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View from the Lectern: Pessimism is a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Two fault-line issues divide American society: (1) how much we should guide free-market forces using government regulation and (2) how much we should trust human ingenuity to infinitely extend Earth’s supplies of energy, resources and sinks.  Robert Costanza describes four possible futures that help us explore these issues.

  • In the Big Government future, new technologies are sponsored and thoroughly tested by government programs.  Businesses are heavily regulated. The goal is to minimize risks to human and ecological health.  Some profits are sacrificed to precaution, some useful innovations never see the light of day, and bureaucratic inefficiencies delay progress.  But the big risks of mass extinction, resource exhaustion, and ecological collapse are greatly reduced.
  • In the Ecotopian future, we realize the hopes of the currently popular localism movement and willingly pay higher prices so local businesses flourish, pursue agricultural careers so our foods can be locally grown, commute by bike, consume less, live closer to nature in communal dwellings, and care more for our local environment because we are familiar with and dependent on it.
  • In the Star Trek future, technology fuels our Cornucopian dreams.  Cheap, clean energy vanquishes all concerns of pollution and limits. We are digitally connected, transported, and self-actualized. Dangerous and difficult work is automated. Poverty is eliminated.
  • Social order has collapsed in the Mad Max future due to climate chaos and social unrest that destroys the stability global markets require.  Continuous wars are fought over resources, especially energy, food, and water.  Nations have failed, universities burned, militias roam, and the few remaining wealthy elite are self-imprisoned within gated communities.

Which future do you desire? Which do you think most likely?  I assign students this scenario planning exercise because I believe it is easier to create the future than to predict it.  I teach classes about sustainability, and to understand sustainability requires imagining possible futures, examining how beliefs and policies might shape those futures, and mapping development trajectories that will create them.

Every semester, a significant percentage of my students believe the Mad Max scenario is the most likely. The number varies from year to year depending upon current events (reports of technological breakthroughs, massive oil spills, or food riots) and the background of students (ecologists versus engineering or business majors).

The angst these people feel is visible on their faces when class discussions turn, as they inevitably do, to climate change, peak oil, fossil aquifers, genetic technology, biodiversity, poverty, and demographics.  Some are full-blown pessimists, tormented by visions of the slippery slope of exploitation that leads to collapse. They believe the forces of selfish greed and corporate capitalism are too powerful for enlightenment and democracy.  Technologies invented to solve yesterday’s problems just create tomorrow’s catastrophes.  And, the blind eye of the free market creates such inequities of power that corruption becomes absolute.  The litany of concerns is massive. A sense of inevitability promotes futility and paralyzes action.

“Why come to class?” I ask.  If there is nothing that can be done, then why continue the charade of preparing for a future where university education matters?  Why not instead learn survivalist skills, practice marksmanship, or just party?

A dose of pessimism can be prudent in discussions of sustainability.  It is necessary to face head-on the sobering and substantial challenges we confront. But too much of a good thing takes away the willingness to act, to make a difference, to affect the needed change.  If we give up before the test is over, then we are sure to fail.

R. Bruce Hull, IV, Ph.D. is a professor in the College of Natural Resources at Virginia Tech practicing social ecology. His work focuses on healing forests fractured by pressures of urbanization and globalization. He is author and editor of over 100 publications, including two books: Infinite Nature (Chicago 2006) and Restoring Nature (Island 2000). He serves on the editorial advisory board for Gale’s GREENR environmental and sustainability studies web portal.

Posted on: June 30, 2011, 9:30 am Category: View from the Lectern Tagged with: ,

One Response

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  1. I like your post. Like some of your students, I tend to be a pessimist. That being said, I believe that we should prepare for the worst while working to affect change and therefore hoping for the best. I have five children, so I can’t be too pessimistic.

    I think that sustainable energy will just win out in time, but perhaps not until we are really forced to wake up by the economic and geopolitical realities of what our oil is really costing us.

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