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Tweet From SXSWi '09: "Pessimists Die Quickly" (Gulp)

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Parsing Bruce Sterling's closing keynote humdinger

Bruce Sterling, sci-fi author, essayist, design thinker, and one of the founders of cyberpunk, delivered a closing keynote at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival (a.k.a. SXSWi), the jewel in the crown of U.S. grassroots tech bashes held annually in Austin, Texas.

He said,

"In times of real trouble like today, pessimists die quickly."

Sterling's pithy quote, picked up via Twitter (Mickipedia), raises the salient issue of what might constitute a meaningful optimism, given the tectonic shifts that are undermining the world and the planet we know.

"In times of real trouble like today." Scientists and economists are prone to conservatism. According to the March emergency summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, 2,500 climate experts agreed that climate change might surpass the worst-case scenarios outlined in the 2007 report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). At the same event, Sir Nicholas Stern, economist and author of The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, said he had "underestimated the climate crisis." As a writer, it's safe for me to go out on a limb and project that climate change will continue to exceed worst-case scenarios. Here's why: Scientists measuring the retreat of ice cover in the Arctic and West Antarctic are discovering new mechanisms that accelerate climate change almost every year. Furthermore, incomplete climate models are also contributing to the pace of climate change being continuously underestimated.

Despite time running down on the climate front, the economic crisis, not the climate crisis, remains at the center of government agendas around the world. This is based on the premise that governments need to reignite economic growth to recoup the trillions lost so they can eventually get around to making climate change the priority. In the midst of this, many governments want to institute a new Kyoto-style cap-and-trade mechanism as a key part of mitigating climate change. But as James E. Hansen, leading climate scientist and director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has pointed out, "The worst thing about cap-and-trade, from a climate standpoint, is that it will surely be inadequate to achieve the sharp reduction of emissions that is needed. Thus cap-and-trade would practically guarantee disastrous climate change for our children and grandchildren."

So, barring literal, Bible-style miracles, we're on direct course to Disaster. Full. Steam. Ahead.

"Pessimists die quickly." There are two kinds of pessimists: First, there are those who are pessimistic about how things will unfold (James Lovelock, 90, author of just-released The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning, and The Revenge of Gaia: Earth's Climate Crisis and the Fate of Humanity, is a pessimist of this variety). Next, there are those who are pessimistic about human nature. Hard evidence of accelerating climate change would behoove us to eventually adopt a Lovelockian pessimism, but to remain optimistic about our inherent goodness. Times of great turmoil and struggle -- such as those implied by climatic and economic disruption (food, water, shelter, money, and reliable information would be in shorter supply) -- demand that we awaken optimism. That optimism aids in survival has been shown in refugee camps, among disaster survivors, among those living in poverty, among the wrongfully imprisoned, heck, even among tech entrepreneurs burning through cash and looking for exit strategies. I concur with Lovelock that things aren't going to turn out well from an economic, ecological, or climatic perspective. Nevertheless, I believe we need to place trust in one another and create community-based responses, whole or piecemeal, in the face of constraints that are bound to grow over time.

A few more thoughts:

Wishful thinking turns all-too-readily into pessimism. When the bubble of wishful thinking bursts, it transforms into pessimism. Today, it represents increasingly wishful thinking to assert we can do battle against the entire planet's climatic response to industrial and agricultural activity. Why? Because the synergistic effects of falling aquifers, melting ice sheets, receding glaciers, declining biodiversity, a toxic atmosphere, and polluted rivers, lakes, and oceans, are proving too awesome to address, in part because pursuing wealth has historically been accorded more value than safeguarding nature in the collective societal and corporate imagination. Taking constructive action regardless of the outcome, however, and avoiding being ruled by either fear or hope, could make a difference: At minimum, working together would help us to envision and build an ad hoc human network for mutual support.

The twenty-first century will constrain choice. Given accelerating climatic, economic, social, and technological change, the twenty-first century will demonstrate the limits of human agency. Severely limited choice and a destiny of hardship would be a massive shock to those of us who have been inculcated to experience identity and self worth through consumerism. The question is, what positive steps can individuals and communities take before climate change becomes distressingly tangible and before we're attuned to its irrevocability? Under regimes of water shortages, extreme pollution, climate catastrophes, and an economic Darwinism virtually unimaginable 30 years ago, we would need to find the inner strength to go DIY, grow food, forge community relationships, and share resources, such as they are, so that kindness and generosity could touch as many people as possible.

Kindness matters. The twinned effect of a shrinking global economy -- and a dawning realization that a future of climate chaos is real -- would contribute to a mass psychology of fear, which represents a fundamental threat to human kindness, the most important tool we have for maintaining a social fabric. As it becomes clearer that survivability, not sustainability, is all we'll be able to prepare for, I believe a concerted effort to be actively kind with our intelligence, our inventiveness, and our resources can help to build a storehouse of community goodness that may well become our most valuable asset.

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