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Why We're So Pessimistic: Read An Excerpt from Upside
Paul Ehrlich wasn't the first, nor will he be the last, expert to get these things terribly wrong. In 1980, a lengthy governmental report entitled "The Global 2000 Report to the President" presented the predictions of leading experts of the day about what will happen in the future, and things weren't looking so good. They summarized their predictions as follows:
If present trends continue, the world in 2000 will be more crowded, more polluted, less stable ecologically, and more vulnerable to disruption than the world we live in now. Serious stresses involving population, resources, and environment are clearly visible ahead. Despite greater material output, the world's people will be poorer in many ways than they are today. . . . Barring revolutionary advances in technology, life for most people on earth will be more precarious in 2000 than it is now.
As we will see throughout this book, few of these expectations have come to pass.
Malthus, Ehrlich, and Global 2000 are far from the only doomsayers. A 1994 Atlantic Monthly article predicted "scarcity, crime, overpopulation, tribalism, and disease that would destroy the fabric of our planet." A bestselling book of that time warned that "perhaps hundreds of millions of people would soon die in unstoppable pandemics of mutant diseases, such as Ebola." A well-known futurist has predicted that the United States is headed for food riots and Central Park will be engulfed by shantytowns.
The High Cost of Unwarranted Pessimism
If this were just an academic exercise, then our perceptions of the world might not really matter, but it's more than that. In various ways, our negatively skewed understanding of the world causes real problems.
The prevailing view that most everything is getting worse makes it difficult to prioritize, since we don't know what is actually getting worse. If everything is a problem, then, in a sense, nothing is. David Whitman put it: "False alarms drive out true ones." Our fear of plane accidents might blind us to the reality that driving to the airport is actually more dangerous than flying. Similarly, the steady stream of fear messages about the environment can lead us to incorrectly prioritizing environmental problems. This incorrect prioritization literally can be a life-and-death matter. For example, in the 1990s, AIDS activists sought to raise concern about the disease, so they emphasized heterosexuals' potential risk of contracting it, even though it struck mostly gay men. As a result of this distortion of risk, government agencies shifted their focus to AIDS prevention among straight people-at the cost of giving it to the more needy gays. In California, from 1989 to 1992, only 9% of AIDS prevention funds targeted gay men despite the fact that they constituted 85% of all AIDS cases. This incorrect prioritization probably cost lives.
Viewing the world as getting worse also casts doubt on the efficacy of proposed programs and policies to make things better. If everything is getting worse, then the solutions imposed in the past didn't work, so why should we have faith in today's solutions? In general, fear messages are a good short-term strategy for getting people to act, but they are less effective over the long term because they disillusion and discourage. In fact, consistently pessimistic messages about the world can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Hearing that a problem has steadily gotten worse, despite our past efforts to alleviate it, might be enough to make us want to stop trying. Many advocacy groups use pessimistic, fearful messages to raise awareness for their cause, which ironically can actually reduce their effectiveness, as people stop believing they can change the situation. A spokesperson for Greenpeace acknowledged this when he lamented that the constant pessimism put out by environmental groups actually weakens their credibility as the public hears it year after year.