe stories. What are yours?

On twitter–

@jhagel: More cause for optimism – we are having fewer children and living much longer – great visualization of global trends http://bit.ly/c93ven

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