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Optimism is better than despair

August 24, 2011

As a teenager, I wanted to be a veterinarian. Then I found out I would have to go to university for seven years to become a vet. That amount of time seemed unfathomable for me at age 17. So it is somewhat humorous that I ended up spending nine years at university studying rocks instead!

On one level, I am really happy that I have such a strong Earth Sciences background. But I find, more and more, that I wish I didn’t know the things I know. Especially regarding the future of our planet and the future of our species. Last week I talked about our planet, this piece of rock whirling its way through space. It’s been doing that for several billion years now – and it will continue to do that.

But it’s quite possible that, within a few decades or a century, it will be doing that without us… or at least without most of us.

The problem with having this scientific knowledge, this understanding of the magnitude and scale of earth processes (e.g. how long it takes for something as big as a planet to heat up or to reverse that heating; how significant a degree or two of warming is when you consider how much energy that represents when that degree of temperature is an average over the planet – in other words, a huge addition of energy) is that it makes it hard to feel optimistic. Because my outlook on what we are doing, where we are taking ourselves, is too grounded in fact. In reality.

I think a lot about this idea of optimism. Often, I feel like optimism is an evil thing. We can feel optimistic that someone will find a solution, or that technology will save us, or that the Lord will intervene. But by feeling that optimism, it gets us off the hook: instead of realizing where we are headed, instead of doing something to prevent that bad outcome, we can just look on the bright side, have faith that it will all be OK, and go about our merry business.

I remember feeling this way when I worked on an adventure race in Chile. I was in charge of safety for the kayaking sections of the race. To me, that meant that my job was to foresee what could go wrong, in advance of it ever happening, and taking the actions to prevent it from happening. To think of all of the “what-ifs”. What if someone broke their paddle – do we have spare paddles on the compulsory gear list? What if the teams are far apart and a strong wind comes up and tips several kayaks at once – do we have enough support boats to effect all the rescues? My Chilean colleagues accused me of being a pessimist. “Just think positive,” they admonished. “Pray that the wind doesn’t come up.”

But I wasn’t being pessimist. I was just looking ahead, being realistic. These things happen in Patagonia: the wind does come up, and the water is very cold. We are an intelligent species. (So they say). One thing that we humans can do is look ahead and see where things are going, and take action to influence that course.

As I look ahead, though, with all of this bloody Earth Sciences knowledge that I hold, I find it hard to be optimistic. In fact, for the past few years I have felt that this knowledge, which forces me to be a realist, has also turned me into a pessimist.

In fact, until this week, I thought that I held out no hope at all.

But on Monday, Jack Layton, the man who epitomized hope and optimism, died. I am surprised – no, shocked – that for two days I have been in tears over a man, a politician no less!, who I never met, who I never once saw in public.

And I realize that I must still have some hope left in me. I would not be crying if I had already given up.

Jack gave hope to our whole country – even to a realistic pessimistic cynic like me. It is so sad, so very very sad, that we will never know what he would have accomplished in these coming years, these years that he should have had, as Leader of the Opposition.

Jack Layton’s last words to Canadians have been oft-repeated these last two days, but they are worth repeating:

My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.

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