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Human Adaptive Optimism

aayzahmirza's picture

Aayzah Mirza

Paper 7(Final)

November 19, 2015

Here is the link to my first draft of the paper /oneworld/changing-our-story-2015/same-topic-different-voices

"Human adaptive optimism", as Oreskes and Conway have chosen to call it in the lexicon of archaic terms from their book "The Collapse of Western Civilization", is "the belief that there are no limits to human adaptability(Oreskes and Conway, 58)." Through their depiction of the future of the western civilization as one filled with doom, they have further supported their claim that such blind optimism is not feasible in the long run, and they are not the only ones who have given this predictionHerman E Daly, an economist whose works I have studied in my environmental science class, has not only referred to this phenomenon, but has gone one step forward and suggested a solution called the "Steady State Economy". This moves away from the passive belief that things will run their own course and future generations of humans will figure out ways to adapt and instead calls for ceasing the unchecked growth that stems from human adaptive optimism. However, is this notion too idealistic considering the human psycheEven though the authors of "The Collapse of Western Civilization" have dubbed human adaptive optimism as an archaic notion, to some extent it is still part of how humans function and the notion that impractical optimism should end entirely is almost as improbable as the belief that humans will find a way to adapt to any infliction. Moreover, what is it that enables people to adopt "human adaptive optimism" in the first place? 

Indeed, "human adaptive optimism" is merely a euphemism for being selfish and continuing our reckless behaviors, hoping some one else would clean up the mess we have made. In their interview, both Oreskes and Conway refer to emotional distance, being a reason for a few of the stylistic choices behind their book. Where Oreskes believes "viewing things in hindsight gives you emotional distance(Oreskes and Conway, 64)," Conway clarifies that his reason for setting the desolate future in 2093 is hinged on the fact that none of the authors would live to see the day something like the events they have predicted in their book could happen. While answering this question, the words, "emotional comfort" come up again(Oreskes and Conway, 71), giving us a clue to the underlying basis behind human adaptive optimism. Whether or not the authors intended to establish this, these concepts of emotional distance or comfort, can serve to explain why humans tend to believe so heavily in human adaptive abilities. Doing so is merely a means to distance oneself from the situation, and since most people think the notion of environmental disaster could only be plausible way after they are dead, they can distance themselves from the situation, and justify doing so by claiming that future generations will be able to adapt to the circumstances they find themselves in.   

An offshoot, then, of the human adaptive optimism, is what Daly refers to as "growthmania". It is the "insufficient pejorative term for the paradigm or mind-set that always puts growth in the first place" and stems from the belief that for every environmental issue, we can grow more and adapt to the situation. As Daly puts it, "Pollution and depletion? Grow so we will be rich enough to afford the cost of cleaning up and of discovering new resources and technologies" (Daly). This is an example of the manifestation of the human adaptive optimism and how that can lead to a future similar to the one described by Oreskes and Conway, because "one does not cure a treatment-induced disease by increasing the treatment dosage." Daly then moves on to suggest a "steady state economy" which unlike growthmania, is not based on optimism that we will be able to grow more and solve our problems, but on the need for investigating the consequences of our actions, in this case uninhibited growth, and subsequently stopping at an optimum growth rate. He furthers goes on to suggest that "technological fixes won't work(Daly)", thus implying that our optimism about the measures that can be taken by humans to solve the environmental crisis, whether it is hope that new technology could be developed, growth could be increased, or simply that humans will find a way to adapt is not sustainable. Through his proposal of the "steady-state economy", he suggests action that should be taken in the present, and restrictions which should be imposed on population growth, economic growth and fossil fuel use. Believing in single handedly exploiting resources, and increasing emissions due to growth as a result of our hope that we will be able to figure things out is not going to work.  

Even though, Daly's logically, statisticallyformed proposal seems like a reasonable step to take, my criticism on it is based on the improbability of it ever happening. Oreskes and Conway also fall short of actually explaining how to remove this characteristic from humans and without knowing how to that is to be done, Daly's proposal will not be able to be implemented. Surely, there are people who have begun to realize that such a notion is not realistic, yet, would it take a scenario like the one presented in "All Over Creation" that will lead us to change our ways? What use would it be then? So then, even people like me, who don't believe per se in "human adaptive optimism" would have to hope that we change our ways when doing so can actually save us and the planet we live in.  

Works Cited 

Daly, Herman, The Steady State Economy: Toward a Political Economy of Biophysical Equilibrium and Moral Growth 

Oreskes, Naomi and Conway, Eric, The Collapse of Civilization: A View from the Future. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014 

Note: I don't have the full citation for the Steady State Economy because it was put up on moodle by my environmental science professor and it was apparently part of a book. There was no further information given to us about the source and I couldn't find it online either.  




Anne Dalke's picture

a coupla technical details: quotations end after the phrase quoted, not after the parenthetical cite; also, my very quick search of both Tripod and Wikipedia turned up the citation information you needed for Daly's book (which you are still responsible for finding, even if your prof didn't supply it!).

Now on to more interesting matters. You really suprised me here--based on our last conference, I was expecting a paper from you about how to get beyond the phenomenon of human self-interest, how to get us all to think more long term, beyond the matters that immediately occupy us.

Instead, you tweak those questions, by setting against Oreskes & Conway's dismissal of "human adaptive optimism" (which you dismiss as a euphemism for being selfish) the counsel of Howard Daley that we work towards a "steady state economy" (his alternative to "growthmania," which you see as a manifestation of "human adaptive optimism").

I'm glad you brought in Daly's work; it adds a nice ballast to the sci-fi extrapolations of Oreskes & Conway. And I always like it when I see students setting up conversations among the materials they are reading in different classes. But doing so here hasn't really taken you very far, has it? Your essay is still mired in the claims of last week about the inevitability of future human suffering, because of current short-term-ism....Daly offers a counter to Oreskes & Conway's predictions. But then you show that their description of the human refusal to react to the knowledge we have shortcuts the solutions Daly proposes.

And so...? I'm actually wondering if analyzing the structure and shape of your paper might give you a way out of the box you've written yourself into....