Environment & Health Opinion Politics & Protest

Optimism and pessimism in a time of climate calamity: Why we need a new operating system

Earth Day has just passed. This year’s theme was the protection of species. Given that we humans have caused the largest species extinction in 60 million years, it is extremely relevant to focus on our thundering, catastrophic footprint.

The irony is, that in causing the extinction of other species, we have sped up our own demise. Scientists are now warning us that we have about 12 years in which to bring about unprecedented changes to our way of life, to attempt to deal with the damage we have done, and to stave off irreversible changes for life on our planet.

Logically, that sort of existential threat should scare us to our core and drive us to action and insistence on systemic change like never before. Yet, reader, most of our lives continue in much the same way as they did prior to this dire information entering our lives, barring a new stash of pretty metal straws perhaps, and even as we read about villages being swept away in Mozambique and watch Extinction Rebellion protestors from afar.

Climate change march school

Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

We do not seem to have the wherewithal to process the immensity of this warning, or just how quickly and how much life may have to change to keep this planet livable. Our lives require an all-new operating system, and it is perhaps just too much to imbibe that reality on a daily basis as we go about our lives trying to pay our bills and keep our appointments.

The underlying challenge is that we have been conditioned to think that our surviving and thriving relies on finding the silver lining in every cloud, and unfailingly focusing on the positives. And so, we bat away the menacing facts, and try to maintain business as usual.

“Rhetoric often fails us on climate because the only factually appropriate language is of a kind we’ve been trained, by a buoyant culture of sunny-side-up optimism, to dismiss, categorically, as hyperbole” writes David Wallace-Wells in his recent book, The Uninhabitable Earth. Wallace-Wells should know, as he was ridiculously labelled an alarmist for his climate change scenario-outlining tome.

It jars us to think about catastrophic facts, even if they are steeped in inevitability and reality. We fall prey to a complex series of psychological barriers when confronted by large-scale calamity.

It is not that people don’t care, but it appears that we really don’t want to disrupt our lives or inconvenience ourselves much. It annoys us to have our hard-won good moods and small happinesses disrupted by anyone reminding us that the death knell of our civilization is likely in the offing.

air pollution

File photo: Citizen News.

It would be foolish to disparage optimism in its entirety. That is not the point here. But, let us think of how dangerous it can be when our conditioning tilts into an insistence that can lead to us perceiving all critique and complaint as too negative to be useful, or unnecessarily disruptive.

Climate activists making exigent demands often battle these charges. “Complainers suffer the cruel imperatives of optimism: lighten up, suck it up, chin up, buck up. In other words: shut up,” writes Sarah Kendzior in the coda to her compilation of essays, The View from Flyover Country.

It should worry us greatly if a dismissal of the perceived negative might lead us conditioned Pollyannas choosing to just hope and pray. Hoping and praying are free, generally safe, and for the most part, reliant on someone or something else fixing the problem without compromising much.

Our reality is a harsh one that will not allow for shutting up or shunting the problem on anything other than ourselves. Compromises and sacrifices are going to have to be made. We have a difficult task ahead of us whether we like it or not. We are going to need optimism to deal with it, but we are going to have to open our ears to the critics, complainers, and alarm-sounders.

It behoves us to remember that the useful part of pessimism is its insistence on being awake to the worst of reality, and that ultimately, it signals the desire for change. It is heartening to remember that, “complaining means you have a chance,” as Kendzior puts it.

Earth. File photo: NOAA.

We don’t have clean and clear solutions at scale for climate change. Taxing the rich more, investing in better technology, cutting emissions, and re-wilding are sensible options. But, for most of us, how to participate in the necessary change-making is still a big question mark. Until that becomes clearer, finding the balance between the optimism that our survival depends on, and the pessimism that helps us be more critical and keeps us awake to our factually frightening reality, is crucial.


Kong Tsung-gan‘s new collection of essays – narrative, journalistic, documentary, analytical, polemical, and philosophical – trace the fast-paced, often bewildering developments in Hong Kong since the 2014 Umbrella Movement. As Long As There Is Resistance, There Is Hope is available exclusively through HKFP with a min. HK$200 donation. Thanks to the kindness of the author, 100 per cent of your payment will go to HKFP’s critical 2019 #PressForFreedom Funding Drive.

funding drive press for freedom kong tsung-gan

Optimism and pessimism in a time of climate calamity: Why we need a new operating system