Looking on the Bright Side

There’s still good reason not to become a pessimist
July 1, 2010

You may have missed the news about a recent study by the Mayo Clinic on optimism and pessimism. The study over a 40-year period concluded that optimists tend to live longer than pessimists: “Grouchers and grumblers don’t enjoy the longevity that is reached by people who are happy and hopeful about the future.”

Having long surpassed my biblical three-score-and-ten, I suppose the Mayo Clinic would put me squarely in the optimists’ camp. This will perhaps come as a surprise to most of my readers, who have assumed from all my grouching and grumbling that I am far from optimistic about the future prospects of Canada or, indeed, of our entire global civilization.

In fact, I’ve always been an optimist, if the term is properly defined. James Branch Cabell once described an optimist as someone who believes we live in the best of all possible worlds, and a pessimist as someone who’s afraid the optimist is right. True optimism, however, is not synonymous with Pollyannaism. It’s a firmly-held belief that, as ominous as the outlook may seem, a better, cleaner, fairer world is within our reach and eventually will be achieved. (See George Monbiot’s refutation of pessimism on Page --.)           

Progress of that kind, however, has to start with a realization that a) the social and economic inequities that ravage our society are not normal or inevitable; b) fair and viable alternatives do exist or can be devised; and c) promoting these humane reforms and striving to have them implemented is a noble pursuit in itself.

As editor of The Monitor, I occasionally get letters and e-mails from readers complaining that its contents are too dour and depressing. The Monitor, however, is not a publication intended for people who want to escape reality. It is not meant to encourage the Pollyanna brand of optimism. Exposing the dark underside of corporate rule is unavoidably a grim undertaking, but the intent is to provide the knowledge -- and the motivation — that’s needed to mount an effective resistance movement. Reading The Monitor should ideally inspire that kind of informed activism. I think that for most readers that is what it does.

It’s not all doom and gloom out there. Many positive trends and developments have emerged in recent years that should lift the spirits of even the most dejected in our ranks. (And, who knows, they might even brighten up enough to join the Mayo Clinic’s longevity club.)

Some of the recent developments that have encouraged many of us involved in the struggle for social justice:

Recent polls have found that most Canadians a) think corporations should be more socially accountable; b) oppose the privatization of health care; c) favour substantial increases in the minimum wage; d) don’t want Canada to pursue closer links with the U.S.; and e) want genetically modified food kept off the grocery shelves. These are all welcome signs of growing public support for progressive change.

More young people are becoming active in campaigns for a better world. They are prominent among protesters against child and sweatshop labour, and exorbitant university tuition fees. Their numbers are also growing in the peace and environmental movements. This is as it should be, since our youth have the greatest long-term stake in the future of the planet.

Cracks have opened up in the global corporate ramparts, with some high-profile former champions of neoliberalism such as economists Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, and Jeffrey Sachs now sounding the alarm about its damaging effects. Stiglitz, once chief economist of the World Bank, has become one of the main critics of the Bank’s warped free-market policies. (See the review of his recent book Freefall on Page --.)

The success of campaigns against the WTO’s Doha round, the FTAA, and other attempts to reinforce the power of transnational corporations through extended NAFTA-style trade deals is encouraging. The Pentagon was so upset that it commissioned a study warning that power is shifting from governments and corporations to the NGOs. Of course the Pentagon always exaggerates the power of prospective “enemies” so it can excuse its massive armaments budget, but still the emergence of civil society as a major player cannot be denied.

The Internet has proved to be a tremendously important communications medium for everyone (with a computer) engaged on any front in the struggle for social justice. A source of much valuable information, it also provides a worldwide network linking reform-minded individuals and organizations around the globe.

*     *     *

So it’s not all black and bleak out there. Far from it. We’re still a long way from restoring true democracy, repairing our tattered social safety net, narrowing the gap between rich and poor, and halting the devastation of the environment. The enormous wealth and power of the élites remain intact. But we’re starting at last to get their attention and maybe even making them a bit worried about maintaining their oligarchy.

That in itself is ample reason for optimism.


Ed Finn is the CCPA’s Senior Editor.