The Dark Origins of Optimism and its Current Cheerful Evils

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A seductive but deceptively skewed school of thought has enchanted our elite. It teaches that “optimism” is essential to solving society’s problems (it comes in many flavors including, New Optimism, Rational Optimism, and Techno Optimism). Its veritable bible is Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, which gazillionaire Bill Gates called “the most inspiring book I’ve ever read.” He gushed “If I could give you all a gift, it would be” Pinker’s book. (Gates actually could easily buy a copy for every rich-nation household for a small fraction of his then $90-billion fortune; as we’ll see, it wouldn’t be as appealing to those in poor nations.) Pinker’s glad-tidings tome marshals masses of data and charts to plot humanity’s empirical progress. Dramatic drops in violence, poverty, infant mortality, and many other measures show happy trends that counter the gloom of most media, with its dark, if-it-bleeds-it-leads biases. Pinker’s prestige as a world-class scientist has added to the persuasive impact of his data-drenched rhetoric. His upshot? Carrying on with neoliberal recipes (i.e., market optimism) is the best way to extend these cheery chart trends —just keep the faith in free markets, rational greed, and tech. What a superbly elite-soothing message. It must be such a relief for the rich to see the world through these self-flattering, rose-colored glasses— Pinker casts plutocrats as the heroes driving humanity’s glorious gains. But what does Pinker’s slick sciencing of history neglect? What is lost in squeezing the past’s copious complexities into neat lines on graphs? Plots that recast a gospel of greed as the one true path to humanity’s salvation.

Let’s begin by recalling that optimism wasn’t always seen in such a positive light. In fact, it was once a justifiable insult. OG optimism was born in 1710 and took a century to mutate into our loosely used, buoyant meanings (e.g., “tendency to take a hopeful view,” from 1819). But optimism began life as a term of art in theology that gained wider currency only decades later through a smash-hit 1759 satire still read today. The full title of Voltaire’s novella is Candide, or Optimism. It mercilessly lampooned the don’t-worry-be-happy doctrines of the polymath Gottfried Leibniz and philosophical poet Alexander Pope. Leibniz coined “optimism” to mean that we live in literally the “best of all possible worlds.” Pope, in perhaps the eighteenth century’s favorite poem, asserted, “One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.” Both views struck Voltaire as obviously preposterous and far from benign; indeed, he saw them as dangerous.

Throughout Candide’s ordeals, his tutor, Dr. Pangloss, applies strict optimism: all events, crises included, are for the best. Even the syphilis Pangloss contracts he deems positive, since the pathogen of passion came in the same package of plunder that brought chocolate to Europe from the New World. Voltaire saw how such optimism could easily sanction a numbing indifference to human suffering. It was a worldview plausible only to young aristocrats, born into blessings and privilege. Voltaire declared that even an obliviously optimistic aristocrat “full of health and feasting in his salon with his mistress and jocund cronies … [need] merely stick his head out the window” to see untold miseries. But here Voltaire isn’t being fair to Leibniz, who neither denied that evils existed nor that the innocent suffered. Quite the opposite: Leibniz justified both. Therein lies the danger of optimism, then as now.

Leibniz invented optimism in a book called Theodicy: Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man, and the Origin of Evil (typically shortened to The Theodicy, which means the “vindication of God given the problem of evil”). Leibniz was a God-and-math-smitten genius; in his teens he imagined settling “all philosophical debates” using a purely ”logical language” that an “arithmetical machine” could process. He invented calculus independently of Newton, and he and his Enlightenment peers harbored vast hope for what math-driven thinking could do. They hoped to replicate Newton’s astounding triumph of taming heaven-and-earth spanning complexities to a single rational pattern. A single mathematical equation behind all the bewildering earthly and cosmic chaos. Leibniz’s argument that this had to be the “best of all possible worlds,” was intended in both a moral and mathematical sense (the math justified the existing moral order). 

So how exactly did this genius justify the gigantic contradictions between earthly evils and God’s almighty goodness? Leibniz offered two main arguments to rebut “ridiculous critics of God’s works.” First, while God’s goal was the maximum “happiness of minds,” it would be “parochial to think that human happiness is the standard whereby the goodness of worlds is to be judged.” Angels and extraterrestrials had rational minds, too. Second, to Leibniz’s math-dazzled mind it was obvious that God had ordained that nature should operate “by maxima and minima”: By God’s very nature, his creation must do “the most good at the cost of the least evil.” Thus, all that exists is part of the divine plan, and all “evil” serves God’s greater good (albeit often in mysterious ways). This calculus of optimizing and morally economizing imagery was vital to casting all woes as necessary evils. And of course, Leibniz could play the afterlife card: what seems to be unjust earthly suffering pales against eternal bliss and salvation. But that’s only for the lucky chosen few, the rest face infinite hellfire and damnation (the fate of the unchosen reveals dark currents in certain kinds of joyfully punitive Christian psychology, for instance St. Augustine wrote that in order that “the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned,” however fruitful Augustine’s work is infamous for featuring impeared judgement). Amusingly, the view that ever-present evils imply the benevolent creator can’t be all that is known as God’s “underachievement” argument. Also comical are the exegetical exertions needed to ignore scripture’s copious testimony to divine crankiness at the very least, if not frequent smite-happy cruelty.

As Voltaire warned, the idea of an all-for-the-best grand plan has been used to justify inaction in the face of gigantic suffering. Two titans of early economics, Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo, decried conventional charity—misery and starvation, they argued, were God’s provident checks on the at-it-like-rabbits poor. These economizers preferred harsh, for-profit workhouses formalized in 1830s Poor Law reforms. In Hard Times Charles Dickens attacked the “scientific cruelty” of economics (to use Austrian sociologist Karl Polanyi’s great phrase), skewering a character who believed “the Good Samaritan was a Bad Economist.” Few now recall that “theology shaped political economy” well into the nineteenth century. But of course resource use is always a deeply moral business, even when hidden in opaque heavenly plans or under earthly but no less mysterious mathematical optimizing schemes (optimal only, as we’ll see, from the elite point of view).  

Many economists and market optimists now abet a similar calculus of callousness. Like Pangloss, today’s pro-market pundits preach that material suffering is all for the best. It is a superbly seductive message for our contemporary versions of Voltaire’s smug, upbeat aristocrats (typically styled as deserving meritocrats). Like Leibniz, our current cheer-mongers urge a smiling continuation of staggeringly unjust but conveniently self-serving status-quo systems (as an aside, Leibniz was notoriously “addicted to money”). Their equivalent of a best-of-all-possible outcomes is manifested in what they sell as the rational resource allocations of the almighty free market, which enforces the grand plan of their god-of-greed. They cast free markets as also a mathematical optimization scheme, often imagined and theorized in a manner tantamount to omniscience and quasi-omnipotence. Markets are said to maximize earthly “happiness” in the form of ever-escalating consumption (for the fortunate few). Market zealots often alchemize the suffering of the poor as serving a greater good: every kind of exploitation keeps prices low, which maximizes consumption (for the moneyed). But this rationalization, this math-justified optimal Market Providence, is riddled with deep anti-poor biases. To the market god, your ability to avoid material suffering, never mind to aspire to flourishing, goes strictly according to your demonstrated market virtues, expressed solely in cold, hard cash. That’s the core doctrine of trickle-down market theology, which lets elites feel good about their blessings and exploits. Surprising support for this market critique is offered in the spiciest Federal Reserve footnote ever: the Fed’s own Jeremy Rudd wrote that “the primary role of mainstream economics … is to provide an apologetics for a criminally oppressive, unsustainable, and unjust social order.”

With this context, let’s revisit Pinker’s parade of plutocrat-pleasing trends as expressed in two of his favorite fun factoids. For starters, he declares that 137,000 people have escaped extreme poverty every day for twenty-five years. He also says that markets have lifted “a billion people out of poverty.” Despite the shady shift in terms to imply not just out of extreme poverty, but out of poverty all together, both factoids used a poverty threshold of $1.90 per day, which is adjusted to the purchasing power roughly akin to what that amount buys in America. That’s $694 per year, or about 5 percent of our current federal poverty line (about $15,000 annually or $40 a day). Why is one-twentieth of rock-bottom American poverty an acceptable metric for the Global South (whose people are mostly non-white)? To see what Pinker-style optimists are up to, let’s pinpoint the cui bono in global income gains. From 2007 to 2017, the global personal income pie grew by about $38 trillion. Top-decilers got 24 percent of that while bottom-decilers got 0.16 percent. So, under the regime of optimism-based market providence, the global poor concretely “merit” a gain about 220 times less than that of the global rich. To make this optimistic obscenity clearer, the average annual individual gain in that decade for top-decilers was $1,300, while bottom-decilers secured just $6 more a year (or 1.6 cents per day). Does this really amount to an “escape” from poverty, or even extreme poverty? Here’s a chart of global income gains by decile.

What Pinker cheerily Panglosses over is that vastly greater progress could and should have been made. Only $1 out of every $640 in global income gains reaches the poorest. But if say 5 percent the top-deciler gains were redistributed, bottom-decilers could secure $65, meaning they escape poverty about ten times faster (while global elites suffer one less fancy bottle of wine or miss out on one so-so restaurant visit). Pinker’s progress on poverty is a tiny fig leaf to hide the gigantic and gruesome enormity of elite greed. The UN’s Olivier De Schutter proposes “robust redistribution,” since at empirical market “growth rates, it would take 200 years to eradicate poverty under a $5 a day line.” So the much-touted market-optimist gospel will take eight generations to get the global underclass to a still hideously low one-eight of what defines poverty for citizens of our ‘developed’ nations. Why haven’t we seen that chart in data-driven optimism-promoting press? It is just grotesque to paint this as good news while in every year of those eight generations, gains for the rich will be hundreds of times greater than for the poor. Pinker grossly errs in deeming elite luxuries “morally irrelevant” and in celebrating inequality as “a harbinger of opportunity.” Although he more rightly says that what’s “morally important is that each should have enough,” somehow his Ivy-Leagued galaxy-brain can’t connect the obvious dots.

There are far faster ways to end poverty (if that’s really your aim) than by depending on today’s market-optimist greedfest. As the World Inequality Lab (WIL)has calculated, a tiny 1.5 percent wealth tax on centimillionaires would net $579 billion—that’s triple current global development ‘aid.’ The same tax on all millionaires would net $1.6 trillion, ten times today’s aid. And actual benefits for the poor could be much greater if we avoid the demonically sinful way today’s “aid” is delivered, as onerous loans: 3.3 billion people live in nations where debt interest exceeds public spending on education or health; leaders are forced to send more money to rich-world bankers than goes to basics for their citizens. WIL notes that money flows out of Africa at a rate three times the amount of “aid” going in, concluding that rich countries only “pretend to help poor nations.” This so-called aid is a charade. And so is dogmatic faith that markets are in the business of ending poverty. We can’t let plotting elite-biased data mask that Pinker fans in the global top 1 percent on average purloin more in 12 days than the average bottom-deciler does in an entire lifetime. One of the stark realities that Pinker-style pretty charts divert attention from is the fact that the per capita income gap between rich and poor nations is growing.

Pinker is hardly alone in the well-rewarded, elite-flattering courtier game. Consider the techno-optimistic take of New York Times columnist Ezra Klein on the climate crisis. His op-ed headlined”Your Kids Are Not Doomed” (which, by the way, is far from a sound bet) notes that due to climate change the world’s poor will face “vast expanses of … suffering” (millions of their kids are already being visited by varying degrees of doom) and we rich-worlders “will have looted the future of billions of people to power a present we preferred.” But where the rubber meets the road for this nice-guy neoliberal progressive, those mountainous miseries can’t outweigh “political realism.” The unassailable logic of “political realism” mandates that only an awesome “vision of more” is viable for NYT-reading elites. In Klein’s green future of abundance, electric cars thrillingly accelerate faster, induction stoves nix indoor pollution, and life just keeps getting better—first and foremost for his elite audience and only many generations later for the global poor, assuming they survive the tsunami of suffering headed their way. Klein’s maneuver helps his readers feel good as they materially (and thrillingly) accelerate away from the quagmire the poor are doomed to be caught in. This kind of optimism has the darkest of underbellies, it is but a thin veil over morally-poisonous pessimism. Klein, like most of our political class, assumes that we citizens won’t ever do what’s right without incentives or personal gains. Even in a global crisis where billions will suffer, viable policies must be “win win” and profitable or fun or easy for the powerful: Klein asserts that “A climate movement that embraces sacrifice as its answer or even as its temperament might do more harm than good.” The key question is, more harm for whom?

In this neoliberal market-optimist worldview, looting to provide the elite with their treats is just how the world works, extending the centuries-long trend of genocidal violence and plunder under liberal imperialism (which Pinker has gussied up as “gentle commerce”; for further details see Forgotten Free Market Holocausts). This sort of optimism, twinned with justice-twisting “political realism,” sabotages material and moral progress that should prioritize gains for the less-blessed, least powerful and most vulnerable (who are least to blame for these world-scale woes). And, as we’ll see, Klein’s good-time gang ignores key lessons from progressive history.

Klein’s brand of wonky dogmatic optimism is perhaps worse even than the obliviousness of Voltaire’s aristocrats. Klein has looked out of the window of the feast and can catalog the escalating harms heaped upon or heading for those not born into the “imperial mode of living” in rich nations. But in the emaciated political imagination of these opulently resourced optimists, gains for the poor are impossible even to conceive of unless they deliver more luxuries to those already enjoying the cushiest-on-the-planet lives. It’s puzzling, and appalling, that passionate fans of for-profit Providence (and its supposed mission to maximize human flourishing) ignore how regularly markets make massively immoral resource misallocations. A small example germane to Klein’s elite (auto erotic) thrills: a single battery charge of a large EV can exceed the annual per capita electricity use of a billion plus of the planet’s poor (sub-Saharan Africans average 180 kWh a year while some large EVs have 200+ kWh batteries).

Even securing enough calories to avoid malnutrition or starvation is subject to the market god’s sternest test. Although the global food system produces more than enough for all humans, not only do “efficient” markets use 77 percent of farmland to fatten meat for the wealthy but rich-world pets are more food secure than 2.4 billion  people (one in three humans). And 150,000,000 kids are permanently stunted by malnutrition while grain for biofuels “eats up enough food to feed 1.9 billion people” every year. Do such market outcomes, which mock fine Enlightenment philosophizing about equal human dignity, provide well-reasoned grounds for optimism in the eyes of the poorest people? These inequities are a stark contrast to what Polanyi describes in his history of the rise of capitalism: ”as a rule, the individual in primitive society is not threatened by starvation unless the community as a whole is.” Yet in our optimistic market-cult, greed-driven ghouls gain by gambling in food commodities. To put it plainly, some of the richest people and institutions in the world (including university endowments) profit by taking calories out of the mouths of the world’s poorest babies. We must quickly correct this malignant moral myopia masquerading as optimism.

Non-Western perspectives on all this are vital. As Indian novelist and critic Amitav Ghosh writes in The Great Derangement, we are experiencing a “crisis of culture,” which is to say, a crisis of desire and of imagination. The West’s life-shaping stories and the emotional and moral tastes and impulses they inspire have failed to help us meet the troubles of our times—or even to make a decent effort. Ghosh laments that too many of us are “in the thrall of a dominant culture in which the idea of the collective has been exiled from politics, economics, and literature alike.” English literature, he says, has become “a leading disseminator of the ideology of morbid individualism.” Ghosh points to the kind of literature that arose alongside the market-cult of neoliberalism as expressed by John Updike’s claim that a good novel must be an “individual moral adventure.” He counters Updike’s view with the example of The Grapes of Wrath, which he calls “perhaps the single most influential novel written by an American in the 20th century.” It is, he says, “in every way a novel about a collective predicament,” and he asks, “How could you possibly call that an ‘individual moral adventure’?”

Elite faith in a sunny future presumes a basically benign present (as Leibniz did). In that sense “an optimist is pretty likely to be a conservative,” writes literary critic and philosopher Terry Eagleton in Hope Without Optimism (he’s quoting novelist Henry James). But, however seductive it may be to ruling classes, this cheerful carry-on-chaps mindset is a recipe for monstrous moral inertia. Eagleton writes, optimists are often ludicrous apologists for elites, and to call their optimism “rational is most certainly a misnomer.” Perhaps readers of Pinker and Klein who feel the power of the phrase “moral imagination” can use that faculty to consider how a discourse centered on elite lifestyle gains and elite feelings looks to those on the receiving end of climate impacts that elite consumption worsens? This isn’t moral rocket science—rich-folk feelings and gains aren’t what should matter most here.

Ghosh insists climate “action shouldn’t be framed around hope and despair, but around duty.” It is simply “our duty to do what we can,” no matter how we’re feeling. Isn’t that true in any crisis? Moreso the entangled global crises of poverty and climate and biosphere chaos. Surely the imperative is to act quickly to help those in harm’s way and to minimize suffering. Ghosh finds that the “whole climate discourse is elite. It comes out of universities and from scientists and is centered on the West.” Billions of poor people on the brunt-bearing front lines seem invisible, their basic interests and rights quickly discounted by the political realism ruse. Surely whatever pressures and anxieties we feel as part of the best-resourced cohort on the planet pale in comparison to what the bulk of humanity is being forced to suffer (84 percent of humanity is poor by the standards we use for our citizens). In a calamity disfigured by such vast disparities, what does duty demand, in particular from those blessed with the most resources? Greta Thunberg’s activism has always centered “moral duty.” For instance in her 2019 Davos speech: “The bigger your carbon footprint, the bigger your moral duty.” To many youngsters it’s obvious that parents and leaders are failing at basic kid-protection duties (despite many parents saying they’d do anything for their kids). With wisdom beyond that of most of her elders, Thunberg notes, “Hope comes from action not just word

Speaking of hope, another fruitful angle on this is offered in a distinction drawn by rabbi Jonathan Sacks “Optimism is a passive virtue,” a blanket belief that things are going well, whereas “hope is an active” conditional state that proposes “if we work hard enough together, we can make things better.” Contra cheerful shrugging Leibnizian indifference, the Jewish idea of tikkun olam enjoins a duty “to repair and improve” a broken world. For decades, Rebecca Solnit has worked on the practical personal and political logic of precisely this kind of action-spurring hope. In her 2004 bestseller Hope in the Darkness, she says hope can’t be a reflexive stance that “everything will be fine” nor “a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative.” Authentic hope requires us to face unpalatable realities and to take commensurate countermeasures, even if they’re costly. In a 2022 essay, Solnit contrasts hope with “despair, defeatism, cynicism and pessimism. And … optimism.” Eagleton joins Solnit in chiding both kinds of blanket bias: “like pessimism optimism also spreads a monochrome glaze, a pre-commitment to a rosy position whatever the reality shows” (he saucily calls this a “spiritual kink”). All these “enemies of hope have in common [a] …false certainty that excuses inaction,” Solnit says. But “we who have materially safe and comfortable lives … do not have the right to surrender.… We have the obligation to act in solidarity… [for] not acting is a luxury those in immediate danger do not have.” Crucially and correctly, she notes that appeals to “political realism” are often disguises for “sabotage” meant to shield the privileged (just as Klein’s and Pinker’s optimism and rosy-eyed “political realism” does).

History hasn’t always seen hope in a happy light either. In ancient Greece hope was “more as bane than boon.” Thucydides held that hope can be “a kind of blindfold that prevents men from seeing their fate which surely will come about if practical steps are not taken.” As Thunberg notes, that link between hope and practical steps is vital. Without practical action even hope can be counterproductive and delusional. Again, genuine hope has to have reality-facing reasons that rouse its adherents to ardent action. Sadly, our leaders seem blindfolded by feelgood filters in courtier media. This perverts the “speak truth to power” maxim by peddling palatable (ig)noble untruths to downplay or dismiss rough realities (ensuring there’ll be little smooth sailing, even for blissfully ignorant elites and the precious offspring they supposedly love). The put the matter plainly, the price of the optimistic feelings elites are being encourage to enjoy, is worse burdens for the planet’s poor (it treats them like disposable non-player characters in rich-people YOLO games) and lives full of fear and other aversive feelings for their own kids and descendants, all of which could have been avoided by greater action. Is this a legacy to be proud of?

Confusion about the roles of hope, optimism, fear, and action riddle climate discourse. For instance, in a recent New Republic article on Karen Aronoff quotes climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe saying that “Effective action is fueled by hope and love.” We’ll get to the right role of love shortly, but from Thunberg’s perspective Hayhoe gets the causal direction backwards. Aronoff expresses her frustration with the vagueness of this sort of thinking by asking “Precisely what progress is enabled by some critical mass of people feeling adequately hopeful? How many people feeling hopeful is enough?” But as Thunberg has wisely observed, the right to enjoy non-delusional hope is conditional on, and earned by, taking effective action. Feelings that don’t lead to vigorous effortful action are a distraction. And as I’ve previously noted “climate physics doesn’t give the tiniest quark-sized shit about [your] feelings.” It only matters what actions we take to protect what we love. We live in times that pose new kinds of love tests.

Relatively recent history refutes the common elite impulse to depict politics as primarily a what’s-in-it-for-me game. Robert Putnam (of Bowling Alone fame) notes the “standard social science view” is that “economics drives everything,” but his research shows “that story is not true.” For instance, in moving from the Gilded Age to the Progressive Era, “The first thing that changed was that ordinary Americans became convinced … that they had a moral duty to worry about other people, and their morality changed from an ‘I’ morality to a ‘we’ morality.” Efforts like the Social Gospel movement led to reforms on minimum wage, child labor, and women’s voting. Those all took moral courage and costly political struggles. Putnam advocates a similar “moral reawakening” and sees signs of it in Thunberg’s mission to afflict our comfortable and inert elites. That’s the polar opposite of “optimism” offered in two recent high profile books: Akshat Rathi’s Climate Capitalism: winning the race to zero emissions and solving the crisis of our age and data scientist Hannah Ritchie’s Not the End of the World: how we can be the first generation to build a sustainable planet. Both of which were demolished in these pages by Andrew Ahern, see Making Graphs to Flatter the Global Elite. Continuing its historic role, optimism is yet again being used to protect the privileged, and evade duties that decency and justice demand (to protect those with the least resources).

Hope and courage are old allies, long seen as essential spine-stiffening virtues in both Christian and pagan traditions. Philosopher and theologian Alasdair MacIntyre maps the related history of ideas in After Virtue. “Virtue” is the typical translation for the Greek word arete, but it may be better captured by the term “skill.” The Greeks considered virtue a trainable trait required for a skilled life. Yet the Greek concept wasn’t primarily personal; it was necessarily sociopolitical; those who lived primarily for their private interests were idiotes, literally the original idiots. Civic skills were essential for citizens to fulfil their duties to their community. In heroic cultures courage or valor was “the chiefest virtue,” since it was vital for collective survival. Elite status and privileges were tied to duties to the community; those with greater resources shouldered higher duties. Epics, odes, and sagas instilled courage and other praiseworthy skills and drives (MacIntyre calls stories a culture’s “chief means of moral education”). This is a far cry from the “morbid individualism” Ghosh detects in modern English literature, with its “exiled” collective. Perhaps those steeped in non-Western story traditions that retain a sociocentric ethos can more easily spot this schism. The central motifs of Indian classics, for example, are dharma, or duty (installing the desire to do what’s collectively compassionate in any situation).

Eagleton laments the “moral shabbiness” of a culture that needs incentives to do what’s right. He writes that “optimism is a typical component of ruling-class ideologies”; thus, he says, describing the philosophy of Walter Benjamin, “the refutation of optimism is an essential condition for political change.” Eagleton says nearly all progress towards enlightened measures was achieved in the teeth of “ferocious resistance” from political realists and elite-shielding optimists. Addressing seismic issues like “the Civil War, women’s suffrage, defeating Nazism, Civil Rights …  [has] always required … moral behavior, people willing to cast risky votes, people willing to risk physical harm in combat or non-violent resistance. It’s been the same all around the world throughout history.” Progress that doesn’t happen to serve and enrich elites often means fighting high-perched “realists.” Sadly, most of our political class have such malnourished moral imaginations that they presume it’s naïve to appeal to duty or what’s simply morally the right thing to do as decency demands.

Can you really love someone or something that you’re not willing to incur costs for, to make sacrifices to defend? No classical hero could countenance our elite’s no-sacrifice ethos. It’s worth wondering what precisely our optimistic elites are loyal to? Beyond greedy gains in their own already-luxurious lifestyles?

Life in a biosphere-wide crisis can’t be a feel-good festival, a jolly moral picnic for the privileged (where moral duties mutate into chic lifestyle curation, stylish selfcare, and tasteful thrill seeking). The climate and biosphere emergencies warrant a world-war-footing and fitting courage to face the needed hard work and sacrifice.  Yet Klein and Co. seem to lack the courage and integrity to even accurately inform audiences that multiple international climate authorities have declared rapid cuts in elite consumption to be essential (see reports by the IPCC, the WIL, and UNEP, which describe what such cuts would look like). Climate analyst Chris Shaw has argued that liberalism lacks the conceptual resources to face such challenges: liberals act as if “free market choice is more important than the maintenance of a viable biosphere.” The fastest and thus most morally fitting action on both biosphere degradation and global poverty means redirecting resources away from elite treats. As noted previously in these pages “To quickly end this intergenerational insanity, profligate use of finite ecological resources must become reputationally damaging” (see How Best to Love Your Kids in a World on Fire?).

Here’s the litmus test: Has your upbeat mindset helped you to rise to reality-facing crisis-fitting efforts? Or are you making tiny lifestyle tweaks from Klein’s vision-of-more catalog of elite trinkets?

Optimistic market zealots are right in one important way: Nothing matters more, morally, than what we let markets do. Their billions of transactions enact our concrete, collective kinetic ethics on a colossal scale. As currently configured, though, markets are engines of ingeniously organized injustices. Still, there are reasons to be cautiously and contingently positive. I believe most of the elite could be convinced to do the right thing if they weren’t misled into moral torpor and systemic greed by seductive courtiers offering comforting and elite-flattering optimism. We in the world’s resource elite must be persuaded to stop hogging more resources than will also allow for thriving lives for the poor and the planet. I say “we” since most of us are in, or near, that resource-blessed elite. The global top 10 percent by income are those who earned over $53,000 in 2021. At least nine out of ten humans have fewer resources than we do.

To end with a note of encouragement, in Eagleton’s view the “whole of history” bears witness to humanity’s “unquenchable” passion for justice. He’s half right. Grace and greed are at war, in our hearts and in our moral and political imaginations (not to mention our resource allocation systems). Compare the essence of Eagleton’s and Pinker’s positivity. Both foresee better futures. Pinker’s says that things generally work out if we just let the market god of greed do its thing. In stark contrast Eagleton’s says that things have worked out well when large numbers of people organized themselves to struggle for justice (typically against entrenched elite interests, which are shielded by optimists and so-called political realists, see “the political realism ruse“).

To do what’s collectively kind and what justice enjoins, cruel systems of greed and their cheerful defenders must be tamed or toppled. Tough trade-offs can’t be avoided (carbon and other biosphere budgets, after all, are finite). Don’t justice and duty and decency all demand that we address the safety and suffering of the poorest first? Or should we do what we know is right only if we gain by it or it makes us feel good? Let’s work to exorcise this ghastly, greed-focused zeitgeist. As Voltaire knew, optimism is often an elite-serving demon in disguise. Greed is among the darker demons of our nature; along with elite-flattering optimism, it now tempts us beyond even the banal variety, into cheerful evils.