02/27/2013 10:14 am ET Updated Apr 29, 2013

Nine Reasons to Hope

I am relaxing in a courthouse waiting room and will soon find out whether I'll be selected to sit on a jury. My fellow jury pool members -- of every color, gender, and persuasion -- sit quietly in rows. The television in the room treats us to images of a rover collecting and analyzing Mars rock samples for signs of past water activity. It is a scene full of hope -- our justice system at work, where ordinary citizens decide, technology beaming in information from a neighboring planet, and no one yacking on a cell phone. It is a serene moment for collecting some thoughts.

From practicing environmental engineering for more than thirty years, and being alive and exposed to the news for longer than that, I'm acutely aware of the tragedies and travesties in the world and of the health, environmental, economic, and political crises we face today. We are bombarded with more bad news than ever before. But what does that signify? Bill Moyers's mentor, Paul Thompson, said, "News is what people want to keep hidden -- everything else is publicity." Does the bombardment mean that more awful things are happening, or that people are less able to conceal dark deeds? North Koreans likely do not feel that their news outlets bombard them with bad news. If they dared, they might complain of hunger, even while the good news blares from radios and televisions.

It is easy to become discouraged in the face of what the media reports all around us. Hope or despair is a choice we make as we interpret what we notice in the world. Here are nine reasons to choose hope:

1. An Awesome Resumé.

First, let's not forget our track record of thousands or millions or billions of years of evolutionary success, depending on how you define "we." And, beyond physical survival, consider the astounding human achievements in language, mathematics, science, engineering, art, music, philosophy, and more.

2. We're Hardwired to Strive and to Care.

All that evolutionary success leaves us with a built-in urge to survive and to help our children survive. Furthermore, teamwork provides humans with an evolutionary advantage, so the tendency to cooperate passes down from generation to generation. During a natural disaster or other calamity, we are amazed by acts of heroism and generosity even though, sure, there is some looting and greed. We also have a deep affiliation with nature that is rooted in biology. Thus, even though there is greed, we have a deeply innate propensity, refined over eons, to care for each other and for the natural world.

3. Our Miraculous Toolbox.

We already have solutions to many -- if not most -- of our problems, and we've already begun using them. All we need to do is apply them more often. Consider the following examples:

  • Solar, fuel cell, conservation, efficiency, and other energy technologies to replace combustion-based energy technologies
  • Organic agriculture to replace industrial agriculture
  • Preventive and alternative medicine to supplement conventional medicine, improve human health, and reduce health care costs
  • Contraceptive options to empower women and slow population growth
  • Satellite imagery to track natural resources so we can better protect them
  • Education to increase our knowledge and understanding
  • Democracy and global institutions such as the United Nations to promote cooperation, peace, equality, and human and environmental health

4. Larger Lives Than Ever Before.

We have more opportunities to live, learn, and experience than ever before. Average life expectancy in the United States has doubled since the 1700s, thanks largely to water and waste water engineering and medicine. Consider that Abraham Lincoln's son may have died, at age eleven, from drinking contaminated water at the White House. Our geographical reach is much larger too, even extending beyond Earth for some explorers, whereas in the recent past, travel often did not extend far beyond a village. Career opportunities have vastly expanded for many, especially women, whereas until recently, families may have been trapped in the same job and livelihood for generations. With a computer and a telephone, an entrepreneur can start a business.

5. Global Communication.

Thanks to telephones and the Internet, people can access information in two seconds that until recently required a trip to a library. We can communicate instantly with multiple people all over the world. We're interconnected as never before. Consider the worldwide response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

6. Intellectual Freedom.

Not long ago, ideas like "you are a sorry sinner" were drummed into many of us on a weekly or daily basis. Now, many of us can opt out of such thinking. We have the potential to hear and read ideas from all over the world and the latitude to think however we choose.

7. People Are Solving Problems.

Al Gore says "our democracy has been hacked," but people are fighting back; for example, pushing to get rid of "corporate personhood" and unlimited and anonymous campaign financing. Industrial food production is damaging our health, economy, and environment, but people are fighting back, for example, petitioning the government to require labeling of genetically modified foods.

We're not there yet, but Martin Luther King's dream of civil rights and racial equality for all is coming true. For example, a black president leads the United States. Special interests may be ravaging the environment, but people are fighting back. Democracy is spreading. Birth rates are decreasing. Women's rights have advanced on some fronts (though vastly more needs to be done). Young people are aware and engaged. Examples of positive developments are too numerous to count.

8. Crisis Provides Opportunity.

Crisis motivates. Indeed, crisis may inspire change and risk-taking, as when a person revises his/her entire life after surviving a life-threatening illness. Major political upheavals, such as the Civil Rights Movement and the Women's Suffrage Movement, are preceded by colossal injustices. Our current challenges bring with them invitations to change the game.

9. Hope Is The Empowering Choice.

Since we interpret the circumstances we find ourselves in, we might as well choose an interpretation that is empowering and satisfying. A positive attitude may help our mental and physical health, and it certainly is more enjoyable. Without denying the gravity of the challenges we face, we can still choose hope. Hope inspires actions, and positive actions are what we need.

I glance at the television again. The pathway of hope is more likely to allow us and our fellow species to survive and to keep Earth looking like Earth rather that parched, red Mars.

I am selected to sit in the jury. A few hours later, returning from a short break, I am surprised to see the plaintiff and defendant chatting amiably in the hallway. Soon afterward, the judge informs the jurors that the parties have settled their differences in this assault case and that we may leave. The mere prospect of a fair trial prompted the quarreling parties to reach agreement -- a happy ending that of course didn't make the evening news.