The Danger of Pessimism

It is no secret that I am a rather negative person. Specifically, I have been characterized as an “over-aggressive, condescending, Debbie-Downer”.

Which is why I jumped at the opportunity to attend the Earth Optimism Summit on a scholarship a few weeks ago.

I was skeptical at first, as optimism I think can be dangerous- It makes people complacent. Because I am generally quite pessimistic, it is negative news and information that drives me to change. For instance, I stopped eating meat because that’s the best way to cut down your climate footprint. More specifically, however, I stopped eating meat because climate change contributes to world hunger and terrorism and my Irish guilt kicked in.

Coming from that perspective, I was shocked not only to hear, but to be convinced that optimism is a better marketing strategy when it comes to selling environmentalism and conservation.

Bear with me.

I’ve already talked about the fact that people can hold irrational fears with dangerous consequences.

I saw a lot of great talks at the Earth Optimism Summit, from some really cool people making really great changes. The overwhelming impression I got was that, even the in the face of very pessimistic odds, it was optimism that not only drove people to initiate changes, but got other people to support them.

We are in a period of time in history when we need to start making good decision. We need to make good environmental decisions, We need to invest in things that work, and we need to ensure that we fact check our feelings and fears.

When people believe that the world is doomed, they are more likely to feel desperate. They are less likely to to invest in positive changes. They won’t believe that change can happen or that that it’s not too late.

For instance, Michael Nagal found that when children are exposed to “doom and gloom” views, they are more likely to feel that their actions are futile.

“There exists in their words a foreboding sense of a future that is not very promising for their generation or for generations to come…the students…believed that all they could for the environment were small things like recycling and picking up rubbish. Moreover, these small acts are characterized as being more about futility and compliance than any sense of making a difference“* [emphasis mine].

I suspect that this is a view commonly held by many people, when in fact individual acts are some of the most effective ways to combat plastic pollution and food waste.

For instance:

“The average American consumer wastes 10 times as much food as someone in Southeast Asia,12 up 50 percent from Americans in the 1970s.”

And Take this:

Consumers are also complicit: We overbuy because relatively cheap and seductively packaged food is available at nearly every turn. We store food improperly; we take “use by” dates literally, though such stamps were designed to communicate peak freshness and have nothing to do with food safety. We forget to eat our leftovers, we leave our doggy bags in restaurants, and we suffer little or no consequence for scraping edible food into a bin.

We need to change our own habits in order to effect real, large scale change when it comes to two of the most pressing environmental and social issues we face.

But it’s not just food waste! Take a look at this interview with psychologist Espen Stoknes, in regards to how we convince people to combat Climate Change:

What we know from psychological studies is that if you overuse fear-inducing imagery, what you get is fear and guilt in people, and this makes people more passive, which counteracts engagement. This includes creativity as well. If you give people a guilt or fear-inducing message and then ask them to solve a problem that requires creative thought, there is a statistically significant reduction in the amount of creativity that people come up with to formulate solutions.


Turns out, I’m a psychological weirdo.

The interview concludes with this:

We need a new kind of stories, stories that tell us that nature is resilient and can rebound and get back to a healthier state, if we give it a chance to do so. We need stories that tell us that we can collaborate with nature

In other words, do exactly what we did at the Earth Optimism Summit two years later. Convince people that change can happen and they will be more likely to make changes.

Most of the people I saw or met at the summit didn’t have an unrealistic or rosy view of the challenges they faced. In fact, they were very well grounded in reality, more so then a lot of people. What they did have was a strong fact based understanding of the challenges they faced, and they could therefore create effective strategies to achieve their goals.

And remember, I said we should fact check our feelings. My feeling that optimism makes people complacent, and doom and gloom will drive them to action, is wrong. I still feel that optimism leads to complacency, but the data tells me that is not accurate. So I have to change my strategy.



*Nagel, M. (2005). Constructing Apathy: How Environmentalism and Environmental Education May Be Fostering “Learned Hopelessness” in Children. Aust. J. Environ. Educ. Australian Journal of Environmental Education, 21, 75-76.

(Sorry I couldn’t find an open access link)