The case for optimism, cont’d: “The most radical political act there is”

Colin Beavan, a.k.a. “No Impact Man,” argues for optimism:

When I was child, and I first heard of war, I was appalled. My mother had taught me hitting was wrong. I categorically understood that people should not hurt each other. Then I grew up and I became realistic. Peace, feeding the hungry, a healthy planet, an end to war, these things just aren’t realistically possible, a mature mind understands. Well, when it comes to these things, I’ve been both an idealistic child and a realistic grownup, and I think I was a better person when I was an idealistic child.

I believe in the goodness of human nature. I believe we can get distracted by many things, but that, ultimately, we all want to do what is best. Because that is true of people, I believe we can make the planet better for all of us, that we can have peace, feed the hungry and end war.

I believe too that every action each of us takes makes a difference. Every time each of us rejects a disposable bag brings the world one step closer to being the kind of place where sea turtles don’t die from eating plastic. Every time each of us sacrifices a car ride brings us the world one step closer to being the kind of place where there is no global warming. Every time one of us tithes our income brings us one step closer to ending world poverty. Every time one of us calls a member of congress brings our representatives one step closer to caring more about voters than campaign contributors.

Perhaps people will think I’m too optimistic. But this is for certain: these things can’t be true if no one takes the chance of believing they’re true. Because if we don’t believe they are true, we won’t act as though they’re true. And if we don’t act as though they’re true, they can’t come true. That’s why realism does little but protect the status quo.

Being optimistic, on the other hand, is the most radical political act there is.

The more I think on this, the more I believe it to be true. Margaret Mead famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” What she didn’t explicitly point out is that those thoughtful, committed citizens must, at heart, be optimists — not naïve Pollyannas who expect to dream their utopia into reality, but people who find the courage and the will to work hard towards their big idea because they think it just might work.

When it comes right down to it, optimists are the only ones who have ever changed the world.

This is why, as funny as George Carlin often is, I’m not really a fan of his work. He makes some very smart and pointed critiques about society, but his underlying message is a nihilistic one: “The powers-that-be have won; the game is hopelessly rigged; there’s nothing you can do; we are all well and truly and irreversibly fucked.” Whether or not this turns out to be true, it’s an utterly useless observation. It does nothing to inspire people to get up off their couch and demand change. It gives them reasons to simmer in cynicism and despair — but not reasons to hope, and therefore, not reasons to act. And when nobody acts, then Carlin’s rants become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I choose optimism — like Matt Ridley, like Hans Rosling, like Carl Sagan, like Colin Beavan. In another post well worth reading, “Advice from an Accidental Activist,” Beavan says this:

The question is not whether you can make a difference. The question is, do you want to be the person who tries? […]

Who’s going to fix things if it isn’t us? I can’t help thinking that the time has come for us to take back our culture. It’s time for every citizen with a good idea to get to work, to trust yourself, to start. Sooner or later you have to accept the fact that you need no other authority than your good intentions and your loving heart.

More reasons for optimism here.


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One response to “The case for optimism, cont’d: “The most radical political act there is”

  1. Pingback: Who can make a difference? « Busy As A Beazer

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