Optimism, pessimism, and realism…and generational attitudes

What do you think about our (that is, humanity’s) future on the Earth? Why? How about those around you? What do they think? Do you share their views? Would you characterize those as optimistic? Pessimistic? Or in between? Do these views seem to vary systematically with a person’s age?

You and I are forever conducting informal surveys. They aren’t very scientific, but we’re constantly assessing the mood of those around us. Sometimes we’re able to influence those moods, to change what people around us are thinking. But mostly? We’re buying in.

Here are some everyday examples. Let’s say you’re arriving at the Metro platform during rush hour, waiting for the next train. Let’s suppose that the platform is moderately crowded when you arrive. You instinctively, unconsciously start picking up cues. What’s the mood of the folks standing there? Are they relaxed, comfortable? Does it look as if they too have only just now arrived? Then the trains are probably running smoothly. On the other hand, if they’re looking slightly agitated, if their eyes are focused on the track as opposed to a newspaper or book, then you too grow more alert to the possibility of a problem. You begin weighing options.

Here’s another. You finally do get home and walk in the front door. Immediately you start picking up cues from your life partner about how his/her day has gone, and you can make a forecast about the evening ahead. That other person’s day has just become your day.

Or perhaps you’re in a football stadium. The players on the field are the center of the action. What they do is the trigger. But much of the experience is sensing and joining in the mood swings of tens of thousands of people, in full throat, in response to every hike, every catch, each field goal attempt. You’re the twelfth man.

Now, let’s get a little closer to this blog’s focus. Zero in on those workplace discussions, that deal so often with budget, goals, priorities, and the way the fortunes of your company, or agency, or university department play into the larger societal trends, or maybe even the sweep of history.

Some of those latter conversations? They might occur at work, or at home, or in your place of worship, or at a class reunion. How’s the world doing? What about all those wars underway? The domestic political situation? Life in the neighborhood? Or maybe the topic turns to the environment – the Earth as resource, victim, and threat. How are events trending?

In all these discussions, you and I will weigh in, but as we go along, we’ll find our assessments shaped by the inputs from those around us.

It’s been my good fortune to be a bystander and occasionally a participant in thousands of these discussions over decades. We could talk about them more generally, but instead let me make some observations based on conversations I’ve had over the past few days.

Think of this as a survey. It’s an amateurish effort. It’s a poorly-formulated, overly-subjective, anything-but-randomized survey – but a survey nonetheless.

Several of these conversations took place at a federal-agency research laboratory – one of the most prestigious in our line of work. The folks there were kind enough to invite me there for 24 hours, to give a talk and to meet one-on-one with a few staff the last two days of last week. The remaining two conversations took place at church Sunday.

The federal lab. Topics were wide-ranging, but what made these several conversations fascinating was hearing about the extension of weather- and climate-modeling to incorporate biogeochemical processes – and thus to practical societal benefit. Some of the extensions were as fundamental to modeling the carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorous budgets of the atmosphere and oceans. Some was as immediate as modeling the dispersal and transport of oil spills in the ocean or radioactive plumes in the atmosphere. I met young scientists whose resumes combined cutting-edge geophysical research and on-the-ground experience in science communication. The challenges they faced? A microcosm of those common to our field: The science challenge implicit in multi-disciplinary work. Sustaining decades of basic research so that when the next crisis hits – the next oil spill, or the next radioactive plume release, or stormy hurricane season or harsh winter – the science will be there to guide public- and private decisions. Keeping the career opportunities coming for the best and the brightest. The prevailing spirit? Let’s call it sober but confident.

The church. The first conversation was with teenagers – three brothers from a single family. We talked about tornadoes, how to detect them, measure their wind speeds. They’ve been reading the blog. Our conversation was brief, but their enthusiasm was palpable, infectious. The second was with two young friends. He’s finishing up a graduate engineering degree; I should know more about what she does, but I do know this; she’s quite a musician (flute) and singer. They’ve been reading the blog as well. They both were encouraging! I felt grateful.

In some of these conversations, people called me optimistic. They meant it as a compliment. But I have to confess, I don’t usually see myself that way. I’m a bit hesitant about the label. Look up “optimism” in the dictionary. You’ll find two definitions. The first says “a doctrine that this world is the best possible world.” The second says “an inclination to put the most favorable construction upon actions and happenings or to anticipate the best possible outcome.”

It seems to me that anyone calling himself or herself a scientist would not like to be closely identified with such a thought process, nor, for that matter, its opposite, “pessimism.” Instead, I’d prefer to think that I’m making evidence-based statements (along the lines of that Darwin quote on the home page of this blog).

But a lot of evidence suggests we human beings, while we need to apply ourselves during our lifetimes, have a decent chance to bring about a fairly successful future for the Earth and most creatures on it, at least for the next generation or so.  Two chains of this evidence come to mind.

The first is the continuously accelerating pace of innovation in all fields, and the way that social networking is threading all this new knowledge throughout society.

What’s the second? Well, consider this. A favorite hobby of people my age is complaining to our peer group. We say to each other, “the world used to be a terrific place, but now it’s going to hell in a handbasket (or variations on this theme).” But the cure for this bad attitude is spending time with younger friends and colleagues. There’s so much energy and juice. So much intellect and education. Such a strong commitment to enjoying life and making the world a better place. That was evident in all these conversations of the past few days, from these several different quarters.

It’s spring. Get out in the open air and listen to the conversations around you. Maybe you too will buy in to the (evidence-based) optimism.

And pass it on.

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